Alternate History Fantasy and Historical Fantasy: Indie-October guest post from Liz Tuckwell

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Thanks to Mark Hayes for generously offering me the opportunity to write an article/have a rant about a topic on his blog. This one may be a little pedantic but is dear to my heart.

As well all know, fantasy now has many sub-genres. In fact it has so many sub-genres now that some have become blurred. Two good examples are alternate history fantasy and historical fantasy. These are two of my favourite fantasy sub-genres.

I think readers and critics often get confused about what alternate history fantasy is. If you were to take a look at www.bestfantasybooks.com (for example), you would find the following books listed under Alternate History Fantasy.

  • Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan,
  • Wizard’s First Rule, Terry Goodkind,
  • The Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien.
  • The Belgariad, David Eddings,
  • The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks.

I don’t know about you, but I would never have described any of those as alternate history fantasy. They’re all epic or heroic fantasy.

However, the description of Alternate History Fantasy on the website is:

“Alternate history is set in a place where actual history has deviated from current historical accounts. Think of it as a parallel history to our own, one where events may have been dramatically different. Alternate history can include fantastical elements. One can have alternate history where the rules of the universe follow that of our own or an alternate fantasy where magic works.”

I strongly disagree with the last sentence. Clearly, all the examples on the list above fall under “an alternate fantasy where magic works” but so do many other fantasy sub-genres.

There also seems to be confusion about what is historical fantasy.

Also on bestfantasybooks.com, you find the following books listed under historical fantasy:

  • Soldier of the Mist, Gene Wolfe
  • Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Territory, Emma Bull
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • The Temeraire Series, Naomi Novik
  • The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen R Lawhead
  • The Deverry Cycle, Katherine Kerr

The website defines “In the Historical Fantasy sub-genre a part of Earth’s history is the setting, but with added fantastical elements. This setting may be set on Earth and positing a question—how would the American Civil War have unfolded if there were vampires?–or set in another world that shares cultural and historical events with Earth.”

 And once again, I disagree with the last sentence. I don’t think that is the definition of historical fantasy. For it to be a historical fantasy, it needs to take place in earth’s history.

By the way, in my opinion, some of the novels listed above are not historical fantasy. Tigana takes place in a fictional world that resembles renaissance Italy but is not renaissance Italy. It’s actually another fantasy sub-genre altogether. Neither is the Deverry Cycle, which takes place in the world of Annwn, an earth-like planet in a parallel universe. So, yes, they are eligible under the website’s criteria, but I think the criteria is wrong.

I’m not having a dig at bestfantasybooks.com, it’s just a good example of the confusion about what particular sub-genres are.

In my opinion, historical fantasy and alternate history fantasy also often get confused.

Alternate history fantasy is the child of historical fantasy and alternate history. Alternate history is a science fiction sub-genre so alternate history fantasy is a sub-genre that crosses genres. Historical fantasy is the child of historical fiction and fantasy.

So, for example, I think that Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is alternate historical fantasy but Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is historical fantasy. Both are often mentioned as either historical fantasy or alternate history fantasy.

In Susannah Clarke’s wonderful novel about two rival sorcerers, magic exists in Regency society but crucially, there was a Raven King who used to rule over Northern England, a definite departure from English history. So, that makes it alternate history fantasy, in my book.

However, in Naomi Novik’s equally wonderful series, dragons exist but it has not altered history to any great extent. Elizabeth I still reigned, the House of Hanover is on the throne, etc. but the Napoleonic War is being fought (with dragons). So, for me, that’s historical fantasy.

So, which novels do I think are actually alternate history fantasy? I’m glad you asked.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur, Mark Twain
  • Lord Darcy Series, Randall Garrett
  • Thursday Next Series, Jasper Fforde
  • A Midsummer Tempest, Poul Anderson
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker, Orson Scott Card
  • Armor of Light, Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett

And you may be asking, so what? Does it really matter? Well, I think it does because as a reader of alternate history fantasy novels, I want a novel which is described as being an alternate history fantasy to be one. I hate reading a novel and then gradually realising it isn’t what I thought it was. I know this can happen with all sub-genres, but I think it’s particularly prevalent with these two. Hopefully, this article will help you to avoid the same experience.

About Liz Tuckwell

lizLiz Tuckwell is a British science fiction and fantasy writer, living in London. She’s recently had a short horror story “A Monster Met” published by Demain Publishing in their Short! Sharp! Shocks! Series and a short story in the anthology MCSI: Magical Crime Scene Investigations. Her flash fiction has been published on the 101 Fiction and Speculative 66 websites. She has a story in the forthcoming Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 3.

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