Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fantasy

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?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fantasy

  1. I loved Across the Nightingale Floor and I read all the following volumes, although I confess I loved each a bit less than the previous one. I look forward to this earlier tale, and Le Guin’s review was a masterly example of the art and craft of book reviewing.
    I love fantasy of all kinds, but only good ones. I suspect — although it may not be true — that there is more bad fantasy about than badness in any other genre, but that could simply be blind prejudice on my part.
    I shall have to think through what I read this year to see if there is anything worthy to mention in historical fantasy.

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  2. I agree with you about Megan Whalen Turner–I thought those books just got better and better. When you say “historical fantasy,” though, do you mean “alternate history”? I guess not quite because of the addition of magic–would Jonathan Stroud’s books qualify? (I know none of them came out this year–I’m just trying to get a fix on the genre…)

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  3. Libby,

    I would think alternate histories would fit. However, Stroud’s works are so full of magic that I’m not so sure. (They are amazing, but I wasn’t thinking of them as historical fantasy, I must admit.) I guess I was thinking more of works that play off of familiar older worlds — Arthur, Hellanic, etc. Here’s a page of definitions that sort of fit what I was thinking: http://duskpeterson.com/definition.htm

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  4. You have taken the words right out of my mouth! I whole-heartedly endorse everything you say here–the readerly magic of Hearn’s first volume was not matched for me by subsequent ones, though I enjoyed them, and I absolutely love the Attolia books despite relative absence of magical components…

    I don’t have any specific Newbury recommendations, btw, but if you haven’t been reading Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, they would fit in a most lovely way into this category, though again there’s no magic at all–just talking dragons in an aerial corps in the Napoleonic Wars…

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  5. Jenny,

    I’ve heard a lot about those Napoleonic dragons of Naomi Novik (from GraceAnne, who commented above, and Cheryl Klein, a Scholastic editor, among others) and am very intrigued. AN (After Newbery)

    BTW, while I’ve known about your forthcoming book for some time (as I follow your blog), it was very neat to hear about it at a recent HarperCollins preview. Very cool cover too. Can’t wait to read it!

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  6. Well, I don’t know about *this* year, but keep your eyes pealed for the March ’08 released “Curse Dark As Gold” by Elizabeth Bunce. One of the best historical fantasy I’ve ever read, period.

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  7. How about Elizabeth E. Wein’s “The Lion Hunter”? Is this what you mean by ‘historical fantasy’? There is actually NO magical component to this book, other than seamlessly melding Arthurian legend with a fantasy Ethiopian culture. Alas, it doesn’t qualify for the Newbery, since it does not work as a stand-alone novel (it ends on one heckuva cliffhanger — months after reading, I’m still worried about the protagonist).

    What about Shannon Hale’s “Book of a Thousand Days?” Hale’s efforts at recreating a culture based on medieval Mongolia is stunning.

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  8. Erin and Brooke,

    Thanks so much for the recommendations (both for 2007 and 2008).

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  9. Very glad you like the cover! I do too… and have been enjoying your blog very much since Ruth tipped me off to it!

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  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Ten Years On | educating alice

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