Gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that combines elements of Gothic horror, urban fantasy and historical fiction. Technically, that is true, but it doesn’t paint a useful picture of what gaslamp fantasy is. To be more specific, Gaslamp books usually take place in settings inspired by the Victorian and Edwardian period, especially the United Kingdom and France, but reimagine these settings if magic was real. Sometimes the time period will stray to the Regency and Georgian periods too. Gaslamp will usually include a range of classic Gothic creatures like vampires, fae, ghosts and werewolves, and may take place in the real British Isles, or in fantasy worlds strongly inspired by those real life locations.
Gaslamp stories tend to take one of two approaches to magic.
- Magic that is fully integrated into the world and society.
- ‘The masquerade’, where a hidden magical society is just below the surface of the normal world.
The name of the genre comes from the gas lamps used to illuminate cities in the Victorian period. The name is credited to the creators of the comic Girl Genius. It is sometimes called Gaslight fantasy instead, possibly because as the genre has grown it absorbed the similar genre of Gaslight romance, a term coined in 1997 by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.
The genre is often confused with Steampunk, and not without reason. They’re similar genres, and both draw heavily from Victorian aesthetics, but steampunk focusses on fantastical machinery and technology and may not include magic at all, while gaslamp fantasy will largely focus on magic, or supernatural elements, and doesn’t need to include any technology that didn’t really exist. The genres can overlap, especially when steampunk gets more supernatural (like in one of my favourite series, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate), or gaslamp starts involving magitech.
Another very common crossover is with the comedy of manners genre, where authors imagine how the Victorian and Edwardian era’s formal manners would respond to the existence of magic, often with absurdist or satirical results. This subgenre is called a fantasy of manners; not all fantasy of manners are gaslamp, but many are.
Gaslamp stories often draw from a lot of the elements of the Gothic novel and gothic romances in general. Some people have argued that it is a straight modernisation of Gothic, but I personally disagree with this characterisation. Besides the obvious, such as the werewolves and vampires, gaslamp fantasy often uses supernatural elements for the purpose of social commentary like Gothic novels did.
However, in my opinion most Gaslamp fantasy is missing critical elements of the Gothic novel – such as themes of the past intruding on the present, the pervading sense of fear, decay and morbidity, and any of the classic gothic framing devices like the ‘found letter’. Instead of these, a lot of gaslamp fantasy borrows elements from urban fantasy like the menagerie of supernatural creatures, the masquerade, common character archetypes such as the sleuth who has to contend with the supernatural, and often utilises city settings.
The genre has experienced a resurgence in the mid to late 2000s and is undergoing a lot of evolution right now. Indie authors are leading the charge of this new stage of Gaslamp fantasy, encouraged by moves to recognise the genre such as Amazon adding a Gaslamp category.
If you’re interested in understanding what makes the gaslamp genre tick, you might enjoy some of my favourite indie gaslamp novel.
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The Lord of Stariel by award winning New Zealand author AJ Lancaster is set in an Edwardian-esque fantasy world inspired by the United Kingdom, especially Scotland, with both magical technology and Fae.
When the scandalous daughter of a great family returns home after her father’s death, she only intends to survive her family’s drama for a few weeks and leave again.
But for the first time in centuries, Fae have returned to the world, and only the Lord of Stariel can protect people.
Tea and Sympathetic Magic by the Hugo award winning Australian author Tansy Rayner Roberts is a hilarious gaslamp comedy of manners set in a magical version of the British Isles called the Teacup Isles.
Miss Mnemosyne Seabourne might be the only eligible lady who doesn’t want to marry the Duke. Mr Thornbury is a spellcracker tasked with protecting the Duke from would-be love charms. Together, they must stop a bespelled elopement.
The Thirteenth Hour, a SPFBO finalist, by British author Trudie Skies, is a gaslamp fantasy with gothic cosmic deities and quaint Britishisms aplenty.
In the steampowered city of Chime, Kayl only wants to protect the downtrodden and Quen just wants to do his job and stop sinners.
That was until Quen began receiving visions of Chime’s destruction, and Kayl developed horrific new powers. Now they must discover the truth before Chime’s cruel gods take matters into their own hands.
What is your favourite gaslamp book, show or movie? Let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for new recommendations.
TVTropes (n.d). Gaslamp Fantasy. TVTropes. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GaslampFantasy
Manusos, L. (2022). The birth and evolution of gaslamp fantasy. BookRiot. https://bookriot.com/gaslamp-fantasy/
Rouyer, A. (2014). Bewitched, bothered and betrothed: An intro to Gaslamp Fantasy. New York Public Library. https://wayback.archive-it.org/18689/20220312211246/https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/04/22/bewitched-bothered-betrothed-intro-gaslamp-fantasy
Featured image: Loup garou by Maurice Sand, 1858, public domain.