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EMPRESS Author Alma Alexander on The Mirror of History

Alma Alexander‘s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. Find out more about Alma on her website (, her
Facebook page or her Patreon.

The Mirror of History

by Alma Alexander

Historical fantasy? Alternative history? Fictionalisation? Reinvention?

When it comes to this particular sub-genre, definitions, it would seem, are EVERYTHING.

On a con panel on the subject once, five of us spent fully twenty minutes of our hour just trying to hammer out what we were actually talking about. So let’s start with definitions, or at least a set of definitions with which we can work in context.

To start with, stories which are rooted in, or inspired by, people or events which appear in our Real History but which do not conform to the accepted version of that history are, by definition, sliding off the reality scale.

There are people who will use the concepts of “historical fantasy” and “alternate history” interchangeably.

Then there are those who will be more exacting, and might say that a “historical fantasy” is a story which may have a recognizable historical inspiration but which diverges wildly from that original in the sense of having, perhaps, magic in it, or elves, or dragons.

An “alternate history” is something that might have happened if just a single key historical person or event was changed so that an outcome different from the one recorded in our own history books eventuated in that alternate world.

But the lines there are extremely finely drawn. If you take, for example, Naomi Novik’s Temerarire stories – it is possible to slice either way and say that they qualify (under those definitions) as historical fantasy (I mean, DRAGONS!), or an alternate history (the battles she depicts are not invented, after all, and the only change is the presence of the dragons…).

Judith Tarr’s stories of the Elvish warriors who took part of in the Crusades (The Dagger and the Cross and Alamut, amongst others) are clearly historical fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay writes the sort of thing that it is entirely possible to see as an alternate history (books like Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, the Sarantium books, the more recent novels rooted in China) but then he will write a book like Tigana, which doesn’t “map” onto anything specific and particular in our own history but reads like it really was a history of a place which is not our own world. And what of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series?

It doesn’t really help if you add into the mix the vexed question of whether the Real History is “true” in the sense that we understand that word – because of course history is essentially a story of conflict (whether subtle, or an out and out war) and is always written by the victors and the survivors which means that there are entire swathes of the story left out because that part of the narrative belonged to the vanquished and the silenced and was never told. People are constantly “rediscovering” history by accessing some secret document squirrelled away for centuries by some downtrodden soul who clung to THEIR version of the story because they were the only ones who knew it.

You could make an excellent argument that the whole of history is a “fantasy”, a tale told by those who were the last ones left standing. You could posit that entire alternate universes exist by simply having a world where the roles of winner and vanquished were reversed and a different history was accepted as a reality.

Historical novels, as we understand them, are stories which cleave to the accepted timeline and narrative. To me, they are constrictive in that sense – because ANY deviation from that accepted timeline and narrative (deliberate or accidental) topples them from that “historical” pinnacle and into the roiling oceans of fantasy. I revere research – and when it comes to an historically-accurate narrative, I would never stop researching because I would never QUITE be able to reach the level of accuracy and verisimilitude that would be required.

But the richness of history draws me, and it is possible to use history as a backdrop rather than the bricks-and-mortar. Placing a clearly fantastical story within a milieu inspired by a certain historical era still requires research – and I do mine, faithfully and vigilantly. There are entire shelves in my library devoted to research books required for my historical fantasies.

But there does come a point where it becomes possible to say that yes, I know my history, and THIS is what happened, but from here on I am veering into a narrative that gives me permission to actually spread my wings and fly free. There are points of departure which I can clearly point to where I can say that I have left actual history, or its accepted form, and gone into the ‘might-have-been’ or ‘oh-my-god-if-this-wasn’t-true-it-should-have-been’ territory.

Empress, my latest fat historical fantasy, was inspired by the story of Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium. They are historical figures, whose complex relationship has been the subject of much analysis and commentary, from the biased and somewhat malicious historian Procopius, in their own time, to the present day.

When I originally began shopping the novel around, I was offered a deal on the condition that I pulled back on the “fantasy” aspect and made this a straight “historical” narrative. The story of Empress might have seen publication much earlier had I been willing to do this – but I was not. The two protagonists of my novel might have been inspired by certain characters who once lived and loved… but they were not those people. And it was MY characters’ version of this story that I was telling, an emotional truth, rather than the strictly strait-laced historical version of events which might have transpired.

I didn’t want to put dialogue into the mouths of those real people. I transplanted a seed of their spirit into fictional characters who lived in a world that is like to our own but is not that world. I took pains to underline this. For instance, I dealt with certain religious schisms, within the story, and I researched the ones that were breaking our own world apart at this particular historical moment – but the ones which are shaking the world of my novel are deliberately and specifically placed outside the context of “Christianity”. I took the subplot of the Visigoths and a queen named Amalasuntha and I filed off some of the serial numbers and reinvented the warlike tribe as the Vesigars, and Amalasuntha herself into the character of Rothaide. The glory of historical fantasy is just this – it is the alchemy inherent in the sub-genre that you can take something from the world the reader has lived in all their lives and change it into something different, something rich and strange, and yet something that is utterly and remarkably and shiveringly familiar if held up to the light in a certain way. And it is the ability to that which frees my storytelling mind and produces the kind of stories that I write, lush with both the richness and depth of history and the shimmer and shine and power of an imagination unbound.

All of my historical fiction – although individual books may have no actual DIRECT connection with one another – are actually set in the same (alternate) world. What I am writing is nothing less than a chronicle of a different universe. “Secrets of Jin Shei” told of a country I named Syai, clearly inspired by Imperial China; “Embers of Heaven” was set in that same world, in that same country, some four centuries after the first book. In “Empress”, vigilant readers will catch a reference to a trade expedition which is leaving from my new milieu to “Syai, the place where silk comes from”. These places exist in the same space, much like Imperial China and Byzantium co-existed in our own reality.

I am not done; there are more historical fantasy volumes down the line, and they too will be set in the same world. I hope to leave behind a legacy of interwoven novels, all of which are stand-alone and tell their own story but which, if taken together, form a library that will be a window into the history of a world parallel to ours, different in subtle ways, a mirror-place where we who are of THIS reality might wander while almost but not quite speaking their language and gaining an understanding of our own history which can only come from looking at it in a mirror.

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