Historical fiction is a subset of the major fictional genres. It may be romantic, an adventure story, or a tragedy, just as any other fictional genre may be. It can also be educational in a very interesting sense, placing the reader in the era, feeling, observing and perhaps participating in historical events. I feel it should be well-anchored in the known history: If the events described are fictional, they should be credible and have the potential to have unfolded as described. Nevertheless, it should NOT be a history lesson or require a great deal of knowledge of the era to be enjoyed and understood. Those who know nothing, for example, of the relations between Rome and China, or even anything at all about Rome and China, can still read The Eagle and the Dragon as just a good adventure story in a fantastical world they never knew existed.
I think there are three sub-genres of historical fiction:
The first sub-genre has actual historical figures as major characters, and is closely tied to their historical biography. A good example of this is The First Man in Rome series by Colleen McCollough, which weaves a very good set of stories about Julius Caesar, his contemporaries and his antecedents. This type of fiction allows these historical figures to tell, in their own words, their motivations and feelings about the actual events of their lives, as interpreted by the author, but must be very faithful to the historical record.
The second sub-genre has fictional events and characters set in an historical context. Lindsey Davis’ Roman era whodunits with Marcus Didius Falco and his delightful upper-class wife Helena are an example of this; Emperor Vespasian dispatches Falco to investigate various mysterious crimes throughout the Empire, but the story interacts with actual events of the era, such as the Boudiccan uprising in Britain.
The third sub-genre is alternative history, playing “what if” scenarios to assess how things might have played out, had historical events turned out differently. Harry Turtledove has written a whole series examining what the world of today might look like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. How would the ensuing events in the world have played out? This type of fiction is constrained to try to trace the trajectory of events… would there, for example, have been a Spanish American War in 1898? Would the Union and Confederacy have allied against Germany in WWI, or taken opposite sides? Or one remain neutral?
The Eagle and the Dragon is a wholly fictional Roman mission with fictional major characters acted out against an accurate historical background, in which both Rome and China were trying to determine the nature of the other. This mission did not occur, but it could have. And there is just a tiny bit of alternate history hidden in there, and the first person who correctly identifies it will receive a free, signed copy!
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