I have Stephanie Dray on again for an awesome guest post! I love both her books, Lily of the Nile (Review) and Song of the Nile (Review). In this post she writes about magical realism which I happen to love in her books. We’d like you to weigh in in the comments and you’re entered to win Song of the Nile!
The way my heroine’s spiritual beliefs manifest themselves in my novels about Cleopatra’s daughter have been largely well-received. Written in the tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, my work envisions a young messianic queen whose goddess communicates with her in bloody hieroglyphic messages that scroll down her arms.
The books have been blessed with great reviews and strong sales. (Here’s where I knock on wood that the trend continues.) However, a few readers have reacted with horror to the appearance of magical realism in a story based on the true life of a historical queen like Cleopatra Selene. One reviewer even said that my publisher ought to be ashamed for allowing me to mix fantasy with historical women’s fiction. I suppose the argument is that I’ve allowed fantasy to corrupt the pureness and sanctity of history.
Now, perhaps it’s just my background as a student of law and government that informs my beliefs, but history has never seemed all that pure or sanctified to me. We know that history is written by the victors, for example. That is true whether the victory has been on the battlefield, in an election, or in the court of public opinion. The picture that comes down to us through history–especially ancient history–is largely incomplete. Documents have been lost. Motives are murky. (Heck, even with the benefit of a 24-hour news cycle, few Americans can agree on the history that we’re making right now!)
Consequently, I’ve always viewed history as an exercise and art in perspective. It’s always a story shaped by both the beliefs of the people who lived it and the beliefs of those reading about it now. A historical world, in my opinion, has a great deal in common with a fantasy world. It is just as foreign to us, and just as mystical, even with the aid of scholars.
I chose to include a touch of fantasy in my historical fiction for a few reasons. The first is that Selene’s story of survival and triumph is so unlikely, that it almost seemed to require magic as an explanation. Moreover, when writing about a deeply religious ancient queen, it seemed like a natural choice to adopt the world view of the people she came from.
In the ancient world, there were certainly cynics, but by and large, the people believed deeply in supernatural phenomenon. This is especially so for the Romans, who believed they could read the will of the gods in the flight of birds or from the entrails of dead animals. Magic was a real part of their lives. It played a big part in their politics. (Just a few years after my heroine’s death, the imperial family would fall into a kind of civil war after accusations that Germanicus was killed by witchcraft.) Magical realism was a way of lending authenticity to the novel.
In most respects, the story of Song of the Nile, which follows Cleopatra Selene’s life as a young queen, striving to make a place for herself in a Roman world, hues very close to actual historical events. There is also, however, a stronger surge of magical power in this book–magic that derives from the divine feminine and Selene’s goddess worship–power that she uses to survive and thrive. Of course, I’m not going to say that including magical realism in historical fiction was an easy task. Trying to weave together all the intricacies of actual history with the magic that I invented made me pull my hair out more than once. But I think the result has been a story that engages the spirit and the mind.
I’m certainly not the only author to do it, but sometimes historical fantasy seems to be the white elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Philippa Gregory toys with it in The White Queen & The Red Queen as well as her first novel, Wideacre. Judith Tarr uses it to great effect in the Throne of Isis. Margaret George certainly seems to “go there” in Mary, Called Magdalene. More interesting, perhaps, is the trend in the fantasy genre to start incorporating history. I was very impressed by Maria Davahna Headley’s Queen of Kings, which is a story that envisions Cleopatra as a kind of ancient vampire.
So what are your thoughts on the matter? Does historical fiction and fantasy mix or should these streams never be crossed? Are there shades of magical realism in historical fiction that you enjoy?
Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire…
# ISBN-10: 0425243044
# ISBN-13: 9780425243046