Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Reign of the Ancients

20th October 2011


Musings and rants

Mastodon For SFF Fans
Where to go in the Fediverse to find the best speculative fiction and literary discussions.

Nine Political Books That Change The Conversation
Following news that Simon and Schuster plan to publish an inflammatory commentator, here are nine political books that deserve more attention.

Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
Penguin Random House have decided not to recognise Unite and the NUJ as a result of staff negotiations, leaving the publisher with a stain on its reputation as an employer.

Authors Support Stop Funding Hate
Some authors have had enough of divisive and xenophobic elements in the British press, and are willing to make an ethical stand.

Women In SFF: Indie Edition
A list of indie and self-published women writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres.

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists
The new per-page payout for the Kindle Unlimited subscription service makes it a much better deal for authors of longer novels.

Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
The Sieghart report on libraries missed its mark by miles. Yet the real cause of the decline of the UK library network is depressingly obvious.

A Shout-Out For The Good Guys
When nastiness dominates online conversations about books it is time to appreciate the well-behaved authors.

Critique Circle: Shaping Fabulous Stories
The appeal of a certain writing critique website. Or, why I have neglected this blog.

Where Shall I Point This Pitchfork?
Some thoughts on Jonathan Ross, Loncon, and the twitchfork mob.

Reading Is Not A Race
Why I will be abandoning annual reading challenges in 2014.

What Book Discovery Is Missing
The current state of book discovery is narrowing our reading choices and squeezing out midlist writers. How can it be fixed?

An Explosion Of Discovery Tools
New book discovery engines are popping up all over the web. But which ones will come out on top?

Blog Tours From Both Sides
Blog tours are the lastest marketing fad. But what are the pros and cons of this kind of publicity?

It's Not Your Story Any More
When a book is published, authors lose control over how the story should be read. They should let go the reins and enjoy the ride.

Same Old, Same Old
Are current methods of book discovery pushing us further away from original literature?

Female Protagonists In Genre Fiction
A list of recommended SFF books for adults which feature a female as the main character.

Is This The End Of Sweeping Vistas?
Do recent trends in fantasy art styles and the constraints of online book discovery mark the decline of landscape cover art?

A Rising Tide Floats All Boats
Authors: stop thinking of other writers as your rivals. They're not the enemy.

Reviews Are Useless Without Context
With so many review blogs, quick ways of understanding their authors are more important than ever.

Karen Maitland, Jane 
Sanderson and Rory Clements  

Karen Maitland, Jane Sanderson
and Rory Clements

The Gallows Curse 



I was at Past on the Page on the 19th of October, part of the Wolds Words literary festival in Louth. Three historical novelists were there to discuss the things that draw readers to their genre.

Karen Maitland quills medieval thrillers such as The Gallows Curse and Company of Liars. She spoke about the challenges of getting into a pre-scientific mindset and creating characters who believed in angels and demons and thought them as real as everything else, and who were far more familiar with death than people are today.

Rory Clements writes award-winning Elizabethan thrillers featuring his hero John Shakespeare. Some of his recent titles are Prince, Martyr, and Revenger. He spiced up the discussion with the ghastly tale of Queen Elizabeth's torturer, Richard Topcliffe. He also mentioned how Henry VIII had thousands of vagrants hung during his reign, a mini holocaust that tends to slip though the gaps of school history lessons. Brutal and lurid incidents like this go some way to explaining history's hold on our imaginations.

Jane Sanderson deals with a slightly more civilised age in Netherwood, an upstairs/downstairs story based around a mining community in 1903. It sets up an interesting tension, in that readers know that upheavals and war are around the corner, but the characters have no inkling of what's to come.

Ningles, grimalkins and rakeshames

All historical fiction writers have to wrestle with finding the right words. Karen Maitland pointed out that since few people can read Old English her dialogue has to be written in modern English. So she has to watch out for jarring anachronisms to keep it believable, even though she can't use authentic words such as "ningle" (a homosexual), because they don't have the right effect. So whilst readers can connect more easily to today's speech it's vital for story dialogue to sound right, even when it can't be. This often means a careful balancing act.
  The Enterprise of Death

  Servant of the Underworld

  Queen of Kings

Condemned to repeat it

One of the authors, I don't recall who, mentioned that historical fiction sells much better during periods of economic crisis. It's an intriguing trend, and I can think of a couple of reasons for it. We can learn a lot about the present from similar events in the past. The South Sea Bubble and the Dutch tulip mania of 1636-7 echo more recent financial crashes. Similarly, I find it hard to hear the words Quantitative Easing without thinking of hyperinflation in the doomed Weimar Republic before Hitler's rise to power. Perhaps there's no better time to be looking at our past and using fiction to make sense of what it means.

But there's more to history's appeal: it offers simplicity in times of confusion. Knowing what's coming before the characters do thanks to our superior knowledge of history and science gives readers the upper hand. It's reassuring. The low technology and sparse populations of those settings mean we're not bombarded from all sides by conflicting signals, and we're not bamboozled by change. In an always-on world where every gadget you buy comes with a 50-page manual and more information is produced every minute than anyone could digest in a lifetime, the pull of simpler, quieter times is strong.

The rise of historical fantasy

It's no wonder then that historical fantasy is also enjoying a revival. Epic fantasy often has a medieval or pre-industrial setting, but the kind of books I'm talking about take historical accuracy a stage further by putting the action in our world, alongside people who actually existed and real events. Recent examples include Jesse Bullington's The Enterprise Of Death, Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series set in Aztec Mexico, Maria Dahvana Headley's Queen of Kings which concerns Cleopatra, and M. D. Lachlan's Viking era-inspired Wolfsangel. Anne Lyle's forthcoming novel The Alchemist of Souls is set amongst the roiling intrigue of alternate Elizabethan times. And there's Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand Of God, based heavily on the time of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, even though it's set in an alternate version of our world. For fans of this kind of fantastic history times are good.

Another aspect of this trend is the current craze for steampunk, popularised by more authors than I can reasonably namecheck. It's sort of a skewed nostalgia for a world that never was. But wouldn't it be spiffing if it had been? At a certain point the genres of historical fantasy, alternate history and steampunk shade into one another, depending on the degree of anachronisms and whether or not the deviations from history apply to real-world events or are supernatural in origin.

However, whether it's the endurance of the Roman empire, as in Sophia McDougall's Romanitas books, or a secret division of tea-drinking super-sleuths within the British empire, for me it's all part of the same phenomenon: a growing appetite for history. The past is fascinating and terrifying, gruesome with brutality and beautifully strange. It's no wonder fantasy readers want to take refuge in it.

© Ros Jackson