History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.

Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

42865572Buy the Book

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Author Interview: Sherry Thomas

I am writing an article for the Historical Novel Society about Sherry Thomas and her awesome new book in the Lady Sherlock series. However, I thought it would be fun to post the raw interview Q&A here since my finished article for HNS will be quite different. 🙂 Thank you very much to Ms. Thomas for taking the time to respond to my questions! I always love seeing author interviews and Q&A, so I’m delighted that I get to share this with my own readers as well.

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Sherry Thomas, courtesy of sherrythomas.com

Her Grace’s Library: The interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles is so interesting in your novels. There’s just so much to unpack with gender identity in the Lady Sherlock series, especially in The Hollow of Fear. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times before, but what made you want to write a Lady Sherlock series to begin with?

Sherry Thomas: I am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, in which Holmes meets a female partner every bit as formidable as himself. That’s the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own, but I didn’t have any concrete idea what I want to write about so I didn’t do anything.

Then came the BBC Sherlock, which was so dynamic and stylish, and which did such a fantastic job updating the character to the 21st century. That’s when I said to myself, hmm, if BBC Sherlock already made Sherlock Holmes thoroughly modern, and Elementary on CBS made Watson a woman, then the only thing left to do was to make Sherlock Holmes a woman.

So that’s what I did.

HGL: Can you comment more about Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine? I love her references to her “maximum tolerable chins.”

ST: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a casual user, taking to cocaine when he doesn’t have any stimulating cases. And he turns down plenty of cases if he finds them of insufficient interest. That’s because, as it is often deduced, Sherlock Holmes comes from either minor aristocracy or upper gentry, and has an independent income and doesn’t rely on his work as a consulting detective to pay the bills.

Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation. She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing. But of course she wants to still fit into her clothes, and “maximum tolerable chins” becomes her gauge for judging whether she can indulge in an extra slice of cake or must regretfully refrain.

HGL: What is the hardest part about writing a character who seems to experience the world so differently than the rest of us? Is Charlotte supposed to be on the autism spectrum?

ST: Charlotte would probably be considered on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, if she lived in this day and age. And it isn’t hard at all, as strange as it seems, to write how she experiences the world. Very freeing, in fact, because she sees the world as it truly is, with all the niceties stripped away.

HGL: What was your favorite scene that got edited out of The Hollow of Fear?

ST: The first ten thousand words I wrote for The Hollow of Fear were thrown out entirely, because they were about séances in Scotland, whereas the final version of the story concerns itself with neither séances nor Scotland.

But I didn’t have any favorite scenes from that, because it was just an exploratory draft to show me what not to do. Very seldom do I have good scenes that get cut because I typically underwrite in my preliminary drafts—usually due to time pressure—and in later drafts I need to fill in the scenes that should be there or should be written to greater depth.

It’s not a bad way to write. It ensures that every scene that is in the book is there only by necessity.

HGL: I read on your website that English is your second language. That’s amazing to me; I don’t think I could ever write very well in another language, let alone a well-crafted novel! Can you talk about how writing in a language that is not your native language has impacted your writing? What is the hardest part?

ST: English might be my second language, but by now it’s my primary language. (I arrived in the U.S. when I was 13, and that was 30 years ago.)

I don’t know that I ever found the language part of writing difficult. Storytelling is hard. Good ideas do not drop into my lap very often. But because I think in English, expressing ideas in English has become as natural as breathing.

I do sometimes wonder whether the fact I write largely historical fiction is because I learned English reading a lot of historical romances and even at age 18 possessed the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady.

Certain tenses in the English language elude my grasp. My critique partner is always correcting my usage of would/will, because I don’t do the subjunctive tense properly. Then again, I don’t think most of the reading population know or care about the subjunctive to the extent she does!

HGL: Who are some of your favorite authors/ literary influences?

ST: I read a great deal of martial arts epics when I was growing up in China. When I arrived in the states I read a ton of romance and science fiction. Later on I glommed onto fantasy and mysteries. So you can definitely say that I am a reader—and a lover—of genre fiction.

HGL: What are you reading right now?

ST: I just got done with The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett last night. And am also reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

HGL: What’s on your playlist right now?

ST: I just finished a YA adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan (nothing to do with Disney). And for some reason, when I write a martial arts story with romantic elements, I always play Josh Groban’s My Confession on a loop.

HGL: What is the best thing you have learned about writing?

ST: That it’s like working with clay. It’s malleable. And readers can’t tell by the final product how ugly it was in the interim.

HGL: That last line of The Hollow of Fear…gah! The wait for the next book might kill me. Can I ask if there is a fourth Lady Sherlock book in the works? Will there be finally happy things in store for Livia?And Charlotte and Ingram? These poor, tormented characters! Or is it poor, tormented readers? We love it, though…

ST: Yes, I have already signed a contract for books 4&5 in the series and am busy working on book 4. Dear Livia will definitely have interesting things in store for her. Lord Ingram will be there too. And I don’t know yet what exactly will happen in this book, but I certainly hope characters will change and grow in the course of an exciting venture, which is the goal I have for every book I write.

Trigger Warning

I adore Neil Gaiman. I love his vivid imagery, the subtlety of the stories, the unique way he has of seeing the world. He himself is awesome as well, and is someone I would love to have a beer with. Here is a wonderful interview of Neil on the Diane Rehm show. She is painful to listen to, but thankfully he is not. I loved his discussion about being read to, how adults never get stories read to them anymore and it’s tragic. I agree entirely with his comments that it is odd to put trigger warnings on literature, especially literature for adults.

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning
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Hand of Fire: interview with Judith Starkston

So, a cool thing happened this weekend with my book club meeting. A few months ago, while reading Sharon Kay Penman’s blog, she put up one of her infamous Book Bankruptcy Blogs. In it, I noticed a name I recognized – Judith Starkston, who was publishing a book called Hand of Fire.

“Is that… it can’t be… maybe it is a common name?” said my brain.

“I bet Google will know!” replied the rest of my brain. It can have some good ideas on occasion. So off we went to ask Google and lo, and behold! We were rewarded with a link! To a website! We clicked it!Read More »