The fantasy genre has been traditionally stereotyped as reminiscent of medieval Europe, full of rogues and mercenaries, kings and knights, with a healthy sampling of witches, wizards, and humanoid creatures to round out the historical fantasy.
Over the years the settings have grown richer, from the island-dwellers of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea tales (to which the recent Sci-Fi Channel film does little justice) to the growing number of settings that resonate with African or Asian cultural identities. Regardless of the cultures used, "traditional fantasy" is still largely a matter of creating a world that never existed and exploring the wonder, adventure, and majesty of supernatural experiences within it.
Alternately, the current fantasy market abounds with "magical realism" and "contemporary fantasy." These stories take the real world that we experience and interject supernatural elements.
There is a third method of crafting a fantasy setting, which can closely resemble either of the above types of fantasy fiction, but which has features distinct from both. This fiction is a subset of the "alternate history" sub-genre.
In alternate history, the events that shape the world in the story match those in our own history until a certain point, a divergence, sends the events afterward in a new direction.
This form of fiction has become so popular in recent years that the Sidewise Awards have been established, as has an extremely comprehensive online index at Uchronia.net, which tracks many alternate history stories as they appear.
For fantasy alternate history, the added element of "and magic is real" can generally be added to the mix. The combination of fantasy elements and historical modification creates an ability to tackle themes both literally and thematically at the same time.
An American Revision
Within this narrow sub-genre, the 800-pound gorilla is Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series. Now at six books, with a seventh (and final) on the way, this series has grown to be a vivid exploration of early American social and political principles.
In this world, colonial and frontier folk magic actually works. Each person has a knack: some unique, generally supernatural gift, such as prophecy or healing. Perhaps the most mundane example of a knack in all of the books is the ability to make a straight line. Whether the character built a fence or plowed a furrow, they were perfectly straight. (This character was executed in a New England witch trial for this ability.)
In Seventh Son, Card began his stories of young Alvin, who is born as the seventh son of a seventh son, which means he is destined for greatness. Alvin's knack is that of being a Maker—an essentially divine gift of creating things, even to the level of altering molecules and cells by sheer force of will. (There are hints in Seventh Son that Benjamin Franklin may have had a touch of the Maker knack.) He has a vision of a crystal city that he will someday build, wherein each person is a Maker. This craft ultimately leads him to the trade of blacksmithing, where the masterpiece he crafts is a plow made of living gold.
Card also touches on the very different forms of magic used by African slaves and American Indians. The second book, Red Prophet, focuses on Alvin's intervention between Tecumseh (pronounced Ta-Kumsaw by the frontiersmen of the book) and Andrew Jackson. The assorted powers are intimately tied to the beliefs and culture of those who possess them.
Given the historical dominance of religion, it's not surprising that many alternate history fantasy stories feature religion as a prominent element. One popular setting is Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy trilogy. The premise is that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had a son, Elua. It is the life and teachings of Elua that shapes European history, creating a very different Europe from the one that formed around the teachings of Christianity.
Carey's stories are powerful, although the historical content is so radically different from the actual course of human history that the reader of alternate history misses out on one of the most fun aspects—running into historical characters in new contexts. The social institutions are so unique as to be virtually alien. It might be best to approach the Kushiel series as a fully realized act of world building that happened to take some history from our own world.
Expanding on another aspect of the Judeo-Christian mythology, Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon," winner of both the Nebula (1990) and Hugo (1991) Awards, depicted the result when that heretical structure was finally completed and stonemasons attempted to gain entry to Paradise.
Moving out of mythology, George Guthridge and Janet Berliner wrote the potent Madagascar Manifesto trilogy, based on a real alternate Final Solution that was contemplated as far back as Napoleon. Instead of the outright execution of the European Jews, Hitler initiates a plan of forcible resettlement to Madagascar. The plot focuses on a love triangle between the three main characters. Though they grew up together, the Jew, the Nazi, and the woman they both love have progressed to very different lives. The final volume of the trilogy, Children of the Dusk, received the Horror Writers Association's 1997 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.
Other religions, of course, also offer supernatural paradigms. David Brin's "Captain America Meets Thor" (1987 Hugo winner for best novelette) tells the story of Nazi rituals that resurrected the Norse pantheon of gods, though Loki goes over to join the side of the Allies. When this tale was recently released as a graphic novel by DC/Wildstorm Comics it was under the alternate title of The Life Eaters, for reasons that should be obvious to any comic book fan.
One branch of alternate history walks a precarious line between science fiction and fantasy. These stories are written to appeal to the fans of science fiction, yet the physical reality is so fundamentally altered from this universe that many would say they have more in common with fantasy in tone. Although a series such as George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards anthologies may well seem fantastic, the underlying forces are still physical rather than metaphysical in nature.
Fantastic science alternate history is perhaps best shown by the Ted Chiang novella "Seventy-Two Letters." In this story, the archaic scientific belief that sperm contained a minuscule, prototypical human body, is combined with the Hebrew kabbalistic teachings concerning golem creation to form a truly chilling story of nineteenth century class warfare. The story is so masterful that it went on to receive the 2000 Sidewise Award and 2001 Hugo Award, and was nominated for 2001 World Fantasy Award.
The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda N. McIntyre, also explored the potent mix of alchemy and moral issues. Set in the court of King Louis XIV, this is the story of a young woman who must stand up in protection of a creature that Louis wants to exploit to gain the secret of immortality. This novel won the 1997 Nebula Award.
In a more adventurous spirit, J. Gregory Keyes leads the reader on a grand epic with his The Age of Unreason series. Across four novels, Keyes portrays a world in which Isaac Newton codified the laws for divine alchemy instead of Newtonian mechanics. Unfortunately, Newton's discovery of "Philosopher's Mercury" ultimately leads to the destruction of London by a giant meteorite. The primary mover of the series is Benjamin Franklin, though it also includes such luminaries as Voltaire, Blackbeard, and Peter the Great, as they battle the dark, demonic forces that are trying to use alchemy to destroy mankind and claim the Earth as their own.
How the West Wasn't Won
In his novels Devil's Tower and Devil's Engine, Mark Sumner brings alternate history and fantasy to the Wild West. The Civil War turned when the bodies killed on the battlefields of Shiloh got back up, and now as explorers headed out west to find their fortune, they are confronted with a range of "talents." The books detail Jake Bird, the sheriff of Medicine Rock, Wyoming, and his battles to bring order to a chaotic West.
A similar turn of events creates the "Weird West" setting of Pinnacle Games' Deadlands role-playing game. The discovery of "ghost rock" in 1863 unleashes powers and monsters that had previously been held at bay. The series expands into extrapolations of the future of such a world, including a space setting and a collectible card game.
The diversity of fantastic adventure history is full of examples of authors who have superbly blended historical fact with the heart and adventure of fantasy fiction. They show us visions of our world as it could be, a vision which is often valuable in understanding the world as it is, as it was, and, certainly, as it might have been.