What the hell is this historical fantasy? Well, the way I use it, and the way I’ve read about it (though opinions differ a lot), it’s when a writer takes a familiar (or less familiar!) historical era and location and then gets inspired to build something completely their own upon it—never steering too far from actual history. (So, no medieval fantasy here. Not really even sorry.)
#1 Things can be better in the most wonderful ways
I wouldn’t even be aware of this peculiar possibility if not for Stephanie Burgis’ The Harwood Spellbook, a feminist, low angst, feelgood, alternative history magical romance series. You know the feeling when you enter a setting and it instantly makes you feel home? There’s this weird little discussion regarding the treatment of historically subjugated groups in historical fantasy and alternative fantasy, and my answer could be summed up as—why not give them all the power? The Harwood Spellbook is just a simple, recent example of a series which decided to offer exactly that, and with lots of grace.
#2 Fantasy elements can be more realistic (don’t have to, but can) in alternative history
Honestly, I wrote a book about werewolves in the 19th century while getting certain historical geography details pretty wrong, and my partner (if I remember correctly) once memorably consoled me with ‘but you’re writing about werewolves—and werewolves most definitely weren’t a historical feature of the 19th century’. I still think about it to this day. We tend to find history, especially the parts more than 100 or 200 years ago, a bit vague at best, and completely misty at worst. If people could walk for weeks (or more!) to visit their family in dire times throughout the ages, something completely incomprehensible to the modern couch potato, who’s to say they couldn’t howl at the full moon as they did so? Huh? Most certainly not me.
#3 Romanticising history is easier with a dash of fantasy
Let’s face it—most of human history is absolute effin bullshit. Especially if you were a woman, or a member of a minority. (Wait, we’re still talking about history, right?) I love reading and learning about history, but tend to get physically sick over the exact details of exact historical issues regarding, let’s say, trying to keep all your teeth past age twenty, or surviving childbirth. When you have a werewolf in the middle of it, or a conjurer, or a flying taxi cab (it happened, alright?), deliberately glossing over the ugly parts does get easier.
#4 You learn a shitload about real history
I’ve learned more about Byzantine mosaics from Guy Gavriel Kay than from my actual study of Art History—and then I went on to find out more by myself, about even more subjects I resonated the most with in his books. Learning history in school, at least when I was a kid, was… so awful I don’t even have the words for it. (Oh, no, wait, I do have one: boring.) As I read more and more historical fantasy, I realized history is anything but. Sometimes, all you need to connect with a historical period is one badass story set there. (Dammit, I’m getting hyped up again about my favourite books just by writing this!)
#5 You learn a lot about this actual world right here, right now
Where I grew up, every ten or twenty years or so, a certain part of national history (the details changed) would be deemed inappropriate and get gently swiped away from the lecture materials, as well as public knowledge available to younger people (i.e. my generation). It wasn’t censored, oh no, not in the slightest. Just not… taught. Maybe I was naive—well, most definitely—but it wasn’t until a bit later that I found out how much I didn’t learn, and which I could use in everyday life to understand the people around me better. Our politics notwithstanding. I’m slowly filling up the gaps nowadays, mostly—no surprises there—through book research. Nobody’s perfect.
+1 You get to find awesome writers which aren’t all that mainstream everywhere.
Stephanie Burgis writes aforementioned alternative history fantasy which revolves around the Bouddicate, an all-female magical governing body. Either Spellswept or Snowspelled are a good place to start. An absolute treat.
KJ Charles writes mostly queer historical romance, but her most famous titles are by this date the Charm of Magpies dark-ish Victorian fantasy series. Start with The Magpie Lord or pick up Think of England if you’re into strictly no-fantasy historical queerness.
Guy Gavriel Kay writes low fantasy, high history-bound epics which have marked my childhood. Start with Lions of Al-Rassan (war&politics, no fantasy) or Tigana (rebellion, mid-fantasy) and… well. I wish I could read the books for the first time again.
Aliette de Bodard writes sci-fi and fantasy, and I love her The Dominion of the Fallen series (dark, queer, postapocalyptic historical Paris) and liked The Obsidian and Blood trilogy (“Aztec noir fantasy”).
Joely Sue Burkhart actually, writes futuristic history, but she made the list as a special mention because
I’m hopeless of the history-bound feel of her series about Lady Doctor Wyre and her men. Start with the eponymous novel.
Phillip Pullman writes… well. Find out for yourself, but most definitely read the books first, before embarking on the perilous journey through the dangerous waters of the fanart mostly known as screen adaptation.
My upcoming release, Johnny’s Girls, is the first in an alternative history series set in a slightly different 1945 Rijeka, Croatia, and this list was born as a procrastination tactic while editing the final few quirks in the novel. It goes live October 30th on all major retailers. Lesbians! Doppelgängers! Closed room mysteries! And an overabundance of skyscrapers.