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Fantasy Makes History Cool

Temeraire by Todd LockwoodI’m a history major at heart, so one of the things I love seeing in fantasy is how authors draw on real-world history to fuel their worlds. Whether it be historical events, people or cultures, it always keeps me intrigued. Fantasy, perhaps more so than any genre besides historical fiction, has a chance to delve into history, play with it, and make it a powerful factor in storytelling. Here are some of my favorite examples of how history gets woven into science-fiction and fantasy.

Military History

Let’s all agree—battle scenes are awesome! And part of what makes them great, in my mind, is when the author pays attention to the level of detail found in history. From an army’s structure to camp logistics, to weaponry and strategies, history provides a good template. I love it when authors honor the limits of history and force characters to work only with the tools and knowledge that would have been available to them in that era.

I’m in the midst of reading Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, and for me it’s one of the best examples of blending military history with fantasy. Butcher has created an amazing, intricate world with elemental furies, non-human allies and enemies, and other strong fantasy elements, but the heart of the story is wrapped in the military trappings of the Roman Legion. It’s the best of both worlds, and I can’t get enough!

Cultures

Crown of Stars (cover)Fantasy often gets a bad rap for drawing too heavily on medieval Europe for inspiration. Though I love that trope too, I think the genre is trying hard to upend it for the better. Fantasy pulls from everywhere and that’s one of the things I enjoy most – seeing how historical cultures, religions, social classes and more are reflected in stories.

Kate Elliott is a wonderful worldbuilder, for example. Her Crown of Stars series is based on a variety of cultural histories. I especially liked her exploration of the Eikaland (Norway and Sweden) and her twists on medieval religions. (She also spun a twisty alt-history tale with Cold Magic, which I’ll get to in a bit.) Jacqueline Carey does much the same with her take on historical periods and religions in her Kushiel series.

Shades of Milk and Honey (cover)In Shades of Milk and Honey and the Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal inserts magic into the historical realities of Jane Austen’s Regency era. And George R.R. Martin is renowned for basing A Song of Ice and Fire on the War of the Roses.

Middle grade fantasy author Rick Riordan creates some of my all-time favorite characters and plots by bringing ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures to the present in his Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles series.

Alternate Histories

Alternative histories can be quirky and fun! They usually fall into two categories: 1) stories that take place within the historical timeline, but where events are different and there’s a fantastical flair, OR 2) stories where an entire timeline or era is brought forward or backward.

Cold Magic (cover)I mentioned Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic earlier. It’s a great example of the first type of alt history. Elliott changes one key historical event—that Hannibal defeated Rome at Zama and the two powers essentially entered a stalemate—and builds her world around what that would mean and what it would change. She throws in a detailed magic system and a few other historical anomalies until it’s an entirely new and well-developed fantasy world.

D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker is all the more compelling because it places conjurer Ethan Kaille in the midst of Colonial Boston politics. I’m also a sucker for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series because the Napoleonic Wars definitely should have had dragons!

For the second type of alternate history, watch TV’s Sleepy Hollow, which brings revolutionary war soldier Ichabod Crane into the 21st century…along with some of his creepy evil compatriots. It’s seriously a great show, and if you haven’t seen it, the time-swap concept is one of its most powerful dynamics. You could also go old-school with Back to the Future. Who doesn’t love a little “Space-Time Continuum” conflict?

The Daedalus Incident (cover)Though I haven’t read it yet, I’m told Michael J. Martinez’s Daedalus Incident is a great example of a similar mash-up from the book realm. The gist is that a lieutenant in the 18th century Royal Navy is able to navigate not only the seas, but the Void between worlds. Mars is involved. And that, right there is yet another reason why I love fantasy! It can bridge 18th century British seas with future-oriented Mars in the same book!

Even when history doesn’t play a direct influence, it’s often there within the worldbuilding—think of fictional cities whose layouts and personality reflect elements of real life places in history—or within the characters—the heroes (or villains) of history are heroes (or villains) for a reason, and authors incorporate similar traits into their casts. It’s a way to blend what we find so fascinating about our own world with the endless “what ifs” of our imagination.

I really want to expand my reading list. Got any suggestions for fantasy set in the Far East, India or South America. How about fantasy with historical cultures brought into a near-future world? I’d gobble that up! Leave your suggestions in the comments!

Title image by Todd Lockwood.

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4 Comments

  1. “The Devil is in the Details.”

    I too greatly appreciate an author’s drawing on REAL historical elements. It makes the setting so much more believable.

    In order to bring a fantasy setting to life (as strange as it may sound) one HAS to understand the real world first. There’s so much to get right (and wrong): culture, history, technology, economy… I think a lot of these just get overlooked, by writers and readers alike.

    Great piece!

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks Victor! Glad you enjoyed it. I agree. When I read, I want to be drawn into the world and part of creating a world that compelling is knowing how to weave in all those details you mention.

  2. Erik says:

    Fantasy makes history cooler*

  3. Ryan says:

    One of my favorite series is the Bartimaeus Trilogy (+ a prequel book). While exact time period isn’t specified, it’s the continuation of the British Empire built upon the magic of summoned djinn. The empire itself is split into State magicians and the commoners that serve them. Really excellent commentary on class dynamics despite its being found in the Kids/YA sections. Bartimaeus, a world-weary djinni, is classic character with a razor sharp wit. Definitely fits into the fine tradition of alternate history fantasy.

    New to the site. Looking forward to checking it out for new recommendations.

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