I write fantasy. Oh, it’s shelved under “General Fiction” at book stores, and reviewers catalogue my work as “historical fiction set in Antiquity”, but it is fantasy. Trust me. I wrote it so I should know, right? But, I expect you’re going to want an explanation on how I arrived at this. Okay, here it goes:
Nothing I write is truly historical; nor is anything written as fiction prior to, say, the Enlightenment. It is an echo, myth wrapped in the fleece of fact: in 525 BC, the army of Cambyses of Persia met the army of Pharaoh Psammetichus III at Pelusium on the Egyptian frontier; in 334 BC, Memnon of Rhodes defended the fortress-city of Halicarnassus from the scourge that was Alexander the Great; and in 1169 AD, Shirkuh ibn Shahdi of Damascus fought a battle against King Amalric of Jerusalem for control of the dying Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. These are all facts insofar as we can verify them through personal accounts, official chronicles, and the like. Where is the fantasy, then? Where is the myth? Like the Devil, it’s in the details. In the building of the world around these thin facts.
Not even the most adept author of fantasy creates his or her world whole-cloth. Middle-earth, the Hyborian Age, Narnia, Westeros . . . all of these are constructed from the bones of our shared history, from the cultural details, superstitions, martial urges, and even the topography. Fantasists carve up the past into puzzle pieces, reshape them, and put them back together in a manner pleasing to their art. What most people don’t understand is that writers of historical fiction do the very same thing. Honestly, do you think Leonidas of Sparta would recognize himself or his nation if he were to read Pressfield’s excellent Gates of Fire? The answer is an unequivocal and resounding NO. He would no more recognize himself than Caesar would, or Cleopatra, or Attila the Hun, or Memnon of Rhodes. Because what authors of historical fiction do, in reality, is to craft a fantasy world and fantasy characters from the exact same materials as Tolkien or REH or Lewis or GRR Martin would use. We, too, carve the past into pieces, but we tend to put it back in much the same order as we found it.
Why the segregation, then? Why am I off in General Fiction rather than with my brothers and sisters in Fantasy/SF? Mostly, it has to do with perception. Historical fiction set in Antiquity is perceived to be in some way different from heroic fantasy – perhaps it has a more respectable pedigree and none of that fanciful magic to obfuscate its genealogy. But, wait . . . have you ever read Gates of Fire? The narrator, Xeones, dies in battle, makes it to the shores of the River Styx, and is selected by the god Apollo to go back and tell the tale of Thermopylae. Later, we see Apollo help young Xeones out of a tight spot. No, some might say, that was nothing but an hallucination! No, friends – that was magic. Magic as clean and subtle as the sorcery you’d find in JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings. Antiquity is rife with sorcerers and mages, monsters and foul beasts; what we dismiss as myth and superstition was once the reality of mankind. And we tend to forget that.
I write fantasy. Historical sword-and-sorcery, to be precise. I research events, places, people, and cultural details. I craft stories from our shared heritage. I take what I need in order to make the worlds I’m creating come alive. And those worlds bear a striking resemblance to our own. But, never forget this: my visions of ancient Egypt, or ancient Greece, or medieval Cairo are not “historically accurate”. They are all (hopefully) well-constructed fantasy worlds where sorcery and swordplay intersect with familiar tropes from history. If readers ascribe a sense of realism to my fantasy worlds then I’ve done my job equally as well as those who have come before me.