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Is Historical Fantasy Gaining Ground?

A Quick Look at the Past Two Decades

Historical fantasy has always been a solid subgenre of the fantasy genre. Defining historical fantasy can be tricky, however. There are some fantasy books named “historical” if their setting resembles a period of Earth’s history but is not set on Earth, but for the purposes of this article, I am defining historical fantasy as fantasy books that are set in an authentic Earth historical era. This helps to narrow down the field, and it is the type of historical fantasy I write, and that I prefer to read. Over the last twenty years, I have seen this subgenre become more popular with readers and writers alike.

When I first started writing my own historical fantasy trilogy about fifteen years ago, I had a hard time finding new historical fantasy books to read. Because I love both historical fiction and fantasy novels, the combination of the two in a well-written book has always been irresistible to me. But at that time, in the early 2000s, there were not a lot to be found, which is one reason I wrote my own. But a few glimmering books gave me hope people could still enjoy books that combined real-world history and fantastical elements.

In those first decades of the 2000s, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series dominated the fantasy scene, along with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books and Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. A dollop of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Pullman, Robin Hobb and Percy Jackson books rounded out the notables.

Three Books That Led the Way

But three books sprinkled amongst these fantasy bestsellers were harbingers of things to come, and I believe led to a greater appreciation for the historical fantasy subgenre among readers and authors alike.

The original Outlander cover. Beauty!

The first was the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon. The first book in her long saga about a modern-day woman walking through standing stones in Scotland and being transported to the 18th-century was first published in 1991. But books 5-7 in the series were published between 2001 and 2009, and continued to be massive bestsellers. Gabaldon has spoken about the difficulty publishers and bookstores had in shelving her books initially, as confusion reigned as to whether they should be categorized as historical, romance, or fantasy. But nowadays, they are firmly planted in the historical fantasy genre, and I believe it is the influence of this massive bestselling series that has sparked a great deal of interest in other books like it. Of course, having romance at the heart of these books certainly helped to propel their popularity. But that was a good thing, as because of them, more readers discovered that a historically accurate story could co-exist nicely with fantastical elements.

The second book that paved the way for more popularity for the historical fantasy genre was His Majesty’s Dragons (2006) by Naomi Novik. This swashbuckling tale of “the Napoleonic War with dragons”, as Novik labelled it, became a bestseller on the strength of its clever premise and sympathetic characters, both dragon and human alike. Dragons are a perpetually popular element of fantasy literature, but putting them in a real-world, alternate-history Earth touched off a spark that continues to burn today (I couldn’t resist the fire metaphor for this one!)

The third book, published in 2004, was the immensely clever Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This sprawling tale about two magicians set in 19th-century England proved that long, complex, character-driven fantasy novels in a real-world historical setting could captivate readers and critics alike. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2005 Hugo Award, this book introduced historical fantasy to a wide audience who might never have been interested in the genre before.

Those three books started a trend which continued over the next two decades. Gaslamp fantasies, which are fantasy books set in England in the Victorian era, often with Gothic elements, got a strong readership on the backs of the popularity of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and HIs Majesty’s Dragons. Charlie N. Homberg’s The Paper Magician trilogy and V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy both fall under this banner, as does Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series (billed as “Jane Austen with magic”).

Stepping Off England’s Shores

These books were all set in England’s history, but a welcome addition to the genre showed up later in the 2000s, with the arrival of historical fantasy novels set in other countries and cultures. One could point to the immensely popular The Golem and the Jinni  (2013) by Helen Wecker as paving the way for these types of historical fantasy books. This tale of a golem and a jinni who become unlikely companions in 1899 New York gave fresh legs to the historical fantasy genre. The City of Brass (S.A. Chakraborty, 2017), about a con woman in 18th-century Cairo who accidentally summons a djinn warrior, continued to establish the value of looking beyond England’s shores and mythologies to find fresh new voices and tales. These books paved the way for books such as Circe (Madeline Miller, 2018)  – a retelling of the Odysseus myth. Of course, Circe isn’t exactly historical fantasy under my definition, as the mythical world of the Greek gods is not exactly a real-world Earth setting, but it draws upon Ancient Greek mythology as opposed to a made-up mythology for its subject matter, so it counts for me.

Women Authors Lead the Way

As I surveyed the rising popularity of historical fantasy books over the past twenty years, I noticed something interesting. You may have noted it, too. Women wrote all the books mentioned above. In fact, the growing ranks of talented women authors in the previously male-dominated fantasy genre paralleled this growing popularity of historical fantasy. This twinning of historical fantasy with women authors has continued to the present, especially with the strong popularity of books about witches, many by women authors. Many of these are historical fantasy books, such as The Vine Witch (Luanne G. Smith, 2019), set in 19th-century France.

From its start as a small sub-genre of fantasy, historical fantasy is now more popular than ever. Looking at the bestselling fantasy books over the last few years, The Lost Queen (Signe Pike, 2019), The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V. E. Schwab, 2020), and The Empire of Gold (S.A.Chakraborty, 2021) are all strong proof that this sub-genre of fantasy books is not going away anytime soon.

Which is a good thing! Interesting historical details combined with mysterious fantasy elements can add up to a thoroughly satisfying read. I’m looking forward to what is coming next!


Looking for historical fantasy?? Check out my novels set in 7th-century England, featuring a young man whose shadowed destiny leads him to the past, where he could change our world forever.

 

 

L.A. Smith is the author of The Traveller’s Path, a historical fantasy series set in 7th-century England. The final book in the trilogy, Choice, will be released in 2022.

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