Guest post: Viewpoint in Historical Fantasy: Telling the truth or just plain crazy

Guest post: Viewpoint in Historical Fantasy: Telling the truth or just plain crazy by Clifford Beal

As an old sub-genre, but one with ever increasing popularity, historical fantasy by its nature normally mixes the familiar with the strange. In many ways, this is part of the charm of the genre, immersing the reader in a time period they know or like and then throwing in the fantastic and the unbelievable. It allows for crafting some juicy and challenging plotlines. And it enables character development that invites readers to open their minds and to imagine how our forebears might have dealt with an adventure into the unknown.

With historical fantasy there’s tremendous scope for playing with the concept of believability and denial of the fantastic within the setting of the novel. This is of course true with contemporary-based supernatural horror or urban fantasy. But with a historical fantasy setting, the believability factor can be set against the mores, social conventions, and biases of the time. A plague of zombies in a contemporary setting would be seen as a problem for science. Set in Europe in 1450, it would be seen as punishment for sin and the abandonment of man by God. Using a historical setting allows a writer to explore more than just an exciting fantasy story, it permits the injection of a new element into the zeitgeist of an era.

But there’s another technique a writer can bring to bear in writing historical fantasy. That’s the use of voice, in particular, the first-person narrative. When I began writing the Treadwell adventures, The Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel, I opted to use the first-person voice to boost a sense of immediacy and make the reader feel they were alongside, encountering surprise as the protagonist did. Nothing unusual in that, I grant, and used to great effect by many authors perhaps most recently by the excellent Mark Lawrence in his Prince of Thorns series. But in using first-person voice, a writer can also decide to make the narrator—whose eyes we see the story through—an unreliable one. This is a great device for throwing the choice back to the reader: is the hero lying, telling the truth he believes to be true, or is he just delusional?

The Raven’s Banquet, which is a prequel to Gideon’s Angel, uses this device to the maximum. In much of the book, Richard Treadwell alone sees the ghosts and ghoulies and not his comrades. It’s up to the reader to decide whether he is cursed with a third-eye into the Netherworld or if he’s barking mad. In Gideon’s Angel, the picture is rather more clear. Treadwell isn’t the only one who see and experiences manifestations of the supernatural. His comrades see them too. But, then again, he’s the one telling us that. It could be just a tall tale, a ghost story after the fact. Adding in real life figures, such as Oliver Cromwell, and letting them in on the “secret” horror is a bit of cheeky fun.

I like challenging my readers to enter into the spirit of the time period, developing an appreciation as to why the characters are making the decisions that they do when faced with the great unknown. It’s one of the reasons for reading historical fiction—or fantasy—in the first place. It is the closest thing to time travel that any of us will be able to experience.

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Clifford Beal, May 2014, The Raven's Banquet

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