Historical Fantasy: A History, Part Two: The Present

By M. K. Hobson

Welcome to Part II of “Historical Fantasy: A History.” In Part I of this article, I presented a brief overview of the historical fantasy subgenre, offering a bit of background as well as detailing how it is currently experiencing a boom both commercially and critically.

This week, in an attempt to help the eager student of historical fantasy (in my imagination, he is named “Dudley” and wears a bow-tie) achieve a solid grounding in the classics, I present a suggested reading list by historical era. You’ll find some works that are indisputably seminal (e.g., Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley) as well as some lesser known works that bring something fresh and unique to the field. For brevity’s sake, in the case of extended series, I have generally just listed the first book. I am sure you’re all amply capable of finding the rest for yourselves.

I have also matched up these historical eras to a current list of “-punk” categories taken from the excellent work of author J.E. Remy (http://diewachen.com/2007/08/all-sorts-of-punk.html.). Per Remy, these works are best classed as “Timepunk”:

“Since the development of steampunk, several terms have been created to specify the time period and divergent themes of ‘gonzo-historical’ fiction. Timepunk, a term coined for the GURPS roleplaying game Steampunk, by William H. Stoddard, is arguably the most apt for describing the anachrono-futurist genre as a whole. In such tales, technologies stagnate around a specific technology—bronze, steam, diesel—which then becomes the major contributing factor to the advancement of humankind. Science advances, but only through the use of the specific technology, and the time period where the technology originated determines fashion, artistic styles, and religious belief.”

Using this definition as a guide, you’ll quickly discover that while I’ve listed a “-punk” (in fact, usually several) for each era, that does not mean that all the books in the suggested reading for that era are gonzo-historical or anarcho-futuristic. You’ll have to sort out which is which for yourself, Dudley. Now straighten your bow tie and get reading!

Prior to 3000 BCE (Stone Age)
Includes: Stonepunk
Suggested reading:
• The Land that Time Forgot, Edgar Rice Burroughs
• Great Sky Woman, Steven Barnes
• Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel
• White Mare’s Daughter, Judith Tarr
• Beyond the Gap, Harry Turtledove
• The Sarsen Witch by Eileen Kernaghan

3000 BCE – 1200 BCE (Bronze Age)
Includes: Bronzepunk
Suggested reading:
• The King Must Die, Mary Renault
• The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley
• Soldier of the Mist, Gene Wolfe
Stealing Fire, Jo Graham
• Lord of the Silver Bow, David Gemmell
• Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

1200 BCE – 400 AD (Iron Age)
Includes: Sandalpunk, Classicpunk, Ironpunk, Romepunk
Suggested reading:
• Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp
• Roman Dusk, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
• Roma Eterna, Robert Silverberg
• Household Gods, Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove
• Hand of Isis, Jo Graham

400 – 1500 (Middle Ages)
Includes: Candlepunk, Barrowpunk, Monkpunk, Castlepunk, Middlepunk, Dungeonpunk, Plaguepunk
Suggested reading:
• The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
• The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart
• Doomsday Book, Connie Willis
• The Hound and the Falcon, Judith Tarr
• The Once and Future King, T.H. White
• Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay

1500 – 1750 (Elizabethan/Renaissance/Enlightenment)
Includes: Clockpunk, Springpunk
Suggested reading:
• Mainspring, Jay Lake
• The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson
• Pasquale’s Angel, Paul J. McAuley
• Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
• Ink and Steel, Elizabeth Bear
• The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia

1750 – 1848 (Revolutionary Era/Napoleonic)
Includes: Regencypunk, Gothicpunk, Mannerspunk
Suggested reading:
• Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
• His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
• Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Susannah Clarke
• Sorcery and Cecelia, Patricia C. Wrede
• Marelion the Magician, Patricia C. Wrede
• Freedom & Necessity, Emma Bull & Steven Brust
• A Traitor the Crown, C.C. Finlay

1850s – 1900 (American Civil War/Industrial Revolution/Gilded Age)
Includes: Steampunk, Weird West, Gaslamp Fantasy, Cattlepunk, Desertpunk, Bustlepunk, Mannerspunk
Suggested reading:
• Time and Again, Jack Finney
• The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
• The Tales of Alvin Maker, Orson Scott Card
• Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin
• The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
• Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld
• Territory, Emma Bull
• Boneshaker, Cherie Priest
• Soulless, Gail Carriger

1900-1929 (WWI/The Roaring 20s)
Includes: Decopunk, Weimarpunk, Teslapunk
Suggested reading:
• The Prestige, Christopher Priest
• Moonshine, Alaya Johnson
• Ghosts of Manhattan, George Mann
• Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold

1929 – 1945 (The Great Depression/WWII)
Includes: Dieselpunk, Teslapunk, Blitzpunk
Suggested reading:
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
• Blackout, Connie Willis
• Germania, Brendan Mcnally
• Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis
• Shadows in the Mist, Brian Moreland
• Bloody Good, Georgia Evans
• The Vampire Files, P.N. Elrod
• The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

1945 – current (post WWII/Modern)
Includes: Noirpunk, Rocketpunk, Atomicpunk, Transistorpunk, Spacepunk,
Suggested reading:
• Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow
• Declare, Tim Powers
• Finch, Jeff Vandermeer
• The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross

Next week, in Part III, I will look at the future of historical fantasy, with a focus on up-and-coming authors and new works to watch for. I may also attempt a brief deconstruction of the current cultural factors driving the historical fantasy’s resurgence in popularity, unless I have a headache, in which case I will probably lie down with a cold compress instead.


M.K. Hobson is the author of THE NATIVE STAR, a historical fantasy romance. Set in an 1876 America where magic is a mostly-accepted part of society, it is currently available at fine booksellers nationwide. Please click on the image to learn more.

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