This is part two of my post about History in Fantasy. If you have not read the previous post, you can read it here.
As previously mentioned, Historical Fantasy is the sub genre of fantasy fiction where the story centers on a historical period in the “real world” (instead of a secondary world) and brings in fantastic elements. There are many variations of renderings by different authors in this sub genre, most taking form within medieval Europe. I would say that it is the Arthurian legend that triggered the influence of Historical Fantasy; with the story of King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur being the beginning of a type of Historical Fantasy.
The historical account of a real-life King Arthur remains inconclusive amongst historians; however, the legend—stemmed from the account of the 9TH century Welsh historian called Nennius and the pseudo-historical account of the 12TH century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth—has become one of the most retold and honored stories in the western world. The story of King Arthur penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth shaped the mythology of Britain that we’re familiar with today, producing a wealth of novels such as: The Once and Future King by T.H. White, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and The Pendragon Cycle series by Stephen R. Lawhead, just to name a few.
“Secret History” is a popular formula within Historical Fantasy, where the author takes historical persons and/or events and creates a story based on occurrences in that period of time that were censored from historical records. Novels like Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash series (a single volume in the U.K.) and Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series use this type of method. The Book of Ash tells the story of a fictional 15TH century female mercenary captain in Europe, receiving military tactical guidance from a voice in her head—akin to Joan of Arc. Though the setting of the story of Ash is late Medieval France, elements of fantasy and science fiction are found in the book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series contains that mixture of Urban, Historical and Epic Fantasy that I hinted at in my previous post. The first two books of the series deal more in the contemporary times, but the last two books in the series (prequels to the initial two), also known as The Stratford Man Duology, take us back in the Elizabethan Era—using historical figures such as English dramatists Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare as key characters in fictional form.
J. Gregory Keyes (also known as Greg Keyes) went all out with his Age of Unreason series using historical figures like Sir Isaac Newton, a young Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV of France in an epic tale full of magic, demons and adventure. In similar fashion, the Traitor to the Crown series by C.C. Finley is set during the American Revolution where witches, magic and supernatural beings have a great impact on the tensions of the Revolutionary War. Historical figures like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin appear as supporting characters in Finley’s series.
It is Historical Fantasy’s duty to shake up and change history. John M. Ford was applauded for his method in The Dragon Waiting, which won him the 1984 World Fantasy Award for best novel. In The Dragon Waiting, Ford sets up an alternate 15TH century Europe where Christianity never excelled and Islam never existed, the Byzantine Empire threatens Europe, and the worship of Roman gods is very active. Add in the workings of magic and vampirism (as the result of a contagious disease) and The Dragon Waiting becomes another rung in classic Historical Fantasy. The popular Temeraire series by Naomi Novik takes readers into a world where dragons are real and used in the Nopoleonic Wars. Not only is the world different because of the existence of dragons, but Novik also spins nations like China, the United States and Mexico with alternate histories.
Two Historical Fantasies released this year, which sound interesting, are Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning and Angus Watson’s Age of Iron. You can read the authors' explanation on their works by checking out these two postings: Son of the Morning here | Age of Iron here
I could go on and on with other examples of Historical Fantasy, like Judith Tarr’s The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, David Gemmell’s Stones of Power series, or D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles—works which have entertained many. This is a sub genre which can stretch on and on into new and intriguing stories; however, like Epic/High Fantasy, the overdose on Medieval Europe is apparent. The works described above set in the 18TH and 19TH century, even dealing in American history, make for something appealing to readers—because it’s not overused. With the spark of Flintlock Fantasy reaching for attention in the genre, I hope we can see more settings in the Age of Reason.