Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fine Line Between History And Fantasy Revisited

In one of my earliest blog posts, I talked about the fine line between the genres of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Earlier this month, two of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin and Bernard Cornwell, touched on this issue in a joint interview on The Indigo Blog.
During the interview, George R.R. Martin said, “It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common.”

To which Bernard Cornwell responded, “You're right—fantasy and historical novels are twins, and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy,' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi).”


 Are Martin's and Cornwell's Novels Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I largely agree. While Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could never be considered “historical” in a literal sense because it doesn't take place in the real world, the most prominent elements of his novels scream “historical” fiction. His setting is broadly “Medieval” and his storylines – a war of succession, political intrigue, and battles among noble houses – are classic subject matters of some of the best historical fiction. Magic may be present in Martin’s novels, but it is subtle and never the driving force behind his world.

Similarly, Bernard Cornwell has written “historical” novels that dance along the fine line between history and fantasy. Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, for example, tells the Arthurian Legend from a more “historical” perspective. But as anyone who has read The Warlord Chronicles knows, Cornwell’s Merlin performs acts which could be magic – or not. He leaves it to the reader to decide. But the core of his novels are the same as Martin’s: wars among kings and nobles, and the heroes who survive them. And perhaps most importantly, both Cornwell and Martin create wonderfully real characters for which, we, the reader, cannot help but empathize.

I still believe there is a line between the two genres, but maybe Cornwell is right – that line doesn’t matter much. The things we love about Martin’s novels are many of the same things we love about Cornwell’s novels. Does the fact the land of Westeros never existed, while Dark Ages Britain did, truly matter in the context of a great novel? For me, it doesn't. It’s the story that matters and the characters who inhabit it. That is why we adore reading them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Death of Kings Comes Out Today!

I’ll admit, I’m excited for the release today of Death of Kings, the sixth novel in Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series. I wrote about the first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, back in September. For those unfamiliar with the novels, they’re about the Vikings’ attempt to conquer England in the Ninth Century. These books are full of memorable characters and driven by action-filled plots, making them really hard to put down.

Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:
As the ninth century wanes, Alfred the Great lies dying, his dream of a unified England in danger and his kingdom on the brink of chaos. While his son, Edward, has been named his successor, there are other Saxon claimants to the throne—as well as ambitious pagan Vikings to the north.
Uhtred, the Saxon-born, Viking-raised warrior, whose life seems to shadow the making of England itself, is torn between his vows to Alfred and his desire to reclaim his long-lost ancestral lands and castle in the north. As the king’s warrior, he is duty-bound, but Alfred’s reign is nearing its end, and Uhtred has sworn no oath to the crown prince. Despite his long years of service, Uhtred is still loath to commit to the old king’s Saxon cause of a united and Christian England. Now he must make a momentous decision, one that will forever transform his life . . . and the course of history: take up arms—and Alfred’s mantle—or lay down his sword and allow the dream of a unified kingdom to fall into oblivion.
As I noted in my first post on this series, these novels are among the finest Viking tales I’ve ever read. They also cover a critical period of English history, for folks interested in that topic. I’ve already ordered my advance copy of Death of Kings and expect I’ll be reading it soon!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Queen of Cities

Byzantium ... Constantinople ... Istanbul ... For fans of historical fiction, these are all names of one of the most fascinating cities that Europe has ever known. In the early Middle Ages (a time period close to my heart), Constantinople was the greatest and wealthiest city in all of Europe, rivaled only by Cordoba in Moorish Spain. I’m particularly interested in Constantinople these days, as it will be a setting (among other locales) for my next novel.

To say that Constantinople is an interesting setting would be an understatement. Just consider this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and you’ll know what I mean: “The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople.” Who wouldn’t want to read about this place?

After the Turks captured the city, it became Istanbul.

Not surprisingly, the city, which was once called the “Queen of Cities,” has been the setting of numerous novels, some of which I may write about in more detail over the coming months. But for today, here are a few good examples.

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead. As if the title didn’t give it way. This novel is set in the Ninth Century during the reign of Emperor Basil I, known as Basil the Macedonian. Like the novel I’m currently working onByzantium also involves Vikings, who referred to the city as Miklagard. Vikings were known to travel to Constantinople, and the emperor even kept a personal bodyguard of Northmen called the Varangian Guard. The Byzantine emperors apparently deemed the Vikings more trustworthy and less likely to assassinate them than their fellow Greeks. Needless to say, being a Byzantine emperor could be hazardous to one’s health!

Harald Hardrada: The Last Viking by Michael Burr. I’m currently reading this book about Harald Sigurdsson, a King of Norway, whose death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 is considered by many historians to mark the end of the Viking Age. Before he became king, Harald served for a time in the Varangian Guard, and in this fictional account may even have been involved in a conspiracy with the Empress Zoe the Macedonian to murder her first imperial husband, Emperor Romanos III.

Another good Viking Tale!
The Eagle’s Daughter by Judith Tarr. This novel tells the story of the Byzantine princess Theophano, who married Otto II of Germany to become the Holy Roman Empress during the Tenth Century. The novel begins in Constantinople with the murder of yet another Byzantine emperor, Nikephorus II, whose assassination was planned by his wife and carried out by her lover, John Tzimiskes, who succeeded Nikephorus on the Byzantine throne.

Baudolino by Umberto Eco. This one’s on my short list of books to read, so you’ll have to wait on the details. But the novel begins in 1204 during the sack of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. 

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Some of the most interesting scenes in this wonderful novel take place in Istanbul, where the protagonists must scour the archives of Sultan Mehmed II for information on the whereabouts of Dracula’s tomb. The history of Vlad Tepes (the real Dracula), which is explored in the novel, also concerns his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks, who ended the Byzantine Empire by capturing Constantinople in 1453. According to the novel, Sultan Mehmed had Vlad decapitated and then took his head to Constantinople as proof that the enemy of the Ottomans had fallen. As for how Dracula got his head back ... well, you’ll just have to read the novel. 

Some of the best scenes in this novel take place in Constantinople.
There are certainly many other examples of good novels set in the Queen of Cities. If you have one you’re especially fond of, write a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Short Story Markets Are Shrinking

This is not a new phenomenon, but for authors of short stories the market for their work seems to be forever shrinking. This past November, we saw the demise of one of the higher-end publications for speculative fiction, Realms of Fantasy magazine, and now there is news that Zahir, A Journal of Speculative Fiction, is no longer publishing new issues (although their website will remain indefinitely).

When I was shopping one of my short stories, Mava’s Echo, there weren’t that many markets to pursue. Fortunately, Mava’s Echo found a home at MindFlights, which continues to publish good short stories in the fantasy and science fiction genres.

This is a great pub for speculative fiction!
Decades ago, short stories helped define the speculative fiction genre. Just think of all the well-known films inspired by the short stories and novellas of Philip K. Dick: Total Recall, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau, to name a few. It would be a shame for this type of fiction to fade away because the markets for short stories are disappearing.

So, if you have a favorite magazine or online journal that publishes short stories, please give them your support! And if you have one you particularly love, let me know and I’ll post a link to it on this blog.

You can't overstate how influenential short stories have been to speculative fiction.