They say money makes the world go round, or in the case of 2008, fly out of control, keel over and explode. But it's also kind of boring to talk about for any length of time. Economics and trade routes, as we learned from The Phantom Menace, does not make for a compelling drama.
That may not be entirely true, however. Economics is the driver of history, demanding technological progress and inspiring political change. War may be the crossroads of history, but often it results from economic demands: the need for more resources, more territory or more people.
Fantasy and economics at first sound like uneasy bedfellows: "You must journey to West of the Moon and East of the Sun, but be aware of the tollboth on the Starlight Bridge and make sure you exchange your currency before entering Fairyland, their banks have harsh rates." But epic fantasy, with its focus on worldbuilding, dabbles in the art of money more often than you would suppose.
Some authors are better at this than others. Some authors will have heroic adventurers fighting against the forces of evil but then at the end of the book the local plucky king will summon up an army of ten thousand men in five minutes. C.S. Lewis did not delve hugely into Narnia's socio-economic foundation. But other authors have looked into it in surprising detail.
The action of The Hobbit is driven by pride and honour and revenge and nationalism, but it's also driven by money. The dwarves of Erebor have been impoverished by the loss of the Lonely Mountain and its wealth, and it's partially to reclaim that wealth that Thorin's Company sets out on its quest. Later, when the mountain is retaken, the people of Laketown understandably request a (probably negligible) piece of the action after the dwarves inadvertently awaken Smaug and he destroys the city in response. Otherwise there's a good chance the Laketowners will starve. The Lord of the Rings takes this to new levels, with Gondor's military weakness (despite its substantial size and population) pointed out to be a result of incessant military adventuring with Umbar and the Haradrim and issues with the lack of decent trading partners as a result.
So economics can provide a character motivation - Conan and Cugel the Clever's adventures are inspired more by financial needs than heroism, or in the latter's case, sheer bad luck - but can also provide the background to the entire action of the book. Several recent fantasy sagas and novels have delved more into this area.
Rise of a Merchant Prince
Published in 1995, Rise of a Merchant Prince is the second novel in Raymond E. Feist's Serpentwar Saga. The primary storyline of this four-book series involves the sinister Emerald Queen raising an army on the distant continent of Novindus and, aided by magic, demons and mercenaries from another world, sailing it across the ocean to invade the Kingdom of the Isles. In the second book in the series a young man named Roo Avery becomes a financier, banker and provider of goods and services in the city of Krondor. The threat from across the sea recedes into the background, with the kingdom and city preparing for war, as Roo rises from obscurity to wealth and success, but finds it cannot bring him happiness.
These sequences are strongly influenced by the history of London and Amsterdam, particularly the explosion in their mercantile power in the late Renaissance, early pre-modern period. This period, covered in exception detail in Neal Stephenson's historical Baroque Cycle, saw the development of what Sir Isaac Newton called "The System of the World," the birth of the modern capitalist system, and the bewildering situation as kings and emperors and popes found that their word was no longer enough to get things done but the word of a banker could shift mountains. In Rise of a Merchant Prince the same transformation is taking place, and it's fascinating to see princes and generals having to argue with bankers about how to finance their massive armies and defensive walls and all that other good fantasy furniture.
Arguably, Rise of a Merchant Prince is Feist's last unambiguously "good" novel (even the very next one, Rage of a Demon King, sees Feist getting into structural issues, workmanlike prose and continuity errors that would blight the remainder of the Riftwar Cycle) and the last one he wrote that did something remarkably different. But it did show, unlike The Phantom Menace, that economics can make for a good fantasy novel.
A Dance with Dragons
A Song of Ice and Fire has done a lot of things, but one thing it hasn't really been credited for is focusing on the economic realities of medieval life. Medieval warfare was cripplingly expensive. Taking peasants out of the fields might give you a large army, but training and equipping them could be ruinous for all but the very richest lords. Throwing a massive tournament might be cool, but it might also throw you into crippling debt. And if your kingdom is threatened with invasion at short notice, you might need a politically inconvenient foreign loan to help you defeat it, at the cost of your economic independence for the next few decades.
One of the primary players in A Song of Ice and Fire, and arguably the most successful, is Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish. Unlike most of the characters in the series, Littlefinger is a self-made man. His birth on the smallest of the Fingers, a rocky and barren peninsula, was so low he might as well have been a peasant. His prospects would have been poor, but he made himself useful to Lord Arryn by taking control of the taxes in Gulltown and making the port turn a comfortable profit. As Master of Coin in King's Landing, he increased the crown's incomes tenfold (although King Robert Baratheon's expenditures went up by almost the same amount) through canny deals and tax ideas. His grasp of the political game is as assured as the economic one as well.
Almost as astute are the Iron Bank of Braavos, a formidable and utterly independent financial institution. Located behind the impregnable fleets of Braavos, the Iron Bank almost single-handedly brings down the rule of Queen Cersei Lannister when they call in their debts in the Seven Kingdoms overnight when she tries to delay payments, making them also more amenable to striking deals with the Night's Watch and the rival King Stannis Baratheon. What seems like a reasonable, short-term decision made smugly behind the walls of the Red Keep turns out to be a horrendously bad one on the global scale.
A similar issue of short-termism arises when Daenerys Targaryen conquers the city-states of Slaver's Bay and ends the practice of slavery. A laudable, humane decision. However, Daenerys struggles to find something viable to replace it. The former slaves are now paupers living on the streets, the former slave-owners hate her and the economic system of most of the known world has been disrupted, leading to distant nations who've never heard of Daenerys sending ships and armies against her. In reality, slavery and serfdom were phased out in Europa and America over the course of more than a century, as economic realities shifted and allowed much greater expenditure on labour. Trying to do it overnight in a bloody revolution sounds cool, but it throws the system of Essos's world out of balance with nothing to correct it. Ironically, many of the slaves end up living far worse-off lives after Dany's arrival than before.
The fifth volume of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces the Empire of Lether, a mercantile superpower dominating its continent. Lether is a capitalist nation, believing in the free market but under a strong central government that can field impressive armies due to effective taxation. Lether is a nod at traditional Western notions of capitalism, accompanied by witty commentary on the notion's crazier aspects from the characters of Tehol and Bugg. When the Crippled God empowers the Tiste Edur tribes of the north to invade the Letherii Empire with an unstoppable new force of sorcery, the Letherii are unable to hold them back since they can't buy them off. Later books indicate that the greed and venality of Letherii culture has started to corrupt their conquerors, and it's only when the cynical Tehol takes control of the empire and begins reshaping it to his whims that it appears that the Empire's self-destructive ways may change.
Steven Erikson does satire very well throughout the Malazan novels, but Midnight Tides (2004) is the one that arguably hits the hardest. The target - American-style Darwinian capitalism - is an easy one but Erikson still makes some excellent points about economic imperialism.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels tackle many features of modern life through a satirical fantasy lens, so it's unsurprising that economics come up a lot. It can be seen in Small Gods ("Thou shalt not submit thy god to market forces!") but it forms a running thead through the Moist von Lipwig story. In this sequence - Going Postal (2004), Making Money (2007) and Raising Steam (2013) - the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork decides to recruit a former con artist to help him transform the city from a post-medieval slum into a modern powerhouse. He does this by placing Lipwig in charge of first the postal service, then the banks and then the new rail service linking Ankh-Morpork to more distant cities. In each case, Lipwig's natural charm and wit allow him to succeed in furthering his own fortunes and that of the city. A future novel may have put Lipwig in charge of the city's tax services, but Pratchett's sad passing in 2015 prevented this from being explored further.
A Shadow in Summer & The Dragon's Path
Fantasy author Daniel Abraham exploded onto the scene with his Long Price Quartet (2006-09), set in an unusual fantasy world where magic - and thus power - is based around the control of the andats, spirits bound to the control of sorcerers - poets - but who hold tremendous power. The books examine the social, political and economic consequences of the Khaiem city-states holding such power over other nations, such as the empire of Galt, and the ramifications of what happens when a way of neutralising the andat is discovered. The Long Price Quartet is arguably the finest epic fantasy series of the last ten years, with its focus on character, morality and tragedy, and is helped by the depth with which the premise is explored.
Abraham has since gone on to greater success as part of the writing team known as James S.A. Corey, he is co-creator of the Expanse science fiction series and its ongoing TV adaptation. He has also been writing his own solo epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin (2011-16), commencing with The Dragon's Path. This five-volume series is much more driven by its examination of economics, banking and finance. One of the main characters is a banker working in an institution based on the Medici bank, whose financial acumen is as critical (if not more so) than the military power wielded by the great nations. However, even this power is challenged by the rise of a disturbing religion and its increasing stranglehold on one of the great empires of the continent.
Other fantasy authors have delved into matters financial, such as Scott Lynch's excellent The Lies of Locke Lamora and K.J. Parker's superb The Folding Knife. Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles novels feature lengthy - and some may argue too lengthy - sequences deling with student financies in a magical institution. Brandon Sanderson's novels usually nod at the economic underpinning behind each of his worlds (although so far a magic system based on money hasn't quite materialised, although coins are used as weapons by some of the Mistborn characters). It just goes to show that a good fantasy author can make even the most mundane facet of ordinary life work in a fantasy context.
Our story is nearly complete. We have travelled from before the 20th Century into the early 21st, and looked at the rise of the genre and its explosion into being the most popular genre of the modern age. All that is left to do is bring the story up to date.