On History and Fantasy

As a bookworm, the thing that I enjoy reading most, besides fantasy, is historical fiction. I’ve always had a fondness for history and, for me, reading books which take place in historical settings is just as magical as exploring carefully constructed secondary worlds. Much of fantasy is based on history, in some way or another. Writers pull from this and that time period, mesh things together to create settings, or loosely base plots on historical events. But they’re still worlds that they’ve constructed; new worlds, with new rules, and new peoples living in them. What if you wanted to read about Catherine de Medici using dark magic to rule France in the mid-sixteenth century, and the good witches that battle against her evil ways? Well, that would be where historical fantasy comes in.

What is historical fantasy? Well, unlike a lot of fantasy, which takes place in made up worlds, historical fantasy takes place in our world, at some time in our past. It’s a combination of historical times and places, sometimes events and people from those times, and fantasy elements like magic, that make up the genre. Like urban fantasy, a good deal of what separates this genre from others is its setting. It also has a lot in common with alternate history, but it isn’t the same. When you think about alternate history, think about Marty McFly going back in time and changing the past and how those changes created an alternate version of the world. Using the setting of that alternate world to base your plot is what makes it alternate history versus historical fantasy. That being said, there are some blurred lines between the two genres and even the exact definition of historical fantasy can differ, depending on where you look.

Probably one of the best examples of historical fantasy is Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s about magic and fairy, and all things fantastic, and it’s set in England in the early nineteenth century. The story mostly centers around two men bringing magic back to England and aiding their country in the fight against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. One of the many clever things about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that not only is it set in that period, but it’s written in the style of that period as well. This allows the reader to become fully immersed in the setting of the tale without pointing out ‘hey, we’re in history!’ because it feels like you’re reading something that was current at that time.

Like I mentioned earlier, I also read quite a bit of historical fiction. There are many works of that genre that also incorporate fantasy elements into their plots, so while these novels may not be under a fantasy label, they still should be counted as pieces of historical fantasy. The fantasy elements might be central to the story (such as witches battling the Queen consort of France in Susan Carroll’s Dark Queen Saga), or they might be used sparingly (such as Cloud of Sparrows by Takashi Matsuoka, which mostly has to do with life as a feudal lord in nineteenth century Japan, but also uses prophecy). Either way, the combination of history and fantasy elements makes for interesting tales.

While reading historical fantasy may not take you to other worlds, like more traditional fantasy genres will, it does take you to other times. And for someone that loves history as much as I do, that’s more than enough.

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