Epic fantasy romance: beyond medieval Europe

Spy's Honor final coverHere’s my dirty little secret as a fantasy author: I’m not wild about medieval Europe as a setting. And yet fantasy worlds loosely based on medieval Europe are common, even typical, for the genre!

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?

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10 Responses to Epic fantasy romance: beyond medieval Europe

  1. Ms Mahler says:

    Thank you! I’ve always been frustrated with medieval fantasy, but was never really able to put into words why. This sums it up beautifully – why in the world go medieval when there is so much else awesome and more amazing in history to play with?

    The story I’m finishing up now isn’t anywhere near and epic, but the setting is (technologically and socially) a mix of the Germanies in the early Renaissance and colonial America. Politically is it something else entirely.

    I also really enjoy Imaro, one of the first Sword and Soul series, which is set in a fantasy version of Africa

    • Amy Raby says:

      With fantasy, we have so much flexibility. We can mix and match from various cultures, and invent other things completely from scratch. Like your mix of the Germanies in the early Renaissance and colonial America.

      I might have to check out Imaro.

  2. xaurianx says:

    I’ve never really thought about the era in fantasy romance. For me, it is just a different planet/world. Like Jean Johnson’s worlds. Robin D. Owens, Jayne Castle, Anne McCaffrey.

    • Amy Raby says:

      In some books, it doesn’t stand out a whole lot. Pern, especially, which is so much about the dragons and thread, and not much (if at all) about swords. If there’s weaponry, though, the technology level will make a difference.

  3. Sara Thorn says:

    How about Scott Lynch? His work is also Renaissance-based (Italy-like). Or Daniel Abraham for some more Asian/Chinese influences . The Empire series by Wurst and Feist is another Asian-inspired series, more Japan-like. Or perhaps The Soldier Son trilogy by Robin Hobb, which is in a colonialist world?

  4. kyrahalland says:

    So glad I found this blog 🙂 my favorite genre to read and write!

    I also enjoyed the Scott Lynch books and am looking forward to the the new one, in large part because of the Renaissance setting. Another good one in an Renaissance-type setting is The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott. There’s also Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series, set in an alternate 19th-century Europe (and it has a romantic storyline too!)

    I got tired of medieval-Europe-style fantasy in general. I enjoy settings from later eras (not modern, though) and non-European settings. I’ve written some that’s sort of medieval-ish, but also in settings inspired by ancient Sumeria and 18th and 19th century Europe, and I’m working on a series now set in a world like the American Old West. That’s been tons of fun to write.

  5. interesting take on medieval fantasy

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