A Flintlock Fantasy Revolution?
Whether you 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.
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.
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.