How Magic, Fantasy, and Mysteries Intersect…
Growing up, I read several genres from fantasy, magic, and myteries. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques’s Redwall series were some of my fantasy staples. Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn was a gateway story into the sprawling World War II narrative. Despite having lackluster history teachers, I took it upon myself to read everything I could on the era: fiction, nonfiction, memoirs. Everything from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. At the same time, my bedside TBR was stacked with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Garth Nix’s Sabriel.
Wolf By Wolf and Blood For Blood’s strange, sideways world was born out of my voracious appetite for history and fantasy. Describing Wolf By Wolf to curious readers was a challenge at first. Instead of the fluid “Code Name Verity meets X-men meets Inglourious Basterds” pitch I crafted later down the line, I fumbled through the story’s many elements.
“There’s a motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, except Berlin is now Germania because it’s an alternate-history version of 1956 and the Axis powers have won WWII and Adolf Hitler is a recluse except for once a year when he attends the Victor’s Ball in Tokyo to congratulate the winner of the aforementioned race. The main character is a girl named Yael, who works for the Resistance and has the ability to alter her appearance to look like any other female, à la Mystique. She poses as one of the race’s former winners to enter the competition so she can win this race across the world and assassinate Hitler.”
I got some weird looks. Jaws dropped, eyebrows squiggled. One question inevitably followed: “How did you come up with it?”
The answer to this, like my plot description, contained multitudes.
Sometimes I described watching The Long Way Round, a BBC miniseries where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman ride their motorcycles from London to New York City via the Road of Bones in Siberia. Other times I told the story of the book’s first line streaming through my consciousness as I worked my day job as a preschool teacher. In truth, these were only two sparks that kindled much larger loves from my days as a young reader.
History and magic, side by side. What was and what can never be.
Separate, these are food for the soul. Together, a feast for the imagination.
I love history because it serves as so many things to the human condition: a mirror, a roadmap, a warning, a call to hope. If we look back, we can also look forward. Fantasy provides us with a different but equally powerful lens, posing questions about the human condition beyond humanity itself. If we look beyond, we can also look within. When the two genres are combined—lens over lens—it can create something spectacular.
A pinnacle example of this is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which inserts the fantastical into 19th-century England. Clarke’s world of magicians struggling to reintroduce magic into their country during the Napoleonic wars is both mesmerizing and convincing. The novel’s footnotes make the fantasy feel just as well researched as the history. Questions on the morality of certain magic, and who should have access to it, ring all the more true for the book’s history-imbued mythos.
YA also has stories that mix the historical with the strange. In The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire, Daniel Kraus walks us through American history alongside an undead seventeen-year-old boy named Zebulon Finch. In 1896, Zebulon is killed and, through unforeseen circumstances, resurrected into a zombielike state. Six hundred forty-two pages guide our main character through wars and Hollywood parties—showing us life’s rhythm and futility while questioning what it means to live when you cannot die.
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is set in an alternative steam-punk version of World War I, where the Central Powers and the Allied Powers from our own history become the machine-driven Clankers and the Darwinists, who genetically fabricate creatures into warships. Westerfeld turns one of last century’s bloodiest conflicts into a captivating story that not only examines the effects of industrialism but also challenges the sexism of the age.
On the WWII side of things, we have Caroline Tung Richmond’s The Only Thing to Fear, which imagines a chilling version of present-day America under Nazi rule. Like Wolf By Wolf, this book has shades of X-men imbuing superpowers to the government’s super soldiers as well as some disenfranchised people under their rule. The morality of power—both supernatural and tyrannical—is examined at length.
Taking well-researched history beyond itself can provide a unique landscape to reflect on questions we otherwise wouldn’t. It’s my hope that I’ve created such a world-for-thought in Wolf By Wolf and Blood For Blood. As a reader, I want to see many more history-fantasy hybrid books hitting the shelves. As a writer, I hope to keep contributing to that canon.