This fall I’ve been mulling over an idea for a YA historical fantasy and doing some research (my favorite) in between working on my current WIP. I’ve also been reading a bucketload of mentor texts to help me hone my vision for the book. This means luxuriating in historical fantasy, paranormal, and steampunk novels to my heart’s content. If I had my way, reading and research would be a job in and of itself.
I call these books “mentor texts” because I’m reading partially to see how others have approached the genre of YA historical fantasy. My intentions are purely dishonorable: I want to steal the strongest worldbuilding techniques. No, really! As my English teacher husband tells me, there’s no better way to learn how to write than to examine how a published author writes.
I’m also reading to determine what excites me most as a reader and a writer, and in turn what will be good for my story. Will it be strict historical accuracy with a hint of magic? Would I prefer a story where magic and magical occurrences enhance the historical setting, which in turn becomes more flexible (read: less accurate)? Do I want to go full-out steampunk with gadgets, dirigibles, and corsets worn over the clothing?
As I ponder, I’d like to share a few of the books that have sparked my interest.
Copper Magic by Julia Gibson, while targeted at MG readers, is a beautiful story set in 1906 Michigan with just a hint of magic. (Yes, copper magic.) 12-year-old Violet is angry and confused at her mother’s unexplained absence, and when she finds a copper hand on the shores of the lake, the talisman seems like it will solve all her problems. Violet makes a wish, and when it comes true she can’t help but make more wishes, which set in motion a series of disastrous events in her small town. Throughout the book it’s unclear if the copper hand is actually making Violet’s wishes come true, though Violet certainly thinks so. I loved Gibson’s deft handling of the mysterious and unexplained, as she provided both a magical and realistic explanation for every event Violet’s wishes set in motion.
Then there are the books where one element of magic subtly changes the historical facts, like Robin LaFevers’ excellent Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart, all part of the His Fair Assassin trilogy. All three are set in 15th-century Brittany, and each book follows a different novitiate at the convent of St. Mortain, where girls train to be handmaidens of Death. Assassin nuns! Yes. These books are awesome. LaFevers balances a complex mix of political intrigue, using real historical events from 15th-century France, but changes the events to fit her purposes and the assassins’ abilities. The girls are gifted with certain strengths, and their missions–blessed by Death himself–change the course of history. I’m continually impressed with LaFevers’ ability to construct a compelling, suspenseful political history based on real events that is only enhanced by her characters’ magical abilities.
Teri Brown’s Born of Illusion and its sequel, Born of Deception, follow Anna Van Housen, an illusionist helping her mother work as a popular medium in 1920s New York. Anna’s mother claims she’s the illegitimate daughter of Harry Houdini, but Anna’s real trouble develops when she discovers she actually has the power to sense the future. Brown has fun exploring how having the actual powers of a medium might make life more difficult, as well as how a connection to Houdini could amplify a performer’s star power, and Anna’s abilities play a key role in resolving the central conflict.
I’ve had fun reading and thinking about these books and how they balance history with fantasy, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Next post I’ll look at some steampunk works, which play with history in a completely different way.