History and Fantasy: how much is not enough?

A version of this originally appeared on my Tumblr, over a year ago.

So, my current WIP, The Winter Warrior, would probably be described as historical fantasy. Now, this can mean a lot of things, apparently, from historical fiction with a bit of magic to secondary world fantasy with a bit of borrowed history.  As such, I find it quite problematic as a genre, incorporating as it does traditional medieval fantasy, steampunk and classical legend.  It’s so broad as to be meaningless, differing only from, say, urban fantasy in that it happens in the past, and could overlap with almost any other genre.  So it might as well be called ‘fantasy’.

Good example of fantasy medieval: it’s evocative – but why is a working gate in such disrepair?

At this point I’m not really sure what it leaves out. There are very few fantasies out there without some echoes of history, and these echoes are why I like fantasy in the first place. For me, it is what adds value to fantasy, looking to the myths of the past whereas sci-fi takes the forward-thinking, experimental approach. So, by those broader definitions, I suppose I write historical fantasy.

So why do I shy away from so much of it?

Mainly what I have trouble with is alternate history with real people  (or even pseudo-historical people like King Arthur) and places, but dragons or magic thrown in. For alternate history fantasy, I suppose it’s because I like history the way it was, and find it difficult to accept it any other way. History has great stories to tell, and often more fantastically than the fantasy imitations. I would rather get to know the real stories better, than read them with added dragons. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but that it took me a while to pick it up, and the interface with history still bothered me now and then.

And even when it’s not labelled as alternate history, too many books stray too close to the real past. I’ve stopped reading some books because I could see through them. I love Glen Cook, but Instrumentalities of the Night had too many direct analogues at the start that I had to put it down. I did finish The Red Knight, but it made a lot more sense when I realised author Miles Cameron was also historical fiction author Christopher Cameron, and I wished he’d been a bit more creative (it was good, but I’ll read Christopher from now on).

So how do I reconcile my love of history with fantasy world building? I think the trick is to get inspiration from history, but nothing as specific as real people, places or events. The excellent Guy Gavriel Kay is on a tour of medieval Europe, but probably gives it a long enough lens. GRRM may have not strayed far from Yorks and Lancasters, but paints the rest with a fairly broad brush. Still, for all his vaunted complexity and gritty realism, it has nothing on real history.

I’ve come to realise, however, that I like a bit of medieval realism in fantasy I read or write because it is often more alien, more fantastic than anything that evolves completely from the modern imagination.  Modern assumptions or details come across as lazy, or take me out of the world by their anachronism.  Fantasy books (and especially games) are often set in a very generic world that is more renaissance than medieval.  That’s fine as long as it is internally consistent and rationalised, but most of the time the modern touches are just a missed opportunity to do something even more interesting.  

And just to be clear, the lazy anachronisms I’m talking about are things like paper, toilets, baths, bedrooms, atheism, “teenagers”, hours/minutes/seconds, hay bales, jargon, etc.…not people of colour, strong women or LGBT characters.  You may be surprised to learn that history is replete with the latter, and so it turns out exclusions can be just as lazy as inclusions!  

So, at the end of the day, all I’m asking is, don’t be lazy.

(And I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way: back when I first posted this, I did a quick search to see what old ground I was going over here, and I found a rant from two years ago…which these guys had just revisited themselves two weeks before. Ouroboros indeed!)


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