My Top Three: Historically-Influenced Fantasy Settings

Recently, I posted about the influence of history on fantasy and that got me thinking about some of my favourite, historically influenced fantasy periods. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana would have to be right up there—in fact I think it was the authentic, Italian renaissance setting of the opening sequences that helped me fall in love with the story. And the basic premise of the story is straight from history—the divided peninsula of little kingdoms which fail to see the danger of encroaching empires until it is too late. Kay plays with this in Tigana, but basically France and the Holy Roman Empire—with the Turks a very real threat as well—were both encroaching on Italy during the Renaissance period.

I have always loved the stories of 5th century BC Greece—Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis; the Peloponnesian war; and the Anabasis, the march of the 10,000 out of Asia Minor. I also love the older, more legendary stories such as the siege of Troy and Theseus and the Minotaur, which are both at least semi-historical. I particularly enjoy a fantastic twist on these tales, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand and David Gemmell’s Macedonian duology, Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince. With Bradley, I liked the way she told the old tale of Troy from the perspective of the women, just as she did with the Arthurian legend in The Mists of Avalon. In the Lion of Macedon, I was fascinated by the way Gemmell focused, not directly on Alexander and his father Philip, but on the general Parmenion. Parmenion is relatively unknown by comparison, but there is some historical weight to the view that it was his military genius that brought about Philip’s victories, which effectively conquered all of Greece.

The Napoleonic period, which was an era of vast social and political change in western Europe, as well as of major military campaigns, has also featured in recent fantasy, such as Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The Napoleonic campaign is in the foreground with Temeraire, but more of a backdrop in Strange and Norrell, although Jonathan Strange does join the Peninsular campaign for a brief time. Possibly my favourite Napoleonic-era fantasy—although, as a time-travel tale, it dips into other eras—is Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, which I always feel, together with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, set the stage for the steampunk sub-genre. Mind you, The Anubis Gates has everything in terms of the early-1800s era: poets such as Coleridge, the London underworld and the Egypt of Muhammad Ali Pasha, as well as time travel and a certain element of time-slip romance … [winks]

These are some of my favourite historically influenced fantasy settings—but in fact I love both history and fantasy, so will enjoy any historical setting that is well done. Bring ’em on, I say!