From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Written in 1513, Nicolo Machiavelli’s enduring treatise on the nature of power, The Prince, has been at the bedside of just about every leader from the corporate world to the halls of power, ever since. For our purposes, let’s set aside the impact it may or may not have had on our current political climate and talk about what it can bring to your fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding.

One of MANY editions available.

This book, written in the Renaissance, represents a level of analytical thinking and is drawn from a historical perspective that most strictly “medieval” settings might not enjoy. But set aside for a moment whether or not your fictional princes (or, as always, princesses) are this self-aware, or informed by a similar writing from a fictional Machiavelli. The author most often draws his examples from his contemporaries, especially the Borgias, but goes back as far as ancient Greece for more examples of power wielded for good or ill, effectively or ineffectively. Your “prince” might not know he’s doing this stuff, or following some written rulebook like this, but this book is as much about what princes actually do, consciously or otherwise, than it about what they should do. And there is a difference.

And yes, we’re coming up on the 500th anniversary if its writing, and that being the case it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that some of the principals of Machiavelli seem more than a bit dated. Half a millennium might have that effect on anybody. Where is the rise of democracy, for instance? Still more than two centuries in Machiavelli’s future.

But again, for our purposes, many of us are writing in fiction worlds that have also not seen this shift in political systems, or set democracy aside at some point in the past. And it’s difficult for us, honestly, to “think medievally.” In fact, we’re so disconnected from the world of the 16th century that the name Machiavelli has become synonymous with demagoguery. The definition of “Machiavellian” from my online dictionary:

“cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, esp. in politics or in advancing one’s career.”

This might lead you to believe that The Prince is a how-to book for tyrants. I didn’t get that, personally. In fact, I found much of the book to have a surprisingly pragmatic, even egalitarian air:

From the Third Chapter: Concerning Mixed Principalities:

“The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised not blamed; but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame.”

Or . . .

From the Ninth Chapter: Concerning a Civil Principality:

“. . . one cannot by fair dealing, and without injury to others, satisfy the nobles, but you can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles, the latter wishing to oppress, while the former only desire not to be oppressed.”

Though he does slip in the occasional bit about not being too nice:

From the Tenth Chapter: Concerning The Way in Which the Strength of All Principalities Ought to be Measured:

“For it is the nature of men to be bound by the benefits they confer as much as by those they receive.”

I think it’s more fair to say that The Prince is a book of warnings.

From the Seventh Chapter: Concerning New Principalities Which are Acquired Either by the Arms of Others or by Good Fortune:

“He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.”

And again, it’s been five hundred years, so at times it feels a bit outdated (hopefully, at least):

Fourteenth Chapter: That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War:

“A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank.”

Even occasionally contradictory:

From the Eighteenth Chapter: Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith:

“You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second.”

And maybe Machiavelli gets some of his bad reputation from lines like:

From the Nineteenth Chapter: That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated:

“. . . as princes cannot help being hated by someone, they ought, in the first place, to avoid being hated by everyone, and when they cannot compass this, they ought to endeavor with the utmost diligence to avoid the hatred of the most powerful.”

However you may judge the value, ethics, fairness, or compassion of The Prince, it’s an indispensible look at how the monarchist or feudal mindset worked. It may be that you ascribe all of Machiavelli’s principals to your villain, but I think heroes can be informed by it as well.

Being as old as it is it’s fair to say that this book is comfortably in the public domain, which means you can find it all over the place at very little cost or even free. The edition I read was from Wordsworth Reference with an illuminating foreword by Professor Norman Stone. Obviously there’s more than one translation out there, too, but I’m not advising you become a Machiavellian scholar, just that you avail yourself of a concise, clearly written, and enduring examination of the nature of power in the age of the city-state while you’re building a similar system for a fantasy or SF world.

As it was in Machiavelli’s age, knowledge is power.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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