The Big Idea: E. J. Beaton
The pen is mightier than the sword. At least it is in E. J. Beaton’s newest fantasy novel, The Councillor, where one clever girl is capable of changing society entirely. That is, if she even wants to change it.
E. J. BEATON:
When you hear the term “Machiavellian fantasy”, perhaps you think of a courtier steepling his fingers under his chin in the shadow-dappled corner of a throne room. You might imagine a masked assassin, eavesdropping on her rivals, the slim hilt of a rapier jutting from her belt. You might even envisage a group of conspirators stalking towards their queen and plunging their knives rib-deep into her back.
If you do, you’re not alone. The term “Machiavellian” is associated with ruthlessness, cunning, and amoral pragmatism. It takes its meaning from the politics of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a treatise which lays out instructions on how to lead effectively. In his practical book about feudal rule, Machiavelli claims that some things that seem like virtue will “lead you to ruin”, while some things that seem like vices will “result in your safety.”
But the popular use of “Machiavellian” – for back-stabbers and double-crossers – tends to simplify The Prince. Machiavelli was living in a fractured country during a turbulent time. He sought stability rather than chaos. At the end of The Prince, he pleads for a leader to end the “devastation” and sacking, imploring them to unite Italy. In another book, he suggests that governments based upon the will of the people are better than autocracies. It’s arguable that Machiavelli was both a realist and someone who hoped for a better society.
My debut novel has been described as a “Machiavellian fantasy.” Titled The Councillor, it strikes up a dialogue with Machiavellian thought. The main character, Lysande, is a palace scholar who becomes elevated to the position of Councillor and tasked with choosing the next ruler of the realm. She grapples with the responsibility of power – what it means to make a choice that might keep the people safe or, in the case of a mistake, destroy the realm.
As Lysande works to appoint the right ruler, she also investigates the death of the last monarch, her friend and confidante Queen Sarelin Brey. Along the way, she learns that some of Sarelin’s laws hurt the most vulnerable people: the poor, the working class, and the persecuted magical citizens. Lysande faces a dilemma. Should she buck the existing order and push for reform? Or should she enjoy her new power to the full? And can these competing desires for justice and power ever be reconciled?
For the first time, a ladder was hers to climb, its rungs not woven of fibers but fashioned of smooth and unbending metal. Who knew where she might scale it to?
I’m interested in characters who don’t quite fit in, protagonists who don’t come from the establishment, people whose identities encompass more than one thing. The Councillor explores how just a little bit of support for a less-privileged person can build confidence. Lysande wants to improve the conditions of people like herself who work for a living, yet she also loves her newfound popularity for its own sake. Gradually, she realises that a scholar with no aristocratic blood can draw a line straight through the existing rules. If she dares, she can even move the people in the margins to the centre of the page.
Machiavelli liked to sit in his study and “talk” to past rulers, immersing himself in their lives and deeds. Similarly, Lysande reads about history, thinks deeply, and imagines the past. There’s a reason that a quill and writing adorn the book’s cover – The Councillor is a battle of wits, as my early readers have noted, and it dwells in the world of strategists and thinkers. Lysande wields her deduction as she tries to unravel the mystery of Sarelin’s death and defend the realm. As a fan of complicated characters with an intellectual streak – from Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin to Hilary Mantel’s version of Thomas Cromwell – I’ve always yearned to read about female intellectuals navigating the halls of power Lysande’s story is my first venture into that field.
Staging the novel’s Machiavellian drama in a gender-equal, multicultural, queernorm world meant that I could create a range of characters with different backgrounds and desires. Lysande frequently butts heads with Luca Fontaine, a clever prince of illegitimate birth, who has no qualms about being provocative when he wants something. Dante and Jale, two princes who might share more than a passing affection, try to navigate their cities’ enmity. Lysande also befriends Cassia, a leader who does nothing by halves, whether she’s charging into battle or putting on a feast. Aside from these city-rulers, there’s Charice, Lysande’s ex-lover and a guarded black-market merchant; Litany, Lysande’s personal attendant, who nurtures affection for a captain of the guard; and other advisors and staff in the royal orbit.
These characters have their own ambitions, secrets, and desires. They all understand that idealism is difficult in Elira, but some of them strive to achieve their own version of justice nonetheless. And when they are forced to weigh their means against their ends, the waters of logic become muddier – and the fighting gathers pace.
So, must a Machiavellian story necessarily be “grimdark”? I’d argue no. The term “Machiavellian fantasy” can encompass both the ruthlessness of political intrigue and the tragic underbelly of conflict. It can expand the idea, rather than flattening it – a Machiavellian fantasy can question social structures, and remind us who pays the price for leaders’ choices.
And with a thinking woman at the centre of the story, it can explore what one quiet, calculating, determined person can do, when they apply their mind to the dangerously enticing tasks of reform and ascent.