Victorian and (in recent years) Regency-inspired fantasy worlds aren’t new, but there’s never been anything quite like C.M. Waggoner’s Unnatural Magic. A novel that explores troll social structures (for example) with as much joy and verve as it does more typical settings such as a school for magic, Waggoner’s debut is a treat for historical fiction and fantasy fans alike. Here, Waggoner shares some of the classic novels that inspired her debut.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with world building in fantasy novels. When it’s done really well, reading a book can feel like winning a free trip to a wildly interesting vacation destination, but when it’s done badly it feels more like reading a user manual for an appliance that you don’t own. My pickiness about world building made it pretty intimidating for me to have to take it on for my own first book, Unnatural Magic, mostly because I don’t think of myself as being naturally any good at it. I struggle to read a map, let alone invent one, and though I speak a second language, the idea of making up an entirely new one makes me want to take a nap. Though I really admire writers who create completely original worlds for their characters to frolic around in, I didn’t think I could pull it off.
“I struggle to read a map, let alone invent one, and though I speak a second language, the idea of making up an entirely new one makes me want to take a nap.”
Because I was wary of trying to build a universe from scratch, I decided to start from a real-world time and place. From there, it was completely natural for me to dig into the U.S. and U.K. of the 19th century, which is the historic and literary era that I’m most familiar with. Though I didn’t want to write alternate history or steampunk, I did want to create a world filled with riotous gin palaces, pistol-wielding gentlemen, trolls on trains, scientifically minded wizards of leisure and the complicated politics that come along with rapidly advancing technology. Instead of looking for ideas from other fantasy novels, I tried to get most of my world-building inspiration from books that were written during the Regency or the Victorian era, which gave me a chance to reread some of my all-time favorite classics. These are a few of the books that had a big impact on the world of Unnatural Magic.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Though not quite as universally beloved as Pride and Prejudice, this is my personal favorite of Austen’s novels. You get a great sense of the true stakes of love and marriage to women in the era, but with sensible Elinor as your guide and a typically Austenian happy ending, the whole thing never drifts toward depressing Tess of the d’Urbervilles territory. Though the rules governing the behavior of women in the actual Victorian and Regency periods were far, far stricter than they are in the universe of my book, as I was writing it I tried to make sure that my characters had a sense of decorum and proper behavior that would feel somewhat foreign to the reader—for example, my young female protagonist, Onna, can’t go on a journey by herself without a chaperone.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Dickens is pretty uncool these days—an old-timey white dude who was also a real jerk to his poor, long-suffering wife—but if you’re ever in the mood for a truly delightful and occasionally laugh-out-loud romp through Victorian England, you really have to read David Copperfield. Dickens as a writer was deeply interested in the lives of people from every part of Victorian society, and David Copperfield is chock-full of incredibly entertaining characters. The scheming, obsequious (and sometimes strangely sympathetic) Uriah Heep alone is more than worth the cost of admission for this one.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
This book was written decades after the first two on this list, and its characters live in a very different world: wealthy American expats drifting aimlessly through Europe at the end of the Victorian era. To me, The Portrait of a Lady is special mostly for James’ deeply empathetic and complex depiction of a female protagonist running up against the confines of a restrictive culture. It’s a portrait of a lady—the protagonist, Isabel Archer—but also a thoughtful, melancholy portrait of the society that she and James lived in.
This is also one of the many books from the era in which the concept of the “European tour” as a sort of expected rite of passage for the upper classes makes an appearance, and I tried to work a similar concept into Unnatural Magic—sometimes to work in jokes about people telling boring stories about their vacations (a problem which transcends time and space!) and partly because it’s a great way to hint at a character’s social status without making it explicit.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
When I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray as a 14-year-old, it practically blew the top of my head off. I’d never read anything like Oscar Wilde’s lush, ornate prose. After that, I bought a gigantic hardcover edition of his complete works and ended up reading through the whole thing about five times. Now, as an adult, I find the writing that captivated me so much in Dorian Gray pretty overwrought, but Wilde’s plays are still as biting and hilarious now as they were when I was 14—and as they were when they first premiered over a century ago. If I ever manage to put a funny line of dialogue into a character’s mouth, it’s probably thanks to Wilde.
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
This fantastic reference book is an invaluable resource for an ignorant author of fantasy novels who isn’t sure whether or not her proper-young-lady protagonist should carry a handbag (she shouldn’t, it turns out: instead, she should carry a very small bag called a reticule). Even if you’re not writing a book yourself, this book makes a great companion to any of the novels I listed above, or any other piece of literature from the 19th century. If you’ve ever wondered what a beadle is or wanted to know the difference between a gig and a curricle, you can find your answers here.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Unnatural Magic.