If you want to know why I’m not wild about medieval Europe, watch “Game of Thrones.” I think it’s a reasonably accurate depiction. The medieval era in Europe represents a decline in technological and cultural progress. The Roman Empire of the classical era was more advanced in most respects than medieval Europe.
Medieval Europe were marked by a breakdown of central control, a decline in population, and a return to small tribes fighting each other over land and resources. Many technologies were lost. One example–the Romans had sprung carriages, but this technology was lost during the Middle Ages and would not be reinvented for a thousand years.
Most technological advances during the Middle Ages happened in the Middle East. There, scholars made discoveries in science and mathematics, but Europe lagged behind until the Renaissance, when everything changed.
If you read historical romance, you’re probably aware that most of those romances take place in the Renaissance (e.g. the Regency or Victorian era). There are a few medievals, but not nearly as many as there are regencies, and most medievals are of a particular subgenre: Scottish highlanders.
I think that’s because most readers don’t perceive the Middle Ages as a romantic setting. When I think of life in medieval Europe, I think of malnourished peasants trying to scratch out a living on their farms. I think of lords and ladies in drafty, isolated castles. I think of the ever-present threat of violence. Whereas when I think of the Regency, I think of fabulous estates, grand parties, fancy clothes, horses, and carriages. One is more romantic than the other, at least to a large segment of readers.
That said, fantasy doesn’t have to be true to history. An author can easily invent a medieval fantasy world that feels romantic. Add magic, add dragons, add shifters. Add hobbit holes! I wouldn’t want to live in medieval Europe, but there are plenty of fantasy medieval worlds I would happily take up residence in.
There’s another option: an epic fantasy romance can be set in a time period other than the Middle Ages.
My Hearts & Thrones epic fantasy romance series isn’t medieval. It’s set in the Renaissance. The setting is a result of a thought experiment I had at one time: what if the Roman Empire hadn’t fallen and had instead moved into a Renaissance-like era? How would an invention like the printing press, which empowers the common people, affect their militaristic government?
The Renaissance is a wonderful era to set a romance in. It’s a time of discovery, of inquiry, of asking questions and seeking answers. It’s a time of inventions and new ideas and challenging the status quo, and this creates lovely natural conflicts, where one character is enamored of a new and radical idea, and another character isn’t so enamored.
A Renaissance world will have the printing press, so there will be newsletters and books and handbills. I love putting snippets of these in my books.
And of course there’s the grandiosity of the setting, at least for characters who are wealthy and powerful. Grand houses, horses and carriages, goods imported from overseas nations, beautiful clothes. And there is the interest of firearms in a fantasy setting. How do these interact with magic?
So that’s Hearts & Thrones. I have another series beginning with the book Flood and Fire, which I’m still working on, that goes entirely in the other direction. It’s set in the Bronze Age.
What’s romantic about the Bronze Age? For me, it’s the idea that the world is so fresh and unspoiled. In my Bronze Age novel, I resurrected a number of animals that were alive during the Bronze Age but have since gone extinct. My characters are close to the land. They do not wear shoes and are literally in contact with the ground every day. They ride horses without stirrups. They live and die by the cycles of the river and are constantly aware of the weather, which can literally kill them.
My books are far from the only epic fantasy novels set in non-medieval time periods. Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint is set in the Renaissance. Barbara Hambly’s Silent Tower series is set in the early industrial era. And Tara Maya’s Unfinished Song series is set in the Stone Age!
Do you know any other examples of non-medieval epic fantasy novels?