The Pseudo-Medieval Setting

Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
#1
Hi all,

Have been pretty busy with work (US patent law changes effective next week so we are getting all sorts of requests to put in new applications before the change takes effect) so I haven't been around here much lately. But I was curious about something and figured I'd ask.

First some background. I have a blog and some of you have been there. I mentioned Howard Andrew Jones's book The Desert of Souls on my blog the other day, and he somehow found his way to my post, and he and I have had a brief exchange on Facebook.

Anyway, The Desert of Souls is set in Iraq, I don't remember exactly when, but sometime after the rise of Islam. (If you like sword and sorcery, I recommend the book. A sequel is out now, too, The Bones of the Old Ones, although I haven't read that one. There's also pretty good character development and transformation, especially in the narrator, for what it's worth.)

There was also Throne of the Crescent Moon last year from Saladin Ahmed, which had a Middle Eastern setting. I get the feeling N.K. Jemisin's characters are nonwhite, and of course Nnedi Okorafor wrote fantasy with an African setting. But the fantasy that usually makes the bestseller list is often set in a pseudo-medieval European setting. I am kind of grouping together here Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, even Terry Brooks here, although he is trying to get in on the post-apocalyptic game, too. The early Shannara books fit (though I would not recommend reading them, but that's a separate issue). Even though David Anthony Durham is from the Caribbean, Acacia feels like it falls into this category, too. There are often (but not always) lords, kings, nobles, etc. Then there are people from small villages. Swords, minstrels, etc. may make appearances.

This stuff obviously sells. And we all like it to some degree, or I don't think we'd be reading fantasy. (Realizing, of course, that some of us may have strong opinions on individual authors and/or series...) But is it the only thing that will ever sell well?

I ask because (back to the beginning now), I mentioned to Howard Andrew Jones that I was glad he had broken the mold, so to speak, and given us a story in a different setting. He replied that he hears that a lot, but that if he ever wants to make a living writing, he is probably going to have to turn towards a pseudo-medieval world because that's what seems to bring in the most money.

Anyway, this was pretty long, but I was just interested to see if anyone had any thoughts on the matter.
 

TomTB

Super Moderator
Staff member
#2
For me, the pseudo-medieval setting is something I adore about the genre. I'm from the UK, grew up in the UK, and spent my early years becoming familiar with stories of King Arthur, Narnia etc, and being from Nottingham, countless stories of Robin Hood! So it's this aspect of fantasy writing I 'click with' the most (although of course Robin Hood and all associated legends are perfectly real as the helpful staff down the road at the Sherwood Forest visitor centre will confirm). I've never read a fantasy book set in a non-pseudo-medieval setting, and if I'm being honest, I think it would be somewhat strange reading something set in asia/africa (although of course I'd give it a try!!). Saying that, I'm starting off with the Malazan series at the moment, and most of what I've read so far doesn't have an over-riding European feel to it at all .. so guess I have tried something else, and yes I have enjoyed it =)
 

Amaryllis

Journeyed there and back again
#3
I don't really think the fantasy genre is divisible from the pseudo-medieval European setting (though we generally give a fair amount of leeway in what part of 'medieval times' this was), at least in terms of general views. This is in part possibly because anything not set in it will often get thrown into a different genre. Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique was not sci-fi, but it's still considered that (or 'dying earth' subgenre, if you consider that a real subgenre). You also have steampunk, if it has the slightest hint of technological advancement. Horror, if it has more than a cursory element of that in it. You don't find Clive Barker in fantasy, though he has several fantasy books, and even a series. H.P. Lovecraft is found in the fantasy section (at least in my store), but no one considers it that. Etc. People are really twitchy about it.

However, I do think there was an element of 'poor me' in a statement like that. Medieval fantasy sells because that's what fantasy is, and most fantasy authors produce that. For the ones that don't, that's often their only gimmick. Hey, this is fantasy set in an oldie fantasy analogue of JAPAN! The story is stupid, and patronizing to actual Japanese people when I confuse their ancient culture with that of China, but c'mon! Plenty of medieval fantasy also doesn't sell very well for the same reason. People forget that they need to make a story interesting in addition to setting it in a fantasy world. I mean, I'm sure there's some stuff that goes under the radar, and there's probably an element of vague racism involved at times (white publishers and primarily white cultures want to 'see themselves,' and entire industries are based around this), but I think its effects are exaggerated to a pretty unrealistic degree. I don't believe that fantasy not set in a medieval European-type world can't sell. That's the kind of thing people say, and then react in shock and indignation when somebody bucks the trend and ends up with pretty much ALL the money ever. Nobody believed in Harry Potter either.
 

yobtaf

A farm boy with a sword
#4
I like history therefore the historical aspect of fantasy books is a major selling point for me. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a fantasy set in modern times. As for the European pseudo-medieval setting, I enjoy it as that part of history is one of my favorites (along with Chinese history). Although, I am willing to read other histories, I will probably have a natural affinity to books with settings related to histories I enjoy.
I'm not sure if that's the way other's think, but another reason could probably be that the medieval setting has been done so much that it almost feels foreign to have a different sort of culture/time period...
 

Hikerike

Owns a Ring of Power
#5
I'm standing behind Amaryllis and nodding in consent.

Granted i haven't read many fantasy books set in pseudo asia/arabia settings i feel that i like the pseudo medival/europe setting alot. Don't know exactly why. All of my Favourites are set there. Name of the wind,Wot, Asoiaf and many more. I loved the setting in Lies of Locke Lamora, the pseudo Veneice was awesome, and the pseudo italian words also helped. The only book i can come up with that is set elsewhere (that i have red) is Lian hearn's Tale of the Otori. A decent read and doesn't butcher Japan like Amaryllis mentioned.

Maybe it works so well because people know enough about the pseudo medival times to just jump into it. No preperation and prior knowledge needed. It has a set of social structures and conditions that we are familiar with. (it can change from series to series but you catch my drift...)
Another thought, that may be a tad bit radical but just a thought. Maybe it has to do with the western worlds colonialism. Every other culture other than the western worlds has been branded "primitive". In Tolkien's world those men from the far east that sided with Sauron felt primitive. I haven't read Desert spear or Daylight war but the place from where Jardir is from also felt primitive. WoT and the aiel also felt a little bit primitive and savage.

@Yobtaf: I'm sorry but i don't understand. Do you mean that you like fantasy that is based on a real historic event/time. Or the History of the Fictional world. Like Tolkien and Jordan where there's plenty of historical references to the world .
 

yobtaf

A farm boy with a sword
#6
@Yobtaf: I'm sorry but i don't understand. Do you mean that you like fantasy that is based on a real historic event/time. Or the History of the Fictional world. Like Tolkien and Jordan where there's plenty of historical references to the world .
I was a little confusing. I meant that I liked fantasy settings which have similarities to the culture of medieval times (not the actual events). Although having a fictional history in itself is good too...
I suck at expressing thoughts in general...I'm not sure if anyone understood what I just said.
 

Danica

Queen of the boards!
Staff member
#7
Maybe it works so well because people know enough about the pseudo medival times to just jump into it.
agreed! However there is lots of 'urban' fantasy that is set in modern day times. But I totally get that if we are talking fantasy with no sub-genre title in front of it it is mostly set in a historical setting much like this worlds own with a few changes because HORROR if it gains the sub-genre title historical fantasy.

Anyone else think all these sub-genres are a little but silly and unnecessary?
 

Antoxx

Journeyed there and back again
#8
agreed! However there is lots of 'urban' fantasy that is set in modern day times. But I totally get that if we are talking fantasy with no sub-genre title in front of it it is mostly set in a historical setting much like this worlds own with a few changes because HORROR if it gains the sub-genre title historical fantasy.

Anyone else think all these sub-genres are a little but silly and unnecessary?
I actually don't mind classifying by sub-genres as it gives a pretty good steer at a broad level as to the type of book it is. But to be honest I love classifications of any kind and love having everything nice and tidy in a "box". I think I agree with what you're aiming at though, which is that just because something is classified as a particular sub genre, doesn't necessarily mean all that much. Good writing and stories transcends whatever sub genre they may have been classified as.
 

Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
#10
Hey all,

Haha, I posted this thread and then disappeared for another few days. Life has been a bit crazy lately.

Anyway, interesting to hear all of your opinions. I actually don't think the pseudo-medieval setting is particularly realistic, from a historical perspective. A lot of the technology is more at a Renaissance level or later (or nonexistent, like swords that easily chop off heads in battle in one blow, or crossbows that shoot multiple bolts in a short time). A lot of the social structures are played with more than probably ever actually happened -- precisely because authors don't do research, but just jump right in. Armies of tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands -- just saw an episode of season 2 of Game of Thrones where it said Renly had 100,000 men) didn't generally exist in medieval Europe (ancient Rome may have had up to a million troops, but spread out all over North Africa, southern Europe, etc. -- never all gathered in one place). You couldn't support that number of soldiers without 10 times as many (or more) farmers, for example.

Anyway, I'm obviously here talking about fantasy. I've read a good chunk of what's on the lists on the BFB website, and I've enjoyed it, and usually I can let historical inaccuracies slide (I'm not a historian, after all).

I second (third, I guess) what Antoxx said about good writing and stories. I just wonder if (1) publishers don't accept stuff that's too different or (2) I never hear about something I might like because of the sub-sub-sub genre it's classified in. I don't know what kinds of sales numbers China Mieville or other New Weird writers get. I guess Among Others by Jo Walton got a lot of awards last year and wasn't pseudo-medieval at all.

Amaryllis is also right, I think, in that sometimes people truly fail when they attempt to break the mold. I haven't noticed it so much with Japan/China mix-ups (haven't read too much of that other than the Otori books mentioned by Hikerike and a little Guy Gavriel Kay -- Under Heaven). But some of the attempts to make up Arab-like cultures are pretty cringe-worthy.

And Harry Potter is an excellent example of commercial success outside of the pseudo-medieval setting. (I haven't read any urban fantasy although it seems to sell, also.)

Interesting thought, Hikerike, about Western colonialism/imperialism. It does go back to Tolkien (at least), doesn't it? It was there in the Narnia books, too -- at least the later ones. (And is particularly painful in Terry Goodkind, although honestly, I just take every opportunity I can to complain about the Sword of Truth books.) Most of the writers in fantasy today, at least the ones I encounter, are still white people writing in English. They can be from the US, the UK, or Canada; I've seen some from Australia and NZ and Ireland, too. I can pretty much count all the non-white and/or non-native-English-speaking fantasy writers I've read (or even heard of) on one hand.

Ah well, thanks to everyone who replied to the thread. I've been thinking about these issues because I've decided to change the level of technology in my own manuscript. I'm just better at writing in a more contemporary setting. I suppose I'm running the risk of being classified as science fiction or post-apocalyptic fiction (one of which may be truer than the other, in my case), but I feel like a hack when I write about swords and nobles and riding horses.
 

HazyJay

Is a wondrous friend of modest Kruppe
#11
Good question and responses.

I am thinking that it boils down to familiarity. Most of the readers and authors are of European heritage so it makes sense that this is the well they draw from. Personally I enjoy authors trying different historical backgrounds for their world building.

Still European, but Butcher's Furies draws upon Roman themes as opposed to medieval times and I really dug that aspect of it. Wurts and Feist use Oriental themes to help instill the sense of Otherness to the political machinations of the Kelewan in the Empire series. But my favorite is a nifty cyberpunk trilogy set in the Middle East, When Gravity Fails. Using that setting really helps pound home the disconnect that good dystopian cyberpunk can engender.
 

epicfantasyfreak

Journeyed there and back again
#12
I believe the fact that the pseudo-medieval setting is so prevalent comes down to simple familiarity. Medieval European history is what is mostly shoved down our throats in schools here in the Western world. Then we fall in love with fantasy and most fantasy we read is based on that time period. So it flows naturally, that the writer will most often fall back to what he knows best, the pseudo-medieval setting. That, of course, adds to the pseudo-medieval setting feedback loop that we're stuck on.

If you do want to break that mold, the best thing to do is to study anthropology. Anthropology will teach you about different cultures and their customs. The best fantasy series I've read outside of the pseudo-medieval setting is written by an anthropologist/archaeologist - Steven Erikson's Malazan series. He convincingly writes unique cultures which are a mishmash of various other cultural bits.

A non-novel example would be the Early Dark RPG by Anthropos Games. They are anthropology students and provide a quick and easy way for authors to make unique cultures - combine two, and they provide plenty of examples in that book for you to see. Highly recommended stuff there. While I don't generally get along with the RPG crowd due to the lack of uniqueness in its settings, there are a few unique and interesting settings in that community, you just have to work hard to find them. A couple others are Talislanta (free to download, recommend the big blue 4th edition book) and Tunse'al (I haven't actually read it yet, but looks very interesting).

I'm a huge setting junkie though. I like new, interesting or unique settings. Most people, despite telling you that's exactly what they want, in fact, want the same old thing will a few new and interesting twists - just enough to make it feel like it's unique -to them, while not actually being so.
 

epicfantasyfreak

Journeyed there and back again
#13
I actually don't think the pseudo-medieval setting is particularly realistic, from a historical perspective. A lot of the technology is more at a Renaissance level or later (or nonexistent, like swords that easily chop off heads in battle in one blow, or crossbows that shoot multiple bolts in a short time). A lot of the social structures are played with more than probably ever actually happened -- precisely because authors don't do research, but just jump right in. Armies of tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands -- just saw an episode of season 2 of Game of Thrones where it said Renly had 100,000 men) didn't generally exist in medieval Europe (ancient Rome may have had up to a million troops, but spread out all over North Africa, southern Europe, etc. -- never all gathered in one place). You couldn't support that number of soldiers without 10 times as many (or more) farmers, for example.
Well, medieval Europe encompasses a vast span of both time and area. Simply saying as a blanket statement (like most blanket statements) that any pseudo-medieval setting (European implied) is unrealistic from a historical perspective is shaky, at best.
Regarding the 100,000 men, the thing about the 7 kingdoms is that they're an empire, something that medieval Europe lacked. Historically, there were dozens of small, constantly warring feudal kingdoms. That constant warfare serves to reduce population and makes frontiers less inhabited, pushing population into cities which (in medieval Europe at least) leads to disease, further reducing population. In an empire, especially like the 7 Kingdoms, where there really is only one border and it's defended by a giant wall - your population will be much higher. That stability and the fact that there's no Black Death sweeping the continent (I presume), which wiped out 1/3 to 1/2 of Europe's population... Did Martin actually go through that thought process or did he just "make shit up" is another topic entirely... ;)
100,000 seems reasonable to me though, depending on the size of the continent, which I don't know off the top of my head but am assuming is about the same land area as Europe.
Add in one little bit about them not losing the sanitation technology that Europe lost when Rome fell (as was the case in other parts of the world - Arabia*, China and India for example, which led to their massive populations today), and you could have much greater populations still.

Note that I'm only an amateur historian.
*If the Arabian peninsula could have supported the numbers, there would be 1 Billion+ Arabs living there now, just like India and China, but it dried up just like the Sahara did. Only due to that lands infertility and the fact that the rapid spread of Islam thrust them forth throughout North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia are the population numbers there as low as they are today. Check the genetics though and you'll see Arab DNA in all the regions mentioned, where they moved and interbred with the locals during the rise of Islam.