Historical fantasy is just what it sounds like: fantasy set in a historical time period. Or you could think of it as a historical tale with fantasy elements. It depends on the author as to which side of the coin they focus on. Personally, in my writing, I usually focus on fantasy and have it take place in a historical setting. This isn't a blog about promoting my writing though; it is about writing in general, and so I'm going to explore why historical fantasy is so appealing compared to, say, high fantasy and urban fantasy. Of course, everyone has different tastes, but for me and many other readers, historical fantasy is our pet.

I find that fantasy often "fits" better when it is written in the past, in a time where things are less known, where people have not yet explored, and where you can't find someone with technology in an instant. The mystery of the past lends itself to the mystery of fantasy, that mystery where you can wonder about something unknown, something magical or wonderful. Most places in the past were uncharted ("terra incognita"), and even if they were known, you could find wide spaces of land where no one has ever been. The mystery of past ages with magic and sorcery and secret philosophies…all these things are very exciting!

In most urban, contemporary, or futuristic fantasy, some of that mystery is lost. The way the world works is better known, and so what might have once had a mysterious, magical element is lost to a scientific or technological explanation. A streaking fairy light becomes a comet, a scrying mirror becomes Skype. Of course, science fiction has its own sort of wonder and mystery, and this can be blended with fantasy, but there is also a sense of spirituality and higher dimensions of power and the mind that can be explored in fantasy in a different way. This can also be blended with religions and philosophies of the past to create a fantasy that is rooted in ancient cultures. You can reinterpret spiritual principles and see how they can be modified to create a fantasy of your own, a fantasy that seems to grow out of the historical time period in which it takes place. I personally like to do this with philosophy: for instance, the Buddhist philosophy of other worlds and bodhisattvas lends itself immediately to fantasy, as well as Plato's allegory of the cave [that's a hint for Shadows of Aizai!].

In principle, fantasy can be set in any location: an entirely fantastical land, the present day, and anything in between. All that must be present is magic in some form or other, something beyond that which is explained by science and so-called rational explanations. Although I also love a good high fantasy (fantasy set in another world), perhaps one of the draws of historical fantasy is that if it happens in the world we know, there is a greater sense of reality to it. Of course, we know that the author added fantasy elements to their book, but to have some parts of the story real, like the setting or perhaps some of the characters, gives us an anchor to the world we know and so makes it a mystery to solve about our own world rather than one entirely foreign to us. And if such magic happened in the past, then why not now, in the present? It is all part of being put under a spell by the author's writing, being led into their world that, in many ways, resembles the historical past, but also includes fantastic elements that draw the reader to a sense of wonder and possibility of magic not only in the characters' lives, but in our own.

Some of my favourite historical fantasy novels are Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy (actually 4 books, but whatever), The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Opal, The Invisible Order by Paul Crilley, The Once and Future King series by T.H. White, The Crown's Game series by Evelyn Skye, and Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (also actually 4 books).

Though you can draw inspiration from historical novels too, especially the Classics. For example, you can't do much better than read Alexandre Dumas' Musketeers series (there are 5 books in all) and The Count of Monte Cristo. If you think Game of Thrones is thick with plots, intrigue, and many point of view characters, then take a look at Monte Cristo. It's definitely one of my all-time favourite books.

So when you read your next historical fantasy book, try to imagine the general story being told in another setting. Would it be possible, or is the story so tied to the setting that it would be out of place in another time or location? If the answer is no, it is not possible, then that is what true historical fantasy is about: fantasy tied to the historical time period to make it real and to bring the plot alive.



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"A Soul Wanderer never knows. He wanders; he makes his own path through the
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-Sio Larwick


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Mary-Jean's books

The Printer's Devil
The Crystal Cave
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Lost Prince
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Hobbit
Rise of the Darklings
The Fire King
Clockwork Angel
Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
The Lost World
Around the World in Eighty Days
The Sum of All Men
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Wizardborn
The Lair of Bones
Sons of the Oak
Worldbinder
The Wyrmling Horde


Mary-Jean Harris's favorite books »
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