This month I’m focusing on Historical Fantasy. J.T.T. Ryder, author of Hag of the Hills, was kind enough to share his thoughts on historical fantasy.
Defining my historical fantasy By J.T.T. Ryder
I write historically-based fantasy set in a real period, in our world, with fantasy elements. My series is the Bronze Sword Cycles duology, set in 200 BC in the La Tène period, or Celtic Iron Age, on the island of Skye in what is now Scotland. I am an archaeologist that specializes in the Iron Age, and I decided to set forth to base my series on archaeological, historical, folkloric and mythological sources. The goal was to craft a historically-based world of the Celtic La Tène period to set my story in.
In reviews and among discussions of the first book of the Bronze Sword Cycles duology, Hag of the Hills, readers have described my book as historical fiction, historical fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy with horror elements, heroic fantasy, and sword and sorcery. That is a plethora of genres!
So what genre exactly do I write?
Firstly, history cannot be separated from the Bronze Sword Cycles. The historical side of the story is vital, because the story is not just placed in a historical setting. Historical sources are what drive the plot and the motivations of the characters. The historical sources form the basis of the culture of the people in the book, and the unshakeable mindset and worldview of the characters, and I put great effort into crafting this mindset to be as historically accurate as far as my knowledge goes. One cannot just pluck my characters out of the story and drop them off a thousand years before or after. This series is by any stretch of the imagination a historical series.
Yet there are clear fantasy elements present. I attempted to ground these fantasy elements within the mindset of people of the past; particularly, I drew upon folkloric sources from pre-industrial times. The mindset of the pre-industrial person often included fantasy elements – the supernatural and natural often blended. Someone alive in the Iron Age in 200 BC Scotland would not have been able to separate themselves from these beliefs. Yet including these elements renders this book fantasy. Thus, I cannot in good faith call it pure historical fiction.
However, the term historical fantasy draws up connotations – such as what-if scenarios, fictionalized or fantastical accounts of real historical figures, and suchlike. My duology touches on something entirely different than that.
What exactly is the genre of the Bronze Sword Cycles? Despite potential connotations to types of stories with tropes that will not be found in mine, I do think historical fantasy is the single best describer. All in all, I believe I crafted a series firmly rooted in history, where even the fantasy elements are derived from the beliefs of the people of the past.
About the author:
Joseph Thomas Thor Ryder is an archaeologist and author of the historical fantasy duology THE BRONZE SWORD CYCLES. He is a published author of Viking archaeology, and a doctoral candidate specializing in the Viking Age and Celtic Iron Age. He resides in Norway where he conducts archaeological research and writes heroic fantasy set in historical periods.
I’m excited to have the opportunity to interview G.M. White, author of The Swordsman’s Lament and The Swordman’s Descent, which releases tomorrow (The preorder link is below).
Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!
Thank you so much for having me!
First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Yes, of course. I’m G.M. White, an indie fantasy author. I live on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, a tiny island with a population of around 130 which is off the south west coast of the UK. Like many people on the islands I wear a few different hats. Now a full time stay at home dad, I also work several part time jobs, am on the local Coastguard rescue team, sit on the committee for St Martin’s Island Hall and Reading Room, play cricket (poorly) for St Martin’s Cricket Club, and somehow find time to write.
I’ve always loved stories, and storytelling, having been an avid reader from an early age. My mum and dad instilled a love of reading in me, perhaps because the only time I was quiet was when I had my head in a book!
I’ve been an actor, played drums in bands on and off for many years, and dabbled in playwriting, but it was only in 2015 that I started to work on writing fantasy fiction. The Swordsman’s Lament, my first novel, was published in 2019.
Will you talk a little about The Swordsman’s Lament series?
Happily! The series follows the character of Belasko, a war hero, legendary swordsman, and undefeated duelist. When we meet him in The Swordsman’s Lament, he’s the Royal Champion to the King of Villan. A post he’s held for fifteen years, the first commoner to do so. But a lifetime of pushing his body hard has started to have an effect, and it is beginning to let him down.
When tragedy strikes the royal household and a prince is murdered, Belasko discovers he is expendable. The grief-stricken king demands blood, and Belasko’s options are clear: find the real killer, or die for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s a swashbuckling fantasy adventure, as Belasko fights to clear his name with help from unexpected sources. The Swordsman’s Lament is book one in the Royal Champion series. I published The Swordsman’s Intent in 2020. That is a prequel novella set fifteen years earlier and tells the tale of how Belasko became champion, the trials and training he underwent, and the friends and enemies he made along the way. It also introduces characters that appear in the other books in the series, as well as setting in motion the events of The Swordsman’s Lament.Book two, The Swordsman’s Descent, is out very soon and in that Belasko’s adventures continue as he and his companions find themselves thrown headlong into danger in a foreign city. I don’t want to give away too much, but when blades are drawn, and all seems lost, can Belasko save the lives of those he loves the most? You’ll have to read to find out… 😉
The Swordsman’s Lament is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?
For me it means stories that are very much rooted in our own real-world history. Sometimes this can be in the form of alternate histories, fantasy set around real-world events, or alternate earths where magic is real. Or, like my series, a secondary world fantasy where magic isn’t a huge factor, but the setting is inspired by real world historical periods and locations. In my case, this is renaissance Europe.
What drew you to that particular time period?
That’s a good question. One of my earliest influences, before I got into fantasy, was things like The Three Musketeers, stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, these kind of semi-historical tales, myths, and legends. When I was younger we lived in the North East of England, where there are a great many castles and ruins to explore. Something we often did on weekend family walks. My brother and I were always sword fighting with sticks and pretending to be knights and these heroes of legend. So when it came time to write my own fantasy series, it makes sense that an amalgamation of these things came out. The swashbuckling adventure of D’Artagnan, the legendary warriors of Arthur’s court, the common man fighting for what is right from Robin Hood.
When I was in secondary school I was obsessed with the historical basis of King Arthur and post-Roman early Medieval Britain for a while. Can you guess what my next project might be? Hint, hint… 😉
What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?
Funnily enough, it wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write a historical fantasy. It was the story that came to me and needed to be told, and as I worked on it it became apparent that it was a historical fantasy, rather than epic or high fantasy. Or even grimdark.
I have lots of different ideas (I sometimes wonder how I’ll find time to write them all), including an epic fantasy series with dragon riders, a historical Arthurian novel, a historical thriller/mystery series, a contemporary fantasy series… But Belasko was the character that took up residence in my head and refused to leave, and this was the setting that he fit into. I can’t really explain it more than that.
Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?
Yes and no. I try to have quite a light touch with my world building, dropping in small but significant details that help shape the reader’s view of the world without resorting to info dumps.
For me the first draft is for getting the story down, however roughly. As I believe Sir Terry Pratchett once said, the first draft is just you telling the story to yourself. So I tell that story, then dissect and reassemble it in the second draft. I may do some research here, but very often it’s more important in the third and final drafts when I’m doing a pass looking at world building and start hitting the research to get the detail right.
For example, I have spent many hours looking up details of renaissance/medieval clothing, or kitchens, architecture, weaponry… There are many research rabbit holes to disappear down!
What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?
I suppose it is in a way quite niche, which can make finding your readers difficult. But when you have them, they’re yours forever! Also, I think it’s possible to get bogged down in the historical aspect and lose the fantasy. Just because a setting is inspired by a historical time period doesn’t mean you have to take every aspect of that into your story. I try to make sure that my fantasy worlds reflect something of my values and the world I’d like to live in, rather than adhering to strict historical accuracy. This may mean greater equality between the genders, featuring a broader spectrum of sexuality than was deemed acceptable in the historical time period etc.
I think it’s interesting that you write fantasy that reflects your values a little bit. Do you see fantasy writing as a way to unpack or “work through” real life concerns, questions, or emotions?
Absolutely. I see fantasy and science fiction as ways of viewing life through a different lens. A safe space in which to examine difficult ideas. I always hold up Terry Pratchett as an example. People that haven’t read his work may dismiss it as “funny fantasy.” While it is funny and most of it (particularly his Discworld books) is fantasy, it’s also excoriating social satire.
I often have a theme I’m thinking about when I work on something. In the upcoming The Swordsman’s Descent that is that we’re stronger together than we are apart. This was partially in reaction to the first book, where Belasko is cast out and has to take it upon himself to save the day. Whereas the second book is about people coming together to try and make the world a better place, while a few selfish groups try to derail that progress for their own ends. And it was written against the backdrop of a global pandemic where it really was important that people act in the common good.
With The Swordsman’s Lament I didn’t particularly have a theme in mind, but just set out to tell a story. What emerged was a tale of people who are willing to almost any lengths to do what they see as the right thing. One of those is the hero, Belasko, and one is the villain of the piece. Who, of course, doesn’t see themselves as the villain. And it was written while the UK was tearing itself apart over Brexit and feeling more divided than at any time I can remember in my lifetime, with people acting at cross purposes while being entirely convinced that they were completely right and the other side was completely wrong.
Of course, they’re fun adventure stories and someone may read them and not be aware of all this. But those issues and questions are in there.
What are some of its strengths?
I think that grounding in at least some level of real-world detail can give historical fantasy a very realistic feel. It’s also a great opportunity to ask “what if” questions. What if the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons? As in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Or, what if our world’s geography had developed differently, and never known the Roman empire, but with magic? As in Miles Cameron’s Masters and Mages series.
How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?
My writing time is pretty limited, so I have to make the most of it. Plotting helps, as it means when I sit down to write I know what I’m working on next. If I really need to focus and block out other distractions I’ll listen to ambient music, and I’ve recently started using brain.fm to help me focus.
Mostly, I just grab that free time and get my butt in the chair!
Who are some of your go-to authors?
Ooh, good question. I love Tad Williams, his classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series is what got me into fantasy back in the early 90s. So anything he writes is an automatic purchase for me! I feel the same way about RJ Barker, who is doing astonishing things in the fantasy genre at the moment. (If you haven’t read his Tide Child trilogy yet you really must.) Other authors that are old favourites are Robin Hobb, David Gemmell, Terry Pratchett… Newer authors (at least to me) that I’m enjoying include Ed McDonald, Miles Cameron, Jen Williams, Mark Stay… It always seems like there’s so many books and so little time!
About the author:
G.M. White is an indie fantasy author. He lives on St Martin’s, in the Isles of Scilly, with his wife and son. Like many people on the islands he wears a few different hats. Now a full time stay at home dad, he also works several part time jobs, is on the local Coastguard rescue team, sits on the committee for St Martin’s Island Hall and Reading Room, plays cricket (poorly) for St Martin’s Cricket Club, and somehow finds time to write.
This month the focus is on historical fantasy, and I’m delighted to feature Angela Boord, author of Fortune’s Fool.
Writing Historical Fantasy: It’s the Vibes
by Angela Boord
In a blog series on historical fantasy, it’s probably not surprising to hear that I cut my adult fantasy teeth on the books of Guy Gavriel Kay. I liked how juicy his worlds were, how real, how they took history and transformed it into something at once familiar and strange. That’s always been the draw of historically-inspired fantasy for me, how recognizable history can give a world detail and depth, especially when it takes that “quarter turn to the fantastic”.
My own Renaissance-inspired fantasy, Fortune’s Fool, follows a slightly different strategy to hopefully end up at a similar place. A lot of historical fantasies, including many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, base their worlds firmly on instantly recognizable earth-history analogues. As an example, I would venture to say that most Renaissance-inspired fantasies usually include a Church everyone knows is the Catholic Church with a different name. But I thought it might be fun to reconstruct the process I went through in building an historically-inspired fantasy that relies on something different for recognition: the historical vibe.
Finding an historical vibe that makes a world feel like history without using the same structures of earth-history (like the Renaissance Church) can be challenging. You have to make a lot of choices along the way. What do you import, and what can be left behind? What is absolutely necessary to get the feel of a place and time, and what can you riff on? Writing historically-inspired fantasy is a little like being a jazz musician in that way. You work in a recognizable framework, but there’s a lot of room for improvisation.
Consider the following a case history of historical riffing—or the nuts and bolts of writing an historical epic based on a history that doesn’t exist.
Coming up with the Original Idea for Fortune’s Fool
All my stories start with a character who walks into my brain and won’t leave. Kyrra walked in one day and dropped an opening line that made me sit up and pay attention: “My right arm is made of metal”. Trying to scientifically tease apart the process of story creation is almost impossible, but somehow Kyrra also connected with another idea that had been nagging me since reading Romeo and Juliet in high school. I’d always hated the idea of Romeo and Juliet being a romance; it only made sense as a tragedy to me, and a somewhat ridiculous and yet sadly believable tragedy at that. After Kyrra claimed her portion of my brain, I started wondering, what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t killed themselves? What kind of consequences would they face? And from there I wondered, what if I took this whole issue of a love affair between feuding Houses and wrote more about what happens after? What if I made it fantasy?
With that in mind, I had my setting. But Renaissance Italy—in particular Venice, which I used for all the reasons everybody uses Venice, because canals are cool—is hardly original, so I started thinking about all the ways I could make it mine. Kyrra had introduced herself by telling me she had a metal arm, where had that come from? Why had she lost her arm?
It was answering these why character questions that set me off into building a fantasy world based mostly on historical vibes. I borrowed cultural details more than strictly historical ones and layered in my own worldbuilding. I decided to dive into the Renaissance drive to recover classical knowledge, so instead of a Church, my world has a pantheon of scheming Greco-Romanesque gods. I included an ancient, fallen empire but I based it more on the Etruscans than the Romans, messed around with spelling, and came up with the name Eterean. I was tired of reading generic medieval fantasy, so I wrote England out of my world and made it Mediterranean instead, facing more south and east than west. I shamelessly cribbed a possibly apocryphal story about an Italian merchant stealing silk worm eggs from China by stuffing them in his pockets. I made sure all my names sounded Italian. But my world was becoming an amalgamation of changes that served the story rather than sticking with anything just because it was part of the Renaissance in our world.
There were more pieces to Kyrra’s story. Kyrra disguised herself as a man, and mercenaries were a very fantasy-friendly aspect of the Italian Renaissance, so…she was definitely going to be a mercenary. And guns. The Renaissance interested me because it was such a transitional period in almost everything, and that included warfare. The Italian Wars of the late sixteenth century were the first wars in which portable guns (arquebus) and gunpowder were used to definitively alter the outcome of battles, but at the same time, soldiers were still using swords and pikes; plate armor was in the process of phasing out. The era was a fertile jumble of the ancient, the merely old, and the new. It seemed like nobody knew where they were going, but they were headed there very quickly. I wanted to capture that feeling of change in my book, too, and I did it by introducing guns and a war that devastated Kyrra’s city—a war that like Helen of Troy, she was blamed for starting. Again, I was reaching more for echoes of a time rather than specific actual events.
While I noodled about the basic idea, I also plundered my books about Renaissance history. Then I was ready to write, yes?
Well, kind of.
Initially I thought Fortune’s Fool was going to be a short novella in which Juliet got her revenge on a Romeo who had used and discarded her in service to his family’s political scheming. By the time I got to the end, I knew it was not going to be a novella. That early draft, in which Kyrra slices Cassis di Prinze’s arm off in retribution for the loss of her own, introduced more questions than it answered. As soon as I finished, I knew it was only the outline of a much, much larger story. All because Kyrra had introduced one name in the telling: Arsenault. The man who made her arm.
The result of me wanting to know more about Arsenault was a 700 page novel contrasting the devastating effects of a bad teenage love affair to a mature love between two people truly devoted to each other—whose only goal was to see the other safe and whole with little regard for themselves. It opened up a huge world which was far deeper than I expected and sent me off to research (to date): Viking mercenaries, traditional silk growing and weaving, Renaissance amputations, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Nigerian cuisine, traditional vodka production, pirate codes, Etruscan burial practices and religion, ancient Carthage, Italian folk magic… by now, the list is really long, and will certainly only get longer.
The manuscript for Fortune’s Fool sat in my closet for a long time, because my kids were little and there were a lot of them. When I finally pulled it out, technology had advanced, and I had access to google! (I said there were a lot of kids, right?) As I dismantled and re-mantled the book into the shape I wanted, I could stop and look up what Italian peasant women wore in the Renaissance (a simple dress called a guarnello), how Renaissance soap was made (sometimes scented with tea), and watch endless videos about traditional silk production. These smaller details helped build a word that could be tasted, smelled, and felt, but I started to feel like I was getting bogged down. What was the point of building my own world if all I was doing was using details from ours? Why not just layer magic into actual Venice?
It was a good question. The bottom line was: Because I didn’t want to. And also, I’m a little lazy and it’s fun to make stuff up. My forthcoming portal fantasy is partially set in Illinois in 1988, and working on that book is an exercise in not being able to fudge small details, like: what day of the week was Halloween in that year? (Saturday—which worked out well for me). What songs and movies were out in May? How much did a calzone and a coke cost? (I lived through the 80’s but I honestly can’t remember, except that it was much less.)
My solution in Fortune’s Fool was to lean harder into the gods and magic, but also to make the world itself just a tiny bit more fantasy. I introduced a species of giant silk moth whose larvae spun burgundy silk exclusively for Kyrra’s family. I’ve had a number of readers ask me if all the silk stuff is real, including the giant moths, and the answer is 98% of it is as realistic as I could make it. The two imaginary elements I added—the giant moths and the exaggerated length of the combergirls’ fingernails, which they use to pull apart the cocoons—seem to fit seamlessly into the details I pulled from the real world, and happily, most readers seem to think it all feels real.
I usually put my books through a couple of big revisions. A friend of mine dubbed the first revision my “inflationary draft” because I usually add a lot of words instead of cutting. I also do at least one major revision after I get feedback, which includes comments from my trusted readers, editors, and any sensitivity readers I’ve hired. I didn’t hire sensitivity readers for Fortune’s Fool because I didn’t know they existed at that point, but I did hire expert readers for Smuggler’s Fortune and the forthcoming sequel to Fortune’s Fool, Fool’s Promise. Their feedback was invaluable, not only for developing the characters of Razi and LiSang in Smuggler’s Fortune and Jon Barra in Fool’s Promise, but also for making the world deeper in general. One of the most valuable aspects of sensitivity reader feedback, for me—and one which doesn’t get talked about a lot—is the questions they ask about the worldbuilding, which always ends up making the world more real, meaningful, specific, and consistent. After receiving sensitivity reader feedback on Smuggler’s, I spent a week or two reading about the Order of Assassins, Zoroastrianism, and male veiling among the Tuareg. This research—which I didn’t know I needed to do until my reader suggested I should–gave me a better handle on Razi, an elite Qalfan fighter who’s also a bit of a hedonist. In fact, it helped me see why he was a hedonist; his religion considers it a sin not to enjoy the good things in life.
Is the worldbuilding done after Book 1 is published?
Writers are often compared to magpies, exceptionally curious birds which, like many members of the corvid family, collect random objects. A quick check on Wikipedia (because my daughter is a birder and will expect me to get my bird story straight) informs me that magpies are often said to collect shiny objects, especially wedding rings, but Science has determined that this isn’t exactly true; they have no preference for collecting shiny objects over dull ones. I had no idea magpies were supposed to steal wedding rings, but now that knowledge will sit in my brain amid the other shiny, dull, interesting, and just plain odd bits and pieces of information I’ve collected over the years, waiting for the opportunity to become exactly what I need to tell a story.
Is worldbuilding done after book 1 is published and the series has a foundation? Well, not if you’re me. In the first place, I’m constantly magpie-ing new information, and in the second place, I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t realize what I don’t know until I need to know it. For me, the mark of a rich world is that there are constantly new areas to explore, more ways to make the fantastic feel like history—always new ways to riff on what has come before to make your own historically-inspired music.
About the author:
Angela Boord writes giant fantasy books that blend genres–from romance and historical to espionage and epic and beyond. She likes collecting weird historical and scientific trivia to turn into scenes in her books, and she thinks way too much about food. Her Eterean Empire series, including SPFBO 5 finalist and Stabby-nominated FORTUNE’S FOOL, is historical fantasy inspired by Renaissance Italy with gunpowder and romance and big battles. Her Rai Ascendant series, forthcoming in 2022, is Cold War portal fantasy inspired by all those spy novels she read as a teenager.
Angela lives in Mississippi with her husband and the six of their nine kids still under the age of eighteen, where she writes most of her books at the kitchen table surrounded by Nerf guns and Legos.
Fortune’s Fool (which will be on sale for $0.99 from Jun 24 to Jun 30 for its publication anniversary)
This month I’m focusing on Historical Fantasy, that fascinating subgenre that adds the fantastical to real places and times.
I’m privileged to talk to N.C. Koussis, author of The Kiln of Empire.
Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!
Thank you for having me!
First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been writing full-time since March 2019 after a series of injuries and family bereavements left me a nervous, anxious wreck. After being inspired by my incredible wife to start a creative project, I took up writing, because I’d always loved it. I had written stories when I was a kid but got discouraged by wanting it to be perfect. I loved Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Game of Thrones, so fantasy was the natural choice of genre for me to write in. I still have a day job, of course, and I run a local writers’ club. I’m also currently studying a PhD in neuroscience.
Will you talk a little about The Kiln of Empire?
I’d love to! The novel is set in a fantasy Constantinople, but imagine instead of Christianity, they worship their ancestors. From the afterlife, the Ancestors (as they’re known) bestow on their lineage powers—imagine a baker, who blessed by his forefathers, bakes bread that never goes stale. A potter whose glazes never chip. And of course, there’s the power structure baked in (pun intended): the ruling class are basically superheroes. The Ischyroi that rule the northern province have the strength of ten men. There’s the other side to that, as well: if you’re not blessed, if you’ve done something to majorly piss off your ancestors, they curse you. Now instead of baking bread that never goes stale, now your bread never rises, no matter how much yeast you put in. So, there’s a whole dynamic around that. You can never truly know what your forefathers think of you, either, though the clerics in the novel claim to know through auguries.
The novel opens in the middle of a revolt against the ruling family, due to a series of blunders by the emperor and a Senate who has whipped up fervor in the people, because they want to see him topped off. I won’t spoil it, but the main character, the emperor’s granddaughter, is forced to make a series of decisions to stop things from going from bad to worse.
Your writing is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?
That’s a difficult question! If I was to take a stab, I would say that it’s fantasy that is far more grounded in reality. Generally, the world has followed a similar path to our own, with maybe a little creative license for magic flavor or some other exploit. Game of Thrones would probably be a step too far into high fantasy, but you can see the obvious elements of historical inspiration. I think it actually started as a much more grounded series without the magic, dragons, and the Others, though I’ll probably get a bunch of angry fans in the comments telling me that’s wrong! I think a good rule of thumb is if you can see the historical inspiration very clearly, and it’s not too different from our world (it could be set on Earth), then that’s historical fantasy.
What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?
It sort-of fell into my lap, really. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern Romans; by their heroes who were not only incredible fighters and generals but cultured men and women, who loved poetry and read and wrote voraciously, and were incredible orators, too. Some of our most famous speeches come from the Greeks, Syriacs, Illyrians, and the Romans, etc. who came from all over to live in Constantinople, the greatest city of the age. If it wasn’t for the Eastern Romans coming west and taking all their knowledge with them (and also having it plundered by the Venetians and Franks in the Fourth Crusade, look it up) then the renaissance wouldn’t have happened, and Europe might’ve looked very different to today.
I want to tell their stories, because until recently, historians have largely ignored them. And I say ignored, not forgotten. As though Rome fell and Europe plunged into a Dark Age, and there wasn’t a second Rome just a few thousand miles east that lasted another thousand years. I have my own theories as to why, but I’ll leave the historiography to actual historians. As to why fantasy—historical fiction didn’t inspire me because I still love fantasy and magic, so I wanted to bring those elements in as well.
How do you balance the historical with the fantastical?
Another tough question! If I was to describe my process, I suppose I start with a basis of history, then bring fantastical elements in and thoroughly think about all the different facets of how society would change if that magic/exploit was real. Like a what if scenario. Throughout the process, I try to keep it grounded as much as I can.
I think it’s interesting that you start with the historical aspects! I read somewhere that George R.R. Martin did something similar (with his basis being the War of the Roses), although whether that is accurate, I can’t say with authority. Would you say that there are some similarities between historical fiction and urban fiction in the real-world basis?
For sure. Keeping things grounded keeps the suspension of disbelief strong, which is very important to maintaining reader immersion.
Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?
Hell yes! At least a couple hundred hours in total over the past couple of years went into researching The Kiln of Empire.In that novel, I’ve had to do so much research into how people lived in the Eastern Roman Empire, especially across the class spectrum, because ordinary people lived very differently to the patrician class. I think people like to see that genuine care for history and realism, even in this subgenre of fantasy. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean you can make things up wholesale!
What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?
The time it takes to research, I suppose. It’s not quite as much as historical fiction, but it’s close. The size of the market, as well! Speculative fiction is a pretty small market, at least when compared to evergreen genres like crime or romance, so a subgenre of that is going to be even smaller.
What are some of its strengths?
Yeah, on the flip side, I think if you find your people, you can find the most loyal following that a writer could ask for.
How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?
It’s difficult, I won’t lie. I have ADHD, so I can’t speak to neurotypical brains, but personally I’ve got two modes: hyperfocus; or so anxious I can’t focus on anything and get overwhelmed. I guess I’m glad for the moments of hyperfocus, where I’m able to write for hours and find that I’ve written thousands of words. But on the other edge of that sword is that I forget to go to the toilet and eat and drink. That’s probably not the healthiest thing! I make sure I have a goal, too, however small (say, let’s write 100 words today). I find that more often than not I end up writing way more than 100 words. One of the biggest things I can recommend that has helped me is to just sit down and start writing something, even if it’s crap. You can always go back and edit later.
Who are some of your go-to authors?
Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Harris, Emily St. John Mandel, and Nnedi Okorafor. They all have very different styles, but I feel like I become a better writer and a better human after reading them, and they’ve all inspired me in different ways.
Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to talk about?
I’m working on the prequel to The Kiln of Empire which should be drafted later this year (it currently stands at 38k/110k, but I’m giving all my focus to BITP). I’m also putting together a novella set in the same world that I should be able to give out to people for free. I’ve also thought about making all my e-books free like I’ve seen some authors do, when I release them. I can’t give the specifics, but I’m working with some people at the moment for BITP, so if you want to keep updated, make sure you follow my blog!
About the author:
NC is a Greek, Anglo, and Kamilaroi man who swam with a great white (once) and nearly drowned in the Zambezi (twice). Between ill-advised water adventures and checking heads as a neuroscientist, he writes fiction that reimagines the past with a splash (or a deluge) of magic. He runs his local university’s writers’ club, which provides advice and workshops for emerging student writers. Yell at him on Twitter at @NCKoussis. His blog at nckoussis.substack.com is about his writing journey and historical inspiration for characters, places, and cultures in his novels. His latest novel The Kiln of Empire will hopefully be coming soon.
The best way I can describe historical fantasy is as historical fiction with fantastical elements added. I’ll let the experts weigh in instead, with a great lineup of historical fantasy authors sharing their opinions.
Below is a list of historical fantasy authors to check out. Let me know who I’ve missed!
Chelsea Abdulla- The Stardust Thief
Kelly Barnhill- When Women were Dragons
Angela Boord- Fortune’s Fool
Bernard Cornwell- The Winter King
Nicole Glover- The Conductors
Justina Ireland- Dread Nation
Guy Gavriel Kay- Tigana
R.F. Kuang- The Poppy War
N.C. Koussis- The Kiln of Empire
Shauna Lawless- The Children of Gods and Fighting Men
H.G. Parry- A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
I am beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with Josh Winning, author of the wonderful, nostalgia-filled fantasy adventure, The Shadow Glass.
Hello, Josh! Thank you for joining me to talk about The Shadow Glass!
Thanks so much for having me! I’ll try not to mess with any of the nice things you have in here.
You don’t need to worry about ruining nice things, I like to talk with my hands while holding a full coffee mug. It is not pretty.
I’ll just pop on my waterproofs, give me a sec!
I enjoyed every nostalgic moment of The Shadow Glass. Will you tell readers a little bit about it?
That makes me so happy! The Shadow Glass is my debut novel and a love letter to 80s fantasy films like The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. It’s about the son of a movie director who goes on a real-world quest with the puppets from his father’s 1980s movie flop, The Shadow Glass.
I was ready to start the book again the second I finished the last word. You had me cheering (and yes, tearing up a bit at parts). How did you balance the fun adventure with the deeper themes found in The Shadow Glass?
Cheering and tearing up are absolutely the two big things I hoped readers would get out of this book! I think that the great thing about those 80s fantasy films is the way they balanced adventure with grown-up themes – Labyrinth is all about a teenager coming of age, The NeverEnding Story is about grief and self-actualization. The best I could do with The Shadow Glass was try to capture a smidge of that same magic.For me, it’s all about emotional honesty, leaning in to the tough feelings and working through them with fun japes along the way.
You definitely did that! I loved how Jack’s anger and regret were directed onto Iri and The Shadow Glass. His grief seemed to be sort of reflected back with Zavanna’s own grief. Was that planned from the get-go?
Absolutely. Because Jack is sort of in denial, it just felt right that he should encounter somebody who has also lost a loved one (and, of course, the fun part is that that “somebody” is a puppet). Jack is forced to finally confront head-on his own loss and pain. I think it ties in with what we were saying about 80s fantasy films – the main character always learns something after going on their quest. Jack learns how to process that anger and regret, and he creates something positive out of that.
Many 80s fantasy movies take place in other worlds, but you brought Iri into the “real world”. What made you decide to bring the fantastical into the modern world?
The whole reason I wrote this book is because I love puppet fantasies, and I loved the idea of puppets coming to life in the real world. It felt like a fun spin on the fish-out-of-water trope – a little bit Small Soldiers, a little bit Jumanji. It also allowed me to be more satirical in tone. Even though the book is very much a fantasy, it’s also a commentary on fandom, pop culture and found families. It would have been quite difficult to explore all of that in any world other than our own!
Now I have to know: what did you think of the recent Dark Crystal show?
I. LOVED. IT. It got everything right! In general, I’m not a fan of prequels, but I felt like The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance dodged a lot of the “prequel pitfalls”, partly because it introduced such a fantastic cast of new characters, but also because Thra has such a huge and fascinating lore to explore, it felt fresh and loving the whole way through. I loved going back to that world. (And any show that gives us a ton of Fizzgigs, plus Aughra being a badass, gets a huge tick in my book!)
I agree! I thought it was cool that the world and lore just grew while keeping the feel of the original. I am also so glad they didn’t go the CGI route. Also-and this is weird- I loved seeing that adult Toby Froud was involved (although his wardrobe was significantly less “Where’s Waldo”). Incidentally, did a certain character’s name come from baby Toby?
Oh yes! I sprinkled quite a few easter eggs throughout the book, and the biggest one was naming a character Toby. I couldn’t resist!
You included the most loveable band of fans! I liked that they had their own brand of family, something that I’ve been privileged to discover in my own fandoms. Was that based on your own experience in any way?
Well, I am a fan, and pretty much everybody I know is a fan of something nerdy and awesome, so it wasn’t a huge stretch for me to come up with the fans in the book. It’s funny, the Shadow Glass Guild came to me 100% complete when I first sat down to write them, and their chapters have barely changed since the first draft. I could write them for days, they were so great to hang out with.
Did you have a favorite character or part to write?
I’m more interested to know who your favorite character was! Honestly, I love all of the characters equally, but there’s definitely a special place in my heart for the villain, Kunin Yillda. She was just SO FUN to write. I love a baddie who is unapologetically evil, and it was so liberating to really dig into the grotesqueries of that character, without feeling like I had to dumb her down at all.
Kunin Yillda was such a great baddie! I liked that you had this flat-out evil character, but I honestly felt a little sorry for Cutter. He was an easy villain to pity.
I’m glad! I wanted Cutter to be complicated. I didn’t want the reader to necessarily know exactly how they felt about him – he does some despicable things but there is an inherent sadness to him, too. He’s clearly miserable! As much as I love an all-out evil baddie, I also love a baddie who’s emotionally and psychologically complex. With this book, I decided to do both!
My favorite character is a toss-up between Toby (I just loved his excitement, and he reminded me a little of a friend of mine) and Jack. Jack’s character development was through the roof! I love watching characters evolve, so he was a joy to read about.
That’s great to hear. I was worried that Jack would turn readers off at the start of the book, because he’s so bitter and dismissive. I’m glad that you enjoyed watching him evolve. I worked really hard on that!
Were any of your characters inspired by people you know (hopefully not Kunin Yillda)?
The lub is loosely inspired by my cat, Penny, who is both cute and deadly. The name of the Guild is inspired by my boyfriend’s cousins, who are really close and call themselves the “Guild”, too. (I know, adorable, right?) That’s about it. I try not to write characters who are too close to people I know IRL, as I’d hate to upset them! (Though I have, unfortunately, met a few Kunin Yilldas in my time…)
Such great inspirations (yes, the “Guild” is adorable)!
They’re as lovely in real life as they are in the book!
What was the most challenging part to write?
The Comic-Con chapters! There were SO many moving parts and pieces in that sequence. Pretty much every single character is present, plus there’s a huge room full of cosplayers, PLUS the baddies. Then when you throw in the idea of mind control and fighting… it was A LOT to get my head around. But I’m super proud of that sequence and so happy that it finally works.
One of my favorite recent book quotes takes place during the Con.. I did not expect to get a little choked up reading about a Comic-Con.
Well now I want to know what the line is!
“This wasn’t about using nostalgia as a shield, it was about celebrating the things that defined them, the characters that spoke to their heart’s truth, the things that made them different and unique and powerful in their own special way. It united them.”
I really, really loved that entire paragraph. It was wonderful.
Oh brilliant. I genuinely believe that nostalgia and fandom can be twin forces for good. And nostalgia is nothing new – just think about your grandparents getting misty-eyed over the days before cell phones. Everybody is nostalgic for something. I just happen to be nostalgic for puppets!
Would you like to see The Shadow Glass made into a movie?
Heck yes! That would be unbelievable. I wrote The Shadow Glass because nobody is making those great puppet fantasy films anymore, so if my book inspired a little genre resurgence (in the name of Jim Henson, of course), I would be very happy indeed!
If I found the last VHS store left, what are your must-watch 80s movies?
Oh wow, how much time do you have?! The main three I mentioned earlier are absolute must-watches – Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal. Other fantasy films I love from the 80s are Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow and Teen Witch (which is absolutely insane). Then there’s Gremlins, Back to the Future (the whole trilogy), The Goonies. And we haven’t even gotten to the John Hughes movies…
Labyrinth is one of my all-time favorite movies! I haven’t seen Teen Witch, though. I’ll need to fix that.
Oh, Teen Witch isn’t good! [laughs] But it’s VERY entertaining, and sort of a prototype for Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It totally does its own batshit thing, and I can respect that. Also the ‘Top That’ musical moment is jaw-dropping and must be seen by ALL.
Do you have any plans to write a sequel?
Not at the moment. I wrote The Shadow Glass as a standalone, so I have no sequel notes written down anywhere. There are a few little ideas percolating in the back of my brain, though, so if enough people demand it, I’m not sure I could resist reuniting with these characters for one more adventure. After all, I lub Iri!
Well, put me on the list of demanding people (usually, I prefer to avoid being demanding)!
Demanding can be good!
Do you have anything exciting in the works? I’m very excited for my next book, Burn the Negative, which is being published by Putnam in the US in summer 2023. It’s another movie-themed novel, except this time it’s pure ’90s horror. The story is about a journalist who is sent on assignment to LA to write about a new streaming series, but when she gets there, she discovers the series is based on the cursed horror movie she starred in as a child. I can’t wait for people to read it! After that, well, if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Watch this space.
Today I get to participate in a cover reveal! Unseen: The Mercer Nox Story, an Alchemist Trilogy Tale will be available on July 20th!
Check out this awesome cover!
What’s it about:
What did life give me? Torment. Grief. A scarred soul. Did I deserve it? Maybe. Did I welcome it? Maybe…
Call me cursed, arrogant, bitter. Call me whatever you want. I know my place in this world, I know where I stand with the Goddess. I know how I ended up here, what I did. What I didn’t do. It haunts me, but then again, don’t we all have demons?
Some tried to tell me it was destiny, but I refuse to believe some outside force controls my life. Bad things happen, good things happen. In my case, well, let’s just leave it at that and move on. It’s probably better that way.
Unseen: The Mercer Nox Story follows the incredible life of a man who never really wanted to participate in the whole “saving the world” thing in the first place—but realized he really didn’t have a choice. And it annoyed him to no end.
This book contains major spoilers for The Alchemist Trilogy, it is recommended that you read the original trilogy first for maximum enjoyment!
About the author:
L.A. Wasielewski is a gamer, nerd, baseball fan (even though the Brewers make it very difficult sometimes), and mom. When she’s not writing, she’s blasting feral ghouls and super mutants in the wastelands, baking and cooking, and generally being a smart-ass. She’s very proud of the fact that she has survived several years with two drum kits in the house—and still has most of her hearing intact. Her high dark fantasy series, The Alchemist Trilogy, is available now!
I always love it when I get to shout about a book that intrigues me, one that has a new and unique premise. Today, I’m excited to spotlight Pyramidion by author G.E. Newbegin!
What if everything you thought you knew was a lie?
“Seek the Pyramidion.”
After losing his whole world in a car accident, Luke Nixon falls into a pit of despair, only to find himself receiving advice from his dead wife in his dreams. He soon ends up under the care of an ancient organisation and learns that he and his family are of an ancient bloodline – and that his daughter is still alive.
Unsure if he can trust them, but lacking any other choice, Luke is left with only one option: to rescue his daughter. However, it’s no simple task following a breadcrumb trail across multiple continents, through the spirit realm, and ultimately bringing Luke face to face with gods and demons. (Taken from Amazon)
I was fortunate to be able to talk with G.E. Newbegin about Pyramidion, his writing process, and urban fantasy. You can find that interview here. And pick up a copy of Pyramidion!
Since these delightful books could actually be easily combined into one volume, I’m reviewing them both in one post.
My thoughts on Lexcalibur: Useful Poetry for Adventurers Above and Below the World:
I was gifted this poetry collection. My friend described it as “Shel Silverstein poems for nerds”, and there’s really no better description. It’s all kinds of nerdy fun!
The poems are generally on the shorter side and are extremely clever. There’s never that feeling of trying too hard and I found myself chuckling as I read through the book. The poems are engaging enough for children with enough wit and little nods that adults will be just as entertained.
The book covers all things fantasy, ranging from important topics such as were-beasts, to concerns about viziers, and complaints about mimics. It’s incredibly obvious that both the author and illustrator are well versed in both the tropes and the lesser-known gems of the fantasy genre. They appreciate all things imaginative and fun.
Lexcalibur is made even better by the inclusion of whimsical and fun illustrations which are scattered throughout. They’re truly delightful and add so much to the book.
I should mention that Lexcalibur can only be found on the Penny Arcade website (link here, for your convenience). The Penny Arcade comics themselves are meant for adults to enjoy, but this book is all-ages fun.
I loved, loved, loved this collection of poems! If you’re a lover of all things fantastical, you’ll really enjoy Lexcalibur. I’ll leave you with one of the poems:
I got a ring, and it makes me invisible.
No one can see me! A marvelous thing!
As I suggested, your eyes have been bested.
Except for the ring.
Lexcalibur II: The Word in the Stone
Lexcalibur II continues in the delightful vein of book one, with fun and imaginative poems that are perfect for any fantasy or TTRPG lover. I smiled at the love of fantasy that shone through every page.
I sometimes cringe at poems that rhyme because they can feel so forced. Not so in this case, the rhymes added a fairy tale cadence that was endearing.
There were several poems that shared a common theme, which was a little different. The Eyrewood, a table-top roleplaying game, featured multiple times. I haven’t played it (yet), but as a TTRPG fan, I could still understand and appreciate the joy and nods. And that’s the thing about both Lexcalibur books: they brim with joy.
It’s wonderful to be taken to a place of unlimited potential and imagination. The playful illustrations added to the atmosphere and kept me grinning. I loved Lexcalibur II and really hope there’s a volume three coming before too long!
Here’s one of my favorite poems from this second installment. Enjoy!
This year I’m focusing on some of the amazing subgenres that fantasy has to offer. So far I’ve focused on comedic fantasy, romantic fantasy, grimdark, and epic fantasy. This month I’m excited to be focusing on urban fantasy.
I am privileged to interview G.E. Newbegin, author of Pyramidion.
Hi G.E.! Thank you for being willing to chat about urban fantasy with me!
No worries – glad to!
Will you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about Pyramidion?
Sure – I’m G.E. Newbegin, a newly self- published Australian author, with two books released and another not far off. I live in Melbourne with my wife and two kids and I talk about cybersecurity for a day job. If you’re wondering – yes, I’ve tried to write sci-fi, but sci-fi is HARD. So I gave up.
Pyramidion was my debut novel, which I released in June 2021. It took me about a year to write, edit, rewrite again after my editor pulled it apart, typeset and ultimately publish, all of which I did while working from home. So… if your readers are thinking about what to do with their downtime while working from home? Don’t work more, write!
I wanted to write a horror fantasy, but as I worked through the story, it turned into an action-adventure that some readers have compared to Indiana Jones. While that character wasn’t a direct influence, I will happily accept the comparison!
Pyramidion tells the tale of Luke Nixon, who is propelled on a globe-trotting adventure (and beyond…) after seemingly losing everything, encountering gods and demons along the way. There are some common themes with this kind of story (secret organisations, bloodlines, alternate history), but it’s my take on these ideas. It’s fun, but can be dark in places, just like real life.
Pyramidion has the concept of a huge loss, which propels Luke on a life-changing adventure. Do you think a strength of urban fantasy is that it allows for a realistic exploration of themes such as loss and grief?
Honestly, I think most genres can explore these same themes, but being set in more familiar territory means readers can empathise more readily. Adding “fantastical” elements means you can explore things in ways that reality might limit you…
How would you define urban fantasy?
It’s a tricky genre to define, because in some ways, an urban fantasy could be any fantasy set in a city, but I generally define the “urban” component as a “contemporary setting” – so, any fantasy set in a familiar, modern setting. Pyramidion is set in the real world, but there are fantastical truths hidden from the populace. Stories like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Twilight, the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and many more besides can be considered Urban (or Contemporary) fantasy, among others – books tend to fit into several molds.
What drew you to writing urban fantasy?
To be honest, it was simply the idea that came to mind, and it worked best for me. Since I wanted to touch on “real” themes, such as mythology and religion, for example, I found it easier to set the story in modern times. There was a point I was considering setting the story in a world of my own, but given I wanted to use real myths and legends, it probably wouldn’t work.
I’ve just released a second book in April (“The Fathomless Sky Lake” – a novella, not the sequel to Pyramidion, which I am working on right now), but this time I’ve decided to go all in on fantasy – in fact, even the sequel to Pyramidion will lean further into fantasy. I guess it depends on what suits the story more.
What were some obstacles to writing Pyramidion?
Being my first novel, motivation was the biggest obstacle. I’d considered myself a writer since I was a child, but all I had to show for it was a bunch of half finished manuscripts (most of which have been lost to time).
The other obstacle was research – how much do you REALLY need to know about something in order to write about it effectively? You can quite easily waste time going down a rabbithole that you really don’t need to. On the other hand, not enough research can stand out to some readers. So there’s a need to balance different kinds of work – the only work that gets you closer to finishing is the writing itself.
What were some successes?
Finishing the book in the first place. Convincing myself I could do it. Building the courage to put it out in the public eye.
But for me, the biggest success was having strangers – people I have never met and probably never will – read my book. That was a success in itself, and every bit of feedback, both good and bad, encourages me to work harder.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I mostly read sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, so many of the usuals would top my list – JRR Tolkien, GRR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joe Abercrombie, Gene Wolfe, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Mark Lawrence, Jim Butcher, Richard Morgan… And if I can recommend a new author I’m enjoying at the moment, Christopher Ruocchio, who has released a really riveting and well developed space opera with his Sun Eater series.