The Missed Opportunity of the 18th & 19th Century-Inspired Fantasy World: Guest Post from Civilian Reader

Hi All! This week we’re back on the blogger guest posts with an inspired post from Stefan Fergus over at Civilian Reader. I think you all know the drill right now, so, without further ado, here is Stefan on the 18th & 19th century-inspired fantasy world:

Is it just me, or are 18th/19th Century-style worlds absent from the fantasy genre? I don’t profess to have read every fantasy novel, so it could well be that I’ve missed a swathe of series and novels set in time periods inspired by the 18th and 19th Centuries. But, from my reading, I think their absence is a considerable oversight, and also an area for exploration and exploitation.

There has been much discussion as to why monarchic governments seem to prevail in second-world fantasy. People have lots of good, intelligent reasons for why it happens (which you can read here). But I have to admit, I am not persuaded. I am and have always been fascinated by the political history that has lead to modern Western democracies and how they have interacted with the world at large, and particularly Asia.

To pick just three Western examples: the American revolution, which created a new political system from scratch (there’s a reason it was and still is often referred to as the “American Experiment”), followed by the early years of consolidation, entrenchment, and eventual exploration; the French revolution, which was a dramatic series of bloody political upheavals as a nation attempted unsuccessfully to remake itself as a democracy; and then there’s Britain, which was quietly building up a Parliamentary system that made the monarchy more and more of a figurehead.

To me, these massive changes are ideal inspiration for a fantasy world. American history from around 1850-1910 (probably my favourite history topic), is rife with advancements, exploration, war, political intrigue, heinous acts, and so much more that could form the basis for a fantastical reality. During this period, the United States made first contact with Japan and China; China was carved up like a watermelon between the Western imperial powers; Japan reinvented itself in reaction to how advanced the West had become while it shut itself off from the world; there was the Boxer Rebellion.

Now, take any of these events and add in more fantastical elements: How would such a revolution work if the monarchs are where they are because they have magical power, either as well as or instead of a “Divine Mandate”? How does a non-magical proletariat overcome their magical overlords? How does a non- or not-strongly-magical parliament keep magical monarchs in check? Or what if the magic-users rise up from the proletariat? What if the Boxers really had been bullet-proof?

Democratic fantasy societies would not even have to divorce the importance of who is on the “throne” – it would just be a different kind of throne (a presidency, perhaps). True, political machinations are less flashy than invasion and all-out-war, but who ever said they had to be bloodless? If you wish to keep a single tyrant as a handy, focal plot device, why not relocate the tyrant off the throne and into the shadows of a (nominal) democracy? Someone pulling strings behind the curtains? Evil fantasy lobbyists, if you will?

The attendant corruption and drama that came with democracy, similar to and yet more complex than monarchical corruption, are ripe for exploitation in the fantasy genre. Throw in magic and other races/species, and you have a mélange that is part of what makes fantasy so weird and wonderful.

Thank you so much for this Stefan, from all of us at JFB! And if you, dear reader, fancy taking a gander at some more of Civilian Reader’s insights into fantasy, you can check out his blogger site here. Have you got a period you think is under-explored in fantasy? Post your comments here!


  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Hi Stefan
    I think there is a fair amount of that fantasy out there, but there is less than there is of other eras in history. The Death of the Necromancer, by Martha Wells, comes right to mind.

  2. @Paul – thanks for the suggestion! Martha Wells’s novels are on my wishlist, waiting for a free moment. 🙂
    General addendum:
    I think I should have been clearer about “secondary world vs. altered reality” – so, instead of literally taking the events I mention and just adding fantastical elements (as, for example, Naomi Novik does with the Napoleonic War; or D.B. Jackson’s recent “Thieftaker”), of which there are indeed a fair few,  I meant worlds created wholesale, but influenced by these times. I have no doubt that there are novels out there that have been inspired by these centuries, but they get nowhere near the attention of earlier-inspired secondary worlds. Which is what I was trying to get.
    Sorry for the lack of clarity.

  3. I think the reason that recent history has been largely overlooked as a sources of inspiration is that the medieval and Renaissance periods are far enough in the past to be romanticised into escapism. I know that one of the reasons I dropped history at 14 was that the O-level syllabus focused on 19th-century politics – ugh!
    Conversely, steampunk has come in for a lot of criticism lately precisely because it romanticises the period (the “corsets and airships” approach) and totally ignores the unpleasant side of imperialism. The Edwardian period in England had the biggest class divide in recent history – e.g. a shockingly large percentage of the working-class men signing up for WWI were chronically malnourished and unfit for service.
    GRRM brought a gritty approach to medieval politics – maybe it’s just a matter of time before the same happens to post-industrial history?

  4. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    This gets back to the “Diana Warrior Princess” issue.  In a few hundred years, our times will be romanticized and transmorgified into fiction often at loggerheads with reality.  
    So, time, I think, is the key here.

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