I’ve been reading a lot of medieval fantasy novels lately. My own first fantasy book (Den of Thieves, thanks for asking) is out now and I’m loving the genre. There’s something about medieval settings that appeal to me—the swords, the knights in clanking armor, the skullduggery and assassins lurking in dark walled cities. Don’t get me wrong, steampunk can be fun and fantasies set during the Roman Empire or the High Renaissance or urban fantasies all have their appeal but there’s just something so evocative in a story set in a time before gunpowder and antibiotics, a time when magic seemed so much more possible.
But if I read another fantasy book that has some steely-eyed young warrior saying “okay, let’s do this” while zipping up their tunics and pulling on their rubber-soled boots I’m going to throw it at the wall.
Don’t get me wrong. This is fantasy, not historical fiction I’m talking about. I’m more than willing to let you get away with a few anachronisms. Maybe there are rubber trees in your fictional fantasy kingdom, so, yeah, maybe they’ve got rubber soles on their shoes. And maybe, just maybe, somebody invented the zipper a couple hundred years early. And if you’re clever enough about it, I’ll even forgive you for using “okay” and 21st century idioms, if you claim the people in your book were speaking High Glantrian or some other language and you’re just translating it for an English-speaking audience.
But—and I don’t think this is just me—it feels like today’s authors are getting ridiculously sloppy. And it’s not because the Middle Ages are so hard to learn about. There are so many great books on the subject! Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century is widely available, and contains enough information about Medieval life to inspire a thousand fantasy novels. If you’re going to do barbarians or Vikings, The Sagas of Icelanders is ridiculously readable, as is Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Recent work in archaeology of the period has shown us what daily life was actually like for medieval peasants and kings. For Tolkien’s sake, buy a copy of Life in a Medieval Village or one of those books with lots of photographs they sell to kids!
Your book will be so much richer for it, and your readers will find the world of your book so much more compelling. The stories will just flow once you start reading about the actual Black Prince or Charlemagne or the life of Geoffrey Chaucer. You wanted to write a fantasy set in a medieval world—wasn’t there anything about that time and place that appealed to you originally?
I read everything I could get my hands on before I wrote Den of Thieves. I will not claim it is a 100% authentic depiction of medieval life—I had to make a lot of choices and leave a lot of things out and I got a lot of things just plain wrong. But every book I read contained some story that inspired me more than a stack of fantasy novels about medieval wizards who talk blithely about germ theory and Newton’s laws.
Of course, there’s one anachronism I’ll always forgive. Life for women and people of color was utter misery in the Middle Ages. If you want to have women in plate mail (who aren’t named Joan) and Jewish characters who aren’t libelous stereotypes, then by the hoary names of Howard and Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith, please be my guest. As much as I like a little historical respect in my books, I want them to be fun, too, and not just an endless litany of historical prejudices.
But if I catch any of you lot writing a scene where a medieval knight pulls a pocket watch out of his doublet, be assured of one thing. I will find you some day at a convention, and I will be brandishing a bunch of articles I printed out from Wikipedia. Consider yourselves warned.
- David Chandler