8 Takes on a Fantasy of Manners
The fantasy of manners has been a sub-genre of SFF (mostly in the F part of it, though you do see it in space opera as well) since the publishing of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecilia: Or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Normally it involves highly regimented social settings that the characters must navigate with varying degrees of success, a dash of comedy, a pinch of melodrama, and some involvement of magic. While there’s unsurprisingly a lot of England-adjacent fantasy of manners books (that’s the literature where a lot of us encountered our first “…of manners”), it’s a sub-genre that can branch out into far more fantastic places as well. Where there’s social stratification and an upper class with strict rules, there’s room for manners to be the foil.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
In an alternate England after the Napoleonic wars, the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers works to maintain magic throughout the empire. This grand institution is in disarray after a freed slave has been named as Sorcerer Royal — though at least they haven’t gone so far as to let women in. (The very idea.) But with magic bleeding from England’s stores, the Sorcerer Royal has to head to Fairyland to discover the cause…and he might have to team up with one of the lady folk to do it.
The Labyrinth Gate by Kate Elliott
On the way to their wedding reception, newlyweds Sanjay and Chryse accidentally drop a special pack of tarot cards in an elevator, and this transports them to a strange parallel world reminiscent of Victorian England, but with sorcery. Rescued from a street riot by friendly aristocrats, the first test of their marriage ends up being trying to find a way home through daunting adventures, and navigating the strict manners of this strange world.
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
This fantasy of manners is straight up Jane Austen with magic, where ladies of quality are judged by their skills at glamour. But while Jane is the one talented with magic, her sister is has gotten the lion’s share of the beauty, and she’s the one who gets all the attention. Now 28, Jane has just about resigned herself to spinsterhood…until she has to set aside thoughts of marriage entirely to defend her family’s honor, and in so doing, stumbles into her own romance.
Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders by Aliette de Bodard
Asian court drama meets gothic murder mystery meets comedy of manners! When Thuan, who happens to be a dragon prince, brings his fallen angel husband Asmodeus home for the new year, what they’re both expecting is a lot of candied fruit and familial reunions of various amounts of awkwardness. What they get instead is a murder to investigate and a lot of political plotting…all while everyone is still being outwardly polite.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
In the depths of England’s history, magicians were nearly all-powerful. By the 1800s, they’re a mostly extinct species, and those that remain would rather write extremely boring papers than actually try to reclaim their former glory and acquire fairy servants. Mr. Norrell is determined to change this state of affairs and has assembled a massive library of forgotten books; he gains fame and power for helping in the war effort against Napoleon. Then Jonathan Strange arrives and messes it all up by being much flashier about his magical efforts. Initially partners, the two men are soon at each other’s throats and writing very nasty letters.
Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater
Cursed by a faerie to have only half a soul, Theodora Ettings is missing all of the emotional senses that would save her from constantly stepping into scandal. This London Season, her only goal is to stay quiet and not torpedo her cousin’s attempt to catch a marriage. This goal is not met the moment Lord Elias Wilder walks into her life and intimates he might be able to restore what she has lost.
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Loisail’s most notable socialites are collectively known as “the Beautiful Ones” and Nina finally has her chance to join their ranks. Except her debut into society goes horribly awry due to her unpredictable powers of telekinesis. Beaten down by malicious gossip, she feels she may never recover, until she meets Hector Auvray, an entertainer who has the same power as her. Hector is willing to teach, Nina is ready to learn, and perhaps neither of them are quite prepared to fall in love.
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
A family in mourning for a dead patriarch, a son who will happily sue to get the inheritance he believes is rightfully his, another son who bears his father’s deathbed confession like an endless weight, a daughter involved in the abolition movement, a daughter who just wants to fall in love, and a daughter ready to sacrifice everything out of duty for her husband. It’s the stuff of pure regency drama…except everyone involved is a dragon.
If you liked this fantasy of manners list, you’ll also want to check out 10 Lovely Fantasies to Remind You There’s Beauty in the World and 20 Must-Read Feel-Good Fantasy Books.