Genre Kryptonite: The Unwilling Heir
The idea of a rightful heir returning to assume their throne (whether or not they want it) is a cornerstone of fantasy fiction, especially in classic franchises.
Think of it: Aragorn, coming back to claim the throne of Gondor hundreds of years after his family had abandoned it, effortlessly inspiring loyalty in his men. Arthur, pulling the sword from the stone. Bees telling Mila Kunis that she’s a space queen.
Well, maybe not so much this one.
In the last several years, though, the Rightful Heir trope has gotten complicated in fantasy — the heirs aren’t noble, are incompetent when it comes to leading, or don’t want the job. They might be Rightful heirs, but they’re also Reluctant.
Recently, there have been three such novels about young, out of favor relatives, brought back to court, to assume their rightful place — whether they want it or not.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: This book perfectly embodies the idea of the returned, unwilling heir. Maia is the youngest, half-elven, half-goblin son of the Emperor of Elflands, who has been living in exile and poverty with one cruel cousin since the death of his mother. When his father and half-brothers die in an explosion, he is rushed to court and crowned. Maia, who had no relationship with his father or his family, and no real education, has to cope with the rigors of court life, the loss of his privacy, and the very real possibility that someone killed his father and may want him dead as well. He must also come to terms with his new personal relationships – with courtiers, his nieces and nephews, and with his body guards who accompany him at all times. This book is probably the least cynical examination of an unwilling heir — Maia is humble and kind, and legitimately wants to be a good emperor, even if he doesn’t know how, but he’s no fool.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin: Once upon a time, Kinneth, the heir to the Arameri, ruling family of the entire world — a family so important that it keeps four gods as prisoners — abdicated her position, ran away from Sky, the Arameri palace. She married a man from an faraway country, and had a child. Twenty years later, Kinneth was killed, and Yeine, her daughter, is called to court to be recognized as one of three heirs. Yeine finds herself in a terrifying palace, surrounded by angry gods, and relatives she doesn’t know — even the servants are distant cousins, because only Arameri can spend the night in Sky — many of whom would like to see her dead. With very little time before the succession ceremony, she is given the duties of an heir. She has an ulterior motive – she wants to find out who killed her mother, but she is not the only one with ulterior motives.
Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers: Hailimi was born a princess, in a matriarchal society, but when her father was killed, she abandoned the palace and fled to space. For 20 years, she ran guns, she joined gangs, and eventually she captained her own ship. It was no big deal — Hailimi had two sisters, and her older sister had a daughter of her own, so the succession was taken care of. The empire didn’t need her. Until it did. When Hail’s sisters and niece are murdered, her mother hunts her down and drags her home to take her place as heir. Hailimi is no Aragorn. She happily spent her adult life as one of the worst kinds of criminals before being dragged home. Now she must deal with the fallout from that past while princessing. She has to cope with duties she never trained for, customs she thought she forgot, and a complement of bodyguards who are as up in her business as they can possibly get. Her plan is to uncover the plot against her family, avenge her sisters, and get back to space, but someone probably wants her dead as well.