For example, Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, about the famous battle between the English and the French, is almost universally considered historical fiction even though the main character at times has conversations with two long-dead saints. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay reads like historical fiction and contains barely a hint of the supernatural, except the story takes place in an entirely fictional land, albeit one based closely on Moorish Spain. And Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor is an excellent work of historical fiction set in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II; however the book is about a golem, which almost certainly pushes it into the realm of historical fantasy.
Many readers disagree on where the line should be drawn between these two genres, but assuming the book takes place in a historical setting, here are five things I consider in determining whether the line’s been crossed from historical fiction into historical fantasy:
- If the main character talks to the gods it may be historical fiction; but if the gods talk back it’s probably historical fantasy;
- If the book takes place in a setting that looks just like the Middle Ages or some other historical period, but that place never existed on earth, it’s historical fantasy;
- If anyone in the book can use magic (and I’m not talking Houdini or David Copperfield type magic), welcome to historical fantasy;
- If there are any supernatural beings or mythical creatures who appear in the story and do almost anything, ditto on historical fantasy; and
- If the characters talk about places like the Otherworld, Alfheim, or Hades it may be historical fiction; but if they actually find a way to get there, they’ve entered the realm of historical fantasy.
This list is far from comprehensive and doesn’t even touch sub-genres like Alternate History or Steampunk. But I’m curious as to your views. When does historical fiction cross the line into historical fantasy?