Genre Exposé: Gaslamp Fantasy

BigBenSunsetByGrahamVPhotoCC

Steampunk everyone knows. But how about Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, and Clockpunk? Or Gaslamp? These are the specialist terms of the hard-core fantasy-fan. They are all sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are sub-genres of Speculative Fiction.

I love Gaslamp because it combines Historical Fiction with fantastic possibilities. A librarian from the New York Public Library described Gaslamp as “Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter.” I like that.

lamp-294127_1280Spotlight on Gaslight

When I describe my book The Temple of Lost Time as a Gaslamp fantasy adventure for middle-grade readers, lots of people reply, “I’ve never heard of Gaslamp fantasy.” Maybe not, but I bet you’ve read it! (Read on for a list of classic and popular titles.)

Gaslamp (or Gaslight) is a sub-genre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It is usually set in Regency, Victorian or Edwardian times, and it’s generally set in England or its (former) colonies. It refers to the gas lamps of the time, which cast a peculiar, eerie ambiance. The fascination with faeries and spiritualism in the Nineteenth Century informs the genre. Comic series creator Kaja Foglio coined the term Gaslamp to describe her Girl Genius series.

Gaslamp fiction is often mislabelled as Steampunk, which doesn’t work because the literature lacks a ‘punk’ tone, i.e., disaffected, brash, irreverent. [Some people are quick to point out that much of Steampunk itself isn’t exactly ‘punk’ either, but I’m not going anywhere near that debate!]

Gaslamp incorporates themes, subjects, and tropes that aren’t found in pure fantasy (Tolkien) and faerie (MacDonald). While Steampunk emphasises (mad) science, clockwork mechanics, and steam power, Gaslamp explores magical possibilities and delights in supernatural elements, time-slip, alternate histories, parallel dimensions, etc.

Gaslamp comes in many flavours from dark and broodingly Gothic to swashbuckling and adventuresome, from polite and romantic to sassy and theatrical. It can include romance, espionage, boarding schools, sleuthing, piracy, and more. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Popular Examples of Gaslamp Fantasy

Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed or plan to read:

From the Classics:

  • Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

Recent Popular Gaslamp Titles:

  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • Drood by Dave Simmons
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Kat Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Fancy A Gaslamp Sampler?

  • Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: a Gaslamp Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow et al

My Gaslamp Fantasy Series The Toby Fitzroy Chronicles

A little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones…

I can’t wait for the day when my middle grade novel, The Temple of Lost Time, is added to the list of popular Gaslamp titles above. I like to describe it as a little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones because it’s a swashbuckling, adventure-filled quest laced with magic and danger. Real places and factual personalities mix with imagined characters and fantastical beings. Myths and legends intersect history as my characters sail out of this world into another, a place called Achronos.

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At first, I thought I had written a Steampunk story thanks to one critical scene that involves a pretty cool steam-powered device. However, while editing my third draft, I sadly conceded one scene doesn’t make something Steampunk. Steampunk is a tone, a theme and a philosophy, all rolled into one.

I did some research and concluded that I had the makings of a Gaslamp fantasy. With that bit of understanding, my redrafting became more focused. I rewrote the whole thing with the conventions and aesthetic of Gaslamp uppermost in my mind. My opening scene now shimmers with weird and wonderful possibility. My earlier, rather watery denouement has transformed into something much richer and more fantastic.

Allohistory – When History Becomes a Playground

Like many Gaslamp tales, my story takes place in an alternative Nineteenth Century England. It’s 1853, but Queen Victoria is not on the throne. Instead, I went to the annals history to devise another monarch—one far less benevolent and mild than our Victoria.

Victoria became queen when her uncle, William IV, died without producing a legitimate heir. Uncle Will had nine illegitimate children to his long-standing mistress, stage actress Dorothea Jordan, but his poor wife, Queen Adelaide, was not so fortunate in the motherhood department. She birthed two daughters who died within weeks. Between these girls, there was a miscarriage, and subsequent to the second girl’s death, there were twin boys who were stillborn.

I gave lives to those boys, and named them Augustus and James. I imagined England under the rule of Augustus. With one wave of my writerly wand, a puff of smoke, and a Hey-Presto! the Victorian Era becomes the Augustan Age. Augustus inherits more than the throne, namely the physical feebleness and mental illness of his grandfather, Edward III. What’s more, I made him riddled with paranoia and positively obsessed with the magical possibilities of myths and legends. Old King Augy is not a popular guy. He’s unpredictable and tyrannical, and is hell-bent on cheating death. To do so, he is desperate to find and raid The Temple of Lost Time

That’s all I’ll say for now. Fingers crossed, a publisher will quickly pick up my book so you can find out the rest!

[P.S. I’d love to know what you think, so please leave me a comment!]

More on Genre and Gaslamp Fantasy…

Check out the following resources:

Over to You!

Are you a Gaslamp Fantasy writer or reader? Got a favourite? Share below!

Image Credits

Big Ben Sunset by Graham V Photo, CC BY-NC-ND, 2.0

Vectors are CC0, Public Domain

16 thoughts on “Genre Exposé: Gaslamp Fantasy

  1. Hi Ali

    I’ve now decided I like “Gaslamp” and “Swashbuckling”…. Let’s face it – escaping reality & stepping into historic fantasy sounds like the order of the day….

    Your fan Always Xx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Alison,
    What an awesome post!!
    I learned so much about this genre- Gaslamp fantasy.
    Fingers crossed your book gets published soon… Karen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea there was all this layering under my simple statement ” I like to read fantasy”. Fascinating reading Ali.
    I do know that I like the kind of fantasy that is more adventure and mystery than hoards of creatures biting heads of the innocent and not so innocent.
    I think I might just slide into the gaslight slipstream. I know I’m loving the snippets of Toby Fitzroy!
    Lucy

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It is obvious that the Gaslamp genre fits your Toby series. Our book club has just read The Ocean at the bottom of the lane by Neil Gaiman – fantasy which brings together many themes of the supernatural, Viking legends and the fight between good and evil. Now I’m wondering what genre it fits into. I thought it was Steampunk but obviously not now but then it’s not Gaslamp either.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Gaslamp Anthology | Spilling Ink

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