17th century, books, historical fantasy, worldbuilding

Responsibility in Writing Historical Fantasy

2015-03-01 17.51.44In keeping with my study of historical fantasy, I just finished Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist, on Josh’s suggestion. He’s a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and this YA novel sounded right up my alley. It was a lot of fun, with an intriguing world and compelling plot. But the book’s attempt to integrate colonial American history within its fantastical world left me feeling troubled.

9780765338440Joel, a student at the prestigious Armedius Academy, wants nothing more than to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists can bring chalk drawings to life, creating elaborate chalk defenses and creatures known as chalklings. But Joel, the son of a lowly chalkmaker and a cleaning woman, missed the chance to become a Rithmatist at his selection ceremony. Now he balances his regular schoolwork with sitting in (uninvited) on Rithmatist classes and practicing defenses every chance he gets. When students start disappearing, with only mysterious chalk lines left behind, it seems a rogue Rithmatist wielding wild chalklings–evil, chaotic creatures that once overran the United Isles–is to blame. It’s up to Joel, his new friend Melody, and the thoughtful Rithmatist Professor Fitch to figure out what’s happening to these students.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. The worldbuilding is superb, as Sanderson lets us learn about this complicated, alternate America a little at a time. Joel’s fascination with Rithmatics introduces us to the rules of creating chalk creatures, and illustrations by Ben McSweeney show us various defenses and chalk creatures used throughout the book. Meanwhile, the school setting introduces the history of this world gradually. America is now a collection of unified islands, while the Korean-inspired JoSeun empire has taken over much of the rest of the world. Clockwork creatures and spring-run trains abound, and I loved finding out more about daily life and the historical background. Sanderson is known for meticulously thinking through his worlds and designing thorough, fascinating fantasy settings, and The Rithmatist doesn’t disappoint.

However, about three-quarters of the way through, Joel comes across a book called The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Spun as an autobiographical account by one of the United Isles’ early settlers, it describes Mary Rowlandson’s capture by wild chalklings, who once ruled the isles before mysteriously disappearing. The vivid account describes how wild chalklings attacked and ate humans without mercy. It’s a chilling story that helps us understand just how destructive these chalklings are.

Mary Rowlandson, 1770 edition.
Mary Rowlandson, 1770 edition.

But. Here’s the thing. Mary Rowlandson really existed, and she was really taken captive by Native Americans during King Philip’s War. Her book, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was one of the first captivity narratives written during the Puritan settlement of New England in the 17th century. While Rowlandson eventually came to appreciate some of the Indian customs and food her captors introduced to her, she sets her narrative as a triumph of Christian values over heathen adversity. This played on readers’ fears about the native population of New England, and further cemented Anglo-Americans’ views of Native Americans as “heathens” who were more wild than human.

So while Sanderson’s choice to recast Mary Rowlandson as an early settler of the Isles could be a fun way to build an alternate history, it really creates some uncomfortable parallels. If the real Mary’s captors were Native Americans, does that mean the wild chalklings are meant to represent Indians? And if that’s so, does that mean that Native Americans are no better than the chaotic, uncontrollable, merciless wild chalklings? It’s a disturbing, troubling thought, especially with the growing #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

Perhaps Sanderson didn’t mean for me to draw this parallel. Perhaps he just wanted to deepen the historical background of his alternate America. But as I think more about how to develop my own historical fantasy world, I’m finding that authors have a responsibility to do so thoughtfully. When we can create whatever world we want, with whatever characters we want, we should consider what stereotypes and misrepresentations we’re unconsciously perpetuating. And we should consider how to change that.

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6 thoughts on “Responsibility in Writing Historical Fantasy”

  1. I hadn’t considered it from that angle. I think, were we to interview the author, he wouldn’t see it that way. In the book, he clearly explains that the Native peoples were driven out to Southern America by the wild chalklings where, as refugees, they integrated and became part of the thriving Aztec society. So, to him, he answered that concern right in the text.

    HOWEVER, I think the connection you see absolutely exists because of the choices he made, and, though I’m not going to take the book out of my library, I’m going to use it as a chance to teach into critical reading.

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  2. Such interesting thoughts here! You are so right–I think whatever we write, we have a responsibility to think of how it might be perceived and whether or not those are the kinds of things we want to be saying.

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  3. The book sounds wonderfully entertaining and imaginative, Abby, but how curious that the potential for misinterpretation didn’t show up to an editor. Were you aware of the book within the book to begin with from your history background, or did Sanderson point that out separately from the story?
    Still, it sounds a good tale to read as a far as taking notes for world building at a deft pace. I’ll check it out.
    Cheers!

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    1. I picked up on it when the book is first mentioned, since I read Mary Rowlandson’s account in college during a course on colonial America (so it turned out to be good for something!). It’s definitely worth a look–great fun.

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