Misha Grifka Wander
Urban fantasy, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery: there are plenty of well-known fantasy subgenres. But my favorite one seldom graces a bookstore sign. Mannerpunk is sometimes described as “Jane Austen with magic,” fantasy zoomed in to focus on conversation, status, etiquette, and intrigue. It’s interpersonal fantasy, the snide insult at court that changes the fortunes of an unlucky mage, or the social expectations that a goblin must follow in elven society. Mannerpunk allows you to immerse yourself in a new social world, but one whose rules are entirely new to you, and which doesn’t have the unfortunate historical implications that books set in our world often do. Worldbuilding is one of the greatest joys of fantasy, and mannerpunk lets you get to know a world from the inside, at parties and negotiations and meetings, rather than from horseback or dragonflight.
But what’s punk about it? It’s more than just a suffix for a type of genre flavor—punk can (and should, in my opinion) mean a more fundamental challenge to the status quo. I enjoy the social maneuvering in Pride and Prejudice or Bridgerton, but the specter of the real-world history just off the page dampens the fun. I can’t stop wondering about the missing stories: the non-Europeans, people of color, queer people, disabled people, enslaved people, and others who rarely if ever appear in such comedies of manners. Mannerpunk brings those stories in, questioning how people from marginalized positions in society navigate the complex rules that govern it. Ironically, mannerpunk is sometimes more realistic than comedies of manners set in our world.
Have I intrigued you? Willing to pick up a mannerpunk title and see what the fuss is all about? The following five books are an excellent place to start.
* * *
1. Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Ellen Kushner coined the term “fantasy of manners” to describe her own work, and the term mannerpunk came from that. In Swordspoint, a hotblooded noble society filled with duels and passionate affairs lies alongside the more practical but equally murderous society on the other side of the tracks (or river, in this case). First-rate duellist Richard St. Vier and his unpredictable drop-out boyfriend Alec navigate between the two as smoothly as they can: which is to say, with a great deal of trouble. Swordspoint is the first in the Riverside series, and a classic of queer fantasy, full of action and witticisms. While “fantasy of manners” is clearly descended from the more well-known “comedy of manners,” Swordspoint is more of a melodrama, with plenty of dark secrets and deathly close calls, even beyond Richard’s career as a duellist.
* * *
2. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
The Goblin Emperor won the Locus Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo, so many of you may be familiar with it without knowing that it falls within the mannerpunk subgenre. It tells the story of Maia, a mixed-race noble so far down the line of inheritance that he is stowed in a far corner of the kingdom and ignored—until disaster strikes, and he must ascend the throne. Thrust into the spotlight, he must contend with racism and prejudice from his court, investigate the death of his predecessor, and learn the tactics of rulership, all while maintaining his sanity and his moral compass. Though Maia is frequently out of his depth, Addison portrays him as kind, intelligent, and competent, such that the plot becomes a kind of race between the bad actors behind the scene and Maia’s attempts to rapidly come up to speed and gain the information necessary to rule. No one in the story is a fool, and resolution is earned through a mix of hard work and vulnerability.
* * *
3. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho
A common feature of mannerpunk is the creation of a slightly-different Regency England, where magic is added to the other occupations of the noble and well-to-do. Sorcerer to the Crown stars Zacharias Whyte, Sorcerer Royal, as the head of England’s magical government, in charge of stewarding its magical resources. Unfortunately, the other sorcerers and magic users are not inclined to help Zacharias, as he is Black. This fantastical version of Regency England contains all the racism and sexism of the real one, but the story centers women and people of color as they strive for love, acceptance, power, and their rightful place in society. Zacharias is joined by Prunella Gentleman, a strong-minded and resourceful young woman who has been denied access to society due to her dark skin and uncertain parentage. Neither of them is prepared to take society’s prejudices lying down, but their very different methods of achieving their goals ends up setting them at odds.
* * *
4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clark
Susanna Clark has a way of writing that makes you feel you might be reading something from the actual Napoleonic era—formal and erudite, but with an edge of wryness that brings humor to the mostly-serious story. Competing wizards Mr. Norell and Jonathan Strange have re-invigorated English magic, a discipline once thought entirely dead. However, they have dramatically different personalities and approaches. Mr. Norell is sober, even severe, and Strange is expressive and charismatic; nonetheless, they become teacher and student, and friends of a sort. That friendship proves critical when their magical exploits and relations with Faerie begin to have ripple effects, drawing people around them into a fae kind of madness that threatens the stability of reality.
* * *
5. Sorcery and Cecelia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Sorcery and Cecilia leans into the comedy part of “comedy of manners,” providing the reader with a romp through another English Regency Season with magic and romance. The Season, as it was known in the Regency, is the period of time where the peerage of England gathered in London to arrange marriages, party, and forge relationships. Cecelia and Kate are best friends and pen pals; Kate is in London for the Season, and Cecelia remains in the country, but the novel is told through the letters they send to each other. Amidst the normal drama of parties and balls, someone appears to be dabbling in dark magic, disappearing people and turning them into trees. A pair of mysterious (and handsome, of course) men keep showing up around the scenes of the crimes, and it’s up to Kate to investigate, encouraged and aided by Cecelia’s advice from afar. The book is short, entertaining, and perfect beach-read material.
* * *
There are plenty more mannerpunk books out there, but the above should provide a sampling of the genre, from serious to silly. While many works of fantasy tackle what we consider “big themes,” such as true love, fate, good vs. evil, war, and so on, mannerpunk offers an opportunity to consider problems closer to everyday life. The magic of the world estranges these problems just enough for them to be fun to approach and consider, retaining the core of humanity and interpersonal communication that both creates and solves so many of life’s abiding challenges.
Misha Grifka Wander is a Midwestern artist and writer currently pursuing a PhD at Ohio State University. Their major research fields are video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. Their work focuses on queer experience, speculative futures, and the environment, themes they explore through comics, poetry, criticism, game design, and prose. Misha lives in Columbus with their partner and two very soft cats. You can find them on Twitter.
This guide was written by an ARB editor. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange review copies for this article.