books, historical fantasy, historical fiction, mentor texts

Mentor Texts: Historical Fantasy

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.

9780765332110  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.

9780544022492Then there are the books where one element of magic subtly changes the historical facts, like Robin LaFevers’ excellent Grave MercyDark 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.

9780062187574Teri 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.

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9 thoughts on “Mentor Texts: Historical Fantasy”

  1. I think reading to figure out what you’re excited about reading is so important! And something I probably don’t think about enough while writing. I think that really is the key though…and goes back to “write what you want to read.”

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    1. I so agree. It took me a while to get to the point of thinking about books in that way, to figure out what I liked about them, but it definitely helps me in formulating plots and new ideas.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more, Abby. I think the best way to become a better writer and to hone your literary craft is to absorb those writers who stimulate your art by reading their words. And I didn’t know Josh was an English teacher. You lucky so-n-so. Immediate feedback!
    Grave Mercy was a wonderfully intoxicating book–and I can’t believe enough time has passed for the two following books to have been published. I was waiting for them and apparently took a publishing snooze. I’m so glad you pointed this out, as they’re now at the top of my library list. Terri Brown’s book sounds fascinating as well. Another good suggestion.
    You’re always such a terrific source for reading material. I think 2015 will be filled with some historical beauties! (Yours included 🙂 )

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    1. Yes, yes, yes, go out and read the two sequels! I finished Mortal Heart over break and it was one of the best endings to a trilogy I’ve read.

      I know, I chose my husband well, right? =) He’s been thinking more about narrative and prose, too, which makes for fascinating conversations.

      And thank you, thank you for your sweet email yesterday. I’m so glad my comments are helpful, and I’m looking forward to sending you my work once it’s done!

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