My Feminist Call to Historical Fantasy

“Historical accuracy” seems like a strange phrase to bandy about when talking about fantasy. After all, this is the genre where anything can happen—where imagination is the limit, and where the rules of reality can be shattered, so long as the worlds that authors create are internally consistent enough for readers to understand the stakes. Yet high and epic fantasy, in particular, have long had an intimate relationship with history. These genres owe their very existence to the myths and legends of the past.

Some might call fantasy authors lazy and unimaginative for drawing so often from history, and it should be noted that many books in the genre bear no obvious resemblance to any historical period. For me and many others, however, the siren call of the past is strong.

Working on my novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, out now, I found that writing a “historical” fantasy allowed me to actively engage with history. Fantasy became a tool through which I could scrutinize, explore and challenge the past without the expectation that I would be faithful to every facet of it. It gave me leave to make informed decisions about what to transfer, what to re-imagine and what to abandon altogether.

History offers useful touchstones for fashion, technology and language. If a reader guesses that a fictional country is based on Renaissance Italy, for example, they can quickly conjure a rough mental image of it. In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien spoke of the importance of “secondary belief” in fantasy, and how some readers can be put off by the essential weirdness of the genre. “Many people,” he explained, “dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them.” The professor himself was clearly not too impressed with these people, but glints of the true past can help to ground a paracosm in such a way that readers are not too overwhelmed by new rules and phrases.

We know history occurred, and that makes a history-inspired world easy to accept—but the past is also strange enough to the modern audience as to spark our curiosity. By marrying the real and the imaginary, history can forge a link between author and reader and help to make the genre more accessible.

I reap a great deal of joy from research. Writing an epic fantasy allowed me to conduct that research in way I found more liberating and enjoyable than I suspect I would have had I been writing historical fiction—given that I’m such a detail-oriented perfectionist, that would have been a far longer and more rigorous process. Instead, my research for Priory became a flowing conversation: the past spoke to me from the yellowed pages of books, and I spoke back to it. I loved the thrill of chasing fine details that might add something to my world, the satisfaction when something fit perfectly into it. I spent a wonderful few days hunting for a material that would have been used in hats in a certain country at a certain time. I was learning, which appealed to the academic in me, but also exercising my creative muscles.

As a reader as well as an author, I also find joy in recognizing glints of history in the dark mirror of fantasy. Authors have long woven history into fiction, often to make veiled statements about both the past and the present, and I relish that treasure hunt when I read—trying to work out what an author has taken from history and why is an intellectual challenge.

But there is another side to the coin. An obsession with “historical accuracy” in fantasy is still used, in certain circles, to uphold the long reign of misogyny, racism and homophobia in the most ancient of genres. When Sansa Stark was raped in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, the outcry was countered by a small army of people insisting that the brutal violation was true to real life. Never mind that dragons and reanimated corpses and warlocks exist in Westeros—rape, apparently, is where authenticity matters.

Certain fantasy enthusiasts appear to believe with near-religious fervor that even in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. These are people who seem willing to bend over backwards to ensure that minorities never hold power, even in imagined realms, using history as their shield.

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. Feathers were ruffled when it emerged that you could pursue a same-sex relationship in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, even though homosexuality in Ancient Greece is well-documented.

To some, historicity means that we can add a secret global network of assassins—but we must not subtract heteronormativity. We can add dragons that breathe ice and fire—but we must not subtract rape.

There will always be a place for media that highlights the brutality and unfairness in the world as it once was, and often still is. Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again. At best, it can come across as a cheap and unimaginative way to generate conflict, and at worst, as a desire to keep turning oppression into entertainment.

Too often, non-majority characters are oppressed as if on autopilot out of a false allegiance to history. Now and again, it would be refreshing to step into a world in which characters who are not white, cis/het and male are not automatically cast as second-class citizens. These worlds do exist—but I want more of them. I want to root for female characters who rise above sexism, but I also want to see female characters who never have to deal with sexism at all. I want to build and envision that world. I want it to be presented to me.

Fantasy is the genre that grants us unlimited freedom to dream. History provides us with a well of inspiration to root, inform and enrich the fruits of our imaginations. Let’s stop using it as excuse to keep others from dreaming.


Samantha Shannon studied English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College in Oxford. The Bone Season, her first in a seven-book series, was a New York Times bestseller and the inaugural Today Book Club selection. The Mime Order followed in 2015 and The Song Rising in 2017; her latest, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is out this month. You can find Samantha on Twitter @say_shannon.