Though typically perceived as distinct, if not mutually exclusive forms, historical fiction and speculative fiction are in many respects close genre cousins. Each seeks to recreate a time and place impossible to visit in the flesh, though the former does so by conscientiously exploring actual past events while the latter is the product of pure fancy. When a work of historical fiction makes use of medieval or ancient cultures, those cultures' more widespread beliefs in magic and tangible religious phenomena add an even greater fantastical seasoning to the mix. This is particularly true when stories are set in the ancient world, when pantheons of gods and mythical beings were often believed to walk among humans or otherwise directly impact daily life. But as will be seen, one need not delve so far back as this; even societies whose cultural and religious beliefs more closely resemble our own often provide ample room for the speculative. Supplement this with a generous helping of swordplay and epic battle sequences, and the result is often one that should sate even the most voracious fantasy appetite.
Case in point: Bernard Cornwell's The Pale Horseman, set in 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Britain. This is not a fantasy novel; like nearly all of Cornwell's books, it is strictly historical fiction—something you'll find in the "literary" section of your local bookstore rather than in the SF/F section, where Douglas Clegg's Mordred, Bastard Son sits. The second book in a new series about Alfred the Great and his attempt to form a united, Christian England, The Pale Horseman picks up where the previous book—The Last Kingdom—left off. Specifically, with invading Danish warriors having already overrun the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, Alfred must defend the sole remaining Saxon kingdom of Wessex against increasing raids on its west coast and eventually against a full-scale Viking invasion when the Danes break the tenuous truce Alfred had forged. The novel tracks Alfred's attempts to rally his scattered forces to take back his kingdom, a struggle culminating in the Battle of Ethandun. The story is told through the eyes of Uhtred, a native Northumbrian captured and raised by the invading Danes but now married to a Saxon woman and in the service of Alfred.
Notwithstanding Cornwell's real-world setting, pseudofantastical elements abound. The clearest example is the character Iseult, a young woman whom Uhtred takes as a mistress during a raid along the western coast of Cornwall. Among the native Britons still living in the region, Iseult is revered and feared as a "shadow queen"—one born with the ability to see the future and skilled in various forms of folk magic. She falls in love with Uhtred, but her periodic ability to see events before they unfold proves both a blessing and a curse as Uhtred finds himself made alternately indecisive or recklessly emboldened by her visions. And once Iseult is brought by Uhtred into the fold of Alfred's displaced kingdom, the clash of pagan and Christian cultures becomes acute, coming to a head when Alfred's young son, Edward, grows gravely ill and his devout Christian parents must decide whether to trust in Iseult's ritual magic as a last, desperate resort.
Uhtred's own polytheistic adherence to the gods of the Danes also adds a flavor of the fantastic; he gives offerings to the sea gods after success in naval skirmishes, frequently fingers the Thor's hammer amulet he wears about his neck for luck or protection, etc. Though these practices were quite real at the time, they feel fantastical to modern sensibilities that have been shaped by monotheistic hammer blows. But the 9th-century Christians also get in on the act, with, for example, the belief that God could reveal the guilt or innocence of one accused through the act of trial by combat and the widespread belief in the magical power of saints' relics. Even Alfred, seeking to exhaust all of his options before contemplating whether to ask the pagan Iseult to treat his sick child, gives up one of his most precious Christian relics—a feather from the dove that Noah released from the ark—which he burns and mixes with holy water for his son to drink.
Of course, unlike true fantasy writing, in which the reader knows the magic actually works, here everything is subject to mundane explanation—coincidence, self-fulfilling prophecy, natural phenomena, etc. But that's half the fun and what makes The Pale Horseman such a rewarding read—seeing how Cornwell deftly integrates the characters' belief in the supernatural with his always meticulous historical detail and gritty realism.
In contrast, magic—true magic that really works—takes center stage in Douglas Clegg's latest novel, Mordred, Bastard Son. When it comes to tales of King Arthur, the recent trend has been one of restoring the legend to its historical roots. Novelist Jack Whyte has done so quite successfully (the Camulod Chronicles), and indeed, before writing his Saxon series, Bernard Cornwell employed this approach in his own Arthurian novels (the Warlord Chronicles). While this archeological approach is important to the evolution of the Arthurian tradition, with Clegg's new book we see a refreshing return to the myth and magic of the legends. Mordred is in many ways a fairy tale—more so even than Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, steeped as Bradley's book is in pagan ritual and contact with the fairy realm. Clegg's approach recalls Sir Thomas Mallory, Chrétien de Troyes, and even Edmund Spenser at times; his setting is never made temporally explicit but rather melds Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and high medieval British elements, resulting in a sort of timeless land that never was but which everyone familiar with the myth of Camelot will recognize.
And yet, the bulk of this first volume in Clegg's planned trilogy does not take place in Britain at all. Fleeing from Arthur, the half-brother who impregnated her and would now kill her and the unborn, bastard child who a prophecy indicates will destroy his kingdom, Morgan le Fay makes her way to the forest of Broceliande across the channel in Brittany. Like Iseult in The Pale Horseman, she finds the old ways of her people are increasingly out of place in Britain. Broceliande, however, hides the Isle of Glass within the caverns of the Lady of the Lake, and here, her son Mordred is born and lives out his young life as a student of the mage Merlin. This is a magical place populated by druids and priestesses, by the Eponi horsemasters who serve the goddess Epona, and by such fanciful beasts as the demonic boars of Moccus. The very gates to Annwn—the fairy otherworld and land of the dead—are to be found within the confines of Broceliande.
History and fantasy aside, however, both Mordred, Bastard Son and The Pale Horseman are also coming-of-age tales. This is particularly true in Mordred, which is foremost the exploration of a young man's journey from childhood to adulthood and his growing romantic and sexual attraction toward other men. The journey is deftly handled by Clegg through a succession of emotionally charged vignettes and the narrator's ongoing introspection, all of which result in beautifully bittersweet sentiment and a convincing expression of Mordred's deep longing, which cries out despairingly and often palpably from the page. Cornwell's protagonist also matures, from the reckless, often selfish young man introduced in The Last Kingdom, into a more sober adult. But like Mordred, Uhtred is an outsider—something of a misfit, a man without a country—and his maturation is hampered by his conflicted personal and cultural loyalties and his lust for battle and the Viking ways.
Unlike the action-oriented pacing of The Pale Horseman, the first two-thirds of Mordred is not a page-turner in the traditional sense; there is no swordplay, little in the way of adventure, hardly any real action at all. And yet Mordred nonetheless draws the reader in, casting a spell with words that lull one into what feels like a darkly magical waking dream. The pace picks up toward the last third of the volume as romance blossoms for Mordred, he comes to learn more about his father, and, more significantly, his mother descends deeper into a suicidal depression from which it seems she cannot escape. Morgan's plight is interlinked in a clever and original way with the fate of her sister, Morgause. While it initially feels as though Clegg is painting by the numbers with these two characters (perennial Arthurian favorites), by the end of the novel he has taken them in such an unforeseen and—in a manner perhaps only an author known primarily for his horror could do—terrifying direction that their portrayal alone makes this book one worth reading.
It is interesting to note that just as Cornwell chose to tell the story of Alfred through the eyes of one sympathetic to the marauding Danes, Clegg employs Mordred—the traditional villain of the Arthur cycle—to narrate Arthur's story. Historical fiction generally permits the modern reader to better understand historical events by showing them through the eyes of sympathetic protagonists. By taking this one step further and allying the reader's sympathies with those of very nontraditional perspectives, Cornwell and Clegg help to break down the biases inherent in textbook history itself—biases that are perhaps inevitable, given that history is, as we know, typically written by the victors. A close connection between otherwise distinct genres is again made manifest: just as science fiction allows us to view the human condition by extrapolating forward to where we might end up, historical fiction does this by looking back at where we have been. Complementary tools of self-reflection, each approach helps us to better understand our present.
Christopher M. Cevasco is the editor/publisher of Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction. His own fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Allen K's Inhuman, Leading Edge, Twilight Tales, Flashquake, Simulacrum, The Horror Express, Dreaming in R'lyeh, and Lovecraft's Weird Mysteries.