What is Gaslamp Fantasy? - Tor/Forge Blog




What is Gaslamp Fantasy?

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells

Queen Victoria's Book of Spells edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Written by Terri Windling

Our latest anthology, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, is a book dedicated to tales of Gaslamp Fantasy: a genre of stories set in magical versions of 19th century England.

We’ve chosen the term Gaslamp Fantasy for our book rather than the other common appellation, Victorian Fantasy—for in fact these stories can take place at any time during the 1800s, from the Regency years early in the century to Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901). Although commonly set in England itself, Gaslamp tales can also unfold in Britain’s former colonies—anywhere that British culture has been, or remains, a dominant force. Steampunk fiction (which blends 19th century fantasy settings with science fiction elements) is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that makes up the Gaslamp Fantasy genre. There’s also historical fantasy (without Steampunk trappings), dark fantasy with a deliciously gothic bent, romantic tales, detective tales, enchanted tales set in English boarding schools, and Fantasy of Manners: a brand of magical fiction that owes more to Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope than to C.S.Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Why, it might be asked, are so many of us in the fantasy field so fascinated by the 19th century? Perhaps because the culture of the period was itself awash in fantasy. At no other time and place in Anglo-American history were magical stories as widely read by the general public; never was there more interest in all elements of the supernatural. Bestselling works of fantasy literature were published for readers of all ages, “fairy art” hung on the walls of respectable galleries, and a passion for supernatural romances swept through the theatre, ballet, and opera worlds from the 1830s onward. Throughout the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution created enormous societal upheaval, disrupting old rural ways of life and transforming the British countryside. Fantasy provided both an escape from these pressing issues and a way to address them through the metaphoric language of myth and symbolism.

Today, as our own Technological Revolution causes sweeping societal change and upheaval, many of us turn to fantasy for the very same reasons: to escape the modern world…and, perhaps, to understand it just a little bit better when we return.

If you are interested in exploring this genre further, here are some wonderful novels we can recommend, from both the Adult and Young Adult Fantasy shelves:

  • Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
  • Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
  • Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter
  • Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
  • Lost by Gregory Maguire
  • Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • The Prestige by Christopher Priest
  • Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
  • Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt

For a longer list of recommended reading, see the back of Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.


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17 thoughts on “What is Gaslamp Fantasy?

  1. I love the term “gaslamp fantasy.” I promptly added Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells to my wish list. I’ve read a number of the books on your suggested list.

  2. I think that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke fit in this category. It’s a wonderful book, with honest-to-god literary merit. Not that these others don’t – I haven’t read them.

  3. Others may have used the term Gaslamp but this is the first time I have seen it. Thanks

  4. Kaja Foglio coined the term Gaslamp Fantasy and has been using it to describe the graphic novel series (Girl Genius) she co-writes with her husband Phil Foglio since at least 2006:


    Her definition harks back to the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard, but there is certainly a good deal of overlap with the way you are using the term here. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you were unaware of the long-standing use of this term by the Foglios for their work; even though Tor has published an omnibus edition of the first three volumes of the Girl Genius series, the term “Gaslamp Fantasy,” while heavily used by the Foglios, doesn’t seem to have made into Tor’s marketing materials for the book, which has also been mentioned in other comments to this blog entry.

    But now you know, and it is only fair of you to acknowledge the Foglios longstanding use of this term when you use it from now on, even if you won’t give Kaja credit for coining it.

  5. Yes, every single cover of the original printed editions of Girl Genius features the phrase “A Gaslamp Fantasy with Adventure, Romance and Mad Science”, right underneath the individual book titles. I own them all and can confirm William Ansleys dating of the use to at least 2006, since my copy of Book One (third edition) was printed that year.

    I’ve now received my copy of Queen Victorias Book of Spells, and while I am delightedly excited to start reading all the stories in it, I was dismayed to find that Girl Genius is not even listed in the “Recommended Reading” section at the end of the book. Really, Tor/Forge? You use their coined term without referencing them, and don’t even recommend them when you have the chance?

  6. I love the term Gas-Lamp Fantasy, too; and I have been writing novels set in my own counter-factual gas-lamp fantasy world before Kaja Foglio came up with the term (if you want a preview of my work for free – all my books are on Kindle – then check out my WordPress page).
    I don’t know about other people, but I find Gas-Lamp Fantasy, with its use of Magick, far more interesting than Steampunk and all of its crazy technology.

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