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A Flintlock Fantasy Revolution?

Whether Grappled by Delowaryou call it “flintlock fantasy”, “gunpowder fantasy,” or “magic and muskets,” fantasy seems to be once again growing beyond the classic “sword and sorcery” image. Now I may be jumping the gun a bit (pun entirely intended) by labeling this a nascent fantasy subgenre. After all, the advent of any subgenre is often a slow, evolving process, and who knows if a current trend will not only continue but also grow? But I would argue that there is something here that is more than just a flash-in-the-pan fad. I would argue not that gunpowder is revolutionizing fantasy, but that gunpowder is a sign of a wider revolution in the genre.

To begin with, gunpowder is not new to fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien made references to gunpowder in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Terry Pratchett introduced the one and only “gonne” in his Discworld. And pistols are quite common in urban fantasy.

But over the past few years, flintlock and wheel lock guns have become increasingly common. For example, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series feature guns and bombs as part of the Napoleonic wars, as does the somewhat “contemporaneous” Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour In Glass.

A Promise of Blood (cover)Even more recently, epic fantasy has taken up flintlock weaponry. Brent Week’s Lightbringer books incorporate flintlock and wheel lock guns. A Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan and The Thousand Names by Django Wexler both begin series of novels and both involve flintlocks. Weeks even used the term “flintlock fantasy” when blurbing McClellan’s book.

However, McClellan has seen some readers reject his story when they learned that it contained flintlocks (which appear on the book’s cover). Perhaps they were concerned his novel would not be epic fantasy, as they conceived of it. And, to be fair, many of the traditional epic fantasy set pieces would have to change as a consequence of gunpowder.

The most obvious is the change in warfare: compare the tactics used during the Crusades to those used by the combatants in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Revolutionary War. And not just the tactics, but also the training and notions of conscription versus a volunteer force. But more subtly, the rise of gunpowder implies other societal changes as well: industrialization and other technological changes brought about by the use explosives, as well as even perhaps labor organization, and shifts in political power structures. It’s a far cry from a muscled hero wielding a magical sword after scaling a castle wall or a rain of elvish arrows falling upon a row of raised shields.

The Thousand Names (cover UK)But is it fair to consider Weeks’s, McClellan’s, and Wexler’s stories as something less? If there is a well-defined world, if there is a terrific conflict among a cast of dynamic characters, and if magic pulses at the heart of the story, shouldn’t that qualify as fantasy?

I’m not saying that everyone must love flintlock fantasy, just as not everyone must love steampunk or weird westerns. But what I am saying is that it is incredibly interesting to me to watch a genre traditionally steeped in medieval trappings grow and change. Fantasy is growing and breaking old traditions. And recently, that growth has taken the form of an industrial revolution within the genre—one where flintlocks, steam engines, and railroads can find a home in fantasy. And with new technology comes new worlds and new stories.

Fantasy need not be trapped in the epic fifteenth century or the urban twenty-first any longer. Writers and readers can enjoy any time in between. Evolution can be a messy thing, and not every growth or experiment will be pleasing, but it can surely be an exciting thing, and I hope you will join me in exploring it.

And if I overlooked your favorite flintlock fantasy, please leave a note in the comments below. And if there is a fantasy story that takes place in a non-traditional time period, please feel free to highlight in the comments as well. Share that knowledge with the Fantasy-Faction community.

Title image by Delowar.

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16 Comments

  1. Another addition is the budding gunpowder/weapons technology featured in Joe Abercombie’s The Heroes and Red Country.

    Personally I like the way Abercrombie has used this advancement, most fantasies are locked into the sword/spear/knife warfare, there is no obvious advancement, in fact the societies appear stagnant in that area (prime example GRRMs Song of Ice and Fire where the Seven Kingdoms still fight the same way – with swords – as the First Men over 8,000 years before). At least with this steady creep it shows a society is moving forwards and I wonder if when the next trilogy comes out (said to be set 20+ years after Red Country) that that weapons tech might not have moved on to personal guns of some sort rather than the bulky cannons already seen.

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    One of the major reasons that I wrote a fantasy novel (and, eventually, 2 sequels) set in the Elizabethan period was that I was bored with fantasy worlds that, for no readily apparent reason, lacked gunpowder. After all, what I grew up on was Technicolor swashbucklers – Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate, The Three Musketeers, and the like – not Arthurian romance.

    However secondary-world fantasy with gunpowder was still a rarity when I started out – using a real historical period gave me a cast-iron excuse for having matchlocks, snaplocks and other early firearms alongside the rapiers and crossbows. So, yeah, I love anything set between the late Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution – why choose between guns and swords when you can have both? 🙂

  3. Alan Laird says:

    Anytime someone tells me the use of firearms in fantasy is not traditional I point them at Solomon Kane. He soon sorts them out….

  4. Derek Tyce says:

    I think it’s a great thing seeing fantasy evolving into a more industrialized setting, and I think it’s timely and needed as modern fantasy continues to grow. There should be something that bridges the gap between medieval period fantasy and urban fantasy. It makes the genre more diverse, and I hope more authors produce epic tales including the elements of Flintlock Fantasy.

    In addition to Weeks, McClellan and Wexler, a few more authors to mention are Chris Evans with the Iron Elves series, Bradley P. Beaulieu with his Lays of Anuskaya series, and Col Buchanan with his Heart of the World books. Margaret Weis & Robert Krammes’ Dragon Brigade series had their characters fighting with pistols and muskets, mixed with dragons, floating land masses and airships. Even Brandon Sanderson did a cool spin by writing a Mistborn novel set 300 years after the original Mistborn Trilogy. The novel is The Alloy of Law; which is set in a late 19TH century-ish kind of setting; with revolvers, railroads, electric lighting, and the building of a skyscraper.

  5. My Musa ebook The Treason of Memory has a flintlock & rapier setting – I toyed with flintlockpunk, but settled for flintlock & sorcery. I hadn’t come across anyone else doing this – I’ll have to check these books out.

    I agree about the stagnation. My world has a slightly-too-long iron age, but it does progress, right through to a computer age.

  6. Adam Parkinson says:

    Having loved Promise of Blood and having The Thousand Names sat on the to read shelf, I have to piont out David Gemmell’s last two books in the Rigante series: Ravenheart and Stormrider are flintlock fantasy and amazing.

  7. Trent says:

    I don’t know if Wheel of time counts but gunpowder is introduced and later used there.

  8. Bill says:

    Firearms were also featured pretty heavily in Paul Kearney’s MONARCHIES OF GOD series.

  9. The Commonwealth Chronicles by A. S. Warwick are some nice examples of Flintlock Fantasy (if a bit unpolished).

    The nice thing about the Gunpowder Fantasy sub-genre is that there are several different time periods within this category. From Flintlock Fantasy covering early gunpowder technology, through Muskets and Magic, and finally into the rifled muskets era including Rifles and Railroads.

    The Cerberus Rebellion is a good novel that covers the later time period in Gunpowder Fantasy.

  10. Chris M says:

    Yeah, been working on a Asian influenced fantasy the last few years which heavily features arquebuses and cannon. It’s been interesting to extrapolate how cultures conceive and adapt to such technologies, the (somewhat futile) resistance to such changes, the potential shift in regional power and its broader effects across the economy and political landscape.

  11. arzvi says:

    There are many good short stories on the flintlock side that are great – ex. Scott Lynch’s The Effigy Engine from FEARSOME JOURNEYS –

  12. Vincent Quill says:

    I’d be skeptical of ‘flintlock fantasy’, the time periods they are usually set in holds little to no appeal, however in my world’s China counterpart primitive firearms are used. I find it odd that gunpowder usually stays out of even these sorts of settings that had them for centuries before the west.

    On a side note, Imperial China would make for a really good steampunk setting. Automata, clockwork, gunpowder, and a technology level that seems somewhat out of place for the time period. They even had a flying toy ‘helicopter’! Why people prefer Renaissance Europe and Victorian Britain is beyond me.

  13. Sebseb says:

    I’ve been writing flintlock fantasy since I was 14. I’m currently 19 and am an aspiring writer, so the fact that this is cropping up in the time frame I plan to get something out there, it’s pretty awesome. I’m glad that we are seeing growth in the genre. Not only that, but you happened to list the two books I was most excited for this whole year: promise of Blood and The thousand Names. I’m halfway through Promise, it is definitely one of the best epic fantasies I’ve read, and I picked up Thousand Names the day it came out and it is sitting on my desk, a priority reading. I have wanted to read Lightbringer series forever, and I had no idea it was flintlock.

    I like the gritty/military/action/war epic fantasies, but I feel that flintlock, and whatever else comes out of this genre-changing age, will help freshen that portion, as well as heroic fantasy, quite a bit. That’s why this genre specifically, as well as other speculative fiction genres, tend to thrive and outlast: because they grow. They are genres that are full of all kinds of possibilities.

    And yet, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface. This new impending term is helping dig deeper, but it will hardly even make a dent in all of the possibilities out there for epic fantasy. I love it.

  14. […] is marketed as a cross between flintlock and steampunk fantasy which are genres I am not familiar with. I figured it was a worthy read based […]

  15. David Keith says:

    I belive it was Chris Evans brilliant IRON ELVES trilogy that sculpted Flintlock Fantasy into the sub-genre we have today. He deserves more credit than he receives.

  16. LovesFantasy says:

    The Frontier Magic series by Patricia C. Wrede also includes pistols.

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