The trouble with historical fiction

A good historical drama is worth the price of 10 textbooks. It is also the most difficult genre to get right. To really go deep into a past time is a minefield of things you can get wrong.

The most challenging thing is to get the mentality. One of the worst sins to my mind is to take modern characters and put them against a classical theatrical backdrop. People from the past did not think like we do and people in the future won’t think like we do either. Pick up an old drama, particularly from a non-western culture. The first thing to strike is the difference in priorities.

Take some of the old Victorian dramas or in India, any of the pre-independence era novels. What emerges is a concern for what other people think that would be considered pathological by modern standards. Society is shown not as something to belong to but something that is a source of constant judgement and oppression.

One of my favorite works of speculative fiction is Aliette De Boddard’s Obsidian and blood trilogy. On the face of it, this is a straight fantasy in an Aztec setting. The gods and demons of the world are considered real and the stage is more Dungeons and Dragons than History. But the book succeeds because it answers a basic question. Why were the Aztecs so bloodthirsty?

The Aztec empire has a particularly bad reputation for bloodletting and sacrifice. Part of this was colonial propaganda by the Spanish conquistadors who wanted to show the Aztecs on the worst possible light to justify their own rapacious plundering of their empire. But also there was an underlying sense of fear and insecurity. Of living in a hostile environment surrounded by enemies. Of a culture on the edge.

So it was that the Aztecs developed a uniquely terrifying mythology. A set of rituals where even the king had to periodically sacrifice his own blood to ensure the security and prosperity of the realm. It is this sense of fear that De Boddard’s work captures so well.

Another good example of capturing the spirit of the place is Micheal Shaara’s The Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg and the thoughts and motivations of the people who fought it. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius also succeeded in interleaving facts with credible fiction. The result is often something which illuminates as much as it entertains.

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