Over the last weekend I was lucky enough to take part in two podcasts, The Nerd Book Review and the upcoming Fantasy Unleashed, and in both discussions the topic of Flintlock Fantasy and how guns are incorporated into the Fantasy genre came up. Being an opinionated (and lazy) individual, I thought this vaguely Baader Meinhof-ish phenomenon inspiration enough to warrant a blog post on Flintlock/ Gunpowder Fantasy.
Later, while working on my fantasy worldbuilding book, Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, I came across some quotes from RPG designers and Steven Erikson himself stating how fantasy fans dislike when gunpowder shows up in their fantasy. Like infodumps, I don't think this is always the case, so this deserves a deeper dive into Flintlock Fantasy as a subgenre.
Firstly, I think we should probably agree on some terms. The Gunpowder Fantasy subgenre, if the name itself doesn’t give it away, consists of fantasy tales incorporating the use of gunpowder as a major plot point. So while two characters might use gunpowder in, say, Rob Hayes’ pirate duology Best Laid Plans, the use of guns does not factor as a plot point itself; the story is about pirates, some of which use guns. This is opposed to Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage Series where gunpowder is so important to the plot and worldbuilding that it earns a spot in the series name.
I would also posit that Gunpowder Fantasy exists as the larger umbrella that all the other subgenres either exist within or abut against.
But it gets a little more difficult to differentiate between Gunpowder Fantasy, Flintlock Fantasy, and the other subgenres that incorporate guns in some form like Weird West and even Urban Fantasy. At first I approached this puzzle from a technological angle and thought the distinction could be wrought from what type of gun is being used. And no, I’m not ashamed to say that this was plainly the path of least resistance since Flintlock Fantasy made mention of flintlocks. For those not up on their evolution of guns (and I hardly am), flintlocks are the old timey ones that literally used flint to ignite the gunpowder. These were widely inaccurate as well as prone to misfires and these muskets were later replaced by rifles that fired cartridges, which we more commonly call bullets.
The transition between flintlocks/ musket balls to bullets occurred around the end of the American Civil War, which corresponds with the rise of the Wild West, so I thought this would be a great delineating line between Flintlock Fantasy and Weird West. However, this technological distinction did nothing to account for Steampunk and Urban Fantasy, so I had to reexamine my approach. Perhaps the Fantasy subgenres are not beholden to technology.
Or, more specifically, they are only beholden to how technology affects their constructed cultural milieu
I was put on this path by McClellan’s Q&A in the back of Promise of Blood where he stated he wanted to write about a time of transition (I’m paraphrasing his point 4), which I think really defines Flintlock Fantasy to a T: Flintlock Fantasy, the best examples being Powder Mage and Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns, deal with a time of transition from magic to technology. Magic certainly exists in these worlds, but technology, in the form of gunpowder, is intruding upon the old order to create a new one.
Like McClellan and Wexler, I used these technological fantasy conceits when designing my own Flintlock Fantasy series, Sol's Harvest, which is kicked off with The Woven Ring. So it makes sense that it is tied to the analogue culture and time period of the American Civil War in terms of flintlock weapons, while adding in fantasy elements like psychic exoskeletons and ley lines, while also incorporating steampunk elements like airships and floating trains.
Compare this to Weird West, which takes the American Wild West mythos and adds a Fantasy Conceit to it. In Weird West stories, technology and culture are analogue to that time period with fantasy elements intruding upon the status quo, usually in the form of magic or monsters. In them, gunpowder is the norm and magic the interloper. Gunpowder, therefore, plays a major role in the plot because it is how the characters deal with the new magical intrusion.
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is probably the best known Weird West series (the first one falls into this category at least, as well as the fourth book IMO), and while magic and guns certainly coexist in Roland’s world before things get all weird, it’s pretty apparent that Roland depends on his gunpowder to defeat the magic of the man in black.
The importance of gunpowder as part of the fantasy conceit wanes significantly in the next two subgenres, which is why they slightly overlap with Gunpowder Fantasy in my diagram instead of being inside of it such as Flintlock Fantasy.
Steampunk and its fellow subgenres which use the Victorian Age as their analogues takes a less adversarial role to magic and technology in that they’re often either more integrated or use magic as an equivalent for gunpowder. As in it would not be considered extraordinary for a hero to draw a pistol during a ubiquitous airship battle, or fantastical crystals are used to create weapons equivalent to guns ala Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
By the time we arrive at Urban Fantasy in terms of technological advancement, guns are again considered the norm and its either fantasy elements that are invading—such as just about every zombie story ever, and these weapons are a natural means of defense—or magic and technology are again much more integrated. Again Jim Butcher can be invoked in his Dresden Files series, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. In both these cases guns exist for the mundane population while magic exists in the shadow realm only glimpsed by the protagonists and a select few. Compare this to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series (or, rather, the True Blood show incarnation that I’m more familiar with), where magic and technology both exist openly. Both magic and technology are now tools to be used rather than a plot point such as with Flintlock Fantasy and Weird West.
Which leads me to another conclusion I’ve come to of late: I believe guns have been cropping up in fantasy that aren’t within the Gunpowder Fantasy subgenre a lot more frequently, particularly in the Grimdark subgenre. I believe this is particularly prevalent in this subgenre because Grimdark applies a more modern, real-world aesthetic to Fantasy: Characters are morally gray, life is hard, the good guys don’t always win, etc., which in a sense dulls the fantastical shine to the genre as a whole.
Personally, I believe this is the genre growing up out of its High Fantasy and YA roots to deal with some uncomfortable truths. And guns in any form bring this to the fore. In effect they steal some of the power and fantastical cache from magic in that an individual does not need to be born a wizard and study for years to kill from a distance. Suddenly that highly sought fireball spell can be replicated by any trained soldier with a cannon and some gunpowder.
But guns in this case are really just the symbol of technology in that it really does steal the power of the gods in the Promethean sense. Technology over time rivals magic as we think of it in the classical sense, with Gunpowder Fantasy in all of its various forms dealing with this as a core part of the story.
Which I, personally, think is a good thing as Fantasy as a genre shucks off its vaguely medieval origins to finally explore new cultures and time periods in new fantastical worlds.