Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Agent's Inbox #12

Dear Ms. Gref:

I read that you have a weakness for mythology and folklore retellings, so I thought you might be interested in my YA Russian folktale retelling, THE FALCON SPY, set in Tsarist Russia.

Princess Natasha is not used to the word nyet. So when Lev, a French boy who transforms into a falcon, falls injured into her garden, she ignores her family’s protests and nurses him back to health. They bond over art, Moscow, and the loss of their parents. But rumors fly that Napoleon, who’s just invaded Russia, is using falcons as spies. Natasha is certain that she can trust Lev, but her sister and cousin warn her to stay away from him. Then one of them leaves broken glass in a birdbath and Lev is injured. Believing Natasha betrayed him, he flies away from her manor, vowing never to return.

At odds with her family and desperate to find Lev, Natasha runs away. To leave Moscow, she must dress as a soldier, though a uniform does not conceal her from the infamous witch, Baba Yaga. In order to gain safe passage through the Russian forest, Natasha promises to bring Odile, the witch who turned Lev into a falcon, to Baba Yaga. Capturing Odile is no easy task, and when Natasha finds Lev, he begs her to return home. But if she can’t defeat Odile and release Lev from his curse, it will not just be Odile threatening Natasha and her family, but Baba Yaga herself.

THE FALCON SPY is 72,000 words and was inspired by “The Feather of Finist the Falcon.” It would appeal to fans of the historical fiction of Marissa Doyle (COURTSHIPS AND CURSES) and the Russian-inspired world of SHADOW AND BONE (Leigh Bardugo).  I minored in Russian and studied in the Crimea, Ukraine. My work has appeared in Highlights for Children, Calliope, and Learning through History.

Thank you for your time and attention.



In Russia, a bird in the house means death. And one just landed on my windowsill.

I ran for the window. My poor seamstress trailed behind me, sticking pins in the hem of my gown. The pins scraped my bare legs, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t let that bird in the house. Not with my brother Alexei riding off to face Bonaparte tomorrow.

“Natasha! What are you doing?” Mademoiselle Tourneau hissed through the pins in her teeth.

It was no ordinary bird, but a gray falcon, no bigger than my forearm. Black marks lined its white chest like someone had dabbed it with ink, its head dark like a helmet. It peered at me with eyes almost human in their intensity.

All the more reason to keep it out.

I pulled on the window sash to close it, but it wouldn’t budge.

Mademoiselle waved at me to get back on the stool in the parlor. I ignored her. My gown might rip to shreds for all I cared.

“Go away,” I whispered to the bird.

The falcon dug its yellow talons into the windowsill and scraped up bits of blue paint. Stubborn thing.

Behind me, Father and the governor of Moscow mumbled about the French invasion and the state of the Russian army near our unlit fireplace. The governor blew a puff of smoke from his pipe, and Father coughed. Had they not seen the bird?

“Alexei?” I called.

No answer.

A crackle of gunfire erupted in the garden.


Krista Van Dolzer said...

Just popping in to say that this was one of the few entries that stuck with me. I love historicals, especially historicals with a twist, and this sounds like a lush one.

I thought the first summary paragraph set the story up well, but the second one got bogged down a bit in plot. I didn't understand why Baba Yaga was so threatening (or at least any MORE threatening than all the other threats Natasha is dealing with), so the stakes were lost on me. And I lost some of the connection to Natasha and Lev that I felt in the first paragraph.

I thought the first page was pretty much spot-on. I'm sure others will give you a few suggestions that will, no doubt, make it stronger, but on the whole, I thought this page was very strong. Interesting scene, interesting character. I'd definitely read on.

Best of luck with THE FALCON SPY! As I already mentioned, it was one of my favorites:)

MeriAnn said...

This sounds fantastic and I would love to read it. A couple of ideas on the query letter, I agree that the second paragraph made it just a little long. I think you want to introduce the story enough that the agent will want to read more, instead of giving the entire story away in the query. (but that's just me). Sounds really exciting!

Sarah said...

I absolutely love the idea for this book. I don't usually read historical fiction but I want to read this!

I agree with the other comments about the second paragraph of the query. I found the first paragraph easy to follow and was really invested in the story, but then the second threw me.

But, having said that, once I started reading your first 250 words I couldn't stop. The balance in dialogue, action and backstory was brilliant. Going off this sample, I think you are a really talented writer, and I hope Ms. Gref thinks so too!

This was my favourite entry of all 20, and I'm really glad I got to read it!

Rebecca Santelli said...

I adored this query and the opening page; in fact, I want to read the book right now. I agree with the other commentators that a little judicious trimming could make it even stronger. In the first paragraph you could lose the sentence beginning "they bond". Paragraph 2 could be reduced to something like "Desperate to find Lev, Natasha runs away only to be captured by the notorious witch, Baba Yaga. Natasha strikes a bargain with the witch, she will capture Baba Yaga's enemy, Odile, in return for Lev's freedom, but if she fails Baba Yaga will claim her life."

Donea Lee said...

I'm not sure I have anything (hopefully) constructive to leave, because I think this is fantastic! And really inline with story elements I've seen on a lot of agent wishlists - non-US locale, little-known (or lesser used) mythology, interesting historical angle, to name a few. And I am a little familiar with Baba Yaga (if you count her appearance on an episode of Lost Girl, lol), but I would love to know more about her. Fascinating.

Great first line and first 250, too. I would totally pick this up off a bookshelf and read it. Thanks for sharing and best of luck!

Emily Gref said...

Hi J.E.,

I love the premise you have here - historical fantasy with folklore elements is totally up my alley.

A few suggestions for improvement: your query is solidly built, but you could do with less detail. Remember this doesn't need to read like a synopsis - just like flap copy that would get someone to open up a book. It would also be a good idea to establish that this is a fantasy where boys that turn into birds aren't entirely unheard of.

Your opening is strong, too, but I kept wondering things that distracted me from the narrative - why is she whispering when she could be yelling and trying to startle the falcon away? Why is her father conducting state business in the same room that she's getting fitted for a dress? It seems like you wanted to introduce all the relevant elements at once - Natasha's standing, the falcon, the war, her brother, but you can let these details unfold in due course.

Hope that helps! Best of luck.

All the best,