Reading List: Historical Fantasy
Article by S.K. Slevinski
First, I would like to welcome our readers to the newest reoccurring feature here at ARWZ Magazine. Our new Reading List column will appear periodically here on the magazine to feature themed lists of personal recommendations from our regular contributors, community members and readers. The column will feature reading lists of books or "viewing lists" of films compiled by a variety of alternative reality aficionados. We welcome submissions for the column from anyone who is well-read in alternative reality literature or well-versed in alternative reality film.
I would like to start off the column with a list of my favorites, with a category of fiction that captures my imagination. Increasingly, fantasy novels have been ignoring wizards, unicorns, elves and fairies in favor of human characters and milieus inspired by real-life historical settings. Magic is put on the back burner while character conflicts and political entanglements drive the story. The traditional medieval setting is infused with a sense of reality based on historical research. These stories capture both the original soul of fantasy and a modern literary edge, allowing characters to drive the story, rather than event-based plots.
Perhaps the best known—and best-selling—author of historical fantasy is George R.R. Martin. He has brought new life to modern fantasy, where multi-volume epics had become a predictable and tiresome enterprise, with his Song of Ice and Fire series. While no stranger to the multi-volume page turner, Martin keeps readers guessing by eschewing many traditional fantasy plot structures. He even does away with the traditional fictional dichotomy of protagonist and antagonist. His large cast of viewpoint characters is varied in age and ambition. He manages to paint an intriguing world where the good guys don't always win, and the bad guys aren't entirely unlikable. Even the concepts of "good guys" and "bad guys" are difficult to apply to Martin's work. Where one fan will root for the demise of a certain character, the next fan will cheer for his victory. The most important contribution of George R.R. Martin to the canon of historical fantasy—and to fantasy as a whole—is to provide a model of truly successful character-driven storytelling. His Song of Ice and Fire series, so far, includes Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords and Feast for Crows.
Guy Gavriel Kay's works have often been described as "fant-historical." His recent works, however, have put history before magic to explore a richly detailed and nuanced fantasy world based closely on the cultures of medieval Europe. Starting with Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay introduces his fictional Europe with a story based upon the inter-faith culture of medieval Spain. The political conflicts resonate with the reality of our own history, but the characters are the true draw of this novel—the three main characters are among the best written in the history of fantasy. Kay makes a stunning follow-up with the duology Sarantine Mosaic. Tied to Al-Rassan only by a shared fictional history, Sarantine Mosaic takes fantasy readers to an earlier time, mirroring the period of history where the Roman Empire had collapsed in the west, leaving Byzantium to be the center of cosmopolitan culture. Kay does justice to the reality of this historical city and its role mediating a newly medieval eastern and western Europe, but he never loses sight of the humanity of his characters. The most recent foray into Kay's fictional Europe takes readers to a similar time period—the early middle ages—but a vastly different locale from Kay's usually Mediterranean fare. The Last Light of the Sun, takes Kay fans north to Viking Europe, for a new way to experience Kay's literary talents.
One of the earliest, and perhaps least known, historical fantasies is Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. The "magic" of this fantasy story is in its exploration of a gentlemanly culture of professional dualists and pretensions of civility. One of the most mold-shattering aspects of Swordspoint is Kushner's use of adult characters. Where fantasy is too often plagued by child characters, even when stories are meant for a grown-up audience, Kushner gives us a cast of mature and complex characters strong enough to carry this sophisticated fantasy. Her concept, if one can call it so, is not a system of magics, but rather an etiquette of swordsmen. In a culture where men can be hired to fight duels to the death, Kushner capitalizes upon a cultural structure rich in ethical connotations, creating a playing field that is all the more intricate for her characters.
A recent landmark in historical fantasy was reached this year by author, Kate Elliott, when she completed her vast Crown of Stars epic. Starting with King's Dragon nearly a decade ago, this series shows how history and fantasy can play off each other to create a fictional world that is all the more real and—at once—fascinatingly different. Elliott creates a fantasy world in Crown of Stars that is saturated with sorcery and intrigue, but also uses complex societal and church structures similar to those of high medieval Europe to govern the characters' lives with a framework that provides political advantage to some and troublesome obstacles, and even tragedy, to others. For readers who find that many of the historical fantasists in this article don't include enough magic for their tastes, Kate Elliott will be welcome evidence that magic can hold its own with history to make a convincing fantasy world.
Jacqueline Carey takes a different approach to historical fantasy in her Kushiel Trilogy. She takes many familiar elements from the medieval cultures of Europe to use in creating her richly detailed world, and adds them to a speculative society of cultural conventions and societal mores, the likes of which Western Civilization has never seen. She also blends time periods, juxtaposing Classical and Renaissance sensibilities in the center of her fictional Europe, and populating the outskirts with barbaric medieval northmen, nomadic gypsies, and spiritual druids. Carey shows how dynamic historical fantasy can be, proving that a mix of different time periods and cultures with utterly new elements can make a fantasy that is both real and otherworldly.
Perhaps the most impressive new voice in historical fantasy is R. Scott Bakker, whose recently completely Prince of Nothing trilogy has proven that medieval fantasy still finds new ground to cover. A story of sorcerers, philosophers and kings, Prince of Nothing incorporates elements of cultures on the fringe of Europe into an inspired framework of personal stories and political events. In many ways, Bakker combines the best elements of past historical fantasies into an epic both fresh and familiar. This intriguing and multi-layered milieu, however, takes its place rightly within the story as perilous backdrop for characters of deep humanity and ambiguity. Bakker gives the reader of historical fantasy hope that new authors will continue to provide fresh incarnations of our favorite breed of fantasy.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.