Two words, power and privilege.
What’s not to like?
What’s not to hate?
Whatever those words power and privilege evoke to us, it’s usually not boredom.
It’s tough to get away from the fact that human beings tend to be hierarchical. You take any group, no matter how determined they are to interact with sensitivity and equality, and a leader somehow emerges. That’s in situations that have the luxury of safety. In emergencies or danger, people turn desperately to anyone who can show them the way out, whether it’s by fighting or fleeing. The successful commander who becomes village leader, chieftain, clan head, or king is as old as history.
Monarchs make government personal, and most readers want stories about people more than they want stories about the function of politico-economic theory, for pretty much the same reason people at work gossip about the boss’s likes, dislikes, and private life. The doings of people in power are interesting, especially when they can impact you, but even when they won’t. Look at all the celebrity chasers busily reporting on the often fatuous actions, opinions, marriages and breakups of our king-substitutes, actors.
Never going out of fashion are stories about kings and queens from the days when monarchs were colorful figures–sometimes in preference to stories about today’s reclusive royalty who, wearing business suits like everyone else, appear only for photo ops and ribbon-snipping. The old kings had more power, but they also had to generate their own PR by looking like kings: when they traveled past you, with outriders and banners snapping in the wind and horses caparisoned to a fare-thee-well, you knew a king was passing. It was great when they threw gold hither and yon, and not so great when their rangers went about commandeering your animals, your food, and sometimes your daughters, for the king’s pleasure.
I have heard people on science fiction panels scoff at SF and F about monarchs, but the truth is that for most of human history, until very recent times, monarchy of some kind or another constituted the outer form of government. And as we know even in more recent history, leaders who called themselves by other titles, whether President, Führer, Chairman, or Dear Leader, functioned pretty much in all other respects as monarchs. We know of politicians right now who would very much like to have the power of kings, and are torqueing the democratic system to grab it.
In the simpler, more plot-driven story, the monarch is often nothing more than a factor for action. This leader is all-powerful, without much narrative examination of the nature of that power, or its history, other than perhaps a vague handwave toward inheritance or even divine right (which can be disconcerting in a story that otherwise contains little reference to religious paradigm). Bad monarchs are mean to peasants, hurt the helpless, and their favorite sport seems to be going out a-conquering, or hanging around the throne room giving local princesses the hot-eye and threatening all heroes. We want to see them brought down. Good monarchs have time to be kind to all, spread peace and plenty, and defend their kingdoms against the invaders. We want to see them preserved as a force for order.
In more character-driven stories, monarchy itself is examined, its features and bugs. Character-driven SF and F novels examine the friction between various powerful interests within a state (whether it’s called a kingdom or a polity), becoming more complex if the story includes a threat from without. They illustrate the effects when the nature of the ruling hierarchy changes.
Stories about monarchs have been around as long as there have been monarchs. As far as fiction is concerned, it was Sir Walter Scott who first gave us novels about the doings of kings and legendary heroes from the perspective of ordinary people. The ancient fascination with those in power still grips the imagination, but equally interesting can be the attitudes of the governed. What makes someone willing to bend his knee to the monarch? To kill for him or her? What is the personal cost of that much power for the monarch?
For the individuals monarch rules–and how do they effect change when they are powerless?
Finally one comes full circle, to the hero’s tale, wherein the ordinary person gains a crown.
My latest book, The Spy Princess, written for anyone over twelve, is meant to be a fun, adventurous read from the kid’s eye view, but it’s also about the personal cost of power, and revolution, and the physical as well as emotional fallout at both ends of the social scale.