Regarding the responsibilities of writers of historical fantasy or pseudo-historical fiction, Your Humble Blogger has little that would head in the direction of anything definitive. I have been pondering the issue for a while now, and if it helps, I've come up with four categories that seem to me to have differing levels of authorial responsibility to historical whatnottage, in all its various stuff.
Digression: Gentle Readers may have noticed my tendency to break things down into classes and categories, laboring the distinctions in a nineteenth-century positivist way, taking on the tone of an ancient Strunk lecturing to a particularly slow-witted class of fresh folk. That tone is not provoked by the Gentle Readers; Your Humble Blogger is actually lecturing his own self. In third person. Sorry about that. End Digression.
The first category is fiction that takes place in our actual history, or something very close to it. What came to my mind in this category was the John the Balladeer stories of Manly Wade Wellman; there are speculative elements (it's OK if I call them that, right?) but the world is our world. I think that the author who chooses this path has a high bar of accuracy, and can fairly be criticized not only for anachronisms and such but for perpetuating stereotypes, whitewashing the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, glamorizing war, misogyny and ecological devastation, and anything else that a novel in that setting but without speculative elements would be criticized for. The existence of a vampire in nineteenth-century New Orleans would not justify neglecting the cultural jumbo that would presumably be the reason to set a vampire novel in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Right? A novel set with magicians or dragons in the Napoleonic Wars should either touch on the state of women and slaves or have some really good justification for avoiding it.
The second category is fantasy that takes place in another world that is abstracted from a specific and recognizable culture and time. This could be Harry Turtledove writing the Videssos books that are clearly Byzantium with some fantasy elements. What puts a book into this category is that the parallels between Videssos and Byzantium are supposed to be a Source of Reader Pleasure. Or, to take the intention away from it, a reader should place the book in this category if she finds the parallels to be an integral part of the book. Then the reader, it seems to me, is justified in criticizing the accuracy of the book within the abstraction of the author, or (equally important) in criticizing the abstraction itself. That is, with further thinking, I think that it's fair for me to criticize the choice that Mr. Turtledove makes in (f'r'ex) not dealing with insular religious minority traditions within the larger community. On the other hand, in that criticism, it's important to keep in mind that there are purposes served by the abstraction, and that the thing you are criticizing may be part and parcel of the thing you like. What is obviously (I hope) unfair in this category is complaining that Makuran is Persia and therefore should properly be east of Videssos.
Now, I want to spend just a little longer on this category before moving on. Ms. Bujold, after reading a series of this-is-the-version-of-that posts on The Sharing Knife series, felt compelled to point out that although the book is inspired by the American Frontier, it isn't actually set in the American Frontier, and that therefore there aren't one-to-one correspondences. And that's clearly fair. Except that by making the setting recognizably a pseudo-real American Frontier, she has set up some of the correspondences, and she has to answer for them, whether they are altogether reasonable or not. I do feel that I am entitled to be grumpy about Ms. Bujold's choice to make an American Frontier without Africans, French or Mexicans, even if it's isn't the real American Frontier.
A third category: books that are set in a fantasy world that is largely taken from a particular culture, but which is so different from our own history that its difficult to draw correspondence between any two elements. There are loads of swords-and-sorcery books that are vaguely European, and loads of spooky books that are vaguely Maerchenwald, and so on and so forth. One example might be the Dalemark Quartet by Diane Wynne Jones, which is very very Welsh, but is set in a place that is not Wales at all in any way, and doesn't have anything like the history of Wales. I think these are pretty murky. My inclination is that you have to criticize them on their own terms. If you find that having a semi-medieval or renaissance society without any oppression or visible racial or religious minorities gets up your nose, I think it's worth saying so, and laying out why. But since those religious and racial minorities are going to be invented, I think criticisms of how they are handled (when they are handled at all) is tricky; I've seen reviews that say that obviously the K'Parheth are meant to be Asians, and that therefore the whole book is racist in its depiction of Asians/K'Parneth, and, you know, sometimes that's persuasive and sometimes it isn't. Looking at it from the other direction, I think a writer should be able to invent the K'Parneth without having to make them line up directly with any of our cultures.
But, and this is where it turns out I've been headed with this, I think it is incumbent on a writer to be aware of things like: the Magic Negro trope; Orientalism and similar exoticism; the stereotype of Jews as grasping, uncouth and untrustworthy; the Madonna/whore dichotomy, together with other depictions of women that justify the patriarchy; the deliberate social norm of invisibility of minorities, service workers, cripples, and other undesirables; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as the King of Siam would say). That may be a lot. I don't know; I don't write. But I think that it makes some sense that people who read a book set in a version of, say, medieval Europe will be offended to find all of the social and cultural evils whitewashed away, or to find that the K'Parneth are inscrutable slant-eyed fanatics who can't pronounce their rs and ls. And it takes more than coming up with new names for geographical landmarks to get away from that.
Well, and I may as well go through the fourth category, as long as I'm at it: books that are clearly intended to have parallels with a portion of our own world's history, but with utterly different circumstances, such that the difference is a large part of the point. I'm thinking here of Trantor of course, ancient Rome in space. But there are others, which of course I can't think of off the top of my head. Shakespeare in space, El Cid in space, Ali Baba and the Forty Space Pirates. You know. My inclination is to give these an extra break, because these things are by their nature delicate, and the more you stretch them the bigger the rips are. On the other hand, it's absolutely fair game to criticize the initial choice; Mr. Asimov decided to do The Decline and Fall of Planet Rome because he thought that the story of Rome is and ought to be central to our story of ourselves, for very large values of us, and that's problematic in a variety of ways. But having made that choice, I don't think he's on the hook for fairly representing the Roman system.
OK, very long indeed, and without much real content. I suppose what I've concluded (to this point) is that I do think it's important, when reading and criticizing a book, to decide which category it's in. And I think it's important for an author to decide that as well, although of course there's no guarantee that the reader will agree. But part of my disagreement with dance (prone to laughter) may be from that categorical disagreement; I think d(ptl) would place the book in the third category, while I would place it plumb spang in the second. I could argue that categorization, but the point is that our different recognitions of the kind of book it is have a substantial effect on our subsequent Sources of Reader Annoyance (and presumably Pleasure).
Take another example: Steven Brust's Khaavren romances. Of which I have only read The Phoenix Guards, so I'm not particularly qualified to play this game, but still: is it category two, because it is so obviously France despite not being France at all, or is it category three, because it so obviously isn't France at all, despite the whole D'Artagnan thing? And if people have very different answers to that question, is my rubric useful?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,