Guest post by Matthew Lucas –
One of the pleasures of writing historical fantasy is working within the weave between the facts of history and the flights of “fantasy,” or, as W.R. Irwin set the term, the “overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility.” Whether it’s following a golem around the Lower East Side of 1899 New York, imagining a role for dragons in the 19th-century French and British armies, or discovering that Abraham Lincoln had a hidden passion for hunting vampires, historical fantasy takes a fictional story, anchors it in a historical setting, and twists in an overt impossibility. When done well, historical fantasy is beguiling.
How does one do it well? Like any other genre, historical fantasy requires all the usual aspects of good fiction writing—a coherent plot, compelling characters, varied pacing, arcs, conflicts, resolutions, and theme. As a subgenre of historical fiction, historical fantasy also needs thorough and authentic grounding in a historic period (which requires the work of research).
But there is one more aspect that is unique to this subgenre.
Subgenres of fantasy fiction (whether epic, grimdark, sword & sorcery, etc.) often entail extensive exposition known as “world building”, in which the realms, relationships, magical systems, castes, classes, and conflicts, are all carefully laid out to orient the reader within the world the author has invented. Think, for example, of the depth of intricacy that J.R.R. Tolkien invested in his Middle Earth. But the historical fantasy author doesn’t have the liberty to create a world out of whole cloth for her story. In this subgenre, there is no new world to build. The historical fantasy author has committed herself to places in the past, the real past, which, as we know, has a record. It is not so much world building, but rather world re-building that the historical fantasist sets about fashioning.
Whatever the fantastical invention may be—whether it’s magic that actually works in 19th-century England (as in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), or dragons who not only exist, but talk and fight alongside humans in the Napoleonic Wars (as in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik), the fantasy must be woven, seamlessly, into a world that is already known or at least passingly familiar to the reader. The requisite suspension of disbelief comes a bit more begrudgingly in this subgenre if only for the reason that the reader demands a certain level of felicity to recorded history.
How does one work the fantastical into the historic record? First and foremost, in my opinion, the author needs to address and answer certain questions. If a Scottish shepherdess in 1598 meets and begins conversing with a talking capercaillie, how would she, as a woman in that place and in that century, most likely react? What would she do? When her family learns that she is holding discourse with wild fowl, what would they do, given the culture and mores of the time? What about the local clergy? Would the shepherdess be haled for discovering this freakish animal, hounded as a witch, or something else? If the answers to those questions don’t align with how historic men and women of 16th-century Scotland actually behaved, if the fantastical conceit undoes the history of its setting, it simply won’t work.
The challenge of historical fantasy, then, is this: any questions that may fairly be raised must be answered fairly.
Fortunately, fair answers can be crafted in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they will need exposition. Returning to the Temeraire series, Ms. Novik invents a whole new corps within England’s military for the purpose of ingraining dragons into her stories’ historic wartime setting. Entire pages are devoted to this imagined branch, including its culture and esprit de corps, its unique inner conflicts, and even detailed descriptions of its uniforms. All of this invention is fashioned firmly in the mold of the familiar caste and class conventions of early 19th-century England. So, too, Ms. Novik spends considerable time tackling the questions of how dragons would have fought among 19th-century armies in the field and warships at sea (which involves some very intricate harnesses and intrepid crews). The reader can believe Ms. Novik’s fantasy because it doesn’t supplant, but rather supplements the history.
Other times the answer to a fairly raised question can be dispensed succinctly. An excellent example of this is found in Ms. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like the Temeraire series, Strange brings a fantastical element into the Napoleonic Wars—a pair of English magicians who are capable of casting spells from afar. As the novel progresses, the power of these spells becomes quite considerable. But that, then, raises the obvious question: If England had powerful magicians in its service, why not simply use their magic to kill the tyrant Napoleon? The Duke of Wellington puts that very question to one of the titular magicians near the end of chapter 29 of the book:
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.
The reader could expect it, too. Ms. Clarke not only serves a pithy piece of dialogue; more importantly, she answers the glaring question—why not just magic Napoleon dead?—in an eminently believable fashion under the rigid strictures of “gentlemanly conduct” of that time. Because the reader can believe that answer, her story can propel right along.
Answering the questions that arise when historic fiction and invented fantasy are combined is both the primary challenge and the chief delight of historical fantasy.
Matthew C. Lucas is an appellate judge who lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife and their two sons. He is also the author of the dystopian epic fantasy The Mountain (Montag Press), a historical fantasy novel set in 1798 Boston, Yonder & Far (Ellysian Press), and several short stories. You can learn more about Matt’s work at www.matthewclucas.com.