Chopping books into finer and finer categories of sub-genre should never become a dogmatic exercise. But sometimes it can be helpful, as writers and as readers, to have a sense of a book’s internal logic. When I sit down to start planning a new historical fantasy, I ask myself: What’s different about the world, and who knows about it?
There’s something askew about the world I’m writing about, or it wouldn’t be speculative fiction. It’s our world, but different.
Next question: Who knows about this?
Option 1: Secret history. Only certain people know about the existence of magic or the supernatural element. It is not reported in the newspapers. World events unfold largely as they did in our own history. The fantastic element doesn’t change the course of our history, it explains it. The author’s invented plots happen behind closed doors, off the official record.
Option 2: Alternate history. Everyone knows about the fantastic element, whether it’s magic, or dragons, or sentient IKEA furniture. People talk about it at the breakfast table. The historical record is already different from our own, so anything’s possible.
An example of an alternate-history fantasy is The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, which posits a 20th-century Paris that has been ruined by a long magical war. An example of secret history is Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, in which the existence of vampire-like creatures explains real events in the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists of the 19th century.
You can have alternate history that isn’t fantasy. Alternate history answers the question, what if? What if the dodo never went extinct? What if Berlin was never divided? One great example of alternate history that doesn’t contain any supernatural elements is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, which considers what would have happened if the United States had provided land in Alaska for Jewish refugees during the Second World War. All the laws of physics still apply, in this kind of alternate history. The only speculative element there is at a meta-level, in the positing of a different timeline.
You can also have secret history that isn’t fantasy. In fact, most or all of what gets shelved as “historical fiction” falls into this category. All the big, documented events are unchanged, but the behind-the-scenes conversations may be invented, and to some extent, the characters and their motivations are the product of the writer’s imagination. If a minor plot point deviates from history, it’s for reasons of artistic license, not speculative world-building. Hilary Mantel’s brilliant book Wolf Hall is an example of secret history without fantastic elements. It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII.
I write both kinds of historical fantasy.
My first novel, Armed in Her Fashion, is coming out in May, 2018. It is very much an alternate history; early on, this line appears: “In the year of our Lord 1326, a woman drove the beast called Hell up to the surface of the Earth.”
My second novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is a secret history, scheduled for 2019 or 2020. It posits that real historical events in London in 1703 can be attributed to witchcraft, and that the true history has been kept secret.
Both approaches to historical fantasy—alternate and secret—have their appeal. Both explore the uncanny valley between the familiar and unfamiliar. In both cases, writers have to wrestle with how the supernatural affects the world. In alternate history, that often means applying the changes to the world itself. In secret history, that means coming up with reasons why the wider world hasn’t changed, despite the existence of the supernatural within it.
Alternate history reminds us how fragile history is. It illuminates the strangeness of real history by showing that our world might not be as different as we think. Take the magician Jonathan Strange’s rather fraught declaration (in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) that while a magician might be able to kill a man by magic, “a gentleman never could.” Even in a world where everything’s different, everything’s the same.
Secret history reminds us that the causes that move history are sometimes private and unseen. It illuminates the strangeness of history by showing that supernatural explanations are no weirder than real life: take, for example, Dante Gabriel Rossetti opening his wife’s grave to retrieve a book of poems, a real event that figures in Hide Me Among the Graves. Is it weirder to imagine that there was something supernatural going on, or that there wasn’t?
Kate Heartfield is a writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her first novel, a historical fantasy called Armed in Her Fashion, is coming from ChiZine Publications in May. Her interactive fiction based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Road to Canterbury, is coming this spring from Choice of Games. She has two time-travel novellas on the way from Tor.com, and is the author of one novella in the collection Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World, from Abaddon Books. Her short fiction has appeared in places such as Lackington’s, Strange Horizons and Podcastle. Website: heartfieldfiction.com. Twitter: @kateheartfield