By Gillian Polack
Medievalists who are also fiction writers have several ways of incorporating their understanding and knowledge into their writing.
I’ve already written about the series Judith Tarr wrote, where she depicted an intense and delicately fantastical Middle Ages. Another approach is that used by Kari Sperring in Living with Ghosts. Living with Ghosts is a fantasy novel, set somewhere other than here in a time other than our own. It is not set in a fantastical Middle Ages. In the first pages this is made very clear by the clothes and, indeed, by the rapier a character flashes.
What role does the Middle Ages play in this novel? Or is the role less the Middle Ages itself and more the application of Sperring’s intellectual skills and understanding to the story?
First, every society has a past. Take a fantasy society is experiencing something reasonably resembling an adaption of the European sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. This is the most probable place and time for the immediate inspiration of Living with Ghosts, given the rapier and the clothes and the social setting. This is the base of the society, the one that action takes place in and that the characters move through. Many writers have their characters living in a kind of perpetual present, for they don’t conceive of complex histories for their worlds. The rapier represents an eternal present, a society with political change and with much drama, but one set in time, with very little in the way of temporal and cultural dynamic. Some writers put in enough of the past to make the present feel as if it, too, will pass.
This is not what Sperring does.
The opening scene is complex. There are social restrictions placed upon characters, and they may not talk about seeing ghosts, are very careful to assess their relative worth and whether it is even safe to take up certain tasks and more. The whole initial scene could be translated into someone wanting to rent an army or a military specialist in sixteenth century Italy. Just as ghosts are present, the past is implied. The equivalent of the Middle Ages is in the recent past of this society and still plays a very active part in the society’s everyday.
Sperring doesn’t spell out that this is the case, but it clearly is so. Time is almost a character in the novel.
Second – and this explains my first point – Sperring has the eye of an experienced historian. Her descriptions of the clothes and the actions of characters fit within the fantasy ballpark (the prominence of that rapier again – it’s a very useful rapier, in narrative terms) but the way she handles telling details to record a vastly complicated society. As I read, I know I’m only seeing the tip of an iceberg of story. The past is always present. Every single object a character sees, even the way a ghost laughs, is clearly based on an understanding of European historical world views and the everyday experience of those who lived in the imaginary time.
This is, from the point of view of the writing technique authors use, the diametric opposite to the use of history as a backdrop or wallpaper. The Middle Ages is not even visible for much of the time. It is incorporated into the writing at a level where it influences plot and character and worldbuild. It does, therefore, affect everything.
Whether she does this intentionally or not is something to ask the writer herself, but there is a clear link between the way she writes history (with a profound understanding of culture and its complexity) and the techniques she uses to translate that complexity in story (those techniques merely being with using ghosts, wariness when character encounter new characters – everyone has a past – and, of course, that rapier). The historian’s craft builds the iceberg and the writer’s craft shows just enough of it to make story.
All fiction grounds itself in time in one way or another, but Kari Sperring’s work invokes a deeper understanding of how humans move through time and how their environs reflect that time they move through. Her use of telling detail is closer to (but still not quite) that of the historical fiction author than that of most fantasy writers.
Good historical fiction is another type of story where time itself can play an active role as a character. That detail is never plucked out of nowhere – it is always grounded and evocative. The more ethnohistory the reader knows, the more depths can be plumbed when reading Sperring’s work. The Middle Ages is always present and seldom obvious and make Sperring’s take on the place, on the time, on its magic and on its ghosts… unique.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack