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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition (Wasn’t That Bad)

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition (Wasn’t That Bad)

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G. Willow-Wilson author photo by Amber French for SyFy.com

Since this column began this year, we’ve looked at the visual continuity of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (and why, ironically, it does a better job of wordlessly telling the sweep of Middle Earth’s history than Tolkien’s millennia-long, cultural stasis does), authenticity (and lack thereof) in The Witcher, and talked about the commonalities and differences of historical fiction and fantasy with several, excellent authors who work in both arenas. Along the way, I’ve coined a few loose terms (or rather, put existing ones into a hierarchy):

  1. Historical Fiction — Stories set in our world, but in generations prior to ours, generally just on the edge, or earlier, of living memory.
  2. Historical Fantasy — Stories set in the same milieu as the above, but with fantastical elements, sometimes very subtle (a lot of magical realism falls in here), sometimes not so — urban fantasy set in bygone eras, alternate history with vampires, or magic works, or orcs, etc. The world is clearly our own, so the fantastical elements can’t too dramatically upset that balance.
  3. Low Fantasy — Stories set in a secondary world, that is “realistic” to varying degrees but generally follows the real world in terms of technology, laws of physics, etc. A great deal of old-school Sword & Sorcery, and modern Grimdark fit in here.
  4. High Fantasy — sky is the limit. The secondary world has its own peoples, its own laws, and it is whatever the author wishes it to be. Anything from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Zelazny’s Amber, the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan all fit here.

In the future, we’ll look at these “big themes” and interviews with authors once more. But it’s time to look at how actual works play with these ideas, to varying degrees of success. And here is the trick: success as a novel, does not necessarily mean success as history. In these next two columns, I’m going to look at two authors whose work I really enjoy — and talk about why a particular work of theirs just didn’t work for me. In one case, because of a failure of historical authenticity; in the other, because of too much slavish devotion to it.

First up, The Bird King, by G. Willow-Wilson.

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Neverwhens: Where History and Fantasy (Careers) Collide — an Interview with Christian (and Miles) Cameron

Neverwhens: Where History and Fantasy (Careers) Collide — an Interview with Christian (and Miles) Cameron

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Christian Cameron as a Hoplite

Christian Cameron, a well-known historical fiction author who writes espionage novels under the pen name Gordon Kent and fantasy under Miles Cameron, is a Canadian novelist who was educated and trained as both an historian and a former career officer in the US Navy. His best-known work is the ongoing historical fiction series Tyrant, set in Classical Greece, which by 2009 had sold over 100,000 copies. But in recent years he’s not only chronicled ancient Greece, but 14th-century European history — military, chivalric, and literary — in England, France, Italy, and Greece and roughly in parallel with the career of Chaucer’s knight (the Chivalry series). And, as Miles Cameron, he also writes fantasy with the Traitor Son tetralogy and Masters & Mages trilogy.

Cameron is a passionate reenactor, and uses the experiences of reenacting, including knowledge of the material culture and the skill sets required to recreate any portion of life in the past as essential tools in writing his novels. Cameron helps organize and direct military and non-military reenactments in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition to recreating the life of an early 5th-century BCE Plataean Hoplite, Cameron also runs a group dedicated to the role of rangers and Native Americans in the American Revolution, and participates in tournaments as a knight of the late 14th century. One such tournament is the Deed of Alms, an annual HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) charity tournament hosted in Toronto to combat homelessness.

GDM: So you’ve had a long and very successful run as an historical fiction writer before adding fantasy to your repertoire. Which genre was your first love?

CC: Fantasy all the way.  Except Dumas’ Three Musketeers, which is to me the greatest adventure novel ever written. I had a friend who was seriously in to ‘Old School’ fantasy; Lord Dunsany, Tolkien, E.R. Eddison, Robert E Howard… etc.  Amazing stuff.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide

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Fantasy and Science Fiction are often viewed as two distinctive, though related, forms of speculative fiction, but in reality, the genre is a continuum in which the dreamscapes of a Lord Dunsany or Robert Holdstock can lead us through twisting turns of possibility until we arrive at Andy Weir and Ian Banks, or a Neal Stephenson story of “digital resurrection” can turn into a story of gods, goddesses and quests.

The central theme, the true “Call of Cthulhu” behind good speculative fiction is not “swords, sorcerers or blasters,” but the author’s ability to take the reader out of the comfort of our mundane world, and by introducing varying degrees of what-ifs, neverwhens or neverwheres to take us on inward journey that stimulates our imagination, our sense of wonder, our ability to consider this spinning rock we live on today. Of course, what I am talking about is “world-building.” The world building may be subtle, introducing only the smallest tweaks to reality, or it may be the all-encompassing sweep of foreign lands, peoples and languages, most famously represented by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

There are a lot of ways to tackle world-building, but this column is going to focus on one: historicity in fantasy fiction. Full disclosure: I have a background in medieval history and have spent most of my adult life meticulous reconstructing medieval martial arts from primary source material. So, I’m a nerd. For the average fantasy reader, an obvious pushback is “it’s fantasy, Greg, what does it matter?” I am glad I asked for you!

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A Medieval Castle and Spanish Civil War Bunker on the Outskirts of Madrid

A Medieval Castle and Spanish Civil War Bunker on the Outskirts of Madrid

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In a previous post about Spanish castles I wrote six years ago, I talked about the Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, a fifteenth-century castle on the northeastern fringes of Madrid. Back then it was rather neglected, standing as an enigmatic ruin in the middle of a field. Now it’s been restored and has opened as a museum.

The site first became important in the 12th century with the founding of two towns in the area, Barajas and La Alameda. Together they became the manor of the Mendoza family in 1369, only to be transferred to the Zapata family in 1406.

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Archaeological Discoveries Beneath Valencia, Spain

Archaeological Discoveries Beneath Valencia, Spain

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A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic

Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.

With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.

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A Medieval Synagogue in Toledo, Spain

A Medieval Synagogue in Toledo, Spain

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In my last post, I talked about an early Christian church and some Visigothic remains in Toledo in central Spain. Toledo was a mix of cultures during the Middle Ages, with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities all leaving their mark. The city is home to an excellent Sephardi Museum housed in a medieval synagogue.

The synagogue was founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, Royal Treasurer to King Pedro of Castile and León. It was attached to Abulafia’s palace and intended as a private house of worship.

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Medieval Wall Paintings and Visigothic Artifacts in Toledo, Spain

Medieval Wall Paintings and Visigothic Artifacts in Toledo, Spain

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Portion of a Visigothic sarcophagus, with scenes from the Bible

Enough about the Western Desert of Egypt! Let’s pull the sand out of our teeth, bid the mummies goodbye, and go to Toledo, Spain. You can eat pork, drink wine, and see some historic churches.

One of the most interesting is the Iglesia de San Román.

This church dates to the early 13th century, and like many buildings in town was built atop earlier structures. Before the church there was a mosque, and before that a Visigothic church. There may have been a Roman building before that. Its interior is in the Mudéjar style, a Moorish influenced architectural style that has continued in Spain until the modern day.

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Treasures of the Archaeological Museum, Córdoba, Spain

Treasures of the Archaeological Museum, Córdoba, Spain

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Funerary stela, Roman, middle of the first century AD

In past weeks we’ve looked at the historic city of Córdoba, Spain–its famous mosque/cathedral, its castle, and other sites. To wrap up this miniseries, let’s look at the city’s excellent archaeological museum. Like many local museums in Spain, it covers a broad range of history from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. It is especially strong in Roman artifacts, and is in fact built on some Roman ruins that can be seen in the basement.

I love these local museums because you get to see just how long people have been living at some of these places. The museum in Córdoba is especially well presented and has some interesting pieces from the city and the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

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The Alcázar of Córdoba: A Spanish Castle Full of Roman Mosaics

The Alcázar of Córdoba: A Spanish Castle Full of Roman Mosaics

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In many of Spain’s oldest cities, history comes in layers.

Dominating the southern skyline of Córdoba is the alcázar, a castle that takes its name from the Arabic word for fort, al-qasr. This medieval Christian castle/palace was built atop the foundations of an earlier Muslim palace, which was built atop the foundations of a Visigothic fortress, which was built atop the remains of a Roman governor’s palace, which was built atop. . .who knows?

The earliest structures all but vanished after the Moors expanded the building into a palace with a large garden, which was used by the local rulers until the Christians retook the city in 1236. In 1328, Alfonso XI of Castile began construction of a larger fortress on the site, although he maintained the luxuriant gardens of the Moorish palace as well as building generous living quarters. Even though the Christians demolished the majority of the original structure, the new building looked pretty Islamic thanks to the introduction of the Mudéjar style, an enduring Spanish architectural style that takes its inspiration from Moorish designs. Even some early twentieth century buildings near by house in Madrid are in this style.

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Strolling through Córdoba, Spain

Strolling through Córdoba, Spain

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The Calahorra tower, on the far side of the Guadalquivir River
from Córdoba, protects access to the Roman bridge. It was
originally built in the Islamic period and rebuilt in 1369

Last week I wrote about the magnificent mosque/cathedral of Córdoba. While that’s the city’s main draw, there’s plenty else to see in this historic place. In fact, the entire city center, where most of the old buildings are, is one big UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The area, next to the Guadalquivir River, has always been inhabited. Evidence of Neanderthals has been found, as well as all the major phases of prehistory. A small prehistoric settlement became a city under the Carthaginians, who called it Kartuba. When the Romans conquered it in 206 BC, the name morphed into Corduba. Under the Romans, the city thrived, becoming the cultural and administrative center of Hispania Baetica. Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger, and Lucan all came from Córdoba. It was briefly under Byzantine rule from 552-572 AD before falling to the Visigoths.

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