In my secondary-world bronze-age fantasy, I wanted a setting significantly different from the standard medieval fantasy world. One particular set of tropes I wanted to avoid was the ones associated with kings, kingdoms, knights, and princesses. But when you eliminate kingdoms, what do you have left that makes sense for an ancient civilization?
(A-Z Challenge logo, letter K)
One possibility is to start with city-states, like in ancient Sumeria, Egypt, and Greece: an urban centre and its hinterland, the surrounding territory that sustains it and makes it viable. Nothing stops a city-state from having a king, but in an egalitarian society like the one I’m worldbuilding, a council structure that grew out of small village circles-of-elders might work. Some sort of leader seems to me to be unavoidable, but instead of a hereditary king it could be an elected Speaker, the eldest Elder, a rotating chairship, or shifting based on whose skills and knowledge are most relevant to the current situation.
My protagonist’s country is more sophisticated: a network of city-states on an isolated plateau, sharing a common language and culture, and brought together by a magical teleportation network. A fundamental principle governing size of a political unit is how far and fast one can travel and communicate, so the “voidgate” network permits a much larger political structure than a city-state. If city councils are natural for the individual components, they might come up with a democratic council at the national level.
The other countries in the world are less organized, since they don’t have home-grown wide-area transport and communication: the gates are under the Plateauvians’ control. So they are loose geographic areas united only by language and divided by natural barriers like rivers and dense (and sometimes magical) forests.
Another possibility, which I’ve also used, is kinship structures: a clan system. Clans trace descent from a (usually legendary) common ancestor. They have arisen in many cultures, the best known in my social circle being those in Scotland. They are older than more centralized organizations like city-states and nations, and there could be interesting interplay and power struggles between clan elders and city councils; it would be boring if the two systems meshed perfectly. Some cities might be clan headquarters; others might be more cosmopolitan, with citizens from multiple clans or no clan at all.
To further avoid the idea of kingship, I have to avoid having clan leaders inherit too much power from their parents. That’s actually a problem at the moment, since I remained trapped in a medieval mindset as I was creating the patchwork of drafts I have at the moment: the Clan Mother position is currently hereditary. So in keeping with the no-kings goal (and thus no-queens either), her power has to be limited. Perhaps she is merely the Speaker at clan council meetings. Perhaps she has more power, but is elected from among the Elders of smaller extended families within the clan.
I’ll need to work this out before I write an upcoming confrontation between one of my characters and her grandmother, who needs to be someone with control (or at least influence) over a fair bit of wealth, which is problematic in a mostly egalitarian society.