Reading,  Regency,  Writing

Alternate Realities

Well, I had another post all ready to go, with a few nice pics, but Blogger didn’t want to cooperate with me. So, that will have to wait for when I have a bit more patience! In the meantime, I have a few thoughts related to Prinnyworld, and Elena’s and Janet’s excellent posts.

In the last year or so, I’ve read a few books that dealt with an “alternative” Regency world. The backdrops of the stories, and integral parts of their plots, were well-grounded in the culture and history of the Regency period–with a few notable exceptions. One of them was Susannah Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a huge tome of nearly 800 pages, but they all fly by. The year is 1808, and Regency England is full of magic–theoretical and practical, fairies and other creatures, statues in churches that suddenly shout out, all sorts of things. It comes across sort of like a “comedy of manners,” complete with footnotes and eccentric “period” spelling. There is rich mythology woven into real history (such as a blockade of French ports by an English fleet conured up out of rainwater).

Another was Madeleine Robins’ “Sarah Tolerance” mysteries (two that I know of so far–Petty Treason and Point of Honour). These are terrific glimpses into the gritty underworld of Regency London, seen from the viewpoint of a Fallen Woman turned Agent of Inquiry. A sort of Regency noir. They take a few liberties with history–for instance, Queen Charlotte is the Regent. But they are well and imaginatively done.

Another is Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, which I only recently (in the last two weeks!) picked up, thanks to all the recs online. What a fun book! It’s the first in her “Temeraire” series (T. being the dragon). Patrick O’Brian meets–I dunno, some fantasy author who writes a lot about dragons. 🙂 Dragons, of various breeds and varieties, are used in aerial combat against France (flown by the Aerial Corps, natch, a fascinating sub-caste in Regency society). There are detailed battle scenes and a great deal about both naval and aerial life. Sometimes the dragons seem more well-rounded than the rather stiff humans, but it’s a great read.

This doesn’t even count the numerous Regency-set romances that involve some sort of paranormal aspect. Would those count as an “alternate reality”? I think the whole idea is fascinating, probably because I could never really be creative enough to create my own version of history and have it work as well as these examples. What about you? Do you like books of this sort, or do you prefer your history “straight up”? What are some favorite examples of the genre?

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Megan Frampton
16 years ago

I love the alternate reality books, Amanda, and love the Robins and the Novik books–I will definitely have to find the Clark, I saw it around and was intrigued, but of course the TBR pile is big enough already, so I sorta forgot. But now I won’t.

I don’t think I am creative enough to come up with an alternate reality as those authors do, but I do love reading them. Love, love, love them.

Cara King
16 years ago

I like this sort of book, definitely. I read the first Madeleine Robins book, and liked it — I defintely consider it alternate reality rather than fantasy, because the story is basically realistic, but the background has history not quite as we know it (as you pointed out, Charlotte is the Regent).

Haven’t read the Novik yet, though I’ve heard a lot about it! Nor the Clark, though it’s in my TBR. Er, my TBR bookcase, actually…

I think for me, alternate history works best when I know the history well. Otherwise, I’m afraid I may take fantasy for fact, and learn history wrong!

BTW, one of my favorite alternate reality series was Joan Aiken’s which begins with Wolve of Willoughby Chase. Instead of the Hanoverians, there are Stuarts on the throne… and the rebels want to replace the current Stuart with Bonnie Prince Georgie. (I love that image! Any of the Georges being bonnie I find rather funny…) 🙂


Diane Perkins
16 years ago

I, of course, am the world’s worst read romance author, so I have not read any of these books. But I once listened to one of those Jane Austen mysteries on audiotape and i just could not suspend my disbelief. On the other hand, my friends Mary Blayney (Poppy’s Coin in the anthology Bump in the Night), and Julie Halperson FORCED me to read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and I was totally hooked. So I can really suspend my disbelief sometimes.
I think it is harder to do this when the history is altered. Like why make Charlotte the Regent? I’m sure the author had a good reason, but I personally don’t like to monkey with the real history too much.
But paranormal elements? Not my cup of tea, but again if it is done well, I might be hooked.

Therese Walsh
16 years ago

I like the idea of the alternate reality world in a regency, though I’ve never read a book like this.

What prompted me to comment was your picture-upload problem on Blogger, Amanda. Kath and I have had similar problems lately, but I think I figured out a solution just yesterday. Load your pics in a brand new Blogger file after saving the text of the one you’re working with. The pics seem to load without problem in a “clean” file. Then you can just snag the HTML code once it’s loaded and cut-paste it back into the file that contains your text. I hope this a) made sense and b) works for you as well as it did for me! T

16 years ago

I’ve read alternative history books set in many periods, including the Regency. I’ve read the two Robins mysteries, and I own the Clark book, though I haven’t read it yet. There’s another fantasy series set in an alternative Regency, by Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill: “The Shadow of Albion” and “Leopard in Exile,” though I haven’t read the second yet. I guess there will be no more, since Andre Norton died not long ago. 🙁

The classic alternative history book is “The Man in the High Castle,” by Philip K. Dick–a very grim world in which the Nazis won WWII. Not a happy book, but really excellent.

I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels too, Diane! She’s an author with amazing crossover appeal–can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say they love her even though they don’t normally read Science Fiction or Fantasy. And she’s published on Baen Books, too, which generally specializes in rather gritty military SF.


Elena Greene
16 years ago

Yikes, more books I don’t have time to read! They all sound intriguing. I like the idea of alternate reality and/or fantasy elements. The Regencies I’ve read with paranormal elements (vampires, ghosts) were usually good.

Re Blogger: I wonder if the reason I tend to have fewer problems than some in uploading pictures is that I usually put in the pictures first, then add the text. Who’da thunk that would make a difference?

Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

Thanks for the pic suggestion, Therese! I will try that next time. I haven’t been able to get pics to load for a couple of weeks now.

I also love the Bujold books! And I’m not a huge sci-fi reader. I love the alternate reality when it all comes together in a seamless, somewhat believable world (like like the Clarke book). I really do like the Robins mysteries a lot, mostly for the glimpse into a darker underworld (which is also what I like about Diane’s HQ books!), but I do sometimes wonder about the “alternate” details. They often just seem stuck in there, when the true history would have worked just as well. Curious. 🙂

16 years ago

For me it depends on how it’s done. If it’s written convincingly enough for me to suspend my disbelief, I’m all for it. Katy Cooper wrote a couple set in an alternate Tudor period – Prince Arthur had lived to become king, and they were both really good.

Cara King
16 years ago

Speaking of alternate realities which are hardly alternate at all — that’s what I thought about a (very long) two-book series by Guy Gavriel Kay called the Sarantine Mosaic (starting with “Sailing to Sarantium”). Sarantium was Byzantium, and except for a few fantastic elements added in, I saw no reason to make it “alternate” or “fantasy” at all. (Not sure that makes sense….)

Um, okay, what I mean is, he changed the names of every place and every person, but people who were aware of this period in Byzantine history could figure out just who was who and where was where…and I really couldn’t figure out why he had to change everything, why he couldn’t just write a slightly fantasy historical fiction about Byzantium…

With the Robins book, I wonder if her reasoning was that by making it alternate history, she freed herself up either (1) to let her imagination go anywhere it wished, or (2) to not worry so much if she made a historical error, because anything could be different in this parallel world… (I do remember thinking that this little house the heroine lived in, which was (IIRC) in the garden of a London townhouse, could not exist…)


16 years ago

Cara – I interviewed him. I think he likes playing around with certain elements of history, like religion, and including fantastical elements, so finds it easier to create an alternate world where he can do this without history purists dumping on him. The religion he creates is one of the main elements I found most interesting.

His novel based on King Alfred, The Last Light of the Sun, is similar to The Sarantine Mosaic – you know to whom he’s referring, but there are changes here and there.

Cara King
16 years ago

How fascinating, Tess! Interesting point about him doing it so that history purists wouldn’t get on his back about things. From what I know of Regency purists, I can see why he would do it! Though of course the most difficult Regency purists are those who don’t know quite as much as they think they do, and delight in thinking they’ve found many errors which actually aren’t. Errors, I mean. 🙂

I wonder if Robins did it for a similar reason — as much, perhaps, to free the imagination from that censor that says “purists might think that’s wrong!” as to give oneself the liberty of changing what one wishes to change…

Cara (who thought Kay’s zubir was way freaky)

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