Revolutionary Fantasy

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The growing trend for black powder fantasy, combining gunpowder technology with magic, is creating a tiny pocket sub-genre that I consider particularly awesome – French Revolution-inspired fantasy. True, it’s not a full-blown trend – I’ve stumbled across two writers doing it so far – but I’m really hoping I get to see more.

At the moment I’m reading Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a story of warfare similar to that between France and her neighbours under the revolutionary government. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend Lascanne from the nation’s regicidal neighbours. There are touches of Vietnam war story in here as well, lots of questions about the rights and wrongs of war, and a strong cast of characters. It’s a fantastic read.

Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powdermage Trilogy, looks at revolution from the other side. A despotic government has just been overthrown, and the rebels must now try to establish order even as they face invasion by their neighbours. Most intriguingly it takes the traditional European belief that kings were divinely appointed and runs with it, asking what would happen after the revolution if the king really were tied to divine powers. There are some fascinating ideas here, and though not quite as gripping as Guns of the Dawn, it’s still an enjoyable story of politics and bloodshed.

You could also argue for including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in this selection. After all, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons, and without the revolution there is no Napoleon. Again, I like these books, but they lack the thing that’s made me really pay attention to the others – an exploration of how revolutions work out, or don’t, when you throw fantastical elements into the mix.

I love seeing fantasy get beyond its usual sword-wielding or urban fantasy territory and play with elements from other time periods. Now I’m hoping for lots more revolutionary fantasy – if you know of any, let me know in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Revolutionary Fantasy”

  1. I think technically Night Watch ( my favourite Pratchett ) is bordering on this one. It’s certainly Terry as Victor Hugo and immensely satisfying for it.

    Also there is an element of that to the Cold Magic series, the third of which is close to the top of my “to read” pile, after I finish this biography of Tamerlane…

    1. I really enjoyed the Napoleonic ear elements of Cold Magic, right down to the Napoleon substitute returning from exile – definitely gets aspects of this era.

      1. By the end of the second novel ( I haven’t started the third yet ) we are in a free city in the Carribean, caught on a fine balance between the powers of very human conquest and revolution and potent ancient magic. It’s an intriguing setup and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

  2. Years ago, I read Paula Volsky’s fantasy novel ILLUSIONS. The setting is based on France leading up to and during Revolution, even though it’s not “our world, plus magic.” Really good novel — I’ve read it at least 3 times. (That world’s equivalent to the guillotine is sentient. In fact, it’s one of a small class of magically powered machines referred to as Sentients. In the real French Revolution, executing people was sometimes spoken of as ‘sending them to Madame Guillotine,’ but in this novel it’s literal.)

  3. Started reading this post and was like, must remember to recommend ‘Promise of Blood’, as in my to read thoughts. I read Ian Tregillis ‘Bitter Seeds’ which was a good read, where magic and World War meet. Really good book about what is good and evil, and what people are willing to do to win. Of course, first of a trilogy.

    1. As a self-published author, I understand why almost everything is part of a trilogy or series, but one of the great joys of Guns of Dawn was that it was self-contained. With several series already half-read on my Kindle, it was great to read something completely self-contained and awesome.

      That said, Tregillis is creeping up my to-read list – The Mechanical looks fascinating too.

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