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Good/Bad Historical Fantasy

What makes a historical fantasy good or bad?

Recently I watched two historical fantasy series. One succeeded brilliantly, and the other was a complete fail in my opinion. The reasons why I loved the one and found the other painful was because of my personal standards for good historical fantasy.

The two shows are The Irregulars, based on the Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Frankenstein Chronicles, based upon Frankenstein, the classic book by Mary Shelley.

One is set in Victorian England, and the other in Georgian England, and both include supernatural elements as part of the storyline. Both Sherlock and Frankenstein have had countless spin-off books and movies. It always amazes me that new stories continue to appear featuring these characters, but I don’t mind. I love Sherlock and Frankenstein and am always eager to see new stories about them.

So, which of these stories did I love, and which did I not?

Two Examples

Here’s a brief summary of both before I start, in case you haven’t seen them.

The Irregulars

The gang of The Irregulars

If you know the Sherlock Holmes stories at all, you know that Holmes uses a gang of street boys at times to help him in his investigations. He calls them the Baker Street Irregulars and pays them to help him find out various pieces of information. They are useful for this because in society’s eyes they are pretty much invisible and so can go anywhere and hear anything. The Irregulars is a show based on these characters, but very loosely based. The Irregulars in these stories are not boys at all but teenagers. Nor are they all boys. There are young women in their midst, and in fact, the leader of the Irregulars is a young woman named Bea. Dr. Watson (?) hires them to investigate supernatural occurrences in London. Each episode tackles a separate mystery but all are tied together in a common overarching story which explores the background behind why these strange events are happening

The Frankenstein Chronicles

Sean Bean gives a terrific performance as Inspector Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles

Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein, has inspired countless other books, movies, TV shows, and plays. The Frankenstein Chronicles is but one of these. The story opens with the lead character, Inspector Marlott, being called in to investigate the discovery of a dead child washed up on the banks of the Thames. But he quickly discovers something horrifying. The dead child is made up of body parts from lots of different children stitched together. One of these children he suspects is a missing girl whose case he is also investigating. This leads him deep into a shadowy conspiracy that poses increasing dangers not only for the public at large but for him, personally.

I really wish I could have enjoyed both these shows. But, unfortunately, only one of them made the mark. I loved The Frankenstein Chronicles, but The Irregulars, well…

What Makes Historical Fantasy Good or Bad?

Keep in mind that these are MY standards. You may disagree, and that’s ok!

  1. The story has to be set in an actual historical time period here on Earth. There are many fantasy books out there that are labeled as “historical fantasy” which in fact are set in a world that is not Earth but in an era resembling one of our own eras. I would point to the fabulous Guy Gavriel Kay as an example of an author of these types of books. I don’t mind reading books like these, but PLEASE don’t call it “historical”. My standard is that if the book is labelled a historical fantasy it must be set in a real historical era. This annoys me not only as a reader but as a writer, as it confuses this category for readers, too, and it puts my book on a shelf with a whole bunch of books that are not true historical books. It makes my book harder to be seen by those who truly want a historical book. Happily, both The Irregulars and The Frankenstein Chronicles get full marks for this one!
  2. Characters in the story fit within the era in which the story is set. This is tricky because I recognize that it is difficult for authors to truly enter into the mindset of people who lived long ago. This is a problem not just for historical fantasy, but for historical fiction in general.  Too often I come across stories that contain characters who espouse ideas that are more congruent with our own era than that of the story’s setting. Characters can espouse “progressive” ideas or behaviours in a historical story, as long as the author gives a reasonable explanation for that in the context of the story itself and also points out within the story that this is unusual behaviour. What bothers me is characters who behave as if they should be roaming the streets of our own 21st-century cities as opposed to medieval London, or wherever the story is set, and no one in the story finds it unusual or is shocked by their views.

It is on this second point that The Irregulars failed. The show portrays a young, independent, Asian woman who wears trousers and is the leader of a gang of other teens, including boys. None of which is remarked upon as being particularly unusual by the other characters or by others they interact with. Plus, although they are meant to be street urchins, they all live in an abandoned warehouse and seem pretty well-fed. And to top it all off, one of their gang is a member of the Royal Family who seems to be able to run around with them with no one recognizing him or no one missing him back at the palace. Nope, none of this works for me. [Note: I only watched two shows of The Irregulars before I couldn’t take it anymore, so maybe all this improves as the series continued].

In The Frankenstein Chronicles, however, the character’s viewpoints are either congruent with the society at large, or where they are not, there are explanations given for why. Issues of class structure, racism, feminism, religion, etc are all explored in this series, but in the context of the historical setting.

So, for me, The Irregulars gets a big thumb down, and The Frankenstein Chronicles gets a huge thumbs up. Even though they are both grounded in a real historical age, the Irregulars‘ insistence on only using the time period as a backdrop instead of using it as a structural framework to build the story on turned me off. Don’t get me started on all the Sherlock Holmes errors, either. Sigh.

For what it’s worth, Irregulars was canceled after one season, and Frankenstein got two seasons, and a third may be in the offing. So maybe others had the same feeling I did.

If you have seen either of these shows (or both), tell me what you think? Do you agree with me, or do these things not matter as much to you? Would love to know your opinion! What’s YOUR idea of a good historical fantasy?

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