Fantasy sins all historians notice

We all have our pet peeves and favourite tropes. In some cases, our professional inclinations determine them. After all, years of rigorous training in one field inevitably shapes the way we grasp and interpret fiction. We can’t escape it. Professional deformation is real. It makes us shout, “This is not how heavy cavalry works!” and “What kind of idiot commands this unit?” every time we watch a historical show and every time we come across a dreaded fantasy battle that goes on and on and on for 100 pages. While some mishaps do not destroy immersion or ruin a decent story, there are those that stand out. So, yes, we will always notice(and sometimes love and hate) the following issues.

Oh, the dreaded fantasy battle!
  1. Not every big state is an ‘Empire’.

Big does not mean Imperial. It sounds cool, I admit it. Awesomeness does not make it logical. When a state is authoritarian or totalitarian, it’s not necessarily an Empire. When a state is big, it’s not necessarily an Empire. When a state is run by a dictator, it’s not necessarily an Empire. It is an Empire, when it has a sovereign, non-homogeneous population and vast territories that are not well connected (ok, these lines are becoming blurred in our turbulent times, but I focus on fantasy, not hard sci-fi here). An Empire is a political system, not a fancy way of describing a big country.

2. Unnecessary and/or ridiculous fantasy battles.

You don’t need to read The Art of War and Zhukov’s memoirs to nail a fantasy battle (although I highly recommend both). Fantasy military tactics is something that even the best or us manage to screw up. While it is difficult to write compelling (because you don’t want to write Zhukov’s memoirs unless you are Zhukov) and believable battles, it is easy to criticise them.

Poppy war with its’ brilliant chapter featuring guerrillas in a swamp (shaman-partisans!) offers a good example of a tactically sound action scene. However, all Nikan defence strategies (the lack thereof) make me wish I could fire half of their commanding officers and shoot the rest in from of the elite Sinegard Academy. How did they get their posts? Another burning question on my mind is “How did it happen that the only capable commanders in the whole Empire of Nikan are teenagers?”

Admittedly, the series is not about military strategy. It draws you in with mysteries and tragedies that are far more fascinating and thought-provoking than all the military affairs in the background. In general, I am wary of detailed fantasy battled and their detailed descriptions because they are incredibly difficult to pull off. And even if they are masterfully executed ( just thinking about the brilliant battle of the Blackwater in the Song of Ice and Fire series brings a smile to my face), I often wonder whether all that labour is necessary at all.  

3. ‘Crackpot’ technology that combines inventions from different centuries.

I don’t mind the ‘rule of cool’, but I notice when your Victorian steampunk novel has flintlock pistols, while glorious zeppelins float above your cities. It is even better when your medieval peasants from pseudo-Western Europe invent a submarine! Looks cool. Makes no sense.

There should be a helicopter behind this typewriter.

4. Diversity or the lack of it.

There should be logic behind your populations’ demographics. A good example of a demographically believable state is Staveley’s Annurian Empire, where very homogeneous regions interchange with diverse centres, featuring characters of all races, backgrounds, and religions. But not in all places. Both homogeneity and diversity are logically explained and fit in the historical context of the world.

Often, an author will have to clarify how all people got together but did not mix with each other to form some completely new race or community. Also, some political systems are diverse by nature, while others are not. An Empire is defined by non-homogeneity (national, racial, religious, etc.). A unitarian and isolationist state, on the other hand, will be more homogeneous. In any case, your populations’ demographics is as important as your magic system. Sometimes more than that.

6. Messy timelines.

Every time I hear about a war that lasted for 99999 years or an Empire that has endures 8888 years, I snort. Loudly. In truth, a thousand years of war will leave not just scorched land behind, but literally no survivors. A series of skirmishes can last for ages, a full-blown war – not so much. The same is true for states. There is no such thing as a stable political system that last a thousand years. Checking the timeline of any civilization can fix this problem.

A state may claim an ancient legacy. Sure. That does not mean the descendants are the same ancient people. Modern-day Greece is not the Greece of 5 B.C. And modern-day Bulgaria is not exactly the First Bulgarian Empire. Cultural legacies and popular imagination do the trick, but political formations do not endure that long. They transform and fail quicker than most of us expect.

7. Impractical costume porn.

Oh, my favourite uniforms from the Grisha Trilogy”! Really, did anyone ever ask themselve how they fight in boyar dolmans (ok, they are called Keftas, apparently derived from Kaftan) in the pseudo 19th century? Also, fencing in ball gowns is something half of fantasy heroines do on a regular basis. Gowns look good. I agree. This is more of a TV trope, but it still comes up in fantasy fiction ever so often. It is always fun to spot it.

Cool costumes are a must. Cool Slavic-inspired costumes.

8. Politicians, who have 0% approval rating.

This is an issue usually associated with Dark overlords in all types of media. When I watched W.I.T.C.H. as a kid, my first question was how the tyrannical and incapable Phobos holds his power despite his inefficiency and the overwhelming hatred he receives from his subjects. In general, you don’t need to be a Machiavelli to figure out how something in your policies does not work if 90% of your citizens are partisans, who are desperately trying to kill you. Ok, such systems can survive for a time. But they don’t endure long. Because those partisans will come after you. Oh, they will!

9. A fantasy novel featuring only monarchies and monarchs.

In many fantasy settings monarchies are literally the only political system present. Nowadays, this is slowly changing. (It’s about time!) First, monarchies, are in no way the most ideal form of government – whether absolute or parliamentary. Second, monarchies often crumble when an unsuitable ruler comes around. Third, not all fantasy words even should have monarchies, because there are many other interesting political systems to experiment with. Why not try them out?

10. Idiotic politicians.

I developed that idea in my previous post. And, yes, I still consider idiotic political intrigue to be a problem in very many otherwise decent works. I can’t list more than 5-8 capable and believable fantasy politicians. Glokta? Raistin Majere? Vilgefortz and Avallac’h from the Witcher series are somewhat there. Admittedly, the situation is way better with fantasy military minds – these ones rock! However, there is literally almost no one, whom I can call a fantasy Metternich or a fantasy equivalent of Cao Cao from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Where are they, really?

5 thoughts on “Fantasy sins all historians notice

  1. I totally agree! 😀
    You may want to try some military fantasy – especially Cook’s Black Company (Cook has the undeniable advantage of having actually been a soldier in US Navy/Marines).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the tip. The setting and the names have already charmed me. I still wonder why I’ve never read or even heard about the Black Company, although the series seems to be rather old and well-known. I read plenty of military sci-fi, but military fantasy has somehow passed under my radar.


  3. Great post! Creating a secondary world is a wonderful opportunity that most writers fail at, at least to a degree. I agree on all of your points and I’ve been looked at strangely for pointing out some issues like these in someone’s beloved novel 😉

    There is fantasy I love mostly for how realistic it is. How magic is seamlessly added to the sociology and technology of such worlds. McClellan and Tchaikovsky are among my favourite recent examples. McClellan matches magic against gunpowder (and revolutionary politics) in a very satisfying way, Tchaikovsky, in Shadow of the Apt, shows a magical WWII with accompanying arms race – until he goes too far in later volumes (Olag G disagrees on that final point).

    Naomi Novik’s dragon novels are an example of popular novels missing the point (for me). She puts dragons into Napoleonic Europe, but is very anachronistic in her portrayal of people’s mentality, and fails to realistically show how such powerful creatures would change the world.

    Have you read Sapkowski? Novel are much better than the Netflix series, definitely in their realism. Sapkowski is a huge history buff, knows a lot about middle ages, and I was very disappointed in how it’s all lost in adaptation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tchaikovsky is among my favorites, but I haven’t read anything from McClellan. Now I think I should definitely check him out – at least the first couple of books to see whether I can handle the revolution (because nothing is better than a well-organized revolution!) and the Croatian- Hungarian names that I fear will push my berserk buttons.

      I should have mentioned that realism can be tricky sometimes. I have read fiction that is more turgid than my dissertation (and my diss is unfortunately not Harry Potter). I understand the appeal and appreciate the work, but something like Ada Palmer hit too close to home, reminding me of my supervisor and his German ‘prose’.

      The Witcher adaptation was disappointing to me personally (although many seem to appreciate it). I even wrote an article about it for Tor last year. ( Whatever the filmed, it was not the Witcher. I can overlook some things, but the butchering of Vilgefortz is not one of them. Never.

      I was lucky enough to see Sapkowski once in Russia when I was doing my BA in Moscow (that was before he was translated into English, I think). I proudly asked a question in broken Polish and then spent the rest of the event with a dropped jaw because he spoke Russian better than 90% of the natives (actually, no, – better than 95%). I got a signed copy of the Tower of Fools and spent the rest of the day showing it to everyone around. They were impressed. Even my dad. And I still have the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I’ve read the Tor article, I just did not make the connection. I liked it a lot and generally agree with what you say.

        Brenna is one of my favourite fictional battles, and Sapkowski’s world – one of my favourite universes, maybe because it’s not only Middle Ages with magic, but also with a strong local feeling, this is the most Polish fantasy I actually like 🙂

        But I never went as far as to actually attend a meeting with Sapkowski, and I’m a Pole living in Poland. I envy you your signed copy!

        One more comment about realism – it’s not always required. There are great fairy tales, and I don’t mind if Arthur’s knights wear Gothic plate armour 😉 It’s bad when a novel tries to be realistic, and fails.

        Liked by 1 person

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