Missing Prices in Fantasy?

The other day I was trying to work out price equivalences for certain goods and services in a forthcoming Imager Portfolio book when I suddenly – and clearly, very belatedly – realized how seldom prices – for anything – appear in most fantasy novels, or at least, so it seemed to me.

What makes this surprising to me is that every society in Earth’s history, once beyond the Stone Age level, has been governed by some form of market economy, where the necessities of life have a cost and daily items must be paid for. Yet prices and costs, especially exact prices and costs, appear to be missing from many fantasy novels. I’d almost [but not quite] be willing to say that they’re missing from the majority of fantasy novels, especially in those scenes depicting daily life, except for a token mention.

A search of A Game of Thrones came up with only scattered references to coins, occasionally gold, but virtually no actual numbers. For Words of Radiance, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, there were some thirty references to money, but no specifics. Nor could I find specifics for coinage in Tolkien. I tried some urban fantasy, including newer works such as the Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans and Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen, but found nothing there. There were one or two specifics per book in Patty Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, and while Simon Green’s Nightside books do mention money, I could only find one specific – a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Paul Cornell’s urban police fantasies occasionally mention specifics, but only big numbers, like payoffs of ten thousand pounds, but nothing about daily expenses, not that I could find.

Patrick Rothfuss, on the other hand, uses “talents,” and gives specifics, as does Scott Lynch in his Gentleman Bastards series, but of the books and series I searched, I couldn’t find any other authors besides the three of us who give consistent specifics and prices. Given the number of authors writing fantasy, I’m sure that there are quite a few others, but, even so, if my sampling is any indication, authors who do are definitely in the minority.

Although I’ve read several thousand F&SF books [I lost count years ago], there have been more than 40,000 F&SF books published over the last twenty years alone, so I have no idea how representative my reading is about the use and frequency of specific costs and prices in fantasy books.

What are your experiences… and good and not-so-good examples?

11 thoughts on “Missing Prices in Fantasy?”

  1. John Prigent says:

    I like your own use of golds, silvers and coppers with no actual values ascribed to them. Though I sometimes boggle at the apparent values which seem to escalate in tens, and one character muses that a tradesman can have a good income of 5 golds a year (I forget which story that’s in). Only 500 coppers? Many must be working on a barter system and rarely handling cash.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Harry Potter had well-defined currency, at any rate (Sickle=29 Knuts, Galleon=17 Sickles; primes other than 2 and 5 seem a bit ornate to my mind, although the Babylonian base 60 system of counting may indicate that a base 10 fixation is not inherent in having two hands with five fingers each). Prices of goods were occasionally mentioned, but not often enough to imply a verifiably plausible economic system.

    It is interesting that the limits of magic are a storytelling necessity, but the far more commonplace limits of economics and logistics are so often neglected.

    For humorous expression of economics vs ignorance, I think chapter 33 of “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court” is hard to beat. 🙂

  3. Left says:

    I wonder if Sanderson purposefully limits the amount of time he spends on currency because of Jordan’s influence. Jordan was infamous for his constant descriptions of mundane actions and appearances, but even he avoided prolonged talk of money. Sanderson is much more balanced when it comes to descriptions, but with the exception of The Way of Kings, he follows Jordan’s example of relegating money to the extreme foreground.

    I think one of the reasons that money, like eating, is often cut out in fiction is that while it adds realism, it often detracts or distracts from character building. It shows that the people and world are grounded and much like our world, but often that’s not the point of fantasy/sci fi. Fantasy and Sci-fi usually in some way examine what it is to be human, and does so by putting humans into extreme situations and settings far different from the current or historic world. By regrounding the world with eating and purchasing/selling, you can lose the exagerations implicit in the genre.
    I think Rothfuss does a fantastic job of balancing the realism and fantasy, and gets them to compliment each other. I know that as a writer I would seriously struggle with the challenge of accurately portraying market interactions without detracting from the book as a whole. So, props to the authors gifted enough to pull it off!

  4. Tim says:

    I see this topic in the same light as presenting food in novels. What impressed me with the first Imager books I read was a Vance-like attention to detail on the food and wine!

  5. Joe says:

    Off topic. LEM, you might find this interesting, or you might already know it.


    1. I knew it anecdotally, but not statistically. Thank you.

  6. Daniel Abraham has a fantasy series called “The Dagger in the Coin” in which one of the main characters is a banker. I’m traveling, so I can’t check whether he mentions the specific cost of things like meals and accommodation, but the books definitely discuss money and finance.

    I find your inclusion of specific details such as costs part of what makes your books so immersive, which is one reason I love reading them.

  7. Lourain says:

    I think the most common mention of money in too many fantasies is “Take this purse of coins and buy horses and supplies for our party of twelve.” (Must be cheap horses.) Apparently, fantasy heroes don’t have to calculate the cost of gasoline to see if they can afford that vacation trip.
    One of the things I liked about Princeps was that an important part of the plot was that Quaeryt had to work so hard to find funds for his governorship.

  8. Trish Henry says:

    Tamara Pierce’s series The Provost’s Dog ($) includes everyday use of money. In fact one (Mastiff) is about catching a counterfeit ring. Her other books generally also includes money, but maybe not quite so focused.

    On the other hand, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle was set up where Howl would get paid with a bag of gold and use it to buy fancy clothes while his apprentice would try to get some of the money so they could buy food to eat. There was a pastry shop where he would flirt with one of the sisters and he would come away with a cake. I think his flirting was the currency used. It always cracks me up.

  9. One of the things I have noticed in your various book universes is the relative lack of inflation. The couple of coppers for a lager or wine in Magii of Cyador is the same price many generations later in Death of Chaos. The exception being during times of conflict, not unexpectedly. Similarly, in the Imager Portfolio and the Corean Chronicles, the economics are quite consistent within their own universes, but not the same across all series. With your background in economics I can’t imagine this is other than by design.

    1. In pre-industrial hard currency economies you don’t get much sustained inflation, but rather boom and bust, except in rare cases, such as in Spain in the 1500s, when the flood of silver from the new world boosted prices enormously.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *