I’m a bit miffed by the lack of early modern settings in fantasy. Since most of the “medieval” tropes in your standard western fantasy series actually come from the Renaissance, you would expect gunpowder and other technological innovations to follow. Yet while shipbuilding technology tends to go the opposite direction, jumping far ahead, we’re often left with a noticeable absence of guns. For those, you’d best look to steampunk or gaslight romance; secondary-world fantasy often remains pre-modern in character in at least one aspect, an inability to discover gunpowder, even if early modern in others.
This isn’t a problem in historical fantasies, where we expect historical baggage to go along with the chosen time period. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series has riflemen mounted on dragons, no less. And there are a growing number of industrial settings in fantasy (such as Mieville’s Bas-Lag) that allow for flintlocks, though by this point the early modern aspects are gone completely.
Sometimes we can muster up a reason. The nameless city of Ellen Kushner’s Riverside tales is a mix of various eras and places from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Among the nobles, life is much like in Regency-era England; among the poor, Renaissance-era Italy. I found the lack of pistols odd, but the focus on sword duels between hired swordsmen as an official means to resolve disputes in high society did, in fact, seem balanced on a lack of firearms. Pistols duels don’t require nearly as much finesse. As well, the country had united some time ago and faced no external threats; nothing appreciable in the way of wars would lead to military innovation.
More often than not, however, there’s a sense of societal and technological stagnation in fantasy. Lack of gunpowder is only a small symptom, really. Even during the Middle Ages there were times of great upheaval, and Europe in the early fifteenth century looked a great deal different than it did in the sixth. Yet I’m all to used to seeing a prologue tell of some event 1000 years prior the events of the main narrative, and by the time we reach chapter one, no appreciable change has occurred, not even a mouldboard plough. The world, as ever, has remained exactly the same.
Yet there is a draw towards the Renaissance and early modern period for a certain kind of romance (in the old sense of the word)—courtly intrigue, natural philosophy, swashbuckling rogues, pirates, voyages of exploration, war galleys, a remarkable variety of quite elegant swords, and even more elegant clothes. The advent of the printing press and the spread of ideas, the rising popularity of theatre, mass upheaval, revolution. The contact of various cultures at a scale unprecedented; galleons racing across the world.
And, of course, there were guns. The Ottomans with their giant cannons, Europeans with matchlocks, wheel-locks, flintlocks. The pike-and-shot era giving us a mix of pikes and halberds and swords and muskets. In Eastern Europe a rather glorious blend of eras out of synch: Tatars still using bows and arrows across the steppe, still carrying shields, Winged Hussars in heavy armour, sabres, ostentatious costumes, feudal magnates.
There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and I dub works that fall on this period for inspiration as “black powder fantasy.”
There’s been a bit of it. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy had an Enlightenment flavour, and Dianna-Wynn Jones dabbled in introducing guns and printing presses. Patricia C. Wrede did some as well, though she veered more towards historical fantasy in that regard (Sorcery & Cecelia comes to mind). But in my reading, the rapport of guns has been strangely silent. I’ve seen some comments to the effect that the introduction of gunpowder is a no-no, a way to break immersion; though this seems more rooted in preconceived genre expectations than in anything incompatible with firearms or other innovation in fantasy itself. Even Tolkien included some explosions, after all.
Folks, this viewpoint must be rectified!
I’m kidding, of course, since taking on a renaissance or early modern-style fantasy does depend on the themes you want to express. My on-hiatus book centres on the ideas of intellectual upheaval and colonization, the fading of belief in the supernatural and the overthrow of an ancien regime. Naturally, my influences gravitate around the starkest historical period for these sorts of questions. Guns and printing presses are more than just window-dressing for what I’m trying to express. As always, authors should choose the milieu that fits them best.
Still…rapiers and wheel-lock pistols are pretty cool, don’t you think?