Historical vs Fantasy Fiction

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-12-51-17-pmAs a boy I loved fantasy fiction and disliked historical novels. Now I’m middle-aged it seems to be the reverse. Why is that? Having just waded through two massive tomes – Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones – I suspect it’s not all about genre.

A Place of Greater Safety is Mantel’s epic first novel focusing on several principal figures from the French Revolution – Robespierre, Danton, et al. In spite of its length, I enjoyed the book on several levels. I enjoyed the history for a start; what I believed to be a well-researched presentation of characters and events. I also enjoyed the imaginative filling in of the gaps – the undocumented events, private conversations, personal thoughts and feelings. And, once I’d got used to it, I enjoyed Mantel’s writing style; often terse, fragmentary, at times formatted like a play script, and littered with direct quotes from contemporary letters and public records.

By contrast, I thought A Game of Thrones, set in its semi-magical quasi-medieval kingdom, is an interminable soap-opera of a book full of one-dimensional stereotypical characters. I found the whole riding-into-battle-on-a-dragon theme a turn-off. What is more, Martin’s literary style is pretentiously archaic and packed full of clichés.

Now, what exactly is my problem?

Possibility 1: I’m a snob.

Perhaps. Fantasy fiction, along with horror and sci-fi, is perceived as inferior to historical and other ‘more serious’ fiction, a perception berated by former Booker prize winner and, lately, fantasy fiction author Kazuo Ishiguro (Guardian: ‘Writers’ indignation’). Both genres, by definition, are fantasy at least in part.

In my defence, I still adore C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books and even as an adult I couldn’t put Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy down. Does that count?

Possibility 2: I prefer well-written books.

If it’s a good story and it’s well told then the genre shouldn’t be a hurdle. Isn’t the trouble that fantasy fiction is just poorly written? The usual defence against that claim is to cite The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the two books – Mantel’s and Martin’s – are an unfair juxtaposition. Of course, there’s no denying that J.R.R. Tolkien was a great writer and storyteller, and no doubt there are others. But when people recommend good fantasy fiction I often suspect they mean popular, easy to read, rather than well-written. If it’s the former, fair enough, but let’s not mistake popularity for quality.

Possibility 3: I prefer history.

The book that really got me hooked on historical fiction was nothing quite so weighty as a Hilary Mantel novel. It was A Morbid taste for Bones by Ellis Peters – really a murder mystery dressed up as historical fiction.

From there I went on to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough and a score of others, as varied in style and quality as they are in era and locations. I’ve travelled the world and flown back and forth through the ages more times than Doctor Who (possibly too bold a statement to make).

And now a confession: I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings – although I did read part of The Hobbit as a boy. All those wizards and elves and magic rings, I simply can’t see the appeal.

On the other hand, maybe the appeal of the Narnia stories and Pullman’s trilogy is that the central characters are children from this world entering another. Maybe I just need a bit of my world for the story to be plausible, or at least in order for me to suspend my disbelief.

Hang on! Historical novels are set in what, for us, are ‘other worlds’. Ah, but the difference is we are told those worlds do exist (or did exist) and that the events may have happened as described. What captures my imagination is that they possibly existed, possibly happened.

Possibility 4: I like to be educated.

Food: the better it tastes the more we enjoy it, and if we know it’s also good for us then even better.

So, too, with books? Surely, the best books not only entertain but give us something more. Even Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books, undemanding escapism as they are, left me wanting to know more about monastic life, monarchic struggles and all things medieval. Perhaps historical fiction appeals more to the well-educated reader (and, indeed, the writer) because educated people like to be educated – and it’s how they become better educated.

And yes, whilst a good fantasy novel might have much that can be learned allegorically, a good historical novel can do that and more. Not only did I come away from reading A Place of Greater Safety knowing more about the French Revolution, which instinct tells me is more useful than being an expert on the wars and tribulations of the seven kingdoms of Westeros; but more than that, I can drop that knowledge like the piece of a jigsaw into my existing knowledge; the more I read, the clearer the picture becomes.

I enjoy it and it’s good for me. I’m happy.

Possibility 5: All of the above.

Very possibly.


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