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Historical Fantasy: Blurring the Lines Between Fiction and Reality

by on December 19, 2012

Historical fantasy (the fanciful take on real people, events and times) can subtly lure readers of other types of fiction into its comforting embrace. Historical fantasy has something for every library patron: from readers of classics like Jane Austen to the Napoleonic Wars, from ancient Greece to modern times. Historical fantasy writers take great pains to be time-appropriate, with some writers even going so far as to use only words that would have been in use within the common vernacular of the time. Authors Mary Robinette Kowal and Susan Cooper are excellent examples of historical fantasy that all libraries should consider.

Mary Robinette Kowal, who described her novel Shades of Milk and Honey as Jane Austen with magic, is one such author who is very strict in the manner in which she represents the time period. Kowal strives to be linguistically accurate, eliminating words that were not in use during Austen’s time, and has invested a great deal of personal time in researching the British Regency period (roughly 1795 – 1837). I had the pleasure of meeting Kowal at a writer’s convention last spring, and I have to say, she is as charming and delightful as the characters she writes. Fans of Jane Austen will be delighted in the story Kowal has written, which has now become a series including two follow up books and one in the works (Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer are available now). Her magical system is called glamour, and while it lends a fantasy element to the story, the real focus of the work is the dynamic love story that evolves throughout its pages between the main characters. Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass are available in both print and electronic formats.

Susan Cooper, Newberry award winning author of The Dark is Rising Sequence, can be classified as both contemporary fantasy and as historical fantasy. Her series of books centers on the return of King Arthur to modern times and an elaborate battle between The Light and The Dark that has captured the imagination of children and adults alike with her epic-quality storylines since first going to print in 1965. Though the second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was adapted into a film in 2007 as The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, the film itself does little justice to this enchanting series of children’s books (and I must confess, even as an adult I still re-read this series). The entire series is available in an omnibus as an eBook in Kindle and ePub formats.

I feel compelled to mention the Steampunk sub-genre here, even though I personally have very little experience with it outside of fantasy films such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Wild Wild West. Fantasy Steampunk is generally set in the Victorian or Edwardian era, and features steam powered technology amidst gothic architecture mixed with magic or magical devices. Knowing very little about this type of fantasy, I would like to put a question out to my readers in an attempt to get to know this sub-genre better: Is there a Steampunk book or series that you feel is a great introduction to the genre that I should read? I’m very interested in what you personally think about this sub-genre. Please feel free to tweet me @kdarms, email me directly with your suggestions, or post in the comments section below.

Next time, we will be checking out new takes on classic fairy tales, and the adult fairy tales every library should have on its shelves. As always, keep reading, and may all your stories be epic.