The Magic of History

Sometimes it seems as if Fantasy and Historical Fiction each exist in their own little corner of the literary universe, each side snarling at the other for perceived pedantry or lack of intellectual rigor. Relatively few authors dare to blend the two genres, which has always been surprising to me considering some of the oldest works of western civilization were a mixture of fact and fancy.
Today I’m pleased to introduce you to a kindred spirit, Beth Bernobich, who has made a splash with her debut novel, PASSION PLAY. I asked Beth what prompted her to blend these two genres and here is her fascinating story:

THE MAGIC OF HISTORY

by Beth Bernobich

A number of people have asked me why I write historical fantasy and not historical fiction set in the real past. Or even stories set in today’s world. I had to think about that for a while. Was I cheating by making up a past, instead of researching the real history? After all, everyone knows that “fantasy writers just make everything up.”

(To be accurate, all writers “make everything up,” but you know what I mean.)

So the first question: why history?

Years ago, I took a college class where our goal was to recreate the years leading up to the American Revolution. The professor assigned us each a character to play—some were genuine historical figures, like Samuel Adams or King George III, some were characters representative of the times. The professor himself took the role of Omnipotent Being and whatever other minor roles were needed. The class spent a month researching the people and the times, and more specifically, their own characters. The last two weeks of the class, we met in separate classrooms—British and Colonialists—to play out the next ten years. Talking, yes, but also sending letters back and forth, arguing for loyalty, or not, and once staging a protest to the Royal Governor. While we were required to act true to the times and the people involved, we were not restricted to what actually happened. In fact, our professor started things off by changing the outcome of the French and Indian War.

It was like collaborating on a story in real-time—a story set in history, but one with enough details altered that we had the potential to create something new.

(And we did try to change history. We Colonialists did our best to avoid a revolution. Alas, in spite of our best efforts, we ended up having one two years early.)

At the end of the month, the Colonialists and British met in the college’s executive boardroom to talk about the class. Except we weren’t talking, we were on our feet yelling at each other, furious about perceived wrongs, imperialist oppression, troublesome colonialists, and more. The professor sat at the head of the table, grinning his Omnipotent Being grin. When we were finally quiet, he said, “Now you understand why the revolution happened.”

From that moment on, I was hooked.

History isn’t about dry lists of battles or politicians. History, as the class showed me, is about why things happened. To understand that, you need to know the interconnections between culture and war, between technology and medicine, between all the facets that make up our lives. You need to know about the people in their time, and you especially need to know what passions they held.

And if you understand what happened then, you can better understand what’s going on today.

So why historical fantasy?

It goes back to that history class.  I loved how we altered bits of history to create something new. I loved how we could use rigorous research right along with our imaginations. Then I discovered there was fiction just like that class, and that was magic times a hundred. So I started writing all kinds of fantasy that blended with history. Sometimes I’d build the new history into secret corners of the real world. My story “Air and Angels” takes place in Edwardian England, but with aliens. Or it’s our world, but with an alternate history line, such as my story “The Golden Octopus,” where Ireland is the powerful empire, and England one of its dependencies.

But sometimes, I need to write the history myself. In my series from Tor Books, which starts with the novel Passion Play, I wanted to weave in the themes of fate vs. free will, of second chances, and the echo of actions throughout centuries. So I decided to create my own world, with its own history, and with characters who had lived through multiple lifetimes.

When Passion Play starts, it starts small and intimate—focusing on the main character and her personal desires. As the book goes on, she learns more about the world around her, sometimes in horrifying ways, but she also learns hints about her previous lives. In the sequel, Queen’s Hunt, she learns many more details of her past lives, and how that past helped shape the world of the present. In the final book of the trilogy, Allegiance, it’s time for her to create some new history of her own.

(Note: If you’d like to get a flavor of the novels, my story “River of Souls” on Tor.com is set in the same world as Passion Play, but set four hundred years earlier. It centers around Ilse’s favorite poet, Tanja Duhr.)


Beth Bernobich fell into a fantasy world several years ago and discovered she liked it there just fine. Her first novel, Passion Play, recently appeared from Tor Books in October 2010, and her first YA is forthcoming from Viking in Summer 2011. For more information, check out her website at www.beth-bernobich.com.