Respecting history

I recently came across Guy Gavriel Kay’s essay “Home and Away,” which addresses the complex relationship between fantasy and history, both in the sense of historical fantasy, and fantasy which models itself on (without directly representing) history.

It provoked two major trains of thought for me. The first had to do with this notion:

It was Henry James who argued that historical fiction was, in fact, impossible. That it was condemned to be ‘cheap’ because getting to ‘the real thing’ with regard to the world views of people in the past simply could not be done. One could only write from within one’s own world view, leaving access to the vision or the soul of the past hopelessly barred.

If you think it’s bad in historical fiction, try anthropology. We’ve gone through several decades of angst over this very matter: how can we, as outsiders to a culture, try to represent its nature and point of view? Isn’t that arrogant? Or maybe just impossible? If we can’t achieve that goal, should we pack up and go home?

I’ll come back to those points in a bit; first, let’s turn to my other train of thought, which has to do with respect. I came across the Kay essay by way of Matt Cheney’s column “Pol Pot’s Fantasized Daughter,” published recently on Strange Horizons. Cheney makes some cogent points about the thorny difficulties of fictionalizing and fantasizing a real-world scenario like the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime. I’ve thought about this in other contexts, too; I’m curious to see more of the world Naomi Novik presents in her Temeraire series, because I wonder how she’s chosen to handle the problems of nineteenth-century colonialism. We don’t necessarily want our historical fantasy to uncritically replicate the problems of real-world history, be they political, religious, economic, gender-based, what have you — but it’s also a little cheap to decide that magic makes the problems go away. Where’s the proper balance?

If it sounds like I’ve thought through this in detail, it’s because I have; I just finished writing Midnight Never Come, which I fondly refer to as my Elizabethan faerie spy novel. All of the faeries in it are made up, of course, but virtually every mortal character except for the human protagonist is real. And the premise of the novel, in a nutshell, is that the faerie queen has been interfering with mortal politics.

Here’s the thing. I find Elizabeth I to be a fascinating individual, and while she was far from perfect as a queen — she was vain, short-tempered, indecisive, and jealous — I have a lot of respect for her. But Midnight Never Come is a secret history, not an alternate history; I’m not making any visible changes to what really happened in sixteenth-century England, but rather saying that some of those things happened for secret reasons. Faerie reasons. And this runs the risk of diminishing the actions and achievements of real people. (A problem White Wolf occasionally ran into with the metaplot of their “World of Darkness” RPGs; sometimes it seemed like ordinary people were nothing more than the blind, clueless puppets of vampires, werewolves, mages, etc, etc.)

They were real people. As far as I’m concerned, just because they’re several hundred years dead doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respectful treatment.

It’s tempting to dodge the complexities of the situation by saying it’s fiction, it’s fantasy, it isn’t real. Unfortunately, that’s too facile of a response, and at its worst it can be a cousin of the “it’s just a joke” non-defense of sexist or racist behavior. If you misrepresent history — real people, real cultures, real events — not all readers will know the period well enough to recognize what’s been made up or changed, and what hasn’t. Benign example: you’ll never ever convince me Loki is really a bad guy, because my first encounter with Norse mythology was Diana Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke. The story you tell will go into the reader’s mind along with everything else they read, and once there, it has a tendency to color their thoughts, even if it’s fiction.

So where am I going with all of this? Back to anthropology. First of all, anthropologists depend on the admittedly amorphous notion of respect. Everything they write may not be — will not be — uncritically positive, but it should be respectful toward the real people about whom they are writing. And second, just because I as an anthropologist can’t achieve “access to the vision or the soul of the past” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I can only ever think like me, but I can make my thinking more flexible, more open to other ways of viewing the world.

And that’s how I feel about historical fiction, too. Respect means researching the period, both its physical reality and its worldview, and attempting as best I can to work from that perspective. Respect means trying to fit what I’m doing in with the “real” Elizabeth, the “real” Walsingham — that is, our historical understandings of them — rather than replacing them with modern authorial sockpuppets that happen to bear the same name. And it’s worth trying to do, because fantasy offers an unparalleled opportunity to bring ourselves and our readers into a different cultural point of view.

But it’s hard work. Have any of you tackled historical fantasy yourselves, and if so, how did you approach it? What authors would you say have done a good job of it?

Filed under Uncategorized. You can also use to trackback.

There are 13 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Never written any historical fantasy, though I’m a firm believer that modern fantasy is the direct successor of 19th c. historical romances. Hoever, regarding the respect issue, I think you can take it both ways. Revisionism can be as much fun as respect. Flashman is the classic case in point – Harry Flashman is a modern, cynical man (I won’t go so far as to call him an anti-hero) plopped down in the middle of Victorian England’s golden age to expose the hypocrisy of everything they said and did. Fraser’s research is dead on, but then he uses that research often enough to turn pre-conceived notions on their heads.

  2. 2. Jess Nevins

    Oh, I dunno. I think the target of Flashman is as much the modern reader, with their facile and often uninformed judgment of the Victorians, as the Victorians themselves.

    But that ties in to the respect thing. Fraser, via Flashman, is telling us (sometimes very directly, as with his comments about the burning of the Forbidden City) that unless we put the Victorians’ actions into the proper cultural and historical context, we don’t know enough to judge. Which strikes me as what Marie (hi, Marie!) is talking about.

    I’d also recommend Patrick O’Brian’s Maturin & Aubrey series, which I think is Literature and on a par with Austen and the other great novelists.

    My one-and-a-half complete novels are both historical fantasies, and I tackled both by doing as much research as possible until I felt that I knew the eras fairly well. Then began writing. Contexts change, possibilities change, but people don’t. Of course, venality and compassion will manifest themselves quite different in the South China Sea in 1806 than in Istanbul in 1425–and that’s where the research comes in.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    What bothers me most in fantasy settings is otherwise medieval worlds in which women are warriors, just like men–not the occasional Xena but half the armies–with no explanation of why this fundamental difference occurred. I will buy almost any reason–religion, plague that kills or weakens men, you name it–but I want this accounted for.

    I think it’s interesting that science fiction writers have similar problems. Look at Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. The Barrayarans conquer and colonize another world. How enlightened is that? Bujold knows this and sets it up so the other world allowed Barrayar to be attacked, so it’s self defense. And the Vor may be the universe’s best saber rattlers, but she gives them their own strong moral codes.

    Real people in fiction is another question. I think the fiction writer does have an obligation to do research. On the other hand, he or she can say simply that it’s his or her take on that person. Even biographies of the same subject take a slant on what their subject was like. Short of a Vulcan mind meld with a dead person, what else can a writer do?

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Oh, certainly. I don’t mean to suggest one cannot skewer historical periods. But there’s a difference between mocking what they really did (because you’ve done your research) and mocking inaccurate stereotypes.

    Kind of like my long-standing belief that the best parodies are the ones done by people who love the subject they’re making fun of.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Karen –

    Yeah, I’ve written about that very gender problem before. (I put it in the context of infant mortality rates, actually: if half of your kids don’t live to be ten, then most women can’t afford to not have children, which means going to war is unlikely.) Part of my justification in Doppelganger was that magical healing made their lives generally healthier. I never found a good way to insert the other part of the explanation, but the people in that culture believe not only in reincarnation, but in the notion that one might be reincarnated as either sex, making the differences between the two less meaningful.

    Back to history, though — of course you can’t avoid having your own take on a person’s life and personality, whether you’re writing fiction or biography. But in a biography, one is held to certain standards of evidence for one’s depiction; I feel the same should be true for fiction. So, you can give me a Doctor John Dee who’s a con man, or one who’s being conned, or one who’s genuinely delusional, but if you give me a Doctor John Dee who’s a neo-pagan earth-mother-worshipping Renaissance hippie (which apparently someone has done), then unless you’re writing a weird alternate history where that makes sense, I’m going to call BS.

  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    “Secrets of Jin Shei” was historical fantasy – basically rooted in imperial China but with a lot of ‘different’ stuff in there that made it possible for my story to take place. That didn’t stop people from taking it as gospel and asking me which PARTICULAR period of Chinese history I was writing about. But that one was written as pure historical fantasy – lots of research went into it, but the story was pure me.

    Its successor, “Embers of Heaven”, deals with a Cultural Revolution China setting. And this felt very different to me – not least because there are people out there who have either lived through this period of history themselves or have immediate relatives who did – and not only did I have to treat the period with respect, I had to care about making it perfectly plain where I followed the “historical” line and where I diverged from it for story reasons. It was damned hard, sometimes.

    I’m planning at least one other historical fantasy. Pray for me…

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Yes, the need for respect becomes much more obvious when the history is recent, and people are still around who remember it.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler


    Interesting take on Flashman – I’ll have to look for what you suggest the next time I read one. I’ve always felt Fraser, via Flashman, took every opportunity he had to stick a thumb in the Empire’s eye.

    As you say, the Aubrey/Maturin books are excellent. But what do you think O’Brien was doing at the end when he ran out of time for Napoleonic derring-do? Secret history or alternate?

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Hi, Jess! (I wish I knew the logic by which WordPress orders these comments. Does it pull the timestamp from the computer used to post? Because I didn’t get notification of your comment until about #7 or #8, yet there you are up at #2, where you most definitely were not before.)

    I haven’t read Flashman, so I can’t judge it personally. But based on what you’ve said, it sounds like Fraser knew whereof he spoke, and that’s really what I’m getting at. Whatever you’re planning on doing with your history, know it first, and think carefully about the choices you make.

  10. 10. Jess Nevins


    The most recent one I read was Flashman and the Tiger, so I referred to that. Look at how Flashy adresses the reader about Elgin’s decision. His comments boil down to “you really can’t judge us because you weren’t here.”

    As for O’Brian–I think he’d have found lots for Aubrey & Maturin to do elsewhere. The Brits were militarily busy throughout the 19th century, after all–lots of the “Little Wars” that A&M could have taken part in.


    Flashman isn’t for everyone–his personality grates on some readers–but I think the books are very solid historically, and well-footnoted to boot.

    And, hey, any author who has a scene in which Sherlock Holmes’ snap deductions are shown to be logical but wrong has a lot going for him. *g*

  11. 11. Diatryma

    At some point in the Aubrey-Maturin books, there’s a note saying, more or less, “I’ve run out of war for the moment, because ships take so long to get there.” It mentioned an 1812a, 1812b, et cetera, just because you can’t have your characters becalmed in the Pacific while the plot’s going on elsewhere.
    However, I am sure that Maturin could have rigged up a nice FTL drive for the ship if necessary.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler


    Flashman and the Tiger is one of the best in the series. I should it put of on the top of my list to reread. And you’re right about recommending Flashy to other readers. I stopped years ago after too many people told me they couldn’t stand his sexism, racism, and bullying, whether he was honest about it or not.


  1. Why I will never write a Mayan apocalypse novel at SF Novelists

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



Browse our archives: