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StrangeBack when I read and loved Susanna Clarke‘s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as historical fantasy.

It took me years, and the HNR, and keeping bad company to discover the genre, and develop a keen interest for its Elizabethan and Napoleonic sides. Let’s mention Wrede and Stevermere’s delighful Kate&Cecelia books, or Scott and Barnett’s equally wonderful The Armor of Light – just to mention a couple of favourites.

As I may have said before, I love the games one can play with history, and adding in magic – whether or not in the way it was understood and believed to work back then – sounds like a very good game…

Trouble is… well, it’s not really trouble, if you like – because every genre or subgenre is bound to have a broader sense and a few blurry corners… Still, I find I’m a bit disconcerted at the latitude of interpetation that is sometimes attached to historical fantasy. I’ve seen G.R.R. Martin’s Chronicles of Fire and Ice described as historical fantasy… I must say I have never finished the first volume of the Chronicles, but even so, I doubt they have any conceivable claim to historical fantasyhood, other than being plotted after the War of the Roses…

Is that enough? And if so, what’s to distinguish historical fantasy from all the fantasy set in some quasi-Medieval, quasi-Renaissance, quasi-Period-of-your-choice world?

A possible answer is: who cares? Who cares how a book is tagged – as long as it is a good book?

Yes, welll, there is that – but still. On the one hand, there is the matter of what I like and I don’t like, and while I’ll admit that having to hunt for “my” kind of historical fantasy through heaps of covers sporting ladies in tolkienenesque garb chatting up dragons before Neuschwanstein-like castles in pastels* is a very minor pain, seeing candy-coloured versions of the Middle Ages labeled as historical is… not. And I won’t even begin on historical perspective here**. What gives me pause in this is the publishing angle. What is the target? Is the reader of historical fantasy supposed to love indiscriminately Napoleonic dragons, Medieval fantasy, Elizabethan alchemy, and century-hopping vampires? Or is the genre just a provisional umbrella tag, waiting to splinter into a constellation of subgenres?

Would it bother me as much if I weren’t tempted to try my hand at it? Or if I weren’t this obsessed with history? WHo knows – but, things being what they are… Just wondering.


* Want to make a little experiment? Try searching for “historical fantasy” on Google Images or Pinterest…

** And I might, mind – I just won’t right now. I call this admirable restraint.