The Evolution of Gaslamp Fantasy

Here’s a post at Book Riot: THE BIRTH AND EVOLUTION OF GASLAMP FANTASY

[G]aslamp fantasy is fantasy that takes places any time during the 1800s, with some exceptions. Under its umbrella are Regency and Victorian fantasy, and some gothic fantasy fits as well. Some may also dispute whether steampunk is a sub-genre of gaslamp fantasy or vice versa …

Gaslamp fantasy was birthed from exploding public interest in the fantastical, supernatural, and the occult during Queen Victoria’s reign, though at the time it was just called fantasy, fairytales, or the fantastical. … Since then, gaslamp fantasy has evolved and now encompasses much more than strictly Victorian England. … While still set in and around the 19th century, authors are envisioning fantasy tales in places other than England, such as in America during the civil war.

I guess? I believe I was simply thinking of Gaslamp Fantasy as a more fantasy-feeling Steampunk — Steampunk but with fewer gears, I suppose. And less steam. The above therefore sounds about right. Around a 19th Century level of technology, with fantasy. How is that different from Historical Fantasy that happens to be set in the 19th Century? I suppose I would say: It’s not different. Gaslamp Fantasy is a subset, not of Steampunk, but of Historical Fantasy. It’s is a sister taxon, so to speak, of Steampunk.

The Book Riot post provides examples. Let me see … Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill, yes, that’s the one I was thinking of. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, which I believe I tried, but the opening didn’t really pull me in. (I know lots of you loved it and I should therefore try it again.) Ah, here’s The Conductors, which someone at Book Riot definitely loves because this is the third post I’ve seen that featured this book. It’s one where I have a sample, but you all have confirmed that it’s pretty dark and maybe not something to read until I’m in the mood for that.

One more, and this one is new to me:

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng 

For those lookin for some gothic horror mixed with their gaslamp fantasy, I give you this haunting and alluring novel. Published in 2017, Under the Pendulum Sun takes on Christianity vs. the meddling and trickster Fae. Victorian missionary Catherine Helstone goes to Arcadia, the land of the Fae, in order to find her brother Laon, who went missing on his missionary trip. There, she resides in the mysterious house of Gethsemane, trying to unravel the mystery of the missionary that arrived before her and her brother, who tried and failed. It’s really unlike any book I’ve ever read, and I mean that in the best possible way.

A lot about that sounds promising. Have any of you read it?

Meanwhile!

Here’s a Tor post: What is Gaslamp Fantasy?

This post was referenced in the Book Riot one. It’s interesting because the author of this post, Terri Windling, provides a list of examples and includes …

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Well. No. This is making me want to restrict the definition of Gaslamp Fantasy: Historical Fantasy set during the 19th century, excluding Pride and Prejudice and Zombies plus anything else remotely like that. What I mean is: Gaslamp Fantasy, to me, requires a certain tone. Dark and gritty is fine. A high fantasy tone is fine. But zombies? Not fine.

Windling suggests The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. That’s a fun one. I haven’t read anything by Powers for a long time, but he’s a great choice for historical settings.

Oh, here’s a funny post by AJ Lancaster: What Even Is Gaslamp Fantasy?

When I finished the first draft of The Lord of Stariel, my friends and family asked, not unnaturally, what it was about.

“Well,” I said. “It’s a fantasy novel.”

This was and remains 100% true. It is a fantasy novel. There is magic. Excellent – genre nailed down.

However, fantasy is a giant genre, so I tried to be a little more specific. The attempt to pin down my subgenre quickly became a depressing exercise in things my novel lacks. It isn’t medieval, grimdark, epic, urban, or steampunk. It’s historicalish but it’s set in its own world. It isn’t about sword fights or going on a quest. There are fae, but it isn’t a fairytale retelling.

For a while I called it ‘fantasy romance’ because those are two things it definitely contains – even though the romance isn’t exactly the main plotline.

Eventually I did find a weird niche subgenre label for it in addition to fantasy romance: gaslamp fantasy. This is a subgenre that (a) most people have never heard of and (b) is basically defined entirely by what it’s not.

I think that’s funny — defining the subgenre by what it’s not — take away all the other subgenres and if it’s historicalish (in a 19th century way), maybe it’s Gaslamp Fantasy! And I suppose if it’s not historicalish, it’s quite possibly High Fantasy, because that’s something of a catchall term. If it’s not that, then what the heck, call it Low Fantasy, since there’s no working consensus about what that means, so you can definite it however works to suit the particular book that you have in mind.

I notice that The Lord of Stariel sounds a lot like The Keeper of the Mist in terms of basic conception (probably nothing else). Here’s the description from Amazon:

The Lord of Stariel is dead. Long live the Lord of Stariel. Whoever that is.
Will it be the lord’s eldest son, who he despised?
His favourite nephew, with the strongest magical land-sense?
His scandalous daughter, who ran away from home years ago to study illusion?
Hetta knows it won’t be her, and she’s glad of it. Returning home for her father’s funeral, all Hetta has to do is survive the family drama and avoid entanglements with irritatingly attractive local men until the Choosing. Then she can leave.

That’s a lot like Keri’s three-half brothers, all of whom are considered more likely candidates to succeed their father.

And then of course Keri inherits the title, plus the ambiguous powers, plus the increasingly dire problems. I’m sure every possible detail is completely different, but plainly this is a setup that appeals to me, so I guess I should take a look at The Lord of Stariel. Have any of you read it? What did you think?

Okay, so, what does Gaslamp Fantasy mean to you, if not: Historical fantasy set in the 19th century, not too silly in tone. That’s my working definition. I better quit before I bog down in an immense attempt to list (or worse, define) all possible fantasy subgenres. That way lies madness, as we all know, though attempts can be fun as long as you’re prepared to throw up your hands and quit before dotting every single “i” and crossing each and every “t.”

For books to try in this subgenre, I personally suggest Sorcery and Cecilia as my personal favorite Gaslamp Fantasy. Goodness, that one has a great price right now; if you haven’t got it, consider picking it up immediately. This one is by Patricia Wrede and Carolyn Stevermer and it’s an absolutely delightful epistolary novel.

Or else Marelon the Magician. This one is by Patricia Wrede on her own and I’m not sure, but I may like it even better than the above. There’s a wonderful scene at the end, the one where everything gets sorted out and the two brothers reconcile, that I wish I’d written. I love that scene a whole lot.

In both cases, there are sequels. In both cases, I think the first books are the best, and they each stand alone, so if you wanted to try one or the other series, or both of them, that’s a fine idea.

If you’ve got a favorite Gaslamp Fantasy, by all means drop it in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “The Evolution of Gaslamp Fantasy”

  1. Given that “Gaslamp Fantasy” was invented by Kaja Foglio out if whole cloth, the genre is not well defined; though surely “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and “Van Helsing” must fall in the same category.

    If you allow the author’s redefinition:
    “Death of a Necromancer” is surely archetypal.
    “Harwood Spellbook” (Stephanie Burgis) refers to wallpaper and “modern fae lamps” in the first few pages.

    I have “Lord of Stariel” as a Kindle sample, without much intent to read further.

  2. I’ve read the Lord of Stariel quartet, and on the whole liked it.
    I had trouble in the fourth and final book with mentally reconciling the timeline for when Oberon became someone’s mother and when they choose to implement their solution for dealing with grief (I’m trying to be non-spoilery here, hence being a bit cryptic). The revelation of some underlying causes of tension were a bit complex, and I guess I just couldn’t follow them well enough.
    When I have more mental capacity I may reread the whole quartet and see if I can reconcile that timeline which I apparently built up wrong in my mind (which is temporally challenged anyway, always).

    The story is good, worth reading, I liked it and the characters even though I went “Whut?!” about some of the time-mechanics and (historical) choices made by the Oberon in the last book. He/she is not one of the main characters, who are nice to read and a lot more consistent.

    Gaslamp fantasy is a good name for it, and a useful new category name to me.

  3. I’ve read the whole Stariel series and liked it. The inheritance situation is a bit similar to The Keeper of the Mist. Stariel Estate and the other Fae Lands are also somewhat similar to the immanents (Is this the correct plural?) of Winter of Ice and Iron.

    I also like The Four Arts books by MJ Scott that are Gaslampish although I’m not sure if they fit the category.

  4. I’ve also read and enjoyed the Stariel series. I liked it enough to pre-order the fifth (standalone) book.

  5. I loved the first in the Stariel series, but could not actually get into the rest of the books. I loved the MJ Scott Four Arts Quartet. I think Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windless may qualify, and I remember enjoying reading it, but I think it was the first in a series and he never went on to write a second, which is always disappointing.

  6. Amazon informs me I’ve had Stariel from KU since last August. I guess I’d better get around to looking at it. I think I’ve noticed the book by Ng, but haven’t looked at it. Downloads sample.

    I’m sure I’ve read some, but … oh, maybe Blaylock’s Lord Kelvin’s Machine ? or is that on the science fiction end, it’s been too long since I read it.
    There also seems to be a growing subgenre spawned off the Agatha Heterodyne stories of steampunk/gaslamp mad science. I know I’ve noticed books while browsing that came off as strongly influenced. But I haven’t picked any up.

  7. I guess it’s sounding like I ought to try at least the first of the Stariel books … thanks for weighing in, everyone!

  8. I think she invented it to avoid the term “steampunk” on the grounds that, you know, it’s not actually punk. (I think that one’s a lost cause; “-punk” has undergone irreversible semantic drift.)

    So it started out as “steampunk, except without being punk.”

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