Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why You Should Read | Historical Fantasy

Normally my Why You Should Read... posts are focused around individual authors. Today, it's a subgenre. Why? Well, for one, historical fantasy is underread. Everyone reads the latest epic fantasies; urban fantasies, and even steampunk is becoming more mainstream. But historical fantasy? Not so much.

So, why should you give historical fantasy a go?

- The in-jokes. History isn't often amusing in itself; but the opportunities for allusions and dramatic irony that the past provides are endless - especially since the reader is aware of future events. With periods you know well, this can end up hilarious. With those you don't? Not so much. This might be one of the cases where it is better to stick to what you know...

- The worldbuilding - or rather, lack of it. With historical fantasy, almost all of the world already exists in the reader's mind, more real than any constructed setting could ever be. This means that for those of you who dislike lots of worldbuilding (personally, I love it), you can jump straight into the action. Or at least the plot.

- Guy Gavriel Kay writes historical fantasy. That in itself is a reason.

- Alternate history. Historical fantasy can explore, via alternate history, what would have happened if the Romans had possessed dragons. I mean, is there anyone who hasn't thought about this in their history lessons? I think not. (That was one silly example, I admit. But alternate history is in itself an interesting genre: I'm sure you see my point)

- The history. It might seem obvious, but the 'history' in 'historical fantasy' is a great setting in itself - some periods of history are fascinating, and to read either fantasy or historical novels set in them is always interesting. Take Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series: set in the Aztec civilisation at the height of its power.Who wouldn't want to read about that?

- The variety. 'Historical' might be a subgenre, but all it describes is a setting. You can have every other type of tale you like to read inside it: Elizabethan fantasy mysteries, Victorian steampunk, you name it. And if you can read what you already enjoy in a different setting, it's hard to give a good reason for disdaining the historical.

So, where should you start? Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana is a beautiful novel - loosely based on Italy, and about the rather grey-vs-grey struggle of a band of heroes to regain their country's identity. Of course, there's much more than that. Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series is a set of Aztec murder mysteries, told from the perspective of Acatl, a priest of Lord Death. Non-traditional heroes, a lot more Aztec culture than you've ever seen, and a nice dose of backstabbing and treachery combine to make these great reads. Pretty much anything steampunk also comes fairly close.


  1. "Guy Gavriel Kay writes historical fantasy." Enough said right there - although I was disappointed by a few of his books, that's only in comparison to his other work, which is absolutely stellar.

    I agree on the history element itself. Gary Jennings is one author who immediately comes to mind when I think about 'reading' history, along with some of the Irving Stone biography-novels.

  2. I've still to read any Guy Gavriel Kay. Really need to get onto that; he sounds amazing!

    I have to say, I started reading 'Servant of the Underworld' and wasn't overly impressed. I enjoyed the setting and the characters, but the pace was very slow and in the end I got distracted by something else. Your recommendations are tempting me to give it a second try though. Also, I love Aliette de Bodard's short fiction, so I imagine I'll enjoy her novels once I get into them!

  3. Great post! I love historical fantasy/alt history! Have you read any Stephen Lawhead? in the 80s (or maybe 90s?) he did a historical fantasy King Arthur series, and he recently published a historical fantasy Robin Hood trilogy. Really really good stuff. Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road is really good too.

  4. @Bob: I have to agree there - he's one of the authors whose books you can actually describe as beautiful, and that's rare in itself. Which were you disappointed with, by the way? Under Heaven didn't quite match up to Tigana or A Song For Arbonne, in my opinion (two of his best), and though Sailing to Sarantium looked like I could say the same, Lord of Emperors, its sequel, was truly amazing.

    @lightningtreelive: Yep, I wholly recommend him. Tigana's probably the best place to start (the Fionavar trilogy isn't as good), though his books are mostly standalones so can be read in any order.

    I haven't read Servant, I admit, but I have read its sequels, which were great. The Aztec setting being genuinely fleshed out rather than being the 'token human sacrifice people' is one of the things I love.

    @ Little red reviewer: Thank you! Hm, I can't remember, but I think I might have - the name sounds very familiar. I'll have to have a hunt around for him! I've just started an ARC that starts with Faust, and it's got me already. :P