Allison Saft’s second YA novel, A Far Wilder Magic, is an enchanting fantasy tale about two young people, Margaret and Wes, who are drawn together in pursuit of a mythical fox purported to hold alchemical power. Throughout the story, Saft creates magic that feels astonishingly real. Here, she offers a deeper look at A Far Wilder Magic and explores how she gave life to the imaginary world of New Albion.
The idea for A Far Wilder Magic came to me in a glimmer of what felt like magic. For much of 2019, writing felt impossible. I’d recently finished revisions on what would become my debut novel, moved halfway across the country and was desperately trying to figure out what my next idea would be. I wrote a quarter of a new book and immediately trunked it. I despaired that I would never fall in love with a book again.
In writing circles, inspiration is often figured as a lightning strike, or else something that seizes upon you at 2 a.m. and refuses to let go. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times, I’ve come to understand it as something that dwells beneath unturned stones. You have to go looking for it. In that fallow period in the months before I began outlining A Far Wilder Magic, I began searching for it in books.
I found it in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a delightfully odd book and easily one of my favorites. Few other books have managed to capture my imagination in the same way. I reread it every year, weeping inconsolably through the last 50 pages of my yellowing paperback edition.
And it isn’t just me. Every year, on the first day of November, thousands of people share the book’s first line on social media: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” TheScorpio Races possesses a powerful magic indeed, to compel its readership to treat the races like an event we can set our calendars by, and I was determined to understand the workings of the spell Stiefvater had woven.
During that 2019 read-through, what struck me most about the novel is that the most magical thing in it isn’t the mythical water horses or the race itself. It’s the atmosphere that informs every choice Stiefvater makes. It’s the way I feel when I close the book each time: like home is a place I have never been before. That was the most important lesson I carried with me as I set out to write A Far Wilder Magic: Magic isn’t a thing, it’s a feeling.
It was something of a revelation, since I most often find myself gravitating toward magic that works like science. In New Albion, where A Far Wilder Magic is set, magic is alchemy. In our (real) world, alchemists strove for purification and perfection. Among their goals were the transformation of base metals into gold and the distillation of an elixir for eternal life. Alchemy was a philosophical pursuit as much as it was a scientific one, and I wanted to capture both of these aspects when I put my own spin on it.
Just as real alchemists did, practitioners of magic in New Albion aim to make sense of the world, to demystify it. Industries have sprung up around alchemized goods, from cosmetics to fashion to military technology, and becoming a licensed alchemist affords social status and political clout. Yet as New Albion modernized, its inexplicable magic began to vanish. All but one of the mythical beasts have been killed, and the last one is hunted each year in a sporting event. When magic is a part of everyday life, when it is in itself mundane, an author needs to create a sense of wonder for the characters—and by extension, for readers—in other ways. That challenge, I think, was what drove me as I wrote.
I’d argue that the true source of magic lies in point of view. The details that a character notices allow me to conjure an entire world. My job as an author is to convince readers that there is magic in even the smallest things. To do this, I think about what associations my narrator attaches to a particular place. What memories does a particular smell awaken for them? What are their eyes drawn to when they step into a room? What gossip have they heard about another character?
Page by page, my setting and characters accrue meaning and texture and history. I can convince my readers that my protagonist is someone with a life, one that began before the reader and will continue after they close the book for the last time. Through the protagonist’s fears, desires and memories, the setting becomes a place the reader could visit, if only they knew the way. Books like that fill me with yearning that almost knocks me breathless, a nostalgia for something I’ve never had at all. That, to me, is far more fantastical than any alchemical reaction.
Sometimes I feel as though Margaret and Wes, the main characters of A Far Wilder Magic, are friends I could call. I carried them with me for months, imagining that they walked beside me and wondering how they would respond to the things around me. Envisioning the world through their points of view made me permeable to wonder in a way I’d never been before.
In a way, A Far Wilder Magic is an archive of the things I was enchanted by as I drafted it: the color of a wave when struck by sunlight; the humbling, silent enormity of the redwoods; the whisper of the wind through the grass; the view from a mountaintop; people, from their most insignificant, charming quirks to their immense capacity for kindness and cruelty. And maybe most of all, the things you notice about the person you love.
The title of A Far Wilder Magic refers to a specific line in the book: “Like this, she looks more wolf than girl, like some magic far wilder than alchemy runs through her.” Although Margaret and Wes initially dislike each other, in this moment, Wes sees something pass over Margaret’s face that renders her almost mythic to him. Throughout the book, he can’t stop noticing small things about her, all the little details that build to something unaccountable. Without even realizing it was happening, he’s fallen in love with her. The wildest magic in New Albion isn’t alchemy. It’s something more intangible.
Author photo of Allison Saft courtesy of Lisa DeNeffe.