A big welcome to Jodi McIsaac who is here to telling us about Weaving History and Fantasy and celebrating the release of Bury the Living, The Revolutionary #1 (published on September 6, 2016 by 47North). Want to win a copy? Enter via the widget below.
Weaving History and Fantasy
Writing historical fantasy requires a fine balance between the factual and the fantastical—which is what makes it such a delightful challenge.
In the Revolutionary series, of which Bury the Living is the first installment, a former IRA fighter from Belfast travels back in time to try to change the course of Irish history. Just to make things more interesting (and difficult for myself!), each book takes place in a different time period: Bury the Living is set in the 1920s, Summon the Queen in the 1580s, and the third book in the early 1000s.
In Bury the Living we meet our hero Nora, who grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and made some catastrophic mistakes. As she’s trying to work off her guilt through humanitarian aid in the Sudan, she experiences a recurring dream of a strange man who begs her to help him. Through a magical relic and a goddess-cum-saint, Nora is sent back in time. She awakes in 1923, during Ireland’s brutal civil war over the signing of a “partial freedom” treaty with England. The outcome of the civil war is what results in the partition of Northern Ireland and leads to the Troubles that caused so much damage to Nora’s life.
In my mind there are two kinds of historical fantasy novels: a fantasy novel that takes place during a historical period, and a historical novel with fantastical elements. Bury the Living sits firmly among the latter. Yes, there is time travel, and the intervention of an ancient goddess, and yes, a legendary figure from Ireland’s distant past plays a major role, but the focus of the book is not on the mythology, the magic, or the mechanics of time travel—it is on Nora’s struggle with grief and acceptance as experienced against the backdrop of one of the most tragic times in Ireland’s history. The magic elements are there to facilitate Nora’s story, and also to make use of Ireland’s rich treasure trove of mythology and folklore as a way of deepening the themes explored throughout the series.
In fact, once Nora goes back in time, the rest of the book is almost purely historical. She has no magic powers, save that of foreknowledge. As she makes friends and enemies, searches for the enigmatic stranger from her dreams, and spends some time in prison with other “revolutionaries,” she comes to the realization that perhaps she can change the outcome of the war—and therefore save those she lost in the Troubles.
There is a risk in using magical elements sparingly or introducing magical concepts that then do not play a major or recurring role. The risk lies in the temptation to whip out magic whenever it is convenient—a deus ex machina, for example—and then put it away when it is not needed. To avoid this, the author must still have a thorough understanding of the rules of magic in his or her world, no matter how seldom they are brought to the fore. Magic must become a realistic and believable part of the historical period, and not something that seems merely tacked on for decorative effect.
Another pothole to watch out for is how fantasy impacts historical accuracy. Obviously, the use of magic or time travel or any other fantastical device is historically inaccurate, assuming we don’t actually believe in such things. But it can also affect your characters (if you take a historical character and give them magic powers, for example) and events (if a battle is won with the help of the Sidhe). This is totally fine, of course, and often results in a fascinating re-imagining of history, but it depends on how much history you are willing to change. In some cases (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?) it has a massive and highly entertaining effect. In Bury the Living, however, I opted for historical accuracy whenever possible, partly because I felt like I couldn’t in good conscience mess with such a sad, traumatic subject as the civil war.
Fortunately for both the author and the reader, blending history and fantasy also has many advantages. As I said above, Ireland is a treasure trove of beautiful and terrible myths, legends, and folktales, many of which are not widely known outside of Ireland. How can one write about Ireland and not weave in these stories? For me, overlaying the stark facts of history with the mysteries of myth and magic creates a world filled with hope and possibility, a world I want to spend time in, because even though I may know what happened, I want to know what might have happened.
Of course, the further one goes back in Irish history, the larger the gray area between myth and fact, and the stronger the belief in the unknown among the local people. This creates such wonderfully fertile ground for a novelist, and is an area I can’t wait to explore further as this series develops.
Jodi McIsaac is the author of several novels, including the Thin Veil series and A Cure for Madness. She grew up in New Brunswick, on Canada’s east coast. After abandoning her Olympic speed skating dream, she wrote speeches for a politician, volunteered in a refugee camp, waited tables in Belfast, earned a couple of university degrees, and started a boutique copywriting agency. She loves the great outdoors, geek culture, and whiskey.
1 copy of Bury the Living
Bury the Living by Jodi McIsaac
Available on September 6, 2016 by 47North
Rebellion has always been in the O’Reilly family’s blood. So when faced with the tragic death of her brother during Northern Ireland’s infamous Troubles, a teenage Nora joined the IRA to fight for her country’s freedom. Now, over a decade later, Nora is haunted by both her past and intense dreams of a man she has never met.
When she is given a relic belonging to Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of Ireland, the mystical artifact transports her back to 1923—to the height of Ireland’s brutal civil war in. There she meets the fascinating stranger from her dreams, who has his own secrets—and an agenda. Ripped from her own time, Nora now has the chance to save the ones she loves… and to alter the entire future of Ireland.
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