Historical Musings #35: Historical Fantasy

I have just finished writing my review of The Girl in the Tower, the second in Katherine Arden’s fantasy trilogy which began with The Bear and the Nightingale. The trilogy is set in 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as it was called then), a world which has been researched and recreated to resemble the real 14th century Rus’ – apart from the existence of household spirits, frost-demons, firebirds and magical horses. This made me think about other books I’ve read which have both historical and fantasy elements.

First, there are the books I consider to be mainly historical fiction with some elements of magical realism. A good example would be The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, which is set in 17th century Amsterdam but has a supernatural twist in the form of a dolls’ house and a mysterious miniaturist. Another recent read, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is set in Georgian England with only a few brief touches of fantasy, while The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, about a quinine-collecting expedition to Peru, incorporates moving statues and exploding trees. At the other end of the scale there’s The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which takes us to a 16th century India populated with giants and witches, where emperors have imaginary wives and artists hide inside paintings.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (of which I’ve still only read the first one!) is set during the Napoleonic Wars in a world very much as it would have been at the time, with one important difference: dragons exist and are used by both the British and French as a sort of early air force. Another book with the Napoleonic Wars for a setting, one which I read pre-blogging this time, is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I remember loving the mixture of magic and history and the fascinating footnotes describing the world of Faerie.

Then there are Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, which are set in fantasy worlds which resemble real historical worlds. Tigana, my favourite, takes place in a world with one blue moon and one white, but there are clear parallels with Renaissance Italy, while The Lions of Al-Rassan has a setting similar to medieval Spain. The Last Light of the Sun takes us to a land where magical forces gather in the forests and faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, yet this land is identifiable as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. Finally, Children of Earth and Sky is set in thinly-disguised versions of Venice, Dubrovnik and Constantinople during the Renaissance period. These are the only books I have read by Kay so far, but I will certainly be reading more.

How do you feel about fantasy or magical realism combined with historical fiction? Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you recommend more?

23 thoughts on “Historical Musings #35: Historical Fantasy

  1. Elle says:

    I keep feeling I should read Guy Gavriel Kay, but I’m very wary of epic fantasy in general; are his more historical ones less epic? (In tone, I mean; length isn’t a bother.)

    • Pam Thomas says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘epic’. Yes, there are great events but there’s also a very real human dimension. Tigana is my favourite of his books, indeed one of my favourite books full stop.

      • Elle says:

        By epic I mean a fairly broad swathe of things, and you’re right, genre labels such as that are often more of a hindrance than a help. But in general my definition of epic fantasy is the kind of fantasy that takes clear inspiration from Tolkien, not only in the sense that there’s very detailed world-building with a strong focus on geography, political history, mythology and religion, but also in the sense that it takes itself very seriously. I’d put the work of writers like Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin in this category, for instance.

    • Helen says:

      He wrote a trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry which I haven’t read yet, but which sounds more like epic fantasy than the four books I’ve mentioned. I found that The Lions of Al-Rassan in particular felt more like historical fiction than fantasy, but set in a world slightly different from our own.

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I’m never sure about ‘magical realism’. I tend to like my fantasy novels to be fantasy, and real life books to have no magic. Mixing the two is very hard to get right, the credibility gap is just too wide for me, though I know others love it. Kay’s writing is just so beautiful, and I love Tigana. I’ll have to look out for The Bear and the Nightingale.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not a big fan of magical realism either. I would probably have preferred The Miniaturist without the miniaturist! I do love the kind of fantasy Guy Gavriel Kay writes and I agree that Tigana is his best, at least out of those I’ve read so far.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    A lot of so-called literary novelists these days seem happy to combine genres in their serious novels, and fantasy and history appear to be the most common bedfellows, though often masquerading as magic realism. For example, Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ is a curious read, it’s faux-historical setting (Arthurian Britain) definitely combining with fantasy, served up with a hint of parable but reminding me a lot of magic realist fiction. ‘Jonathan Strange’ for me worked better, it allows one to suspend disbelief a lot more readily than Ishiguro’s miasmic Tale.

    A favourite of mine is Brian Aldiss’ ‘The Malacia Tapestry’ set in a Machiavellian Renaissance Adriatic world where the courtiers had lizard tales. This picaresque fancy was inspired by a set of engravings by, I think, Tiepolo. However, your intriguing list has temporarily banished from my memory any other titles that initially popped into my head, so I’ll have to muse awhile to come up with other examples, perhaps like Jostein Gaardner for instance.

    • Helen says:

      I forgot about The Buried Giant when I was putting this post together. I started to read it a few years ago but didn’t get very far with it, which was a shame as I’ve enjoyed other books by Ishiguro. The combination of fantasy, history and parable that you mention just didn’t work for me where that particular book was concerned. I hadn’t heard of The Malacia Tapestry, but it does sound intriguing!

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I haven’t read any of those ones but I’m noting them down for the future. I remember being surprised when a friend mentioned that Mary Stewart’s Merlin books were fantasy as to me they were historical fiction, now I’m not sure what they are – apart from very enjoyable.

    • Helen says:

      I suppose there’s a little bit of magic in the Merlin books, but I would agree that they feel more like historical fiction than fantasy. I loved them, whatever they are!

  5. aparatchick says:

    I don’t know whether fantasy or magical realism would totally fit, but Eowyn Ivey’s books, “To the Bright Edge of the World” and “The Snow Child” are both very well-written historical fiction novels with magical/fantasy elements.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’m sure you could describe Eowyn Ivey’s books as magical realism as well as historical fiction. I enjoyed both, especially The Snow Child. 🙂

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    I have Katherine Arden on my TBR lists. As you know I thought The Bedlam Stacks was great. I also have enjoyed The Enchantress of Florence and Jonathan Strange. I have no problem with historical fiction that mixes in fantasy. I think we could use a bit more of magic, fairies and dragons in the current day!

  7. Margaret says:

    I enjoy historical fantasy – the latest one I’ve read is The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale set mainly during the First World War. I’ve also enjoyed the Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, set in Victorian times in London and Japan. I’m fascinated by the inventiveness of such authors!

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t request The Toymakers when I noticed it on NetGalley, but I’m wishing I had now! I don’t think I liked The Bedlam Stacks enough to want to read anything else by Natasha Pulley, but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  8. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    The books you talk about are all either ones that I’ve read or ones that I want to read. I can’t think of others to suggest, but I have just picked up ‘The Toymakers’ and I think I will be seconding Margaret’s recommendation.

  9. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I read a couple of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books (the ones set in Byzantium, er, Sarantium) last year and want to try more. Thanks for pointing me to Tigana, there are so many titles it’s hard to know where to focus!

    I used to read mostly fantasy but now I’ve gravitated more to historical fiction. So as you can imagine, I do enjoy historical fantasy quite a lot! Temeraire and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are firm favorites, but I was not a fan of Natasha Pulley’s work; her tone just did not ring true for me for the period. Sorcery and Cecelia is another Regency fantasy that’s good fun, though the sequels were not so strong. Branching out somewhat, recently I also liked The Bear and the Nightingale and The Golem and the Jinni (hm, what’s with all these A + B titles?)

    As for the general question, if fantasy is combined with historical fiction both elements have to be quite strong for it to work for me. The fantasy needs to have its own logic and purpose for existing; if it’s just thrown in to avoid historical reality, or if it seems overly slight and basically unnecessary (as seems may be true with The Miniaturist), I’m not happy. Likewise, if there’s a historical setting it needs to be strong and convincing, even if it’s a made-up historical period or place. It’s not so easy to get the balance right – I found JS & MN a pretty perfect example.

    • Helen says:

      Tigana was the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I read and still my favourite. The magical elements in that one are stronger than in the other Kay novels I’ve read. I’m glad it’s not just me who isn’t a Natasha Pulley fan – I also thought the tone wasn’t right for the Victorian period. And I forgot about the Golem and the Jinni (or Djinni, as it was published here in the UK)! I’m sure I read somewhere that there’s going to be a sequel this year.

      I agree that JS & MN gets the balance between fantasy and history just right!

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