Most of us know what steampunk and Victorian fantasy is, but I’m guessing most of us haven’t heard of flintlock fantasy. To be honest, I myself hadn’t prior to researching different fantasy genres to discuss for Sunday Sub-Genres. It isn’t one of the more commonly known or widely spread genres in fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a style of fantasy that appeals to readers and writers alike, so we’d be amiss if we skipped it. Let’s get started!
Defining Flintlock Fantasy
Simply put, flintlock fantasy is fantasy written in a setting with all of the bells and whistles of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. It received its name because the firearms’ advancement level is usually right around the flintlock stage of gun development. A creative name? Maybe not. But it does serve its purpose. Politically speaking, the scene is more attuned with Napoleonic-era Europe than you see in most fantasy stories, which typically use a more Middle Ages-style structure. So you’re going to see a rise of industry and industrial buildings as well as more technology. This makes things interesting, as you’ll see when you read through the next section of the post.
Writing Flintlock Fantasy
Now we get to the interesting part. We mostly know what to write and expect in typical fantasy genres, but flintlock fantasy is a whole different beast from what we’ve tackled in previous posts on fantasy sub-genres. Still, it makes for some fun combinations in story-telling, so let’s get into it!
We’re going to start here because this part is pretty unique to flintlock fantasy or any fantasy book that has a more developed society. Magic use can be all over the place in these books. Some have very high magic use while others really don’t. Some may keep the magic hidden away from general society while others may allow it out in the open. But here’s the thing. When you can easily gun down the mage with no magic of your own, things tend to shift in the power balance here. People with magic are no longer the only ones with an edge. They may use the magic to do many things, but if technology can do those same thing or do them more efficiently, then that leaves magic-users with an option: adapt or die in obscurity. Keep in mind that one of the most interesting things in flintlock fantasy is the way the authors end up combining magic and gunpowder. That can create some very interesting combinations and effects. So if you’re writing this genre, you’re going to do some serious thinking about magic and how you want to include it because this is one of the hardest decisions you’ll probably make regarding this type of fantasy.
Here’s a critical one. Flintlock fantasy is set in a society on the cusp of some amazing inventions and changes, as well as some not so great ones. One way of life is slowly dying to give way for another, and depending on how you choose to tell the story, your tale will reflect that. It won’t have much of a choice because of the nature of flintlock fantasy. This opens the door for remarking, through the use of fiction, on the horrors of trends in society as technology began to really barrel forward. It allows writers a chance to make a commentary on history and on what may happen to us in the future because of it.
Okay, this is a little of a weird one to include, but it’s also really important. You might be tempted to think at this point that this isn’t much different from steampunk besides maybe focusing more on flintlock innovations and what not. But that’s actually very far from the truth. While an argument could be made that these two are closely-related cousins, flintlock fantasy is not steampunk fantasy. So no steam-powered machines of gears and cogs that can do wild things. If it was an actual invention during the time period flintlock is based on, it’s probably fine. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have anything steam-powered, but it shouldn’t be prominent or the focus because then you’d be writing steampunk, not flintlock fantasy.
Change and Military Might
Remember how I said your society is on the cusp of change? Well, it’s not just technology that changes. When technology changes, everything does. Your warfare tactics have to adapt. Your society alters to adapt to the new amenities and struggles. Most of us probably don’t even realize just how wide-spread the influence of technology is in our lives, and even though the technology in this case will just be gaining the first bit of momentum in a flintlock fantasy’s society, it’s going to create ripples. Nothing is going to be able to remain as it was, especially when it comes to guns and new weapons.
This means that flintlock fantasy often focuses on themes of change or military.
Flintlock fantasy is one of those sub-genres that has very high plot complexity. Because it draws on readers’ understanding of history, the time spent setting up the world is not as heavy as it would be for other types of fantasy. As such, more time is then devoted to the plot and making it full of action and battle. Since military is often a theme in flintlock fantasy, it’s quite usual to find that flintlock fantasy is more focused on a linear plot surrounding soldiers or military characters of some sort. Things are still changing in this genre, but one of the best ways to explain the plot is to say it’s high-powered. Lots of momentum, lots of forward movement. That’s going to be important if you want to write in this genre. There’s room for you to make it your own, of course, but these are some guidelines generally used for the genre.
Flintlock fantasy can be a lot of fun for the right writers. But it’s also specific in its requirements. If you want to have dwarves facing off against elves with bows, arrows, and swords, well… That’s not going to work in a flintlock fantasy for obvious reasons. They’re going to die because they’ll be up against guns, not bows and arrows, when they face off against the enemy. If you want to write this genre, I cannot stress enough how important it is to read books in the genre! These books can be pretty high violence and can get dark depending on the theme of change that’s focused on or what type of military themes are brought in. But if this is what you want to write, you absolutely must read it! I’ve included some recommendations below.
Brent Weeks’ works in particular are ones I’ve read some of, and I feel he’s a good author to learn from. Reviews are mixed, and there were certainly some things that weren’t the best about some of his earlier work, but he had a good grasp on how to write flintlock style fantasy. His societies are definitely ones on the cusp of change, and the one book I read through entirely (first in the Night Angel Trilogy) had very strong political and military themes. You don’t see as much of the guns side of things, but you definitely get an industrial revolution feel from it.
Sanderson is another very good author to learn from. I personally have learned a great deal from dissecting his work to learn from it, and I highly recommend you read his work, regardless of what sub-genre of fantasy you want to write. He’s a must-read fantasy author in my opinion, and you rob yourself of some seriously useful learning opportunities if you don’t take the time to read his work and digest it. His Mistborn series, Elantris, or Warbreaker are great places to start.
If you’re more of the epic fantasy sort, I can’t recommend his Stormlight Archives more highly. You’ll learn more about writing fantasy, phenomenal world-building, and superb characterization from reading his work and looking at what he does than you will from a lot of writing guides. Almost everything I know and nearly every technique I utilize for world-building in my novels came from what I learned reading the Stormlight Archives. I’ve since added to that knowledge, of course, but I haven’t seen a more valuable example of how to use extensive world-building well than I have in his work.
Further Resources and Reading
Brent Weeks’ Night Angel and Lightbringer series (Two separate series. Based on what I’ve read from Weeks, I don’t recommend this for kids. It would be best if readers are fifteen or sixteen at least because it gets pretty violent and has language.)
Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of the Law (Sanderson is a phenomenal fantasy author to learn from! If you only read one book on the list here, read his. His books are generally suitable for those fourteen and up.)
*Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Lays of Anuskaya
*Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
*Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command