Clifford Beal is the author of The Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel, both published by Solaris Books
Historical fantasy is certainly nothing new in the world of genre fiction: it’s been with us for decades. Depending upon how you define it, it has roots in the epics of ancient history, the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, and in modern times has had authors as diverse as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Dunsany, Anne Rice and Bernard Cornwell. The sheer scope of historical fantasy today—covering everything from ancient Rome and the medieval world all the way to Victorian England—gives readers a vast horizon to explore and enjoy. And done well, adding a fantastical element to otherwise straight-laced historical fiction can enhance not only an awareness of a particular epoch, it can add a new dimension in character and plot. Just how would an 18th century gentleman handle a close encounter with a denizen of the Faerie Seelie Court? Done less well, crossing genres can result in a head-on train wreck of a story with the fantasy bits just bolted on for thrill value and with little or no thought given to context, time, or place.
I’d argue that it takes a balancing act between historical verisimilitude and the fantastical macguffin that one is injecting into the plot in order to deliver a story that resonates. In my own experience of writing the Treadwell adventures, The Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel, set in the mid-seventeenth century, these presented some real challenges to me as a writer. It’s a period that is perhaps less well known (or understood) than others and this poses a problem in that readers may not have enough awareness for an author to bank on. You can run the risk of death by exposition or just plain confusing the hell out of people. In The Raven’s Banquet, set during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, I wanted to introduce a fantastical element that had a basis in actual fact: the witchcraft persecutions that blighted Europe in this era. I could have opted for some traditional scares with Macbeth-style crones or broomstick-riding black-hatted harpies that shoot lightning from their fingertips. But I decided to ground things in something more historically accurate that fit the milieu of the times. My research led me to some incredible discoveries about the witchcraft mania that claimed thousands of innocent lives. In the novel, my protagonist finds himself involved with a coven of what would be defined as “witches” but who are essentially “masterless” women, something that in the 17th-century was considered both immoral and intolerable in a society ruled by men. And rather than worshipping the Devil, these women have fallen back on the old pagan gods of central Europe. Specifically, Holda or Fraw Holt, a nature/fertility goddess associated with Diana. Even more interesting, this goddess had a dual form: that of a beautiful woman in white and also an ancient and terrible crone with immense power over life and death. So I found myself with the scope to have it both ways: good and evil.
In the end, I opted for the magic to be more subtly handled, allowing the witches to be more sympathetically portrayed and their motives understood. To be sure, there are some chills, and even my witches are not everything they seem, but the truly frightening characters of The Raven’s Banquet are the soldiers and magistrates of that world. My witches fly but it’s up to the reader to decide whether they actually do or if it’s the hallucinogenic ointment they apply to themselves during their Sabbath. That was one bit of research I didn’t put to the personal test though.
No one writing in this genre has to be a slave to historical fact and there’s nothing wrong with stretching the truth or bending the rules if it adds to the storytelling. But when a writer stays true to the mind-set of the era he is delving into, then characters, plot, and believability can all blossom in a way that does justice to both the truth of history and the fantastical.