If you ever wonder how the fantasy heroes or superheroes pay their rent or insurance when all they ever seem to actually buy are cute pastries at market stalls and drinks at Starbucks, I’ve got some books for you.
Personally, I grew up low-income. Food stamps, rarely eating out, and not doing summer camps did not define my childhood, but were things I became aware that others experienced differently in the U.S. I didn’t fly in an airplane until I was 19, on my way to Japan for study abroad with scholarships and student loans fueling the way. There, I cut my hair instead of paying roughly $50 for the cheapest salons to do it for me.
Suffice it to say, I roll my eyes at the plethora of fantasy books that never address that thing that makes the world go round: money. Will it buy us happiness? No. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes I write posh princesses with a lot of resources at hand because it’s nice to imagine luxury sometimes. But even that feeling gets at one of the fundamental concept in economics– scarcity–and I crave to see more fantasy settings that address it.
Here are two fantasy books that keep scarcity, economics, and money intrinsic to their world and character-building. (I’m focusing on fantasy because something about the vulnerable vacuum of space or the ‘future’ part makes many sci-fi books address scarcity head-on, compared to fantasy ones.)
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
This is Book #2 in a series. I almost didn’t finish the first book because, while normally I’m an easy-sell for Beauty & the Beast retellings, there was a lot of pain in that first one. That first book was A Court of Thorns and Roses, which you’ve probably heard of. Book #2 here deserves some content warnings for partner abuse, discussion of sexual assault, molestation and harassment, and violence (gore). Book #1 has molestation and drugs (and violence + gore).
A friend of mine calls this book, “A Love Letter to Consent,” and I feel like she’s right, but what I want to talk about now is how this book and its prequel address scarcity concepts.
In the first book, the main character Feyre is the one person keeping herself or her family from starvation. Her father was a wealthy merchant, lost everything, and then never got a job after moving his daughters to a small hovel at a wintry homestead village. Feyre hunts from the age of fourteen. Even after she falls into graces with Fae nobility and is fed and clothed, she never forgets what it was like to be so desperate with bare resources.
In A Court of Mist and Fury, she leaves an abusive relationship that kept her living like a queen but with none of the power; she was caged, weak, and controlled. As Feyre moves on and finds new allies, her feelings and the natural concerns of one moving through the world — how will I earn the money to put food on the table and keep from freezing?– are regularly addressed, which was a pleasant surprise.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
It’s sheer coincidence that both of the books I want to share here have ‘mist’ in their title. You’ve probably read this one, too, but I’ve been hankering to re-read it myself.
Similar to the other book I mentioned, Mistborn is part of a series and begins with a young woman doing all she can to keep from starving. The lower classes are oppressed by a god of a ruler and varying gifted elite who exploit and violate the lower classes. (CW: direct references to sexual assault and violence against women; also violence.) The plot follows a rebel group’s attempt to revolt against that system.
For me, the economic beauty here is how the magic system was intrinsically connected not just to power but also to resources. Metal consumption or adornment is the key to Allomancy, while Feruchemy relies on storing certain traits in ‘metalminds,’ for release later. One must go without something to save up a more concentrated version of it, such as vision or memory.
Naturally, this affects how characters relate to each other, too. Who is paid what and how are supplies gathered for this multi-year secret attempt to overthrow a god? Vin, the main character, never shakes the wariness and resourcefulness that kept her alive on the streets, and we see her regularly questioning things like impractical clothing or finery and waste.
About this Column: With occasional parentheticals a la Robin McKinley, If This, Then That connects the dots between niche interests for LSQ readers and the books that suit them.