Booklovers Podcast: Gaslamp Fantasy
During this episode of the Booklovers Podcast, Vic and I discuss Gaslamp Fantasy. We talk about what Gaslamp Fantasy is and share three of our favorite examples of it.
Laura: Welcome to the Clermont County Public Library’s Booklovers Podcast. I’m your host, Laura, and my guest today is Vic Smith.
Laura: Today, we’re going to be discussing gaslamp fantasy. And just to give you a quick definition, please, Vic, feel free to jump in and add what you think.
Gaslamp fantasy defined
Laura: Gaslamp fantasy is a mashup of historical fiction and fantasy. It often focuses on the Regency, Victorian, or Edwardian eras. It creates an alternate universe with magical or supernatural elements. While gaslamp fantasy started off as being very British in setting, in recent years, I know authors have been embracing a more diverse approach.
Laura: There’s definitely crossover with steampunk and Gothic horror. So, with steampunk, you get a similar time period. And with the Gothic horror, sometimes it has a similar vibe, at least to me.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark is probably one of the better-known examples of the genre. Don’t you think?
Vic: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that was the first big one I heard of that I knew was gaslamp fantasy.
Witchmark by CL Polk
Laura: So now that we’ve got the definition in place, do you want to share your first pick with me?
Vic: This is one of my favorite books, and I didn’t know it was gaslamp fantasy when I first read it.
Vic: But it fits the genre perfectly. It is Witchmark by C.L. Polk. Very, very good book. It is about Miles, who is a doctor in London. He has come back from the war, which is still ongoing in the alternative England that they created for this world. And he is a psychologist, basically, who’s helping the men who are coming back from war. He ends up having a patient die on him from a fatal poisoning. And as a result of that, he gets pulled into the investigation of the patient’s murder. He has a partner who he is kind of investigating with, who he was introduced to when the poisoned man came to him to be healed.
Vic: And it’s a super interesting mystery. It has a fantastic magic system that pulls on the sense of magic as various feelings. So there’s healing magic, there’s storm magic, etc. And the world that has been created here, C.L. Polk did a fantastic job of making it feel like it could be Victorian or Edwardian England, but making it a completely different society.
Vic: So it’s the same basic format. But the system that they have in place has magic as a hidden thing that is still involved in the country. And it’s really interesting to see how these books can take those basic elements of, like, the time period and really make it something entirely different.
Laura: Yes, that is actually that whole alternative universe. You know, what would happen if we added some magic? I love how authors can take the same basic premise and come up with such different outcomes.
Laura: So CL Polk is one of my favorite writers, too. I’m super excited they’ve got a novella coming out this fall and I can’t wait!
Laura: Yes, very excited.
Witchmark is the first in the series
Vic: Witchmark is the first book in a series. I have read the entire series, and it certainly goes in an entirely different direction by that third book. So it’s interesting to read from the first one, which is like this mystery kind of romance book all the way to the third one, which is something very different. You’d have to read it to see what it’s like.
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
Laura: Absolutely. So my pick, it has a similar setting. It’s A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske. And it too is set in an alternate England.
Laura: On the first day of what Robin Blythe thinks will be a boring civil service job, he’s kidnapped, cursed, and thrust into a dangerous plot involving a secret world of magic and the families who practice it. He needs to find The Contract, something his predecessor died to protect. But Robin has no idea what it is or even where to start looking for it. And he’s got a time clock ticking because the curse is going to kill him if he doesn’t deliver it within a certain amount of time.
And the other main character, Edwin, belongs to a magic-wielding family, but he’s always been on the outskirts because his talent is a small one compared to other people’s. So, I feel a kinship with Edwin because books and libraries are his safe spaces. And yet he finds himself drawn into helping Robin, even though he’d rather go be in the library, researching magic.
Laura: So, you get an Edwardian romance crossed with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. We get an opposites-attract, very sunshine and grump romance. Plus, you get all of the magical theory you could ever want. You get curse tattoos. and ancient contracts with magical beings. And you get a magical library, secret rooms. There’s a killer animated hedge maze at one point. And lots and lots of political intrigue.
The world-building is super detailed, very satisfying. The characters are complex and engaging and they have a really sweet, sometimes steamy romance.
Laura: So, I love this book. I’m really excited that the sequel, A Restless Truth, is due this fall. So very jazzed about that one.
Vic: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about A Restless Truth. It sounds like it’s going to be just as good as the first one was.
Similar but different
But this book and Witchmark, they’ve been marked as read-a-likes a lot for each other. But they have such different vibes. I think that they cover very different areas of this genre really well in very similar ways.
But they’re actually, I mean, as good as both of them are, as much as I think someone would enjoy both, they’re very different books from each other.
Laura: Yes. And that’s what I love about authors doing their own take on this. I mean, it’s such a very sub-sub-genre almost, and yet people can do such different things with the same basic elements. I love it.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Laura: So, do you have another pick to share?
Vic: Yes. So, we’re going in a different direction with this one. It is A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. It is the first in the Lady Trent series.
Vic: And it’s such an interesting book because you follow Isabella. Isabella Trent is Lady Trent. And in the first book she’s actually just starting out, she’s very young and you follow her from her childhood as she becomes fascinated with dragons, which are a natural species of creature in her world.
Vic: She lives in Scirland land, which is, again, kind of England. This book has a lot of place names that you can pretty much identify where it’s supposed to be in the real world. From childhood, Isabella is fascinated with dragons and eventually follows that fascination to become a natural philosopher of dragons.
Vic: So, she enters the science field. She goes on expeditions. And the first book follows her expedition to Vistrana, where they are looking into the Vistrani rock wyrms, which is a kind of dragon that lives up in the cold mountains. There’s a little bit of a mystery. There’s a lot of natural history.
Gaslamp fantasy with natural world investigation
Vic: While it is very much a fantasy book, there’s so much just investigation of the natural world in this series that I really enjoy because it makes it feel real in a way that you don’t always get from these fantasy series.
Laura: I love that ability when an author can just draw you in and make you think, yeah, this is actually possible.
Laura: This could be real. I love that.
Vic: And then, the interesting thing about this series is its exploration of women in the time period. Because Isabella faces a lot of blockades due to being a woman. And she gets very lucky that she has a supportive family, that she has a supportive husband in her husband, Jacob, and that she is allowed, despite all of the things that are in her way, to force her way into this career. It’s really cool to watch that happen.
Laura: I love that. That sounds fantastic. Thank you for sharing. Those are two fantastic picks and I’m excited.
Laura: Thank you for joining me and sharing those. I really appreciate that.
Laura: And thanks to our listeners for joining us. Find the titles that we’ve talked about listed with links to our catalog in the show notes on our website, clermontlibrary.org. Thank you all for listening and happy reading.
If you’re looking for other book suggestions, for gaslamp fantasy or something else, explore our online resource, NoveList Plus. Or sign up for Recommends, our personalized reading suggestions via email service. Or ask Library staff during your next visit.