I write historical women’s fiction and also, historical fiction for young adults–my most recent contribution being THE PRINCESS OF EGYPT MUST DIE, a short story being given away as part of the FREE Eternal Spring Anthology of Young Adult Stories. And because I have some young adult readers, I thought I’d give a little attention to a fabulous new YA/Middle Grade debut author, Lea Nolan.
This is her new cover for a series that promises to be unique and captivating. I had the honor of listening to Lea read from this book at the Baltimore Book Festival in 2011 and I was hooked.
Here’s the cover and the blurb. What do you think?
Emma Guthrie expects this summer to be like any other in the South Carolina Lowcountry–hot and steamy with plenty of beach time alongside her best friend and secret crush, Cooper Beaumont, and Emma’s ever-present twin brother, Jack. But then a mysterious eighteenth-century message in a bottle surfaces, revealing a hidden pirate bounty. Lured by the adventure, the trio discovers the treasure and unwittingly unleashes an ancient Gullah curse that attacks Jack with the wicked flesh-eating Creep and promises to steal Cooper’s soul on his approaching sixteenth birthday.
When a strange girl appears, bent on revenge; demon dogs become a threat; and Jack turns into a walking skeleton; Emma has no choice but to learn hoodoo magic to undo the hex, all before summer—and her friends—are lost forever.
Written in the tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, my novels about Cleopatra’s daughter envision a young messianic queen whose goddess communicates with her in bloody hieroglyphic messages that scroll down her arms. The books have been blessed with great reviews and strong sales. (Here’s where I knock on wood that the trend continues.) However, a few readers have reacted with horror to the appearance of magical realism in a story based on the true life of a historical queen like Cleopatra Selene. One reviewer even said that my publisher ought to be ashamed for allowing me to mix fantasy with historical women’s fiction.
I suppose the argument is that I’ve allowed fantasy to corrupt the pureness and sanctity of history.
Now, perhaps it’s just my background as a student of law and government that informs my beliefs, but history has never seemed all that pure or sanctified to me. We know that history is written by the victors, for example. That is true whether the victory has been on the battlefield, in an election, or in the court of public opinion. The picture that comes down to us through history–especially ancient history–is largely incomplete. Documents have been lost. Motives are murky. (Heck, even with the benefit of a 24-hour news cycle, few Americans can agree on the history that we’re making right now!)
Consequently, I’ve always viewed history as an exercise and art in perspective. It’s always a story shaped by both the beliefs of the people who lived it and the beliefs of those reading about it now. A historical world, in my opinion, has a great deal in common with a fantasy world. It is just as foreign to us, and just as mystical, even with the aid of scholars.
I chose to include a touch of fantasy in my historical fiction for a few reasons. The first is that Cleopatra Selene’s story of survival and triumph is so unlikely, that it almost seemed to require magic as an explanation. Moreover, when writing about a deeply religious ancient queen, it seemed like a natural choice to adopt the world view of the people she came from.
In the ancient world, there were certainly cynics, but by and large, the people believed deeply in supernatural phenomenon. This is especially so for the Romans, who believed they could read the will of the gods in the flight of birds or from the entrails of dead animals. Magic was a real part of their lives. It played a big part in their politics. (Just a few years after my heroine’s death, the imperial family would fall into a kind of civil war after accusations that Germanicus was killed by witchcraft.)
Magical realism was a way of lending authenticity to the novel.
In most respects, the story of Song of the Nile, which follows Cleopatra Selene’s life as a young queen, striving to make a place for herself in a Roman world, stays very close to actual historical events. There is also, however, a stronger surge of magical power in this book–magic that derives from the divine feminine and Selene’s goddess worship–power that she uses to survive and thrive.
Of course, I’m not going to say that including magical realism in historical fiction was an easy task. Trying to weave together all the intricacies of actual history with the magic that I invented made me pull my hair out more than once. But I think the result has been a story that engages the spirit and the mind.
I’m certainly not the only author to do it, but sometimes historical fantasy seems to be the white elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Philippa Gregory toys with it in The White Queen & The Red Queen as well as her first novel, Wideacre. Judith Tarr uses it to great effect in the Throne of Isis. Margaret George certainly seems to “go there” in Mary, Called Magdalene. More interesting, perhaps, is the trend in the fantasy genre to start incorporating history. I was very impressed by Maria Davahna Headley’s Queen of Kings, which is a story that envisions Cleopatra as a kind of ancient monster.
So what are your thoughts on the matter? Does historical fiction and fantasy mix or should these streams never be crossed? Are there shades of magical realism in historical fiction that you enjoy?
Sometimes it seems as if Fantasy and Historical Fiction each exist in their own little corner of the literary universe, each side snarling at the other for perceived pedantry or lack of intellectual rigor. Relatively few authors dare to blend the two genres, which has always been surprising to me considering some of the oldest works of western civilization were a mixture of fact and fancy.
Today I’m pleased to introduce you to a kindred spirit, Beth Bernobich, who has made a splash with her debut novel, PASSION PLAY. I asked Beth what prompted her to blend these two genres and here is her fascinating story:
THE MAGIC OF HISTORY
by Beth Bernobich
A number of people have asked me why I write historical fantasy and not historical fiction set in the real past. Or even stories set in today’s world. I had to think about that for a while. Was I cheating by making up a past, instead of researching the real history? After all, everyone knows that “fantasy writers just make everything up.”
(To be accurate, all writers “make everything up,” but you know what I mean.)
So the first question: why history?
Years ago, I took a college class where our goal was to recreate the years leading up to the American Revolution. The professor assigned us each a character to play—some were genuine historical figures, like Samuel Adams or King George III, some were characters representative of the times. The professor himself took the role of Omnipotent Being and whatever other minor roles were needed. The class spent a month researching the people and the times, and more specifically, their own characters. The last two weeks of the class, we met in separate classrooms—British and Colonialists—to play out the next ten years. Talking, yes, but also sending letters back and forth, arguing for loyalty, or not, and once staging a protest to the Royal Governor. While we were required to act true to the times and the people involved, we were not restricted to what actually happened. In fact, our professor started things off by changing the outcome of the French and Indian War.
It was like collaborating on a story in real-time—a story set in history, but one with enough details altered that we had the potential to create something new.
(And we did try to change history. We Colonialists did our best to avoid a revolution. Alas, in spite of our best efforts, we ended up having one two years early.)
At the end of the month, the Colonialists and British met in the college’s executive boardroom to talk about the class. Except we weren’t talking, we were on our feet yelling at each other, furious about perceived wrongs, imperialist oppression, troublesome colonialists, and more. The professor sat at the head of the table, grinning his Omnipotent Being grin. When we were finally quiet, he said, “Now you understand why the revolution happened.”
From that moment on, I was hooked.
History isn’t about dry lists of battles or politicians. History, as the class showed me, is about why things happened. To understand that, you need to know the interconnections between culture and war, between technology and medicine, between all the facets that make up our lives. You need to know about the people in their time, and you especially need to know what passions they held.
And if you understand what happened then, you can better understand what’s going on today.
So why historical fantasy?
It goes back to that history class. I loved how we altered bits of history to create something new. I loved how we could use rigorous research right along with our imaginations. Then I discovered there was fiction just like that class, and that was magic times a hundred. So I started writing all kinds of fantasy that blended with history. Sometimes I’d build the new history into secret corners of the real world. My story “Air and Angels” takes place in Edwardian England, but with aliens. Or it’s our world, but with an alternate history line, such as my story “The Golden Octopus,” where Ireland is the powerful empire, and England one of its dependencies.
But sometimes, I need to write the history myself. In my series from Tor Books, which starts with the novel Passion Play, I wanted to weave in the themes of fate vs. free will, of second chances, and the echo of actions throughout centuries. So I decided to create my own world, with its own history, and with characters who had lived through multiple lifetimes.
When Passion Play starts, it starts small and intimate—focusing on the main character and her personal desires. As the book goes on, she learns more about the world around her, sometimes in horrifying ways, but she also learns hints about her previous lives. In the sequel, Queen’s Hunt, she learns many more details of her past lives, and how that past helped shape the world of the present. In the final book of the trilogy, Allegiance, it’s time for her to create some new history of her own.
(Note: If you’d like to get a flavor of the novels, my story “River of Souls” on Tor.com is set in the same world as Passion Play, but set four hundred years earlier. It centers around Ilse’s favorite poet, Tanja Duhr.)