Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Excerpt: Historical Fiction Mash-ups

In the fall issue of YALS, I have an article talking about historical fiction mash-ups: examples of historical fiction blended with another genre.  If you're a YALSA member, you automatically receive this journal.  For those non-YALSA folks, though, here's an excerpt from my article for your enjoyment!

Historical Fiction Mash-Ups: Broadening Appeal by Mixing Genres

Most librarians wouldn't think to put historical fiction at the top of a list of fiction genres popular with teens.  Historical fiction is too often equated with school, facts, and other uninteresting subjects.  With some historical novels, that's certainly the case.  Within the past decade, however,  many works of historical fiction have been published that go far beyond these preconceived notions.  What explains this change?  Look no further than the mash-up.  A mash-up, first used to describe the combination of two or more songs, now refers to any joining of previously separate items, creating a new format or genre.    The popularity of the literature mash-up has grown by leaps and bounds since the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  But prior to this book, more subtle genre blending has been happening in young adult literature for years.

Historical Fiction and Fantasy
Thanks to the popularity of fantasy, mash-ups that combine historical fiction with fantasy are perhaps the most popular kind of mash-up.  Just like that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial, historical fiction and fantasy are two great tastes that taste great together.  Several popular historical novels owe their popularity, in part, to the inclusion of fantasy elements within them. 

A classic example of a historical fiction mash-up is Sorcery and Cecelia, the delightful epistolary novel by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.  Originally published in 2003 and described as a fantasy as written by Jane Austen, this novel tells the story of two cousins navigating a Season in London and country life in an England that has a Royal College of Wizards.  The two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician continue the story of Kate and Cecelia through marriage and children.  Sorcery and Cecelia represents one popular approach to joining historical fiction with fantasy: adding magic to a historical setting.  In the same vein, there are Marissa Doyle's novels about the Leland sisters.  Bewitching Season and Betraying Season are set in the 1830s and feature Persephone and Penelope Leland, well-bred twin sisters who happen to have magical abilities.  Because magic isn't a proper hobby for daughters of the nobility, the sisters must conceal their talents.  It's only their desire to  rescue a young Queen Victoria that makes the Lelands reveal their abilities to others. 

Libba Bray's exquisite trilogy starring Gemma Doyle is another example.  Starting in A Great and Terrible Beauty and continuing in Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, Gemma slowly comes into her magical birthright, to protect the Realm.  A shadowy otherworld, the Realm is threatened by actions of the past, and Gemma must undo the damage while maintaining her position as a student in a genteel Victorian boarding school.  I, Coriander by Sally Gardner shows how a fantastic element can be used as a metaphor.  Coriander lives in London during the Commonwealth, when music, dancing, gaming and other pastimes were strictly forbidden by the Puritans.  Finding a pair of seemingly magical silver shoes, Coriander is taken to a fairy tale kingdom, the world that her mother actually belonged to.  While this hidden world is full of exotic beauty, it is withering away, not unlike Coriander's own world.  Only Coriander can rescue the fairy world—and her own—by restoring its health and vitality.

Historical fantasy isn't all magic and fairies, however.  Equally successful have been novels that give supernatural creatures a historical context.  Vampires and werewolves are not romantic young men but bloodthirsty, terrifying beings in these novels.  Patrick Jennings' The Wolving Time shows how outsiders have often been persecuted throughout history.  Laszlo's family is from the region now known as Hungary, but they live near the France-Spain border, working as shepherds.  Yet Laszlo's parents are werewolves, and he knows that some day he will become one as well.  After the village priest turns against the peaceful werewolves, Laszlo must decide whether to join his parents as wolves or remain fully human.  Blood Ninja by Nick Lake has a clever premise: what if ninjas are really vampires?  When Taro is run through by a ninja's sword, his only hope is being turned into a vampire by a good ninja.  Once he becomes a vampire, Taro begins ninja training and hopes to avenge his father's death.

While some novels give supernatural creatures a basis in reality, others take historical settings and bring them closer to fantasy with the introduction of supernatural elements that change the world.  The dark, atmospheric world of Victorian London is the setting for Chris Wooding's tale of demon hunters and witches, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray.  Thaniel is a wych-hunter who stalks the fearsome creatures known as wych-kin.  Finding a beautiful, dazed young woman named Alaizabel, Thaniel decides to save her, even though such action draws him into conflict with the powerful cult that infected Alaizabel with a wych-kin.  An equally dangerous world is seen in Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing, set in a remote Transylvanian region.  Peter lives with his father in a small cottage outside the village.  Everyone thinks the village gives them protection from danger, but when dead men—what we would call vampires—begin attacking their loved ones and friends, Peter will discover the secret his father has kept all these years. 

These are just a few examples of the rich works that are created when fantasy is united with historical fiction.  Both fantasy and historical fiction are built upon the world the author creates for the reader: exploring its environment, explaining its rules, and introducing characters that fit within such a world.  The only difference is that historical fiction uses the past as a starting point, while fantasy relies upon an author's imagination to create a new world or put a new spin on our own world.  When the author reinvents the past with fantastical elements, it gives the novel more opportunities for creativity.  The fantasy is given a sense of reality thanks to history and the historical fiction is given a shot of vitality from fantasy.  As long as fantasy remains a popular genre, there is little doubt that historical fantasy will continue to be published.

There has been some disdain for the mash-up format.  In discussing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Publishers Weekly noted that it is not truly a mash-up, but that it "works off the premise of the mashup, taking something somewhat sacred and highbrow (here an iconic American historical figure) and pairing it with a low-brow pop culture fascination."  But mash-ups in young adult literature don't seem to work in the same way.  Instead, they seem more focused on simply combining unlikely elements to tell a richer, more complex story.  Perhaps because young adult literature has spent so many years being disdained, its authors are more willing to try a disdained format like the mash-up.  By giving the mash-up its due, and fully exploring what this technique can achieve, YA authors have made the mash-up respectable. 

Whether or not you feel mash-ups are good literature, it seems that they are here to stay.  This can only be a good thing for fans of historical fiction, as mash-ups help spread this genre beyond its core base.  The books highlighted in this article are just a few examples of historical fiction mash-ups: a wide range of titles  further explores connections between historical fiction and other genres.  Mash-ups give readers a fresh look at genres that they might otherwise overlook, whether it is historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction.  In addition, hardcore genre fans can find new twists on common plots when a historical element is added.  Time will tell, but one can hope that the historical fiction mash-up proves as long-lived as zombies, vampires and other supernatural creatures.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful post. Teens may read more historicals this way. Thanks for posting it. I sent it to Twitter.