What do we mean when we say historical fantasy?
I’ve just realised I use it to mean several distinct things at different times.
There’s alternate history fantasy, like John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting and Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books, which is like standard alternate history except that magic exists and some magical event changes the timeline.
There’s filed-the-numbers-off-history fantasy like Guy Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan and Lois Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion and Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains, where there’s a secondary fantasy world closely based on the events and culture of a real historical period and place.
Related to that there’s the kind of fantasy where characters magically go from a point in real history into a secondary world. Harry Turtledove’s Videssos cycle would be an example, so would Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books. These can be seen as a scaling up of the kind of fantasy where a small group of people find themselves in a fantasy world, but in Kerr’s books in particular you have a large group from a historical culture and history going on from there.
There’s historically-infused fantasy like Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings and Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet and Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths which is a secondary fantasy world that’s informed by a real understanding of actual history without being a direct echo of any particular thing. Linking these three things here like this makes me want to call this Shakespearean fantasy, because these are stories that much more closely resemble Shakespearean tragedies and histories than they do sub-Tolkien fantasy or actual history. (I’d put the Song of Ice and Fire here too, except that it continually hints that Winter is Coming and its going to be epic when it does.)
There’s Tim Powers: he deserves a category of his own. In all his books he takes weird historical events and makes up fantastical explanations for them. Books like Last Call and The Anubis Gates are clearly demonstrating a demented genius in pulling history together so it makes sense sideways. I don’t know if I’d call them historical fantasy, but I’m not sure what else to call them.
Then there’s steampunk fantasy, like Ian MacLeod’s The House of Storms, and Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel where there’s industrial revolution and magic, and it’s definitely magical and it’s definitely using history, but it doesn’t fit with any of the other kinds of books.
Then there’s the kind that’s furthest from history, where it’s really just non-epic secondary world fantasy, where it’s historical because it’s on a historical one country scale rather than a world destroying epic quest type sub-Tolkien scale. There isn’t any real world history involved, just the history of that world. This is the most removed from history, but this is where I have most seen the term used.
So: have I missed any kinds? What do you usually mean when you use the term? Is it a useful term to keep using?
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.