08 December, 2006

Historical fantasy

For me, historical fantasy is to novels what bacon and egg ice cream is to food; however much I like the components individually, the combination leaves me a little baffled. Reading Temeraire made me think about why this might be, so I’ll try to explain it here.

Better start with some definitions. For the purposes of this post, historical fantasy means a story that features supernatural powers and/or creatures unknown to natural history alongside real historical events or in a setting that claims to be a real historical time and place. I’ll illustrate how I think it differs from historical fiction, alternate history and fantasy by means of made-up examples:

  • Historical fiction - real events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by shooting Harold in the eye with an arrow.

  • Historical fantasy - real events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by casting a spell on Harold or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Fantasy - invented events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by casting a spell on Rorhald or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Invented history - invented events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by shooting Rorhald in the eye with an arrow.

  • Alternate history - real events and setting with one or more major alterations from recorded history, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy loses to Harold of England in battle in 1066, or William defeats Harold by using gunpowder.

Of course these all merge into one another, since books follow a continuous distribution, not a series of discrete groups. And it should go without saying that this is in no way intended as a hierarchy, and that I don’t consider any category to be superior to any other. There are some that I enjoy more than others, but a personal taste is not a judgement.

Supernatural, in this context, means an event or action for which no natural explanation is plausible. E.g. a human who can breathe underwater without special equipment, animals that talk in human languages, people who turn into animals and vice versa, inanimate objects that act or speak of their own volition, people who rise from the dead, and spells that work (whether they slaughter armies, move mountains or do the washing-up). It doesn’t include belief, technology or random coincidence. E.g. a warrior who believes he is possessed by a god, kills the enemy leader against heavy odds, turns the tide of battle and is hailed by the other characters as a god (that’s belief); painting a dog with phosphorus so the other characters think it’s a ghost (that’s technology); cursing someone who then falls dead of a stroke (that could be coincidence); dreaming that a colleague is in trouble, going to their rescue and arriving in the nick of time (that could be coincidence).

I enjoy historical fiction, fantasy and invented history (I’d put Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan in this latter category). But I find I have more trouble with both historical fantasy and alternate history. Why should that be?

I think it’s because I see a disconnect between the components of the story. A real historical time, place or event exists independently of the world of the novel. I usually know a little bit about the historical background before I start, and that may well be what drew me to the novel in the first place. Even if I know little or nothing about the history, I probably have some idea about the geography, climate, plants, animals and natural resources. As I read, I’m combining what I already know with what the author puts in the novel and building up a combined picture. I’m sure all readers do this to some extent, which is why authors don’t feel obliged to explain that Paris is the capital of France or that alcohol makes people drunk. Some background knowledge has to be assumed. In the case of historical fantasy or alternate history, as soon as William loses at Hastings or wins by using magic, there’s a direct conflict between what I already know and what the novel is telling me and the picture in my head falls apart. I have to consciously keep track of which version I’m supposed to believe, and this distracts me from the story.

I don’t have this problem with fantasy or invented history because the world in the novel has no independent existence that can conflict with the novel. I take Tolkien’s word for it that wizards can light fires with magic words or that dwarves fight with battle-axes, and as long as the author doesn’t tell me something different in the same novel I don’t have a problem. Al-Rassan might strike me as remarkably like medieval Spain and Rodrigo Belmonte as remarkably like El Cid, but they are not claiming to be medieval Spain or El Cid, so I don’t have a problem when Rodrigo Belmonte’s fate diverges from El Cid’s.

So I get around my difficulty with historical fantasy or alternate history by treating it as fantasy or invented history, taking place in a parallel world that happens to share some features with the real world. Provided I remember to do it, this avoids a collision between two incompatible mental images and leaves me free to enjoy the story for itself - if it’s compelling enough.

Does anyone else do this? I think I’m in a very small minority on this one. What do you think of historical fantasy?

29 comments:

Bernita said...

As usual, find myself nodding in agreement.
Your separation of types is very well defined.

Robyn said...

Very well defined, indeed. I suppose I wouldn't have a problem with alternate history if the story was clearly presented as a "what if" scenario.

Carla said...

Thank you both :-) Alternate history like, say, Romanitas (what if Rome never fell?) or Fatherland (what if Hitler won the second world war?), Robyn? I can read and enjoy those if I think of them as taking place in a parallel universe, and I certainly get on with them better than with fiction that presents itself as historical and cheerfully alters the facts!

Susan Higginbotham said...

I'm not keen on fantasy or historical fantasy--never have been. I never even cared for fairy tales as a child. I don't know why, really. Maybe I was just dragged to too many Disney movies growing up.

Rick said...

Robyn - alternate history is usually pretty explicit about the what-if; in fact, the puzzle-game sometimes dominates over the story.

An interesting exception is Kingsley Amis' The Alteration. The story is sent in a present day in which the English Reformation (perhaps any Reformation) never happened, but Amis only hints at the events of his 16th century. "Henry the Abominable" is presumably Henry VIII, and the Holy Expedition some synologue of the Armada, but we're never told specifically what happened.

(As a further entertaining riff, Amis mentions a book, Galliard, apparently a backflip of another Armada-wins alternate history, Keith Roberts' Pavane.)

Carla - My problem with historical fantasy is really the same one I have with fantasy per se: I don't really like magic very much. In fantasy I sort of tolerate it for the sake of invented history.

I agree with your typology. Unfortunately the market doesn't recognize invented history as a genre. I have to describe Catherine of Lyonesse as a historical fantasy, for lack of a (familiar) better term), even though it is just the inverse of true historical fantasy.

Carla said...

Susan - what do you dislike about fantasy? Is it the magic/supernatural element that puts you off, or something else?

Rick - I don't mind magic provided it's doing something more interesting than filling in plot holes :-) But I get on best with books that treat 'magic' more like a technology, which come much closer to invented history. I'd put Tolkien in that group; the magic in Lord of the Rings is handled in much the same way as technology, and Galadriel even says something like that to Sam at one point. It's annoying that the market hasn't caught up with the distinction, because I'd be reluctant to buy something labelled 'historical fantasy' but I'd jump at an invented history.

Gabriele C. said...

I usually don't have problems with Historical Fantasy, like werewolves in Mediaeval France (Gillian Bradshaw, Wolf Hunt), Merlin and Nimue doing some things that can be interpreted as magic (Cornwell's Artur books) or demons coming alive (Sara Douglass' Crucible trilogy), as long as it's stated somewhere easily to be found so I know what I'm in for. In case of Cornwell, it's the whole Arthur subject, Bradshaw has an author's note (and I always read these before buying a book), and Douglass has a good website. I have a lot more problems with modern characters in former times, or glaring factual errors, like Inggulden's books.

For the rest, it's more about interesting/boring well/badly written books. I gave up on Romanitas because I found it too wordy and slow, not because it's Alternate History.

For the record, I also love High Fantasy as genre all the way from Tolkien to Tad Williams, as well as the 'less magical' versions of Guy Gavriel Kay and GRR Martin. But not neverending series à la Jordan and cheap ripoffs like those Shanara books. ;)

Alianore said...

Loved the post, Carla! I'm not a fan of historical fantasy, myself, but I do like a good 'alternative history' novel. I really enjoyed Fatherland, and Len Deighton's SS-GB too. Recently, I've been speculating along the lines of 'What if the Maid of Norway didn't die in 1290?' (with reference to my last post), which has proved most enjoyable!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Carla, per your question about what I dislike about fantasy, it's really hard to say. I don't object to it on ideological grounds or anything like that, but it has always left me cold. It's just never engaged me the way "straight" fiction does.

Constance said...

I write fantasy and historical fantasy, so I'm not exactly impartial... but it's like anything else. First you have to suspend your disbelief before you can enjoy the story. As long as everything is plausible, I can live happily with altered history and historical fantasy. By plausible I mean it has internal integrity.

I look at it as everyone experiences an event through a different perspective, and sometimes the lens is just a bit warped...

Carla said...

Gabriele - Cornwell's Arthur series has more magic than is usual for him, doesn't it? I haven't read Romanitas - keep seeing it and buying something else :-) - the premise just doesn't appeal much. Conn Iggulden's Caesar series raises an interesting question as to where alternate history begins?

Alianore - yes, that's a fun 'what if', isn't it? Your lovely Edward II might have had a much happier life, and the Hundred Years War would have had to find a different excuse, at the least. I must try Fatherland. I read Enigma and thought it was okay, and several people have said Fatherland is his best thriller. I'll have to read it as a parallel-universe, though :-)

Susan - thanks for coming back to explain - I guess it's just one of those things, like sport leaves me cold.

Constance - you're quite right, it's just that my disbelief has trouble staying suspended when dragons fight at Trafalgar. If you like, the story has to work harder to keep me hooked than it would have done without the fantasy element. If that makes any sense?

Rick said...

... my disbelief has trouble staying suspended when dragons fight at Trafalgar

Something strikes me here that is maybe part of the disbelief problem you have.

The main reason why the British won Trafalgar was the general superiority of the RN, which was due to particular historical factors. (The whole frigate-captain genre, Hornblower, Aubrey, et al., is basically an exploration of this.)

There's no particular reason why these factors should also make the British superior in dragon combat. If they don't have the same advantage with dragons they had with ships, the outcome is likely to be different - for that matter, is the British blockade of Napoleonic Europe sustainable at all?

On the other hand, if the British have the same advantage with dragons they do with ships, that completely changes the land war, because the British can mount dragon attacks over land as well, as far inland as dragons can fly and return.

There are ways around this, but they'd have to be established - you can't just take for granted the historical balance between British fleets and French armies.

So a primary suspension of disbelief (dragons) also raises a host of secondary questions.

You pointed out another one that has even larger implications. If women dragonriders have played a military role since the Armada, that has all sorts of ripple effects. Mary Wollstonecroft, for one, would have some interesting observations to make.

Alex Bordessa said...

I don't often go into historical fantasy, but I did with Mary Gentle's Ash: a secret history. It's an alternative 15th century, and mixed up characters real and fictional. It was an interesting experience, as I got quite interested in the 15th century - normally, I stick to my earlier interests Romans/Anglo-Saxons. However, I knew it was an alternative history, as if gollums and Carthage weren't a constant reminder (which was helpful, as Gentle writes realistic and gritty about war and humans, so one could forget without prompts). For me, once again, the main source of interest was the strong interplay between characters. And Gentle can pack a very emotional punch, when at her best. There's also much to amuse as well, so she really is my kind of writer. But I don't go easily into historical fantasy, and choose carefully; much browsing - flicking through the novel, reading snatches of scenes, author's notes, working out the author's frame, etc. ensues.

Bernita said...

Some readers may accept a prime disconnect or suspension of disbelief - such as time travel - but are annoyed by further assaults upon their patience, expecting everything resulting from the major premise to follow logically.
I like historical fantasy or fantasy including and depending on historical factors, but I tend to expect them to be consistent within the given parameters and possibilities.
Some writers don't know when to stop.

Carla said...

Rick, you've hit the nail on the head, I think. Air power transformed warfare when it was invented, and if it had been invented centuries earlier (with dragons) the whole conduct of war would have evolved differently by the 18th-C. That's exactly the problem. I have trouble accepting a world that's just the same as the real 18th-C but with dragons bolted on. 2000 years of dragons would have had all sorts of other ripple effects and the rest of the culture would have been different in all sorts of ways. I think this is also a problem I often have with alternate history, in that the author changes one thing (the what-if premise) but doesn't (indeed, couldn't possibly have space to) explore all the knock-on effects that could/would/might have followed from the one change.

Alex - you must have come across a lot of historical fantasy in Arthurian-set novels, so I guess you've a lot of experience in how to assess it! Mary Gentle's novel sounds intriguing, thank you.

Bernita - that's related to Rick's point, yes? An amended major premise has logical consequences. Have you any examples in mind of books that didn't know where to stop?

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
yes, Cornwell's Arthur books have more magic than his other books, but I still get a feel it's part of the time - people believed in magic and therefore it works. MZB's Mists of Avalon has a much more aloof - and feministic - magic that makes it feel more strongly like Fantasy than Cornwell.

And the problem with the dragons at Trafalgar is the lack of emotional connection I felt with the characters. I think you can rip off such a scenery with more immediate writing (she does quite a lot of telling) and more interpersonal conflicts. Make the reader forget those dragons didn't belong there.

Bernita said...

Yes, I suppose it is, Carla.
No, no examples off the top of my head. Tend to remember the ones that work than the ones that don't.
As Gabriele points out, often there are other problems, such as character motivations that tend to obscure the disconnect.

Carla said...

Gabriele - True, Arthur does tend to attract fantastical elements, maybe because the medieval legends are so familiar - it surprised me when I first read Nennius and realised that all the magic (Vortigern's fighting dragons and so on) was associated with Ambrosius rather than Arthur. I'd still have preferred the trilogy without magic (or with technology/sleight of hand, like Merlin using the shellfish to make the dancing girl glow like a spirit).
I didn't realise you'd read Temeraire? I guess different readers form an emotional connecton to the characters for different reasons. I don't think I noticed a notable amount of telling. I did notice the lack of interpersonal conflict though - everyone is so nice to each other and there's hardly any of the infighting you'd expect in any organisation bigger than about 2 people, and that tended to weaken the story for me. I put it down to the people catching niceness from the dragons :-)

Bernita - indeed, it's always a mix and a balance between the things that work and the things that don't work quite so well

Gabriele C. said...

I found a Temeraire in a used bookstore (we have a lot of foreign students), but the book left me cold - which is a pity because I liked the premise.

Since Cornwell introduces some of the continental motives - even though he really has some fun with Lancelot, doesn't he, lol - I suppose that's how the magic got in there.

Scott Oden said...

Okay, so, what genre does a book fall in to when it's essentially a 'spy thriller' set in the past, but a past where the writer has compressed time, changed names, and generally monkeyed with accuracy while adding a dash of magic (though not as overt as dragons)? It makes for some wicked genre confusion . . .

Oh, I enjoy Historical Fantasy provided it's in one of the time periods I like. I'd love to see more h/fan set in antiquity.

Gabriele C. said...

As long as the Fantasy element is attested to somewhere I'll find it (and I read author's notes first), I would have fun with that sort of book. :)

I just filched some from my nephew that get the grail mixed into a historically correct crusade - it's more or less two levels of reading, the history, and the adventures of those guys who are chosen to protect the grail.

Rick said...

Scott - a 'spy thriller' set in the past, but a past where the writer has compressed time, changed names, and generally monkeyed with accuracy while adding a dash of magic (though not as overt as dragons)? It makes for some wicked genre confusion

Tell us more ...

Carla said...

Gabriele - that was lucky! At least you got to try it out without the outrageous outlay of importing a copy. Yes, poor Lancelot (and Galahad) get a raw deal from Cornwell, don't they? I suppose all that peerless-knight stuff was asking to be sent up :-)

Scott - if there's a dash of magic, it'd probably come under 'historical fantasy' in my list. Compressed dates and changed events without magic would be poised on the border between historical fiction and alternate history, like Iggulden's 'Emperor' series. I did say all the categories merge into one another :-) Gabriele's right, just confess in the Author's Note so we all know what we're getting and it won't be a problem.

Is there not much historical fantasy set in antiquity? I wonder why not?

Rick - if you want to know more, click over to Scott's blog (link on my sidebar) and have a look for the posts on his assassins of Cairo story.

Kate Warren said...

I vote for more genres! I'm working on a trilogy (first book finished) that is set in a fictional country in medieval Europe. I reference events and tensions of the time that actually existed and try to maintain historical integrity, but the main story is entirely from my imagination. And there is absolutely no magic.

The only problem I have with the "invented history" label is that it is awfully vague. There's been so much history. Maybe I should call my trilogy "invented medieval history?"

Anyone have thoughts on "historical-set fiction?" Does it even exist as a genre?

Carla said...

Hello, Kate, and thanks for dropping by. It's a sort of umbrella term, like 'historical fiction', so modifiers like medieval or classical or whatever can easily be added to describe the setting. I've seen the term 'historical-set fiction' around, but never really figured out what it means or how it differs from historical fiction. I guess you take your choice! One of the troubles I always have with genres is that fiction doesn't always divide up neatly, and many books either seem to fit half a dozen genres or none at all.

Anne Gilbert said...

Carla and all:

This has been a very interesting discussion. I'd just like to add a few things here. First off, I like fantasy, as long as it's well done and seems plausible. For this reason, I love the Harry Potter series. But I'm kind of in agreement with Carla on a lot of "historical fantasy"(as she defines it) and "alternate history". Why? Because the premises tend not to be terribly believable. Worse, "alternate history" is even more of a problem for me, because not only are the premises often unbelievable, but the authors themselves seem to be writing as if the "wish it were". This tends to turn me off. For me, it's kind of a "lazy" way of writing, rather than doing the real work of finding out "what happened" and translating it into entertaining, readable material. I suppose what I'm writing could be called "historical fantasy", but much of it is actually "science based", and there is absolutely no "changing history".
Anne G

Carla said...

Anne - I enjoy some fantasy too, including Harry Potter. It doesn't conflict with anything outside its own world, so it doesn't cause me any problem. Historical science fiction seems to be an even rarer beast than invented history; can you recommend any examples?

jotwinowski said...

I think you nee sub-genres in Fantasy. For instance, dragons turning the tide at the battle of Trafalgar is overt fantasy. However, what would you call a book which explains that the reason the Spanish Armada was so badly damaged by a storm was the active working of the Wiccans of England to raise and direct that storm. There is a book I thoroughly enjoyed but cannot remember title or author: The premise was that in the dark days of the Battle of Britain, the Wiccans of England united to prevent Hitler from invading and, when this was insufficient, arranged a willing sacrifice on the part of a member of the Royal Family. The history remained absolutely real, just the explanation for it changed. There is something similar in Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Gellis series that begins with "This Scept'red Isle". If you like the reign of Henry VIII et. al., this is exceptionally well done.

Carla said...

Hello jotwinowski and welcome. I would count anything with supernatural elements as fantasy, so if the Wiccan magic was responsible for the storm I personally would count it as fantasy. But novels resist hard-and-fast categorisation, and someone else might class it quite differently.