I am a great fan of fantasy literature, but I tend to like novels that link somehow to our world. And I like magic. Lots of it. As a result, historical fantasy is often a puzzlement to me. Too often these works seem setting-heavy, there isn’t enough (or any) magic, and the plot and characters never come to life for me.
What made me think of this now is a review by Ursual Le Guin (whose works of historical fantasy — if you would call her writing that — I love) of Lian Hearn’s Heaven’s Net is Wide, a prequel to the earlier Tales of the Otori. I read and enjoyed very much Across the Nightingale Floor, but could never get into the other books in the series. Something was missing for me.
My current favorite writer of historical fantasy is Megan Whalen Turner (who is speaking today at an amazing sounding conference at Toronto while I am sadly here in NYC). The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia all take place in a setting based on a Mediterranean one. There is barely any magic in the series — certainly less than in Hearn’s series. But Turner’s character development is simply wonderful and her plot development amazing.
You’d think that since I’m so into history that I’d love historical fantasy, but I think perhaps that is why I often don’t. I like the real stuff better. So as a reader I have to be brought out of the setting into the plot, into the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Whalen does this with extraordinary brilliance. She is to date one of my truly favorite living fantasy writers.
So as I consider historical fantasy this year, I look for works that do what Whalen’s do — take me beyond the setting and into the lives of those characters with plots that rivet me and keep me reading past bedtime to find out what happens. Actually, I think this applies to all works, not just those of historical fantasy. That is, I need more than a brilliantly realized setting. If the characters aren’t also brilliantly developed so that I care about what happens to them and if the plot isn’t compelling enough — the setting just doesn’t do it for me.
So, tell me: what works of historical fantasy out this year do you think are worthy contenders for the Newbery?