Novel Thoughts: Turning History into Fantasy

Some of my favourite fantasy series involve some measure of real history in their inner workings. This is true of such series as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and, of course, the many works of Guy Gavriel Kay (most notably those of his works set in the world of his duology The Sarantine Mosaic). All of these authors make explicit use of real world antecedents in their myth-making, which adds layers and textures that enhance the reading pleasure. Of course, even the great master himself, Tolkien, had a keen eye for the importance of history at all levels of his work. Middle-earth, obviously, has a history as deep and rich as any in all of literature. The actions of those in the distant past of his world, after all, continue to echo down through all the subsequent eras, for good and for ill.

And it’s not just that the best epic fantasy makes allusions to real-world history; it also asks the same sorts of questions as historical fiction and nonfiction history do. These include: How does it feel to live at the end of an age? What ability do individuals–the small and the weak–have to change the world around them? Is there such a thing as historical agency, or are we all merely subject to forces that we cannot name and certainly cannot control? Do those living in epochal change know that they are doing so?

So, when I set out to write my own epic, I knew that I wanted to bring my love of history into my favourite genre of literature. I read widely and voraciously, and as I did I began to realize that many of the periods of the past that interested me most would make a fine fantasy setting. Particularly influential for me was the British historian Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland’s) fiery history The Shadow of the Sword. Whatever its merits (and flaws) as a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, it is a rousingly good read, and he offers some great insight into the period. Indeed, it opened up my eyes to an entire way of thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. What if, I wondered, the two of great civilizations of Late Antiquity–the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persians–were instead rulers of a vast continent, with a subaltern group sandwiched between them that was destined for greatness in its own right? What if their perennial squabbling was also part of a vast cosmological drama?

I continued reading, pulling in bits and pieces, creating a nation known as Aïonis that was essentially the Byzantine Empire (with some Holy Roman Empire DNA thrown in). Its opponent is Haranshar, the vast entity that rules about 2/3 of the continent of Aridikhos (name subject to change), a Sassanid analogue. And sandwiched between these two vast superpowers are the Korrayin who, in their mountains, are divided into four confederacies and numerous tribes. They’re basically the Late Antique Arabs, except in the mountains rather than the desert.

With this as the backdrop, a tiny little story I was working on–about a young cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and is forced to flee for her life–suddenly began to take on ever-greater dimensions, until her action became the catalyst for a continent-spanning conflict that could literally remake her world.

The result? Well, at this point there are roughly four strands of the novel as it currently exists. The three, more grounded strands are the brewing conflict between the two superpowers, Aïonis and Haranshar; the rise of the Korrayin as an unstoppable conquering army; and the rediscovery of a banned magical technology that involves the binding, through blood magic, of spirits of fire, air, and aethyr into the body of a human host to create an immensely powerful weapon (an obvious analogue of the development of atomic technology). These all take place against the backdrop of a brewing conflict between two essential forces, the creator god (known as the Creator, Ormazdh, or simply “The God” to its worshipers, Demiurge to its detractors) and the god of transcendence (known as Kagal, the Black Destroyer or Murash, the Great Lie to detractors and as Adonai to worshipers).

Through these continent-spanning narratives, I’ve tried to ask the big questions. What does it feel like to live at the end of an era? What happens when great powers become so ossified that they are destroyed from within and from without? How do the seemingly inconsequential actions of small people bring empires to their knees? I’m not sure how effectively or compellingly I’ve answered these questions, but I like to think that my work combines a good story with deeper musings.

In that sense, I think that it is appropriate that I’ve chosen to write in the genre of the epic which, perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, is equipped to delve into these questions in nuanced and detailed ways. As I continue to write the stories of characters such as Theadra, the cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and must flee for her life; Ishaq, a “barbarian” who sets out to avenge his father and claim the High Kingship of the Korrayin; and Bahram, a vizir who is a mere figurehead but yearns to redeem his family; I hope to do justice both to their individual stories and to the larger issues that they embody.

As such, I view my work as working against the (still-dominant) tendency to view fantasy as a low genre, incapable of asking the same deep questions as more literary genres. To my mind, some of the best, and most enjoyable, fantasy series are those that really make us think, that try to transform how we think about the world, our place in it, and our relationship to what has come before us and what will come after. There is so very much that fantasy fiction can do for us, if we but open up our eyes to the possibilities.

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