Today, we’ll traverse the thrilling and often mystical realms of fantasy literature.
And no, we’re not just doing this to escape the humdrum of our daily lives (although that clearly is a bonus).
We’re here to explore how these fantastical worlds brimming with dragons, elves, and magical spells can help us better understand our own, more mundane, histories.
‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
You might be thinking, “What’s Middle Earth got to do with our history?”
Well, quite a lot, it seems.
Tolkien’s legendary saga is teeming with echoes from our own past.
The Shire is a nostalgic portrayal of rural England, and the destructive power of the One Ring? It’s speculated to be a metaphor for nuclear weaponry.
Mordor, with its wastelands and industrial heart, mirrors the fears of industrialisation in the early 20th century.
Tolkien denied this, of course, but sometime it’s impossible for an author to view their own work in its wider contex.
‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R.R Martin
Martin’s Westeros might be known for its dragons and White Walkers, but it’s rooted in the bloody soil of the English Wars of the Roses.
The two rival houses, Stark and Lannister? Think York and Lancaster.
The Wall? Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England, just with a few more ice zombies.
So, next time you’re traumatised by one of Martin’s famous character deaths, remember it’s all in the name of historical authenticity.
‘The Poppy War’ by R.F. Kuang
Inspired by the Sino-Japanese War and the opium crisis in China, ‘The Poppy War’ is a fantastical reimagining of historical events with a hearty dose of shamanistic magic.
The conflict between Nikan and Mugen mirrors the historical tension between China and Japan, and the Third Poppy War alludes to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
A history lesson wrapped up in an epic tale of magic and warfare—what more could you ask for?
‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ may feel like a modern mythology playbook, but it’s a reflection of the cultural melting pot that is the United States.
From ancient Norse gods to African deities, it’s a wildly imaginative exploration of immigration and cultural assimilation.
It’s a bit like a history textbook, but with more gods, spirits, and an undead girlfriend.
‘The Broken Empire Trilogy’ by Mark Lawrence
Lawrence’s dark and gritty trilogy could be seen as a case study on the fall of the Roman Empire, with a dash of necromancy thrown in for good measure.
The Broken Empire, like the historical empire it’s modelled on, is marked by internal conflict, external invasions, and a general disregard for the wellbeing of peasants.
It’s the Roman Empire, just with a marginally higher body count.
‘The Powder Mage Trilogy’ by Brian McClellan
McClellan’s epic fantasy series is a brilliant blend of magic, politics, and gunpowder.
The series is set in a world that vividly resembles the French Revolution era, complete with its own versions of the guillotine and political upheaval.
The struggle between the privileged classes and the common people, the rise of new political ideologies, and the tension of a society on the brink of radical change all mirror the tumultuous times of late 18th-century France.
‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay’s standalone novel is a romantic and tragic tale set in a world that strongly resembles Moorish Spain.
The novel’s three main characters come from distinct religious backgrounds, akin to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and their interactions provide a deep dive into the complexities of religious tolerance, cultural assimilation, and the societal challenges posed by the Reconquista.
‘The Grace of Kings’ by Ken Liu
‘The Grace of Kings’ is the first book in Liu’s ‘Dandelion Dynasty’ series.
It’s an epic tale of rebellion, politics, and unlikely friendships, and it’s steeply rooted in the history and philosophy of the ancient Chinese Han Dynasty.
Liu’s story of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu parallels the rise of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu following the fall of the Qin Dynasty, offering a unique blend of history and fantasy.
‘River of Teeth’ by Sarah Gailey
In ‘River of Teeth,’ Gailey spins a fascinating alternate history where an actual, but failed, 19th-century American scheme to farm hippos in the Mississippi River is a reality.
This adventurous tale of cowboys, outlaws, and ‘hoppers’ (hippo riders) provides a wild, imaginative take on American frontier life, offering a unique perspective on the era of western expansion.
‘The Golem and the Jinni’ by Helene Wecker
Wecker’s novel is a tale of immigration, combining elements of Jewish and Arab folklore.
Set in New York City in 1899, the story follows Chava, a golem brought to life by a rabbi, and Ahmad, a jinni released from a flask by a tinsmith.
As they navigate the bustling immigrant communities of the city, the novel offers an engaging exploration of the immigrant experience in America at the turn of the 20th century.
So, there you have it. Who would’ve thought that traipsing around in our fantasy favourites could double as a history lesson?
It’s a bit like finding out your favourite pub serves a cracking Sunday roast. A pleasant surprise, to be sure.