September 5th 2012
Historical fantasy and all that
In one of those interesting juxtapositions which the Internet excels at, several seemingly unrelated things came together for me in recent weeks.
The first was a new novel, “Queen of Iron Years” (more about it at the publisher’s site, here: http://www.kitehillpublishing.com/queenofironyears.html)
Let me give you a brief summary.
The story is a double-layered one. One prong of it takes place in 2035 when a new and terrible sexually transmitted plague, Tensen’s Virus, has been unleashed on the world, initially focused on trans-sexuals. Anyone suspected of being a carrier is vulnerable to open assault.
The other prong of the story hinges on one of the people caught up in this trans-sexual pogrom… who has invented a working time machine. Another of the trans folk from 2035 then conceives the idea that somehow his going back in time to prevent the death of the Iceni queen Boadicea at the hands of Romans in ancient Britain will alter the history of the world sufficiently for things to be very different by the time 2035 rolls by (again).
Our protagonist, Cean, thus steps through time… and emerges in Boadicea’s Britain, armed with prophylactic antiobiotic powders with which to help heal the local population and thus bolster his new career as tribal healer, and also with a foreknowledge of history which gives him the means to convince the warrior queen that he is a “true dreamer” sent by the Gods themselves and that he can predict the future.
Of course, knowing in advance how crucial battles were lost before now means that he can tell the queen not to make the same mistakes this time around. And before long history is adrift as Roman generals, governors, and other grandees who ought to have survived Boadicea now… don’t, and the warring tribes which snuffed out her rebellion in the end manage, this time, to forge themselves into a proto-nation and leave behind the things that had once divided them.
Novels with historical or near-mythical-semi-historical protagonists happen to have been on the forefront of my thinking more than usual at this time because I lent out – to a reader who does not as a rule enjoy these quasi-historical and half-fantasy offerings – Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, three books which are part of my own personal core “favourite books” library, novels which I love.
Now, there are two kinds of these historically-rooted books.
One is treating the story as “straight”, using history as a scaffolding, generally keeping things as close to the historical “truth” and verisimilitude as possible (and a heap of research goes into these things, and if it doesn’t, that shows…) .
The other is the “Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court” kind of thing, where someone from our time – from the future – somehow lands in that past bringing with them all the ideas, issues and perhaps a few history-altering plans or artefacts for things that were not invented back then and WOULD not have been had the protagonist not turned up.
Stewart’s books were the first sort, immersive, no contemporary time travelling protags to muddy the waters, and they required diving into head first and letting the waters of story close over your head. “Queen of Iron Years” has some of this – the Boadicea story is a lovingly tended thing, its seeds planted carefully, its fruits obviously considered and shaped and even though they were obviously “engineered” by the plot device, that was a legitimate element in the story. And yet there was definitely a Connecticut-Yankee element in there, too, with the protagonist, Cean, kind of obstinately remaining a part of his own time – even while immersing willingly and completely into the Iceni society, while reveling in the idea of the ceremony which “rebirthed” him as an Iceni man – even with his death was integrated into his Roman Britain milieu.
Yes, he was willing and enthusiastic – but he had gone back there with the intent of changing history, with the intent of changing THAT history so that his own historical moment, the one he had truly been born into, would be different, better, more forgiving to his kind. This very idea somehow… diminished the Roman Britain aspect of the story, however lovingly crafted or beloved it was as and of itself. By definition it was brought in… to be changed. To be made different. It was that classic “Darling, I love you, now change” kind of conundrum that has ever dogged loving human relationships. Perhaps because my loins were girded from the outset with the idea that the Roman Britain part of the plot was almost… expendable… I kind of couldn’t quite get myself to get tangled into that particular plot. The immersion was simply not there.
And then I came upon a guest blog post by Kari Sperring,, fantasy writer and historian, here:
She’s talking about the Celtic women. And here’s what jumped out at me:
“So what about Boudicca and Mebh and the rest? They all have one thing in common: they exist in exceptional circumstances. They do not represent the norm. Both Boudicca and Cartimandua came to the fore when their cultures were under great pressure from the Romans. Cartimandua very possibly owes much of her significance not to her fellow Britons but to the Roman invaders, in fact. The Romans were accustomed to women who, if not rulers, influenced and manipulated rulers, disposed of property and had considerable power. They expected Cartimandua, who was the wife of a chief, to be the same and they treated and depicted her that way. Boudicca was a product of a crisis, of a desperate war. She was clearly an extraordinary person, capable of inspiring and leading, but her position was due to circumstance, not daily practice. Deprived of male leadership, she stepped into the role and was accepted, because the situation was dire, and she, clearly, was able to inspire those around her. But she was not commonplace.”
“…there were no Celtic Druidical Princesses. There were no self-empowered feminist kick-ass warrior-queens as a daily occurrence. The women of early mediaeval Ireland and Wales were second class people within their own cultures, controlled by their kinsmen, expected to serve at home and stay out of public life.”
It is perhaps just that Boadiccea carries so much baggage – she was the great Warrior Queen, and yes, in our current historical timeline she didn’t fare marvellously well but still – there she was, she was feisty and gutsy and she tried and there’s something utterly entrancing about a red-haired Amazon brandishing a spear in a chariot urging forward roaring waves of half-clad muscled tribesmen with bronzed arms poking out of wolfskin jerkins and (at least in the more Hollywood versions of this thing) showing rows of suspiciously white and even teeth.
But that’s the burden of history, when novelists write about it. You have to make your choices, when you choose to knit with that yarn.
You can romanticize and gentrify it, and make it shine in all the right places. You can go absolutely straight and show every bit of mud and manure that there originally was, had to have been, and even add some extra, just for good show and to prove to your readership that you absolutely do know it all – you know how it smelled and tasted and felt to the touch, and by gum, they will too.
You can use characters who belong to the era – but then you can be faced with the problem that their ideas and morals might have been very different from the contemporary ones and now you somehow have to make it all both acceptable and likeable to the modern reader, despite yawning gaps of what we believe now and what was believed back then, for instance that ownership of slaves or human sacrifice is something that’s perfectly okay. That is, after all, what THEY would have thought, and if your character doesn’t then they’ll stick out in their society like the proverbial sore thumb.
You can bring in characters from other times and try and make them fit in somehow, hammering square pegs into round holes with gusto, and with a greater or lesser degree of success. You are left with the morass of motivations – WHY are characters doing what they are doing in a particular historical moment? What was it that they were trying to achieve? What was it that THEY thought they were trying to achieve – and what was it that YOU believe that they ought to think that they are trying to achieve?
Writing these stories can be tough on the sanity of the author because the one who would create a particular historical world finds themselves ridiculously constrained by its rules, by rules and laws that were invisible until they’re run into full-tilt, like somebody charging into a brick wall.
So – did Boadicea exist? Perhaps not entirely, not with the patina that the passing ages have bestowed upon her. How should she be portrayed in a work of historical fiction? As the romantic warrior-queen lead, or as the pragmatic woman who did her best to stop the Roman tide that was threatening to overrun her country – a woman who led because there was nobody else to lead, and who was followed because of her charisma, yes, but also because of a certain amount of sheer desperation – she was what they had?
How easy it is to believe either portrayal? And what makes a work of fiction about such a historical character rise to believability and a solidity of existence? What are the tricks of a storyteller’s trade that need to be deployed in order for this to work?
I am, of course, no stranger to historical fantasy myself, wearing the author hat. “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” were both historically tethered to the history and myth and societal scaffolding of China – but I reinvented China for my purposes, and the story’s. Those who think they know who Iloh in “Embers” is based on are probably completely right. But my purpose in using that character as part of my story was not as a spear carrier, as a face to stamp upon a leading character. His roots lay in a historical man but Iloh, my Iloh, the character whom I created, was himself, in the end.
I love and have always loved the idea of setting stories into a background which readers may almost kind of sort of nearly recognize if they squint at it and look out of the corner of their eye. But I’ve never used the backdrop of history as window dressing or no more than a painted stage set, or as a clue-by-four telling readers what they ought to think or believe, or as an earnest attempt to change it in people’s eyes so that they might think they’re reading THE truth instead of MY truth.
So – what do you think? If there were no Celtic Amazons, should there have been? Is it perfectly okay to rewrite history – either as “well, it should have been like this” or as “well, if I go back and TWEAK it right then everything will turn out better at this end of history”? Do you believe that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Pleistocene (assuming there were butterflies in the Pleistocene) caused, eventually, the disaster of a Katrina – and that if you could have gone back in time and smeared that butterfly when it was still a caterpillar you could have somehow stopped Katrina from ever happening?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. Please take it from here.
Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
- featured posts
- For Novelists
- Hard SF
- learning to write
- Mindy Klasky
- Not Remotely Writing Related
- our authors
- our books
- publicity and promotion
- publishing trends
- the business of writing
- women in SF
- writing humor
- writing life
- writing process
Browse our archives: