Whenever I tell people that I write historical fantasy I elicit first, a perplexed look, followed by a short silence and finally an “Ohh, something like Tolkien?”Indeed, “historical fantasy” is a little known and well misunderstood term. Since I not only write historical fantasy, but I also happen to love the genre, I wish to share with you its many mysteries and quirks.
Historical fantasy is Fantasy´s little girl, but despite popular rumor, it is not to be confused with epic fantasy or Sword and Sorcery sagas such as Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin´s A Game of Thrones . Those novels are set in mythical lands, whereas historical fantasies take place on our earth and use a specific historical period as background, although its characters might have a penchant to wander into magical spaces. Neither should historical fantasy be classified as “alternative history”, the kind of story where well-known historical episodes are modified (Germany winning World War II and so on).
On the other hand, vampire stories set in days of old such as the Saint Germaine series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and time travelling tales like the dazzling Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, fall into the historical fantasy realm. Any story dealing with magical creatures and the supernatural and taking place in a well defined historical period may be classified as historical fantasy. Naomi Novick’s Temeraire series, where dragons are used to defend England from the Napoleonic invasion, and Mercedes Lackey´s novels where good elves protect Elizabeth I in her first years in the throne are fine examples of the genre.
Having gotten that out of the way, the question remains: Why should a novice writer like me choose such a complex genre? To be quite honest when I began to tackle fiction in the hope of becoming a published author, I had no idea of such genre existed. I had read some books that fell under the category (Mary Stewart’s and Marion Zimmer Bradley´s Arthurian epics) but I dismissed them as fantasy, and bunched them together with Harry Potter and its many clones.
About five years ago, I started writing a serious historical novel, but I ran into an unexpected obstacle; my subject matter could be constructed as non PC. Moreover, its treatment could offend people close to me who had lived through that particular grueling period. I was in a quandary and very dismayed. It was then that I embraced the idea of inserting illusion and magic into my story. I found that the plot moved faster and flowed easily, bypassing all offensive material.
Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t the only writer to take advantage of the freedoms and loopholes fantasy provides. Urban and epic fantasies have been known to successfully undertake risqué subject. After all they deal with a make-believe world, right? Anything is possible. There are no bounds.
Not so fast. Historical fantasy and fantasy as well, have a couple of caveats. You must find the exact midpoint between parallel worlds; otherwise your story might not be credible. If you infuse too much magic in a “real” space you might find yourself falling for the “Deus ex machina” cliché, getting your characters constantly out of trouble through means that do not sound plausible even in the most fantastic realm.
On the same hand, you cannot make the storyline too serious. This is not the place to delve deeply into the psychology of your characters or to pontificate on grave matters such as historical or religious theories. However, you may find that allegories and symbolism fit quite comfortably in historical fantasies. After all, fairy tales and legends are the forerunners of the genre. In fact I would define historical fantasy as the XXI century fairy tales. Historical fantasy is my game, but what fantasy subgenre do you favor? What makes fantasy, in its many literary disguises, so popular in this century?