Why fantasy and not historical fiction?

Brian G Turner

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So I've just started reading "Sailing to Sarantium", and already I'm mentally replacing the names he uses for the historical counter-part (ie, Rome for Rhodias).

Without wanting any spoilers, is there any reason why he's simply changing the names and calling it "fantasy", when he could have kept the names and called it "historical fiction"?

I guess there may be clues later on, it's just that I've read quick a lot of Byzantine History, and so far my mind keeps stopping to correct for proper historical names, which is stutturing the pace.

This is especially the case as Stephen Lawhead's "Byzantium" is such an excellent read (and I presume recommended for those who read the Sarantine books).
 

Bugg

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Good question. Easier to let the man himself explain his reasons, I guess. Whether you agree with him or not is another matter! :)

But there's another strength of the form that's less discussed - and is at the heart of what intrigues me of late. Fantasy is not just about magic and supernatural quests. It can also be a way of dealing with history, with the elements of our own past.

But as soon as this idea is raised, an immediate - and a fair - question arises: why write fantasy about the past? What can fantasy do that straightforward historical fiction (or even non-fiction) cannot? Or, putting it another way, what traps and dilemmas can fantasy avoid that more conventional works cannot? Why write about (as I have) an invented Peninsula of the Palm instead of the early Renaissance Italy it was intended to evoke, or about a medieval country called Al-Rassan instead of the 'real' Al-Andalus - which was Moorish Spain?

All right then: what can fantasy do better, or what can it do that is unique and of value?

First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer - and the reader - to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader's own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.
http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/globe.htm

A friend of mine also asked a similar question about GRRM.

The curious thing for me is that I'm not well-versed in the periods of history that Kay's books draw from, but his work has made me interested and I may delve into it at a later date. I've loved all five of his historical fantasy books I've read - I hope you're able to as well, he's a fantastic writer :)
 

svalbard

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I will be back to this thread, Brian. Thanks for creating this forum.
 

Bugg

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Oh, wait - come across some fantastical elements in the story now - low key, and interesting. :)
Yeah, and he uses it in quite an interesting way. There is another particular part that springs to mind that qualifies as well, won't spoil it, though :)
 

digs

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His 'historical fantasy' stories tend to have a very subtle magical or divine element to them. He often uses it to underscore how little humans understand of their own world, and how powerless they are against the forces of nature (especially in the times his books are set).
 

Brian G Turner

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His 'historical fantasy' stories tend to have a very subtle magical or divine element to them. He often uses it to underscore how little humans understand of their own world, and how powerless they are against the forces of nature (especially in the times his books are set).
But this was a staple of the ancient world anyway. It seems very strange that GGK cannot simply write these in.

I wonder if he's written as "fantasy" to avoid academical arguments over the authenticity of his writing?

I really can't understand why he's changed the names and labelled it as fantasy at all.

Sarantium was interesting, but I couldn't help but feel cheated reading it because so much was nothing more than a copy/paste from Byzantine history.

The characters are never developed enough to really justify a break from history, and when he finally does veer away from history in the last hundred pages, it's all quite pointless and unbelievable.
 

digs

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I don't know enough about Byzantine history (other than knowing, vaguely, that Valerian is based on Justinian) to know exactly where he stays true and where he veers off, but I loved the Sarantine Mosaic - and GGK is my favourite fantasy author - so I find it hard to fault his genre choice!

If I'm cynical, it may come down to nothing more than wanting to attract a broader fantasy audience rather than just a historical fiction one. Then again, I also feel that the slight removal of GGK's stories from our own world attracts me in a way that historical fiction doesn't. I don't quite know how or why, but it works for me.
 

Brian G Turner

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Fair enough. :)

My problem is that I've already read a lot on Byzantine history - one of my personal interests, actually. :)
 

Finnien

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I would guess it's because some of his novels adhere more closely to the realities of the past, and some less so, and he wants to avoid criticism for misrepresentation or for going too far afield, and he wants to have a free hand without worrying about specifics. I think Under Heaven and Last Light of the Sun are fairly close to the settings of their time (this is purely based on gut feel and not historical research), Lions of Al-Rassan less so, Tigana even less. Additionally, the distance from reality lends kind of a universality to the cultural trends - a reign or an era ends because times change, not because a neighboring city-state came up with a better military formation, etc.

He really does an amazing job, in my opinion, of capturing the feeling of an end of an era. Last Light of the Sun was on Viking raider culture, Under Heaven was a Chinese dynasty, and the Sarantine Mosaic was Roman/Mediterranean, but all three really capture a very unique feel of unstoppable and slightly tragic change. I really have to re-read Tigana and Lions of Al-Rassan, I barely remember them so I can't really say how they measure up.
 

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Interested this thread has come up.

I read the Fionnavar books many years ago and have re-read them a number of times since.
Gods and Goddesses, dragon, various flavours of magic, King Arthur, you name it, its in there. Most of the characters start as relatively ordinary people (well the Canadians are) and I found them approachable.

Then, years back, I tried reading The Lions of Al-Rassan and bounced off it. I admired the medical details of the lady doctor in the market place with her urine flask but just wasn't interested in the story.

I've since seen a lot of praise for GGK, so when I came across the Lions of Al-Rassan again in the library I decided to read it. I nearly gave up at the same place I gave up last time, but pushed on and have finished it.

So - it is a re-write of the Moorish Spanish History, with the three religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism replaced by new ones based on the sun plus two moons and the interpretations placed on them. OK, fair enough, it gets away from our own in-built reactions to religions that we know. It is clever in how it shows the religions as coming from the same source but differing in interpretations of key events. But I did get a bit lost as to which was which at times.

It was a very impressive, sweeping action historical drama but I completely failed to find a single fantasy element other than giving the country two moons and not one. A massive change from the all-singing all-dancing Fionnavar books.
Edit - OK just remembered Diego's visions. But they are at the historical Joan of Arc level rather than the Fionnavar level.

For some reason I was less involved by the characters than I was with Fionnavar. The two super-soldier-diplomats Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar (probably already getting the names wrong, have returned book to the library so can't check) I found almost too super. They did put me in mind of Lymond in Dorothy Dunnett's historical novel series.

So yes, I did also finish thinking "this isn't fantasy". I can see his point, repeated earlier in this thread that by making it an alternate history he can examine it through his own lens and get away from people's preconceptions but...
I'd like a new category really.
Fantasy History? :)

It isn't quite alternative history, because as far as I can tell, he didn't change the outcome by pushing a key event in a different direction.

Or maybe the category is Guy Gavriel Kay. :D
 
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Montero

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Thanks Bugg. New category on me. :)

@ I, Brian, or other moderator

Would a sticky thread somewhere on all the sub-categories of fantasy (and sf) with example authors make sense (or is there one already and I've missed it).
Quite often threads over in Writing on "what is my new book like how should I market it"
 

thaddeus6th

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Thought I'd commented on this thread. Hmm. Must be going mad.

Anyway, I really liked Tigana and downloaded a sample of another book by Mr. Kay (I keep wanting to call him Kray for some reason) which was clearly heavily inspired by Byzantium.

The problem for me was that it was so similar it jarred a bit. The excubitors are obscure enough to be copied, I think, but the Greens and Blues made me think of the Nika rebellion and the nature of the political plotting and question of succession cast my mind back to numerous instances of Byzantine history.
 

JoanDrake

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History is a lie, agreed upon - Napoleon

...or the basis for someone's Fantasy.
 
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