History and Fantasy

Michael Pryor is the author of THE LAWS OF MAGIC, a young adult series set in an alternate Edwardian England (called Alibion in the series), which I thought was “charmingly old-fashioned” and happily recommended. Michael graciously took some time off from his new series, THE EXTRAORDINAIRES, to talk to us about the connection between History and Fantasy.

Michael PryorHistory is the Fantasy writer’s best friend. That’s almost a truism, but it bears repeating. A good understanding of history gives a Fantasy writer a springboard into the whole world creation business. Why invent a whole world from scratch when you can delve into history and find a multitude of fascinating cultures, societies, customs and ways of living?

Thanks to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, much fantasy begins with a roughly mediaeval, Northern European world. This means a working knowledge of aristocratic hierarchies, castle layout and care/maintenance of horses is useful. And where do you find such stuff? History, of course!

Naturally, though, history has more to offer than Middle Ages Europe and this means the canny Fantasy writer has plenty to choose from. Ancient China? Try Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds. The 1950s Cold War? Read Tim PowersDeclare. Mediaeval Russia? Grab C.J. Cherryh’s RUSSIAN STORIES.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsLong before Downton Abbey, I’ve been fascinated by the early twentieth century as a time of transition. It has many of the beginning of the modern world in its advances in science and technology, and society was moving out of the Victorian strictures, as evidenced by the beginnings of the Suffragist movement and the rise of labour associations. It’s a rich, textured, changing time and, with the addition of a little magic and mystery, the perfect world for my particular brand of Fantasy. Thus, THE EXTRAORDINAIRES.

THE EXTRAORDINAIRES begins in London in 1908. This is, in some ways, the height of the Edwardian period. London hosts both the Olympic Games and the great Franco-British Exhibition and is still the centre of a vast and prosperous empire. Naturally, this is an irresistible backdrop to imagine a world that lies underneath such a well-organised and forthright society, a shadowy world that contains both the malign and the magnificent, a world that can be found behind unexpected doorways, beneath the streets and in those parts of the city that are unfrequented by upright citizens. This Demimonde – the half-world – intersects with the criminal underworld and the world of the theatre, where our young hero, Kingsley Ward, is hoping to make a success. The problem is, though, that he was raised by wolves and this upbringing unfortunately surfaces in times of stress. Howling and biting people during your stage debut is never a good way to start a theatrical career …

What about you, readers? Tell us about your favorite historical fantasies.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. That’s great. I didn’t realize there was a new series started. One of my favorite historical fantasies is the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett. More a collection of short stories than novels really, but still one I re-read on occasion. Loved the solving of mysteries with forensic magic.

  2. Melanie Goldmund /

    Wow, what a coincidence! Just a few days ago, I pulled out my copy of Blaze of Glory for a re-read, then went to the website and found out about the Extraordinaires. Only my financial situation kept me from buying it then and there. *blush*

    Does The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis count as historical fantasy or is it historical sci fi instead? I think she’s my favourite. But I’ve also read and enjoyed books by Mary Robinette Kowal, and Cherie Priest.

  3. I adore historical fantasy and in that category I lump in most steampunk as well as Connie Willis. Some favorites include (but aren’t limited to)
    Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – just a triumph of good characters and atmosphere.
    Anubis Gates by Tim Powers – my favorite of his.
    Sorcery & Cecilia by Caroline Stevermer & Patricia Wrede – epistolary historical fantasy with manners!
    Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger – I loved here Parasol Protectorate series too but this YA offshoot grabbed me by the hand and dragged me along for some adventure with giggles.
    And there are many more, Native Star, Leviathan, His Majesty’s Dragon…I just really like history and add in a touch of magic and I’m hooked.

    I had Blaze of Glory on my to read list already but had not heard of The Extraordinaires. Be assured it is now also on my list.

    • Melanie Goldmund /

      Leviathan! Of course! How could I forget Scott Westerfeld’s trilogy? *facepalm*

  4. sandyg265 /

    I’m not sure if it counts but one of my favorites is the Dragon and the George which is set in an fuedal version of this world with magic instead of modern technology

    • April V. /

      Love that series! I read it eons ago and have been meaning to do a reread at some point. I think that the best part about those were that the author didn’t take everything so seriously but still brought about a really fun and interesting story with humor.

  5. RedEyedGhost /

    Territory by Emma Bull is definitely one of my favorites. Jesse Fox is all kinds of awesome.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Separation by Christopher Priest, and Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin they’re all amazing (in completely different ways).

    S.A. Swann’s Wolfbreed and Wolf’s Cross are much lighter than the others I listed, but they’re very fun. In the lighter category I’ll also through mention On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers – it’s very straight forward, but it’s also a fantastic ride.

  6. Barbara Elness /

    I would say my favorite historical fantasies encompass a lot of the steampunk I’ve read, including Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders by Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books and Meljean Brooks’ Iron Seas series. Oh, and I can’t forget Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series as well.

    • Kat Hooper /

      Interesting that you mention the Romulus Buckle book. I have that in audio format. I will read that soon!

  7. Excellent approach –mining history to world build and isn’t it interesting how varied the times and societies that attract readers/writers.

    Almost a sub-genre of a genre we all love!

  8. April, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of The Extinction Gambit!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  9. April V. /

    Woot! Thank you!

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