Tuesday, June 30, 2015

YA historical fantasy, part one: nineteenth-century British

I think it's a pretty open secret that I love historical fantasy, particularly in YA. After all, my book, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is historical fantasy.

Though there is a little bit of disagreement on the definition (some maintain historical fantasy is anything that seems as if it could have happened in our world), most of the time, historical fantasy is set firmly in our historical world, with magic. What I particularly love is that it combines the kind of historical detail I adore, with creative glimpses at what our world might look like if things were different.

Especially if, say, there was magic.

As a writer, I love historical fantasy because some of the world-building has been done for me (and I enjoy the rabbit hole that is historical research: I'm currently reading the correspondence between the British ambassador in Vienna in 1848 and Prime Minister Palmerston. Sounds boring, but there are some fascinating tid-bits about how the British viewed the Hungarian conflict I'm writing about). But I also love the freedom to explore "what ifs"--what if social prestige depended on magic? And what if that magic were controlled by a strict society? What if minority groups contravened those rules? And so on.

I'm currently making a list of historical fantasy--as a genre, I'd love to better understand its history. I'm not  ready to write the history of the genre, but I thought I'd share some of my favorite YA historical fantasy, set in nineteenth-century Britain.


A Matter of Magic (Mairelon, #1-2) Patricia Wrede's books were some of my first exposure to historical fantasy. I think I read Mairelon the Magician, about a regency-era wizard who adopts a young thief, so many times that the cover nearly came off.

 Sorcery and Cecilia is equally delightful (co-written with Caroline Stevermer): a series of letters between cousins Kate, in London for her season, and Cecilia, sequestered at home. Quite accidentally, they stumble into a heinous magical plot, and hijinks ensue.

Kat, Incorrigible (Kat, Incorrigible, #1)Stephanie Burgis, KAT, INCORRIGIBLE

Stephanie Burgis' delightful middle grade series isn't technically YA, but they have the signature combination of wit, warmth, Regency era and magic that I love. Kat is a fledgling magician who has to use her powers to save her family from magical plots and ne'er-do-wells. The book has magic, romance, highwayman, and sinister villains. What more could you want?


Illusions of Fate While it's not technically "historical," it's set in a world clearly reminiscent to ours, with Albion standing in for England. The heroine, Jessamin, is the daughter of an Albion by way of the colonies, come to Albion to study.

But she quickly gets embroiled with the delightful Finn, drawn first to his sparkling hair, and later to his wit. He's being threatened by the enigmatic Lord Downpike, and soon Jessamin finds herself under attack as well, using her wits to save herself and the boy she's rapidly coming to love. Charming, atmospheric, and a quick read, this is great book to dip your toes in historical fantasy.


A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1) I admit it: I bought this book initially because of it's cover. Luckily, it was much more than that. Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty is exactly what the title implies: beautiful and perilous at the same time. Following her mother's death, Gemma Doyle is sent to boarding school in England at Spence Academy, a strict school with a mysterious burnt wing. There, Gemma is drawn into a set of girls with some dark secrets. The girls find their way into a dark, magical world through Gemma's visions, and set out on a path of destruction none of them could have foreseen. The book is much darker than the others on the list, the characters are often not likeable, but there's something powerful in that combination.


Newt's Emerald This romp of a book--on the eve of her debut into society, Truthful Newington's emerald necklace, a powerful family heirloom, is stolen. To find the emerald, Truthful assumes the identity of a boy and faces off against unexpectedly powerful opponents. The book reminded me a lot of Sorcery and Cecilia (light, frothy, fun take on Regency-era England). It was more-or-less self-published originally, but Harper Collins has picked it up and it will be re-released this fall.

[Edited to add] Franny Billingsly, CHIME

ChimeChime was a National Book Award finalist in 2011 (you may recall the whole mix-up where it was announced and then recanted that Lauren Myr's Shine was a finalist, instead of Billingsly). Set in an alternate nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century English countryside, Chime is a lyrical, atmospheric story of two sisters. Briony has a secret: she's a witch, in a community that still hangs witches if the Chime Child judges them guilty of witchcraft. Briony knows she's a witch because she feels herself implicated in the death of her stepmother, and in her twin sister Rose's strange, child-like condition. Briony is mostly okay with being an outsider in her village, her sister's permanent care-taker, and her father's responsible daughter--that is, until a young man named Eldric takes up residence in the parsonage with them, and suddenly Briony finds herself wanting things she's never wanted before. At the same time, she finds herself negotiating with the inhabitants of the swamp, like the Boggy Man, to try and cure her sister Rose of the swamp sickness that has killed so many of the village children. 

The Hollow Kingdom (The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, #1)[Edited to add] Clare Dunkel, THE HOLLOW KINGDOM

I don't know how I forgot this one: this dark, charming, goblin-filled story about two girls drawn in by a goblin king in search of a bride to save his kingdom captures a wonderful fairy-tale quality. The romance was heart-wrenching and lovely and if the story meandered for a little in the middle, I adored the characters enough to make the journey worthwhile.

What are some of your favorite historical fantasy books? (I've got Elizabeth May's The Falconer and Robin LeFevers' Dark Assassin books on my TBR list . . .).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

p.s. I still love you

Jenny Han is a genius at writing character: Shug is one of the best middle-grade books I've read, and To All the Boys I've Loved Before was simply darling. I didn't mind the "cliff-hanger" ending some people objected to--to me it was less cliff-hanger and more real-world messy. But I loved Lara Jean's sweetness (and yes, naivety. Some girls are naive at sixteen. I was one of them).
P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #2)
Luckily, there is a sequel that picks up Lara Jean and Peter Kravinsky's relationship almost exactly where book one ended. Of course, there are complications--namely, the fact that Peter keeps being seen with his ex-girlfriend Gen, who he claims is going through hard times (though Lara Jean has seen nothing to prove that). And the not-insignificant fact that the only boy who didn't return her letter from book one starts writing back to her--and they might have more of a connection than Lara Jean realized.

I know love triangles get a bad rap (and sometimes deservedly so), but I think there's a place for them. I remember that feeling of having multiple possibilities, of not being quite sure where my heart really belonged. And both of the boys here are charming for very different reasons--they're not just in the story to increase the drama.

Another thing I really appreciated about the book was it's take on sex: so many YA books seem to either not really address it, or the main characters are all over it. Which, I get: some teens are like that. But there are a lot of teenagers who aren't sure, or even ready for sex. And I loved that Han addressed that openly in Lara Jean's own conflicted feelings (dating someone who's much more experienced while still realizing she may not be ready yet). 

I also loved the perfectly evoked bitter-sweet feel of childhood relationships evolving.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The novelist as tourist: visiting the sites of my book!

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the first part of may in Hungary, retracing some of the sites that figure in my upcoming debut, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION.

One of the most thrilling things for me, aside from simply being back in a land that I love, was finding missing pieces in my research--like realizing the current Buda castle is three times the size of the castle that would have stood there in 1848. (This block, below, is essentially the only part of the castle that existed then--not the gaudy dome that everyone knows from pictures of the city).

But there were other discoveries that thrilled me because most tourists had no idea of their significance.

Like finding the Karolyi palace, where Karolina Karolyi (an ardent patriot who makes a cameo appearance in my book) lives.

Or Cafe Pilvax, where the young men of March planned their revolution (though the current incarnation looks nothing like the pictures I've seen). It was just around the corner from our apartment.

Or this: this lovely building is the Vigado, some kind of music hall. But it was significant to me because it was one of those aha! research moments. I'd been trying to find out where the Redoute was, a public ballroom used frequently in 19th century Budapest. In a local guidebook our host left in the apartment, I discovered why I couldn't find the ballroom. The original building had been destroyed by canon fire during the 1849 siege of Budapest: this was built on the site.

 Probably my favorite discovery, though, was this little street not far from Buda castle. There are some lovely baroque palaces there: this is one of them, though in the 19th century it was used as a prison to house political prisoners, and I use it in my story as the prison that my heroine has to fight her way to get to. So imagine, if you will, this seemingly pedestrian street filled with soldiers (and maybe a dragon or griffin or two). 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Story of Owen

EK Johnston's The Story of Owen, a finalist for the William Morris debut YA award last year (and who shares my agent, which is how the book was on my radar in the first place) has been on my to-read list for some time.

The Story of Owen (Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, #1)

 I really enjoyed this book, which wasn't what I expected in a lot of good ways. Siobhan McQuaid is a pretty ordinary student in her small town in Canada: she's obsessed with her music, she works hard at school, and she mostly lies low. But everything changes when Owen Thorskard moves to town with his father and two aunts--all of them dragon slayers. Because Siobhan lives in an alternate world where dragons still live, and are drawn particularly to carbon emissions, which makes everything from driving to factory operations much more dangerous. Oil magnates organized the Oil Watch program, which requires young dragon slayers to enlist to protect the oil fields (which draw dragons for obvious reasons). Siobhan befriends Owen when they're both late to English and get detention, but when she's drawn into his world, she takes on a position as Owen's bard, called to sing the song(s) of his dragon-slaying to the world. While that sounds like it could be hokey, it's really not--partly because of Siobhan's wryness; partly because Owen and his family are doing something pretty incredible--in a world where top dragon slayers work for the government or command top salaries working for oil industries, Owen's family has chosen to eschew all of that to try and help a rural region that can only pay them in goods.

Things I liked: the setting here was fascinating: not just the world of rural Canada, but the world Johnston created. The alternate dragon mythology was pretty cool too. And I love that we get the story from Siobhan's perspective rather than Owen's. While he's literally the hero of this piece, I liked seeing his world from a bit of a remove, and the bard idea is genius. Siobhan has such a rich voice, full of musical notes and trumpets and woodwinds. And while a romance between Siobhan and Owen would seem like the obvious direction this story to take, that's not exactly what happens--and I liked that here, again, the author veered away from the expected and easy answer.