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The Crows are undertakers and mercy-killers, paid in the teeth of the dead. The Merciful Crow, Margaret Owen’s deliciously dark new YA fantasy, follows Fie, a member of the reviled Crow caste, as she and her band protect a prince from his political enemies. We talked to Owen about inclusion, the linguistic intricacies of her world and why she’s drawn to birds.


The Merciful Crow will be published just two months after the conclusion of HBO’s blockbuster television series “Game of Thrones.” How does the landscape of fantasy tales—including contemporary writings and folk and fairy tales—set the stage for your own work?
It means George R.R. Martin’s on notice. (That’s a joke, folks. The only thing I’m putting on notice is a box of Girl Scout cookies.) I grew up among fantasy, folklore and fairytale, but I noticed quickly that my favorite stories were about girls seizing their own destinies . . . and that there weren’t as many of them as I wished. That’s nothing new; we’re all quite familiar with the damsel in distress. I just preferred other stories.

The fantasy landscape itself is, to me, immeasurable. Its limits are truly only those of our own imaginations. There have been plenty of works that, to me, showed the author’s creativity shattered the barriers of biases. There have been far too many that haven’t, sometimes in the name of “realism” or “historical accuracy,” while miraculously hand-waving the historical accuracy of, say, manticores.

The upshot is that they’ve left the bar pretty low for world-building. Do something straightforward like make the highest-ranked military officer in your kingdom a woman, or the heir to the throne openly gay without issue, and apparently your world-building is “fresh” and “innovative.” I’d like to nudge that bar higher.

 

One of the first aspects I noticed in your book was its use of archaic language—words like aught (instead of nothing) and betwixt (instead of between) catch the reader’s eye. Why did you decide to use these unusual words instead of their more common versions?
I wrote a rather needlessly long Twitter thread about this, so I’ll try to condense it here for decency’s sake. The book is narrated through Fie, who starts the story illiterate, like most of her caste. They spend most of their lives in conditions that aren’t friendly to reading materials, and they have a limited set of secret ideograms to communicate to other members of the caste. As such, I wanted her caste to have a dialect that separated them from other, literate castes. It also would have been fairly insulting to base it on a real-world dialect.

My solution had three parts. First was a bit of linguistic sleight of hand: Most words in the English language come from either a Germanic root or a Latinate root. We tend to think of the Latinate version as more academic and official—for example, larceny (Latinate) versus theft (Germanic), or deity (L) versus god (G.) Unless it was terribly awkward, Fie defaulted to words with Germanic roots, not just in dialogue but the narrative itself. As she grows over the course of the book, her vocabulary also expands to include Latinate words.

The second and third parts were relatively less complicated. Fie avoids adverbs and will fall back on adjectives instead, which makes her voice sound stilted and awkward. This reflects her own discomfort with her reality, but as she’s forced to come to terms with one of her greatest fears, adverbs make their way into her narration to show her adjusting. And the third, as you noted, was a light dusting of archaic language. It’s like the rug in The Big Lebowski! It just ties the voice together.

 

The social castes in Fie’s world are all named after birds: Crows, Hawks, Phoenixes and others. What is it about birds that speaks to you?
I’d been drawn to crows in particular for a while. There was a viral story about a girl in Seattle, where I live, who fed the crows, only for them to start bringing her presents. They’re infamously smart, fiercely protective of their own and full of personality and swagger. The more cynical tail end of that story, though, is that the girl’s neighbors sued her family to make her stop. One even hung a dead crow off his third-floor balcony, which is surely not the behavior of a serial killer whatsoever! I’d like to think you see both aspects of that story at play in The Merciful Crow.

Honestly, the rest of the castes could have wound up as anything, but when I thought of what the royal caste would be, phoenixes seemed like the perfect opposite of crows: mythical instead of mundane, associated with rebirth instead of death, treasured instead of chased off. Once I had those two at each end of the caste spectrum, I knew the rest of the castes would have to be birds too.

 

Fie takes for granted that those who die of plague are sinners. Different societies frame connections between sickness and behavior in different ways; in our society, the idea that illness is a punishment alternates with the idea that disease is no one’s fault. What are your thoughts on this complicated balance?
Complicated is absolutely the right word for it. My family’s oldest tradition is its autoimmune disorders, so I wanted to draw a clear line in this world between getting sick in the everyday way and the Sinner’s Plague, which seems to operate as a somewhat gruesome form of divine intervention.

I think the book reflects a lot of the formative conversations taking place when I was a teen. Growing up in Oregon, physician-assisted suicide was debated and passed when I was in grade school and generally seen as a positive thing, though critics raised concerns that it could lead to involuntary or coerced euthanasia. Just over a decade later, the case of Terri Schiavo came to a head the year I graduated high school. My mother and stepfather also worked as public defenders, meaning they upheld the constitutional right to legal representation for anyone charged of a crime, no matter how terrible.

In the story, the Sinner’s Plague has two elements to it that are, to me, equally important. The first is that, as far as the characters understand the disease, it only initially strikes people beyond redemption. There’s comfort in the idea that this terrible thing only happens to terrible people; there’s also tension in the idea that a group of people are morally obligated to deliver this terrible person from their suffering, even at their own peril.

The second element is framed as more of a safety concern but is also a moral obligation to me, albeit one handed to the community. The plague only spreads once the victim has died, but it will spread quickly. Abandoning the victim to prolonged suffering, or denying their body funeral rites, will only punish the community. It’s a way of enforcing a measure of mercy and dignity to fellow humans; it says that to the divine, how you treat the worst of people still matters.

 

Gender identity and sexuality form an important, if often subtle, part of your story. The main characters represent a spectrum of sexual orientations, and small references to queer identities abound: A male warrior is casually referred to as having a loving husband, and one of Fie’s fellow Crows uses the pronoun “they.” Why did you decide to include such a variety of identities and relationships?
I’m going to borrow my line from another Q&A that asked a similar question—inclusion is a choice, but so is exclusion. The identities that I include aren’t new, only some of the terminology, and the accessibility of information to the average layperson. The funny thing is, the most persistent objection to inclusion is that it’s not realistic to have, say, more than one LGBTQ+ character. (It’s also the clearest way to tell the objector wasn’t a theater kid.) My reality, and many people’s reality, includes people of many genders and identities.

Moreover, it’s a craft question to me. If I set up a world in which occupations and leadership roles are not limited by gender, what use would this society have for enforcing a patriarchy? A binary concept of gender? A heteronormative tradition for romance? It doesn’t make sense to impose those limitations.

 

Two words: Why teeth?
Practicality. I knew I wanted a magic system that was a touch off-putting, and calling the scraps of a dead person’s magic from their bones was right on the money. However, it had its limits—they’d have to be removed from corpses, yikes, and apart from phalanges and metacarpals, they’d largely be unwieldy. Teeth were a good compromise: still deeply unsettling, but travel-sized! Not to mention more accessible and easy for a family to collect in case they needed to pay Crows someday.

 

In addition to writing, you’re also a digital artist. The illustrations you created for The Merciful Crow look amazing. How do you create your art? How do you conceptualize the connections between your art and your writing?
Thank you so much! I actually tend to go about creating art and working on stories much the same way: start with a couple conceptual thumbnail concepts, pick a direction, then roughly outline the full-size project and develop the detail from there. I also tend to do concept art to help nail down the overall feeling of settings, characters, cultural elements, etc. That helps me work through practical considerations (such as “how does an impoverished group like the Crows have access to the amount of cloth needed for their signature black robes?”) and establish coherent visual identities, which I can then translate on the page.

The flip side is that I can over-rely on visuals. I think I committed a grave faux-pas for YA by never describing how the love interest smelled. Considering they spend most of the story on the road, though, the answer would not be pleasant.

 

On your blog, you write that you’ve “accumulated various writing knowledge like a decorator crab.” If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
There’s a lot of fantastic advice out there, about resilience and having a thick skin and doing your research, so I’m going to assume aspiring writers already know all that. (If you don’t, here’s the short version: 1) don’t give up, 2) don’t let it get you down, and 3) Google is free and it’s your friend.)

My best advice as a writer is: Your most precious resources are your time and your enthusiasm. No one ever has the time to write a book; you have to make it a priority, and you can’t (and shouldn’t!) do that all the time. The key to that, though, is enthusiasm. You have to be so in love with your story that you’ll make time for it. You have to be so in love with it, you want it to be the best version possible. Be enthusiastic about what you write, and that joy will saturate the page, but more importantly: It’ll get done.

 

Will there be a follow-up to The Merciful Crow? What other projects are next for you?
I’m working on the sequel right now! After that, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ve got a frankly unseemly number of stories yanking their chains, some in the same world as The Merciful Crow, others in new universes entirely. It’ll come down to which makes sense to let loose in the market first, and I can’t wait to find out.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Merciful Crow.

We talked to Margaret Owen about inclusion, the linguistic intricacies of The Merciful Crow and why she’s drawn to birds.

Interview by

The pitch for R.J. Barker’s The Bone Ships is simple—fantasy pirates, sailing on ships made out of dragon’s bones. But there’s a lot more going on under the surface (sorry). We talked to Barker about the inspirations for his seafaring world, questionable taxidermy and why the matriarchal society of The Hundred Isles isn’t exactly a utopia.


At times The Bone Ships reminded me of a grown-up, fantastical Treasure Island or one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Where did you draw inspiration for The Bone Ships?
Treasure Island is definitely a really early influence, so is C.S. Forester with the Hornblower books. Then later on I drifted away, got distracted by other things, as I do, and Robin Hobb’s Liveship traders put me back on the path to the sea (so it was a huge thrill when Robin described The Bone Ships as “brilliant”). From there I discovered Patrick O’Brian and I fell in love with the world of Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin. I’ve also always loved the sea. It’s something I can watch for hours and never get bored, the constant shifting of it, the sheer size, the way it dwarfs us. We think we are the masters of the planet but every so often the sea rises up and shows us we are no such thing.

Where did you get the idea for ships made of dragons’ bones?
I’m kind of known for, maybe, being a bit odd, but I always think the way I get to these things is really logical. I wanted to write about ships but in a fantasy world, so I thought about what I could take away from our world that would make me go about it slightly differently. The first thing that sprung to mind was trees. Then you need a different material to build from, and bone was often used for tools by neolithic societies and it was also popular among sailors for doing scrimshaw (bone carving). So bone made sense in that way but, obviously, if you’re going to build a ship they have to be big bones, so from there you get to dragons—though I think if you were a dragon pedant, you might take issue with me describing the arakeesians as dragons. I tend to think of them as more akin to kaiju but dragons is an easy shorthand.

Will we get to see more of the Gaunt Islanders? I feel like we got a small window into how different their society is from that of the Hundred Isles, but they still seem like such a mystery.
Yes! But not immediately. I’m writing book three now and large parts of that will take place within the Gaunt Islands, so we’ll get to see their society and I’m really looking forward to writing that. One of my problems as a writer is I get bored really quickly and taking things to a new place is an easy way of refreshing things and rediscoveirng my excitement. So we’ll definitely get to see the Gaunt Islanders because it allows me to invent more things, and I like to invent things.

Other than for control of ships, why is the war even being fought? Will we ever know? (And do the countries even really remember?)
I’ve no great plans to explain the beginnings of the war because I don’t think it’s needed for the story the books are telling. When I write, I tend to keep it quite close to the character’s point of view—so we can only ever really know what they know and, as you said, they don’t know. It’s just what they do. I always hope when people read what I do they don’t go away thinking that violence is cool. The violence in the Scattered Archipelago* is essentially pointless, it’s a waste of life. As is the story in the book in many ways, they’re sent out to hunt this magnificent creature, and for what? So people can go on killing each other for reasons they don’t even understand. Part of Joron’s growth through the book is that he begins to see his society in a different way and understand that maybe, very fundamentally, something is wrong.

*That is the first time I have EVER spelled “archipelago” right the first time. Go me.

One of the most interesting (and maybe most disturbing) parts of Hundred Isles culture is the interplay between childbirth, religion and political and naval power. Why did you choose to center the power structures of this society around birth?
I don’t know where the first thought came from. But often, historically, our societies have hidden women away because the ability to have children is precious and hugely important. And of course there’s the wish for men to ensure that a child is theirs, that their genetic line is continuing. But the flipside of anything being valuable is it gives you power, and in this world to have healthy children is very rare, and it's definitely more important than continuing someone’s genetic line. And since that line is matriarchal it doesn’t really matter who the father is (it’s never said but definitely implied that women have multiple lovers), so it seemed like a steady base to set a society up on. Then once you have that reasoning set up, everything comes after—their religion paints men as flawed and gives them reasons for men to never be in control. So women are put in positions of power, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the reasons for flipping a society is to make people look at ours again. Putting women in charge doesn’t magically make everything great in the Hundred Isles, because women aren’t some bizarre other species. People are people. You set up these things and go “look, everything is different,” and then you use that to show that our fundamental flaws, the things that cause the darkness in our world, are the same. Greed, pride, the lust for power. The Hundred Isles are a terrible place, but it’s normal for the people that live in it, and it’s only when they are forced to look at it, and to some degree be outside it, that they begin to want change.

The more I think about the Gullaime, the more questions I have. How did they end up enslaved? Are there any out there who aren’t? And what exactly is a Windspire, really?
Aha! So many questions I cannot answer without ruining the next two books. . . I think (hope) people will be as interested in the Gullaime as you are, and we will definitely find out a lot more about them and their society. The Gullaime (who three books down the line, I am kind of wishing I had given a name to) has an ever growing part to play. I love writing him/it, there’s something very mischievous and yet innocent about the Gullaime. And his/its relationship with Joron is probably one of my favourite things.

The world of The Bone Ships feels both enormous because of the sheer volume of islands, and hemmed in because of the great storms raging at the edge of the map. Why did you choose to have the storms there as a sort of “edge of the world”? And have they always been there?
They have always been there, because it was one of the first things I thought of when this idea was playing about inside my head. A lot of things fell by the wayside but the storms stayed. I just really like that idea. In a lot of old maps you have this thing where for the people drawing them, or looking at them, the world just ends because they don’t know what exists past the edges of their map. I really liked that idea of creating a world that actually does have hard and impassable borders, and I didn’t want walls or mountains. Storms seemed fitting for these people and this place. As far as the people of the Scattered Archipelago know they have always been there, yes. But, as I said, we only know what they know. . .

In your bio, you mention a collection of “questionable taxidermy.” Where did that come from? And is there a difference between proper and questionable taxidermy?
When my wife and I got married, we bought ourselves this fox head we’d seen in a shop. It had been there for years and years, and it had just been there moldering away because it didn’t look very good, and we felt kind of sorry for it. We really like things that maybe other people wouldn’t love. There’s a fashion for ‘bad’ taxidermy at the moment but we’re not really part of that. I can’t really explain what it is we like about a thing, just that we have no interest in some lovingly stuffed hunting trophy. We like the things that maybe wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. They’re not quite right, but someone meant well, and we love these things for it. They have to be old too. Rather than collecting odd taxidermy, I like to think of us as more of a home for retired taxidermy. Taxidermy that’s got a bit eccentric in its dotage.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bone Ships.

Author photo by SMB Photography.

We talked to Barker about the inspirations for his seafaring world, questionable taxidermy and why the matriarchal society of The Hundred Isles isn’t exactly a utopia.

Kacen Callender’s unforgettable new fantasy Queen of the Conquered explores thorny questions of race, privilege and power in a lushly detailed Caribbean-inspired setting. Sigourney Rose, the only leader descended from indigenous islanders in the colony of Hans Lollik, tells herself that her ruthless mission to become the ruler of all the islands will enable her to free the enslaved, but her own personal vendettas and quest for power complicate her every move. We talked to Callender about the intersections between discrimination and privilege, the history that inspired Queen of the Conquered and more.


Was there a real-life inspiration behind the character of Sigourney Rose? Readers will really be torn between rooting for her and being afraid of her, but there’s no doubt she’s a unique protagonist on multiple levels.
Yes, I was inspired to write Sigourney Rose’s character in part from history and in part by my own experiences as someone who is oppressed but also has privilege. When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me throughout the years as I wondered what sort of person would degrade their own people for the sake of power.

This was a horrifying quality of Sigourney’s since she does own slaves who’re also islanders, and as the main protagonist, I knew that she had to be sympathetic at least on some level for readers to care enough to continue reading about her journey. Her family’s massacre at the hands of the colonizers was a part of this. I also wanted to explore what I think is a relatable conflict of being oppressed and knowing discrimination, but also having privilege, and in some ways contributing to systematic oppression simply by existing in a society that feeds on others.

“When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me.”

How did growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands influence the setting of Queen of the Conquered? When you started writing, did you ever see yourself penning a novel set in a world inspired by your particular experience?
The U.S. Virgin Islands, which were once part of the Danish West Indies, were the inspiration for the fantasy world. The royal island of Queen of the Conquered is called Hans Lollik, for example, which is an island in the USVI. The language in Sigourney’s world also borrows from Danish. The magical ability in the book is called “kraft,” which means “power” in Danish—power as an ability, but also power as in privilege.

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands did also influence the story as someone who was a local but attended a private school where for a few years I was the only Black, local student in the class. I faced horrific bullying and ostracization almost every day of my life by white students, but it was privilege that let me attend a private school. Throughout my life I’ve found myself in similar situations where privilege got me a place or position, but I’d be the only Black person in the room facing discrimination, which inspired Sigourney’s character. I love my home, and I’ve always wanted to write novels set in and based on the U.S. Virgin Islands, so hopefully there are many more to come.

What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write in the SFF genre?
I honestly don’t have a favorite genre to read. I love it all—it just depends on whatever mood I’m in. I do love speculative, though, because SFF is a metaphor for the real world and lets us take a look at our world from a different lens, which can sometimes offer even more clarity than if we had written about our world in a contemporary setting. Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression in the way that I was able to in Queen of the Conquered.

"Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression."

What settings have you not yet covered in your novels that you would like to escape/travel to through your fiction? What’s your favorite geographical location to write in?
Because I write contemporary, magical realism and speculative for both children and adults, I spend a lot of time thinking about real settings for the contemporary books and the pieces that could be taken from those places to create fantasy spaces. But I also like to look for the magic in the real world. I’ll walk around St. Thomas or my new neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and I’ll look up and see an alley or a field that feels out of place and stories begin to spark. There was once a park I’d walked through in New York City where suddenly the trees were almost too big and too green, butterflies started to rise from the grass with every step, and when I looked around there were no other people in sight. I began to think I’d walked into a completely different world. I turned a corner and got to the street where the city reappeared. When it was time to go home, I tried to find that section of the park again, but it’d completely disappeared and was replaced by swing sets and people walking their dogs. It’s possible I just made a wrong turn and/or that I have an overactive imagination, but it’s pieces of magic like this that I like to collect to create worlds.

“I . . . like to look for the magic in the real world.”

Sigourney eventually realizes that in certain lands, she is lumped into the same category as other people of color and inevitably endangered. All the while, the islanders of Hans Lollik fear and despise her for her psychic and political power. In your research and personal experience growing up in the islands, what did you unearth about the peoples who were colonized by others at this time? Were any of their stories the inspiration for Sigourney’s family?
There weren’t any specific stories that inspired Sigourney’s family besides what I’d learned in high school about Black people who did own slaves. Any research was focused on slavery in the Caribbean and what our ancestors had to endure to survive. There’s another key piece about slavery in the Caribbean that I did a bit of research for, but don’t want to discuss it here because it would risk spoiling the ending of the book.

This book introduces the concept of kraft, a unique reference to psychic power that is passed down through the family. Sigourney’s kraft allows her to manipulate but also experience others’ emotions, whereas others hold the power to commune with the dead, extract the truth, etc. What inspired this particular system of magic?
Kraft is specifically a mental ability, and just like in the real world, mental ability and talent is evenly distributed among all of us. However, the Fjern—the oppressors of Hans Lollik—declare that only they are allowed to have kraft by the divine right of their gods, and any islander found with kraft is executed. This is a metaphor for our world, because we also don’t allow everyone with ability the opportunity to use their talent to further themselves in the way that the Fjern do in Queen of the Conquered. People of color face mass incarceration and execution and racism and systematic oppression, taking away so many of our chances to use our talents and abilities as well.

It’s clear that Sigourney’s mental health has understandably deteriorated after the murder of her family and her continued participation in the kongeligs’ cruelty towards, genocide of and enslavement of the islanders. How important do you feel talking about mental health is for fantasy authors and authors in general, regardless of the genre they write in?
This is a close subject to me because of my own struggles with mental health, and I do often find myself writing about mental health at least in some aspect in most of my books. I don’t think that it should be a requirement for anyone to speak or write about mental health because this is something that can be triggering, and not everyone is in a place where they can speak or write openly about mental health. But, if authors are able to and feel inclined to do so, then it’s an important topic and the act of doing so could be potentially life-saving.

“We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors.”

Sigourney’s self-hatred and fear are palpable. How did you feel writing a protagonist who isn’t 100 percent admirable?
I wanted to write a protagonist that was morally gray because it feels more realistic and honest and vulnerable to me to write a character who struggles with many qualities that I do also. I face discrimination as a Black, queer and trans person, but I also have privileges that give me a comfortable home, food and water and education and the laptop that lets me write these books. There are people who would be able to do the same if they’d been given the same privileges as me. I think of how, in our society, so many of us like to consider ourselves the heroes of our own stories. We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors: We would’ve fought slavery, fought internment and concentration camps, stopped genocide. Yet these are all things that are happening in the world right now, and I feel a helplessness and hopelessness that Sigourney also struggled with. I think it’s important to wash away the ego and come to terms with the fact that we’re all morally gray people like Sigourney, who also aren’t 100 percent admirable, because then we’ll be able to begin to create real change.

Sigourney experiences a web of feelings, both physical and emotional, towards others, but she’s more focused on her own situation and end goals. What was your aim in writing a book about coming-of-age and aspiring towards ones’ goals, no matter what they might be?
Sigourney’s goals are technically admirable and understandable: She tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern who have colonized her islands, enslaved her people and massacred her family for revenge. But what interests me most about any character’s goals are the complexities. Sigourney tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern for the sake of her people, but she has to grapple with the idea that her desire for power might actually be for herself and her selfish greed. She tells herself that she acts for revenge, but she treats her people the same way that the Fjern do, and is no better than the other kongelig, or nobles, of the royal island. Though it seems that Sigourney always aspired to her goals no matter what, her path is filled with self-hatred and doubt, and this is coupled with the mystery of the murders of the kongelig, Sigourney often questions herself. My aim was to complicate Sigourney’s path realistically.

You’ve also worked as an editor, acquiring inclusive fiction and bringing a diverse array of voices to bookshelves. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading the books you’ve edited and acquired as a publishing professional?
I was an editor for children’s books, so for young readers, I always hope that they’ll come away from the books I edited with validation and self-love. I wanted marginalized voices to feel seen and heard since there’s so little representation for us.

Speaking of diversity in publishing and SFF, how do you think your books help add to this movement towards multicultural/LGBTQ+ fiction and representation of all sorts of character identities?
I think that my books specifically add to the movement of Black identities. I don’t want to write for people of color of cultures and identities other than my own because I don’t know their experiences and I don’t want to take space when I know there are others who’re trying to write their own stories and their own books. I hope that adding my voice to the mix as a Black, queer and trans person from the Caribbean allows others who share any piece of my identities to feel seen, especially as I keep writing and keep getting more stories with different mixtures of my identities into the world. I hope that people from other cultures and communities can read my books and see characters and cultures they might not see often enough, enriching their own worlds also.

What’s next for you and your writing? Will there be a continuation of Sigourney’s story, or the story of the people of Hans Lollik?
Yes, there’s a sequel titled King of the Rising, which will be from Løren’s perspective following the events of Queen of the Conquered.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Queen of the Conquered

Author photo by Ashlee Cain.

Kacen Callender’s unforgettable new fantasy Queen of the Conquered explores thorny questions of race, privilege and power in a lushly detailed Caribbean-inspired setting.

Alina Boyden’s gorgeous, transportive debut novel, Stealing Thunder, synthesizes Mughal Indian history and her own anthropological work with the transgender communities of South Asia to create a richly detailed fantasy world. Here, Boyden shares how she developed the fabulous clothing of Daryastani society, why she developed an “anti-dragon” and more.

This is your debut novel, and it’s haunting, gorgeous and amusing at all the right moments. What places and times would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
First of all, thank you so much for that lovely compliment. I am definitely continuing the story of Razia and Arjun with a sequel. I’ve written that one, and it broadens the horizons of the world of Stealing Thunder quite considerably. I’m also working on some non-Razia related projects. Currently that is taking me to the south of France and to Spain in the 13th century, though it won’t be a historical fiction piece, so that’s just the inspiration. It brings me back to my undergraduate years as a medieval studies major. But there are so many other places in the world and so many other cultures that I find deeply inspiring that I think if I’m lucky enough to have the sales figures to keep my career going, I will have no shortage of places and times to visit.

“. . . to see communities of (largely) transgender women, which have existed for thousands of years, was awe-inspiring to me.” 

Readers may not know that the hijras in Stealing Thunder are inspired by the real-life communities of the same name in Pakistan, which you’ve studied during your work as a cultural anthropologist. When did you first learn about these communities, and why do they fascinate and inspire you?
Well, for starters, the communities in Pakistan are properly referred to as “khwaja sira” communities. In Pakistan, “hijra” is often considered to be a slur. In India, “hijra” has greater currency as an autonym and is not nearly so often considered to be negative in its connotation. I chose to use “hijra” as a term because it has so much wider currency in American discourse than “khwaja sira” does, and because the word “transgender” in English is such a recent innovation that I felt it might distract readers from the fantasy world I had created.

I first learned about hijras when I was 12 or 13; I suppose I was, like a lot of trans women, searching the world to see if there are others out there like her. You see, when I was growing up, I was taught that being transgender was a modern phenomenon, that trans people didn’t exist in other countries, that we were a particular pathology rooted in the modern West. So to see communities of (largely) transgender women that have existed for thousands of years was awe-inspiring to me. Most trans women I know in America grew up believing they were alone. Each of us had to learn for herself what being transgender even was, because there was so little cultural understanding of transness as a phenomenon.

So to see a culture where not only is transness broadly known and acknowledged, but these trans women live together in their own communities—that was really shocking to me the first time I came across it. It made me realize that things didn’t have to be the way that they were for me growing up in America. There are many other ways that transness can operate in the world, and one of them is this radically visible and community-oriented form that we see in the hijra and khwaja sira communities of South Asia.

Your description of Razia and her hijra sisters’ transitions is eloquent and beautiful, normalizing the process to readers even when the other members of Daryastani society may not feel the same way. As a trans rights activist, was this a stance that you knew you wanted in the book from the beginning, rather than the oft popularized stories of only hardship and pain?
Absolutely. If there is one pernicious myth that needs to be addressed in our own society, it is the idea that transition-related treatments are as painful or more painful than gender dysphoria, or that they are imperfect facsimiles of cis experiences. Those ideas permeated my own upbringing and my own early understanding of transition, and they are myths that I only banished within myself somewhat recently, because they are so virulent.

I’m not really sure why cis people are so taken with the idea that transition-related procedures are painful or damaging or imperfect. Maybe it’s because cis people don’t have gender dysphoria, by definition, and therefore they imagine what it would be like to undergo those procedures themselves and come away horrified. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know what being cis is like. But for trans people, it’s actually the reverse. The procedures are not horrific, damaging things; they are profoundly mundane medical interventions which result in bodies that largely feel normal—often for the first time in our lives.

Now that’s not to say that every trans person needs or wants the same (or any) medical interventions in their lives. However, for those trans people who do medically transition as a result of the dysphoria they experience, the decision to begin transition or to have surgical intervention can be fraught with fear and doubt because of the salacious misinformation that they have been exposed to. The truth (as I have experienced it as one trans woman) is that the medical interventions in my life were not only greatly beneficial in terms of my mental well-being but also have given me a far greater sense of normalcy than I ever expected they would.

I wanted to include that sense of normalcy in Stealing Thunder. I wanted to normalize the physical experience of being transgender without centering the narrative around medical interventions or physical changes. I did this quite consciously, because cis people seem to focus far more on our hormones and our surgeries than we do in our daily lives. Yes, for many of us, those interventions are a part of our lived experiences. Yes, I do wake up every morning and take estrogen, and take it again before going to bed, and have since I was 18 years old. But I don’t really spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I don’t view it as particularly central to my daily lived experience, and it’s certainly not something that, if I were writing the novel of my life, I would spend a whole lot of time on. So, when writing the novel of Razia’s life, I didn’t spend a lot of time on it either.

When did you first become fascinated with the Mughal Empire, and why do you think that era of history is so resonant for you?
I’ve been fascinated by the so-called “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th and 17th centuries for as long as I can remember. This was a period when the military dominance of European powers was something still on the horizon. It was a time when Ottoman armies besieged Vienna, and when India was the wealthiest country in the world. These empires represented a substantial fraction of the world’s population, a substantial fraction of the world’s GDP and produced some of the finest art and architecture ever to be found anywhere on the planet. If I had not experienced the incredibly Eurocentric public history education that we have in the United States firsthand, I would be genuinely baffled as to why anyone looking at the 16th and 17th centuries would be so focused on the activities of a tiny, dreary island in the North Atlantic when they could focus on the Red Fort of Agra instead.

Were there any real-life muses who inspired the individual characters of Razia Khan and Prince Arjun?
Razia’s namesake is obviously Razia Sultana, the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. I visited her tomb in Delhi, which was an amazing experience, as it’s quite hard to find and very poorly marked, having no major structures associated with it. However, aside from the name, which I really liked, there isn’t a great deal of similarity between Razia the sultana and Razia the character.

Arjun is kind of a sly reference to the character of Arjun(a) the Archer, from the Mahabharata. In the story, Arjuna spends a year cursed to live as a hijra, so I threw in a slight reference to that in Stealing Thunder as well, though I don’t know if anybody noticed. I thought it was kind of fun to have the male lead be named for a well-known character who spent a year living as a trans woman himself. I don’t know if that necessarily explains why Arjun is such an empathetic character when it comes to Razia, but maybe that informed my thinking a little bit.

Your characters are resplendently dressed and described, to the point where the reader can truly visualize Razia, her comrades and her foes. What was your favorite part of crafting the garb for this book?
The garb was so hard! Fashion changes so much over time, and to make a decision about what people are wearing when you have to consider changes over time and region, and then also practicality, took a ton of work. But I think my favorite part was just looking at all the gorgeous examples that exist both from South Asia in the past and South Asia today. It was an awesome excuse to watch some really fun Bollywood movies, to delve into 16th and 17th century miniature paintings and to go sari shopping with friends. Honestly, research is probably my favorite part about writing, and I love historical costume research, so as tough as it was to feel like I’d done it justice, the whole thing was just a joy.

“I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy . . .”

Every time one of the zahhaks stole a scene, I became more curious about your inspiration for these glorious creatures. What’s their backstory? And is their name an intentional homage to the villainous Zahhak of Persian mythology?
Yes, zahhaks, what’s going on with that? Well, honestly it comes down to the fact that there really is no one good translation of the concept of dragon into South Asian culture—or at least, I couldn’t find one that satisfied me. Obviously, dragon could be translated into Urdu as “azhdaha” (which is a Persian loanword). And Zahhak is a villainous character of Persian mythology whose name is sometimes translated as “dragon.” So when I was trying to find a good word to get across the concept of dragon, I really was torn between those two words, and I settled on zahhak as being easier for non-Persian and non-Urdu speakers to read without being distracted by questions of pronunciation.

But their backstory is entirely my own invention. I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy, because they’re not aerodynamic, and they don’t behave in ways that make sense in terms of how they’re used militarily in fantasy books. I’ve studied military aviation my whole life, and I love birds—I used to train birds of prey for a living, and I’m familiar with ancient treatises on falconry, including ones from South Asia. So I have long had this knowledge about falconry and this obsession with flight, and I fly airplanes too, so I brought those things together to create a kind of dragon-like creature, but one governed by the actual laws of aerodynamics as much as possible. I researched extinct giant birds and pterosaurs, and I mixed them together with living birds of prey and with my way-too-vast knowledge of military aviation, and I essentially created these biological fighter planes which look like resplendent peacocks. I was so sure that nobody else would like them, but people have really responded positively to them, even though they’re my anti-dragon in a way.

What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
Well, I don’t know that I have enough faith in my own writing to believe that people will discover something life-altering about themselves from reading one of my books. My hope is a bit simpler than that. I just want trans women, especially young trans girls, to read this book and feel seen and represented. I want them to realize that they can be anybody they want to, that they can dream as big as anyone else, that the world is as much their oyster as anyone else’s.

And I realize my readership is largely not going to be trans women, young or old. That’s just a demographic reality. So for the bulk of my readers, especially for my cis readers, I just hope that they come away from this book having our existences demystified a little bit. I think the truth of being a trans girl is profoundly boring and normal. I think if I’ve properly explained what it’s like to be trans to a cis reader, their response is probably going to be something along the lines of, “Oh, is that all there is to it?” And that’s fine with me. Because I think that sense of normalcy, that sense of “Oh you’re just like me,” that’s where acceptance begins.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Stealing Thunder.


What’s next for you and your writing? I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Razia and her chosen family and friends (and zahhaks!).
Well, the sequel draft is done and sitting with my editor right now, who is working on it through this pandemic we’re currently dealing with. I think it’s a really exciting book. It’s got tons more action, tons more drama, and you get to learn about a totally new species of zahhak, as well as to see the ice zahhaks from Stealing Thunder “on camera” for the first time. So that’s going to be super cool, I hope. And, of course, I’m plugging away on another project I can’t really talk about yet, but I can’t wait to share that one with the world too. Other than that, I’m surviving this social isolation as best I can, and I hope everyone reading this are healthy and as happy as can be expected given the circumstances.

 

Author photo by Spencer Micka.

Alina Boyden shares how she created an “anti-dragon” and how her fascination with the Mughal Empire inspired her dazzling fantasy debut.
Interview by

Many early reviews have compared Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching, to other feminist dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale. And while Henderson’s fundamentalist world of Bethel does invite comparisons to the horrors of Gilead, a more apt parallel may be the 2015 horror film The Witch, in which a young Puritan girl discovers that the only avenue for self-determination in her deeply misogynist and joyless world may be to embrace all that is forbidden, sinful and powerful. We talked to Henderson about how her upbringing in one of America’s most haunted cities shaped her writing and how she crafted Immanuelle Moore’s journey to the dark heart of her society.

What drew you to SFF as an emerging writer? Did you always know that you wanted to write a fantasy novel?
I’ve always loved reading SFF. I think I’m naturally drawn to the way that speculative fiction allows me to escape the conventions of this world and enter another. So it was natural that when it came time to write stories of my own, I gravitated toward fantasy. In a way, I feel like it’s all I’ve ever known. And while I dabble in other genres, fantasy has always been, and likely always will be, a creative touchstone that I return to time and time again.

What has the process of releasing and promoting a book been like during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s been surreal, to say the least. I think it’s always awkward to promote yourself, but amid this pandemic, attempts at promotion feel a lot like shouting into the void, and I’m often worried that by asking people to pay attention to my book, I’m drawing their attention away from more important issues. That said, I think there’s something profound and humbling about debuting during such a historically significant time. I know, without a doubt, that I’ll never forget the months leading up to my debut. And I’m immensely grateful that the publication of my book has offered me some light in these increasingly difficult times.

“I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales . . .”

As a fellow Southerner, I got the feeling that this book was somehow decidedly Southern even if it wasn’t explicitly set in the South. How has growing up in (and then later settling in) the coastal South affected your writing?
I grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia. Because of that, I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales, and they definitely inspired some of the eerie, gothic themes that are so prevalent in The Year of the Witching. Southern cultural conventions were also a huge source of inspiration behind the book. In the South, religion is more present than it is in other regions. Here, churches serve as more than religious institutions. They are cornerstones of the community and are often integral in shaping the social (and even political) climate of the surrounding areas. I think that social piety directly inspired Bethel, the theocratic settlement where my story takes place.

The motif of dark, earthy blood, whether from the cutting knife or menstruation, feels like it’s everywhere in The Year of the Witching. In what ways do you see blood and magic bound in this world? And is this magic feminine?
I wanted to play with the idea that creation (and the power it affords) demands blood sacrifice. I think that menstruation is symbolic of this, but so are the animal sacrifices Bethelans make in order to win the favor and forgiveness of the Holy Father they worship. So while the magic isn’t inherently feminine, I think the blood sacrifices that are required to wield it can manifest in many different ways—whether that be menstruation, blood spilled on a battlefield or a sigil carved into flesh. In the end, every act of sacrifice can be distilled down to a simple truth: blood buys power.

The figure of Lilith might be familiar to folks who know witchcraft lore. But what about the other witches? Did those come solely from your imagination, or from similar witchy archetypes?
The other witches are inventions of my own twisted imagination. I think I was inspired by some of the conventions of the horror genre (specifically the subgenres of cosmic and body horror). But for the most part, Jael, Mercy and Delilah emerged from the recesses of my mind. I remember, in the early days of drafting The Year of the Witching, being visited by each of them in turn. It was almost as though I had to gain their trust through the writing of the story, and once I did they revealed themselves to me.

The contrast between the earthy, transgressive witchcraft and the strict puritanical society of Bethel that you paint is striking. Can you talk about what inspired the setting for The Year of the Witching?
I always knew that I wanted to write a story about witches and cults. The Year of the Witching, and the setting where the story takes place, was birthed from the marrying of the two. I think that both settings are emblematic of the toxic, binary social and religious structures that are responsible for so much of the dysfunction and darkness of Bethel and the Church that governs it. Ezra’s character represents a different kind of subversion of Bethel’s society than Immanuelle does.

Do you think that in Immanuelle’s absence, Ezra would have continued to rebel, or would he have simply fallen into his role as the next Prophet?
This is a great question and one that I’m still wrestling with. A part of me wants to say that, without Immanuelle’s influence, Ezra would have still found his way to the light. But I do wonder if, without Immanuelle’s prompting, Ezra would have simply followed in the steps of his forefathers. I often ask myself if Ezra’s choice to aid Immanuelle’s quest was a testament to his character or simply another way for him to rebel against the Church, and by extension his father the Prophet. I hope to unpack that question in future works, in the hopes that one day I’ll have a firm answer to it.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Year of the Witching.


The Year of the Witching deals not just with witchcraft but also questions of identity and how much the actions of one generation affect the lives of the next. What drew you to explore these themes?
I drew a lot of inspiration from my own life, and my natural fascination with transgenerational trauma and the way sins and vices can be passed down from one generation to the next. I wanted to know whether it was possible for a person to completely defy the circumstances of their birth and, in doing so, free themselves from the ghosts of the past.

Is there more to come from Immanuelle, Ezra and the rest of Bethel?
Yes! I’m writing the (yet untitled) sequel to The Year of the Witching right now!

 

Author photo by Marissa Siebert of Hazel Eyes Photography

We talked to Alexis Henderson about how her upbringing in one of America’s most haunted cities shaped her darkly beautiful debut fantasy, The Year of the Witching.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was set to become the biggest book of Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s career thus far. She’d spent 10 years imagining Addie, and finally sharing her story with the world would be cause for much celebration. An extensive tour was planned to help ease Schwab, the author of 17 fantasy novels, including the Shades of Magic trilogy and multiple YA and middle grade series, out of the fantasy pigeonhole and into the literary space.

But instead, COVID-19 happened. Our conversation takes place over Zoom in late July, while Schwab is still holed up in her parents’ home in France, her quarantine spot of five months. Schwab grew up in the States but now lives in Scotland. She arrived at her parents’ home the day before the French lockdown began with eight articles of clothing, figuring she’d be there a month to six weeks max. “I’m a 33-year-old who did not plan on spending all of 2020 living with my parents,” she says with a laugh.

“It’s about being willing to live through hard times because of the promise of good ones.”

Instead of an in-person book tour with all the trimmings, Schwab will spend the two weeks after Addie’s publication on a nocturnal schedule in Europe, doing virtual events for bookstores in the U.S. Fortunately, she has mostly made peace with her (and Addie’s) lot. “If I have to wait a couple of years to toast her with my publishing team, I think that I could take a lesson in patience from this character that I lived with for 10 years,” she says. And at 324 years young, Addie LaRue is nothing if not patient.

Addie’s story begins in early 18th-century France. About to be married off against her will, Addie prays in supplication to the gods, as her witchy neighbor Estele has taught her. But when Addie mistakenly summons a god of darkness, she makes a deal that will save her from marriage but whose contours take her many years to fully comprehend: Addie can live forever, but the catch is that she won’t be remembered by her friends, her family or anyone she encounters.

Addie spends the next 300 years learning to navigate—and indeed, enjoy—this strange reality. By the year 2014, she has hit her stride when she meets a boy named Henry who actually remembers her—and her world is turned upside down once again.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.


To some extent, Schwab says it took a global pandemic to fully appreciate the themes of her own novel. She calls Addie “a very strange, hopeful book from an author who usually writes very dark, violent, almost anarchic stories.”

Living an author’s virtual life has had unexpected advantages. In June, Schwab appeared in conversation with one of her heroes, Neil Gaiman, for an audience of 7,000 on Crowdcast during Macmillan’s TorCon, and Gaiman ended up endorsing Addie. Virtual events also make it possible for her international fans to participate.

But virtual events can also be draining and disorienting. When touring IRL, Schwab likes to find a happy face in the audience and test out one-liners to see what gets a good reaction. “I have a personal relationship with my readers, and I miss seeing their faces,” she sighs.

I decide to play the part of an audience member and ask her a question that frequently comes up at book events: What is Addie LaRue’s origin story? “I was living in an ex-prison warden’s backyard in Liverpool,” Schwab begins. (Don’t all great stories start this way?) Without her own transportation, Schwab relied on her roommate to drop her off in various small towns, where she would spend hours exploring. One day, she visited a Lake District town with a “wild atmosphere” and timeless quality that left her pondering the pros and cons of immortality.

“I think immortality is such a gift,” she explains, “because I’m somebody for whom life is always moving too fast. I blink, and 10 years go by.” Addie says nearly the same thing as she stares down her impending marriage.

Invisible Life of Addie LaRueIn 2020, finding small reasons for hope and optimism when too many tedious days stretch ahead is a scenario that people around the world understand in an intimate way. Unlike Addie, we can’t fill our quarantine days with the endless pursuit of fine art or good food or high culture. But we do have stories.

“What I’m discovering through early readers,” Schwab says, “is that Addie’s is a philosophy that many people need to see right now. The book is about defiant joy, it’s about a stubborn hope, it’s about being willing to live through hard times because of the promise of good ones. I think there’s a huge current of loneliness and fear running through things right now. When I was in a really, really dark place in my life, the smallest things kept me going. I thought, I don’t ever want to miss a thunderstorm.” So she created a character who could find joy in small acts.

In the end, Schwab knows that she and Addie will have their moments in the sun, albeit on a timeline nobody can yet predict. “The themes of the book are about patience. I’m trying really hard not to mourn a version [of my book launch] that will never exist. Another beautiful thing about books is that they don’t have an expiration.”

 

Author photo by Jenna Maurice

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was set to become the biggest book of Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s career thus far. She’d spent 10 years imagining Addie, and finally sharing her story with the world would be cause for much celebration. An extensive tour was planned to help ease Schwab, the author of 17 fantasy novels, including the Shades of Magic trilogy and multiple YA and middle grade series, out of the fantasy pigeonhole and into the literary space. But instead, COVID-19 happened.
Interview by

J.S. Barnes takes readers to fog-choked Victorian London in Dracula’s Child, which imagines what happened after the events of Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula.

What inspired you to revisit Dracula?
I’ve always loved the book, ever since I first read it as a boy. I’ve enjoyed versions of the story in other mediums, of course, but it’s the book to which I’ve always been drawn back. It’s often struck me as odd, however, that Stoker never wrote a sequel, when it seems to me that there are clear seeds planted in plain sight for just such an undertaking. I reread the novel about five years ago, and the scope for continuation seemed to leap out at me. It was almost inevitable, then, that I should start my own homage to it, a real passion project.

Who is your favorite character in Stoker’s original novel?
Probably Renfield, the lunatic who acts as a weird kind of barometer for the Count. There was no way to bring him back for this sequel, however, given his fate in the original! Out of the characters whom I’ve had a chance to write myself, I’d have to go with Mina Harker. Unflappable and determined in Stoker’s account, she’s grown even tougher and more watchful in the years that have passed before we meet her again in Dracula’s Child.

If you were to pick another horror or fantasy classic to revisit, what would it be and why?
Wow, there are so many to choose from! I’m actually working on just such a project at the moment—a sequel to a seminal work of late 19th-century horror. More on this as soon as we can announce it! But I’d also love to revisit many others—Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories in particular!


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Dracula's Child.


Why do we continue to be fascinated with vampires?
Even as trendier monsters come and go, vampires keep on speaking to us. Both scary and sympathetic, they represent simultaneously what we dread and what we long for. They change according to the times in which they’re written—each generation’s version of the vampire myth is different—while also, at their core, staying the same.

When writing Dracula’s Child, did you aim to address any current-day issues? Or were you more focused on reviving Stoker’s original mood and setting?
The aim was very much to channel Stoker’s voice. That said, it’s impossible not to be influenced by the times in which you’re writing, so I’m sure that there are moments of applicability here to our own era. After all, so many of the concerns and dilemmas of Stoker’s time are still with us in some form or another.

J.S. Barnes takes readers to fog-choked Victorian London in Dracula’s Child, which imagines what happened after the events of Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula. What inspired you to revisit Dracula? I’ve always loved the book, ever since I first read it as a boy. I’ve enjoyed versions of the story in other mediums, of course, but […]
Interview by

After winning near-universal acclaim for Uprooted and Spinning Silver, two romantic, fairy-tale inspired fantasies, Naomi Novik is turning to the dark side. Her Scholomance series, which begins with A Deadly Education, takes place in a supernatural death trap of a school and follows El, a young woman who seems destined to become an evil sorceress. But if you know Novik, you know it’s all going to be a lot more complicated than that.

I’m so excited to get to talk to you about A Deadly Education! What can readers coming in fresh to your work as well as those who are longtime fans expect for the first installment of this new series?
I think that one consistent element is that my work is always in conversation. In this case, there’s an old folk legend of the Scholomance, a hidden school of dark magic where wizards spent years studying in the dark, without teachers, and when they left, the last graduate’s soul was taken in payment for their education. I read about this legend back when I was about 10 years old, and it’s stuck in my head ever since, and in this book I’ve worked it together with the magical boarding school trope that we all know and love from Harry Potter and A Wizard of Earthsea and the Worst Witch books and so many others.

Like Uprooted and Spinning Silver, there’s also a first-person female narrator. El, the main character of A Deadly Education, is very different from Agnieszka or Miryem; she comes into the story already knowing a lot about magic and the magical world. Also, she’s fundamentally a modern girl who has grown up in our recognizable world despite having magic herself, as opposed to being in a more historical era.

But like Agnieszka and Miryem, she’s also going through the coming-of-age process and grappling with her own power and working out who she is and who she wants to become. She’s also trying to find community and connection.

How does it feel to return to writing a series, rather than standalone fantasy?
I did my best not to return to writing a series! I wanted the story of the Scholomance to be in separate books, because the rhythm of the school year is important to the magic school story. I wanted the power of that rhythm in the narrative—punctuating the end of one year, crossing from one year to another. But I wrote most of the trilogy before I paused to get book one actually ready for publication.

"When you start from a place where your reader has expectations . . . what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain."

Your previous books are nestled into these wonderful subgenre niches—alternate history (with dragons!), romantic fantasy and now dark magical schools. Do you feel like you approached them all differently or are the bones of creation largely the same? What appeals to you about setting a story and writing in the dark academia world of the Scholomance?
When you start from a place where your reader has expectations, where your reader knows something—whether that’s because they’ve heard the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, or they’ve read a biography of Napoleon, or seen a Harry Potter movie—what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain.

What you get from working with source material that’s already in your reader’s head is the combination of the pleasure of a new story, and the pleasure of recognition in a story they’ve seen before. “I know that trope! I’ve seen this before!” And you also get the pleasure of the unexpected. Letting your reader have expectations gives you a more interesting way to move around your reader and with them.

The truth is no story stands on its own. Some stories may be more self-conscious than others about letting you see where they’re coming from, but I'm not, because I’m not worried about it. If I didn’t have something new to say about magical schools, then I wouldn’t be interested enough to write it myself. So I’m not shy about using tropes or other stories as inspiration, or history or any other inspiration.

Your previous books—Uprooted and Spinning Silver—are a bit lighter and more hopeful in terms of magical systems, settings and tone. I had the opposite reaction when reading A Deadly Education. It’s so tense and mysterious! How did you feel about that shift? Is a story with much darker magic elements something you’ve always wanted to do? If so, is this how you always imagined writing it, or did you have a much different idea in mind at the start?
The legend of the Scholomance paints a truly horrible place. The idea that you would spend years locked up in the dark, with answers to your lessons appearing in letters of flame, with no teachers, no contact with the outside world. It’s a horrible idea! Who would do that? What would drive somebody to go into the Scholomance? That question was one part of the root of the idea.

The other part of it was taking the glaring flaws in school safety at Hogwarts a little too seriously. If you look at Hogwarts from the objective standpoint of a parent considering whether this institution is really a good place to send your young child—you might have some questions about the choices that the administration is making. Does the school really need to have a locked chamber with a basilisk in it? Do the staircases really need to fly around to different locations?

The Scholomance series is basically taking that a step further, and acknowledging, “Yes, this school of magic is absolutely horrible. The school is, in fact, deadly.” So you have this terrible school—What makes people go there? What makes them send their children there? How do they survive it? Who comes out of it, and how do they come out of it?

El is biracial—Indian and Welsh—and I’d love to know what sort of research or sensitivity reading you did while writing about her identity and lived experience.
My specific research for any novel is guided by the work itself as it goes. I don’t decide a character's backstory in my head and then dole it out; I find things out about my characters as I write them down. And when I do write a line where a character tells me and the reader something about herself, that's where my research begins, making sure that what I'm saying works and makes sense and is true.

But I don’t mean just fact-checking—it’s not the single line; you have to chase the single line you’ve written and follow where it leads you. Once I spent a week researching whether there were sidewalks in Edinburgh in 1806. It didn’t actually matter, I could have just tweaked the line and avoided the question far more easily, but in chasing that question I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know I needed to know. So I do that and I find and pack the information away in my head, and then it is there and ready to come out when it’s relevant.

For one example with A Deadly Education, early on I wrote a line where El was irritated about having been taught Marathi instead of the more practical Hindi. That’s the moment when I learned her dad was from India and specifically the Mumbai area. And it was clearly right when it came, because the Scholomance was taking shape in my mind by then as a British Empire construct, this sort of Titanic-scale industrial project, and therefore intuitively connected to the massive exploitation of India. At that point I needed to do a chunk of reading and research to understand what that line told me about him and about her.

And then in turn, one of the things I found while doing that research was a terrific online course by HarvardX about Hinduism Through Its Scriptures (I highly recommend, it’s free to audit), and what I learned there informed the backstory of the Golden Stone sutras later on in the book.

I did also ask my publishers to get me a sensitivity reader on this book as well, someone who wouldn't feel inhibited about giving honest feedback because they could stay anonymous and weren't working for me. I found the feedback they got for me really useful. I do think a good general rule for any author is that when you want honest feedback on a topic where people routinely react defensively, you have to go out of your way to make it really safe for someone to give you that feedback.

And you also just have to listen to the feedback that is out there in the world already. It’s there to be read and heard and taken in.

El’s also a bit prickly, which I personally loved. Were there any moments in writing her that surprised you, where a scene took a completely different turn than what you had planned simply by way of staying true to her personality?
El didn’t surprise me quite so much because I felt very clearly from the beginning that she wasn’t being completely honest with herself—that mentally she was working really hard to survive the experience and as part of that to convince herself that it was both survivable and worth surviving.

The prickliness, the dark humor, the sarcasm—that’s how El is surviving, and also how the reader survives, because I don’t actually want to give the reader the direct visceral experience of being in the Scholomance. The Scholomance is not a nice place! But I do want to pull back the curtain every so often; those scenes are the true moments. When those scenes happen, that’s what’s real. They tell you something true about the place and about El.

The side characters surprised me more often, because going in, I didn’t know who all of them were and which ones would be important. Several of them became important over the course of the book. Yi Liu in particular was an interesting surprise for me but I don’t want to spoil why.

I always let the characters lead me. So I don’t have a preconceived plan for any scene. I start to be able to see what’s going to happen a certain distance ahead, but that’s only because I know that’s where the characters are going.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of A Deadly Education.


There’s a hefty cliffhanger at the end of A Deadly Education and I certainly don’t want to give anything away. But when can we expect to pick back up in the Scholomance and do you have an expected number of books in the series? I’m already clamoring for the next one!
It’s a trilogy. It was supposed to be a duology, and then the first book ended where it ended—unexpectedly—and I realized I had to write three books instead of two. Book three is already under way; book two is basically done.

I feel I should share, in the interest of giving fair disclosure: When I sent book two (The Last Graduate) to my editor, she replied with a subject line of all AAAAAAAAAs that was longer than the width of my (very) large screen. And that’s generally been the reaction of most readers at the end of book two. I’m sorry! I don’t actually mean to torture people!

But that’s where the books needed to end. As a writer, sometimes you write a scene, and there’s the end. It’s done! When that happens, you have to accept it. You can’t fight an ending. When your brain gives you an ending, you have to nurture it and pet it. Like a small, fluffy mouse.

If you weren’t writing fantasy, which other genres would you like to try? Something similar or completely new?
Fiction is a subset of fantasy, as opposed to the other way around. Fantasy is fiction where, as the author, you use your power over the stage your characters are on, the stakes of their situation. I would never give that power up just to be able to say I wasn’t writing fantasy.

I know people think fantasy means there’s got to be elves, magic, dragons, wizards, something, but those are just fantasy genre tropes that people recognize and so when you use them, it gives you those expectations to play with. I do love all those tropes, and I use them freely, but to me the real value of fantasy is that my world and my characters grow together.

I will always try new things, though. A Deadly Education is very different from Uprooted and Spinning Silver, which are in turn quite different from Temeraire. My short stories have been wildly all over the map, and I’ve written hundreds of fan fiction stories that are as well.

My mantra is just that I write what I can write, when I can write it.

Lastly, I always like to ask authors what they’re reading and loving now. What books have really captured your attention lately or are books you're looking forward to?
Lately I can read three pages at a time before I get interrupted, and then another six pages two days later before I get interrupted again. But I am currently reading Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi and really enjoying it even though I’m crawling through it like a small snail. It’s very good and every time I come back it’s still in my head despite the interruptions, so I continue to crawl.

I also recently had the opportunity to read The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab in advance, and it’s really lovely! Faustian bargain stories are often bleak, ticking time bombs of impending doom; without giving away too much, she’s turned it into something very charming, and I think readers will be quite surprised.

 

Author photo © Beth Gwinn.

After winning near-universal acclaim for Uprooted and Spinning Silver, two romantic, fairy-tale inspired fantasies, Naomi Novik is turning to the dark side. Her Scholomance series, which begins with A Deadly Education, takes place in a supernatural death trap of a school and follows El, a young woman who seems destined to become an evil sorceress. […]
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Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was one month in the writing but 10 years in the making.

In the fall of 2011, she needed to write a term paper for a college class on Norse mythology. Her professor said the paper could be about anything . . . except Loki. Luckily, the professor had said something else that drew Gornichec’s attention, about the relationship between female figures in Norse mythology and the concept of fate and death. The comment led her to Loki’s mate, Angrboda, a witch-mother with the gift of prophecy.

Gornichec ended up writing a paper that connected Angrboda to other female figures in the mythology—eventually. “Before that,” the author says from her home in Ohio, “I wrote The Witch’s Heart in three weeks for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in the wee hours of the morning while I should have been working on that paper.”

“In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel.”

In The Witch’s Heart, Angrboda is trying to build a new identity for herself at the edge of existence after being thrice burned for refusing to give Odin the secrets of the future he desires. But then Loki comes along. Despite her initial mistrust of the trickster god, Angrboda falls in love. The witch raises their three improbable children—the goddess Hel, the Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr and the wolf Fenrir—in her cave in the forest. At first she is safely hidden from Odin and the burden of knowing what fate has in store for her children, but her sheltered life won’t last. She of all people knows that she can’t hide forever. Ragnarök (the apocalyptic end of the world in Norse mythology) is coming, and everyone must play their part.

Like John Gardner’s Grendel or Madeline Miller’s Circe, The Witch’s Heart shifts the focus of a well-known myth to a secondary character with stunning and heartbreaking results. The novel actually started as a “love letter, to Loki, really,” but by the end, Gornichec realized that she’d “really made him suck” and that the story was more of a love letter to “Angrboda . . . and all the other characters.” In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel. He’s certainly far less interesting than Angrboda, the woman who can see Ragnarök coming but knows she can do nothing to stop it.

After graduating from Ohio State University, Gornichec became involved in Viking Age Living History, a community that re-creates the customs, fighting styles and arts and crafts of Viking life. Her experience with the group helped to root her book in historical reality. Originally, she described Angrboda as wearing heavy, ornate brooches and beads, inspired by the jewelry that archaeologists have found at Viking burial sites. But after struggling to do daily chores around camp in similar clothes, Gornichec knew she needed to simplify the witch’s clothing. Away went the brooches and beads, replaced by a more sensible ensemble.

Gornichec’s command of detail in The Witch’s Heart is immense, pulling readers in and making them examine not just Angrboda’s deepest, most unsettling worries but also the tiniest, most mundane moments of her life. Indeed, some of the most beautiful scenes in the book are the smallest—Loki snoring in bed or Angrboda’s efforts to make her cave more suitable for habitation with help from her huntress friend, Skadi. The grand background of foundational epics such as “Beowulf” is still there, but Gornichec grounds the story in its practicalities.

Because the Norse pantheon can only end with Ragnarök, Gornichec always assumed that she knew exactly how The Witch’s Heart would end. Her editor, Jessica Wade, didn’t quite agree. “She said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do here, and I think that you could craft an ending that’s more satisfying to your readers . . . without compromising the source material.’ ” Gornichec says that her editor’s intervention “single-­handedly saved everyone” from the original ending by encouraging her to build something that is instead more “bittersweet” and “satisfying.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE:
Read our starred review of 
The Witch's Heart. And if you love audiobooks, check out our review of the audiobook, read by Jayne Entwistle.


Gornichec hopes that readers will walk away from her book wanting to know more, ready to ask and find answers to questions about the more mysterious figures of Norse mythology. “A couple people have asked me if I’m ever going to do a Sigyn companion novel of some sort or if I’m ever going to write her side of the story,” she says, referring to Loki’s Asgardian wife. “And my answer to that is no.” She encourages fans to write that story themselves, to “explore on their own and find their own conclusions.” Because, as she notes, what is The Witch’s Heart but “an alternate universe mythology fan fiction, really?”

 

Author photo by Daina Faulhaber

Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was one month in the writing but 10 years in the making.

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In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies. Her previous novel, Race the Sands, took place in a world where the wicked were reincarnated into terrifying beasts who competed in dangerous races. In The Bone Maker, Durst furthers her fascination with the porous boundary between life and death by creating a world marked by resurrection, the ghosts of the past and a magic system that allows people to see the future, give life to constructs and create talismans through bones.

The magic system you use here is so simple and elegant. What sorts of choices did you make when coming up with the rules of how bone magic works? How did the idea first come to you?
I had this image in my head of a silver-haired woman in a faded blue leather coat. She reaches into her pocket and . . . "What?" I asked myself. "What's in her pocket?" And my brain immediately answered, "Bones."

Not sure what this says about my brain, but that's the moment The Bone Maker was born.

I love to create magic systems with specific, clear rules. Everything that happens—and everything about the society, the history and the culture of the world—spills out as a consequence of those rules. To be clear, you don't necessarily have to have a fully defined magic system in a fantasy world, but I think that the world feels more real if the magic functions logically and consistently.

For my bone magic, I decided there were three different kinds of bone workers: bone makers, who use bones to animate inanimate objects; bone wizards, who imbue bones with specific powers such as strength or stealth; and bone readers, who use bones to tell the future.

"Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh."

All stories rely on a character's past to inform and shape the present of the book, and that feels particularly true here. Was it easier or more challenging to write these characters' stories after you formulated such rich backstories?
In order for me to write any character, they need to feel real to me. And real means having a backstory. We all have backstories. You, me, Darth Vader, everyone. So I believe it's not that it's easier or harder to write a character with a rich backstory; it's necessary.

It was especially essential with The Bone Maker, because this is a book about what happens after. It's set 25 years after the Heroes of Vos defeated a corrupt magician and his inhuman army made of animated bones. The heroes think their story is over. But it's emphatically not.

On a slightly related sidenote . . . I've always secretly wished it were socially acceptable to walk up to a stranger and say, "Tell me your story. How did you get to be who you are?" I love people's backstories!

This book frequently bounces between humor and solemnity. How did you control and balance the tone as you went back and forth?
I am deeply suspicious of any story that doesn't have humor. It's such a basic human coping mechanism. Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh.

All the humor in my epic fantasies arises from the characters. I control the tone by trying to be as true to the character as possible. If I think a character's most honest reaction to a particular situation would be to scream, then they scream. If I think they'd cope with snark, then snark it is! I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin who said that fantasy isn't real, but it's true. The more true you are to your characters, the more real your story will feel.

A lot has been said about how history repeats itself and we're doomed to relive our mistakes over and over. Does that idea ring true for you when you think about Kreya and the gang?
I . . . don't think so, actually. If it's only those who cannot remember the past who are doomed to repeat it, then Kreya and her team can't suffer that fate. None of them can forget the past. Especially Kreya. Her husband died years ago, and she's willing to cross any number of lines to bring him back.

I found myself thinking about regret while reading this book. These people have lost a lot over the course of their lives and in some cases, it heavily impacted who they are. Was that a planned decision or a happy accident? Which character's arc came together most easily?
It was a planned decision. I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book about second chances, and I sculpted the characters to be people in need of a second chance in one way or another. I wanted them to be bearing the wounds and scars of what came before and to explore how that would impact their ability to cope with an epic adventure.

As Zera says, "You know, the last time we saved the world, you people didn't have so many issues." I think Zera's arc was the one that came together the most easily. At the start of the novel, she's chosen a shallow life. By the end . . . I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just say I really, really loved writing her!

All fantasy worlds are filled with magical beasts and strange contraptions. Care to share any of your favorite creations that fill Vos?
I love creating creatures! I knew from the start that I wanted a slew of deadly creatures in the valley between the mountains—the people of Vos live in cities built high on the sides of the mountains because the mist-shrouded valley is deadly. Loved creating my crocoraptors and the venomous stone fish.

If I had to choose, though, I think my favorite creations in The Bone Maker are Kreya's rag dolls. She animates them with bones so that they can assist her in her tower. They're thoroughly creepy. So fun to write.

When you think back to writing this book, are there passages that you remember writing more vividly than others?
Loved writing every interaction between Kreya and Zera. They mock each other quite a bit and also truly care about each other—they're best friends who haven't seen each other in 25 years, didn't part on good terms and need to find their way back into each other's lives.

I also loved writing every scene where a character demonstrates strength—I adore writing about characters who have to rise to meet a near-impossible challenge. I believe that fantasy is a literature of empowerment. Nearly all my books are, on some level, about characters who must discover or rediscover their own power. And in this case, a lot of bone magic.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bone Maker.


Is the ability to resurrect someone who is dead a question of morality? If you could do what Kreya did after reading Elkor's forbidden journals, would you?
In The Bone Maker, there's a cost to bringing someone back from the dead: one day of your life for every day they live. The kicker is that you don't know how many days you have left to spare. Only the magic knows.

I think the would-you-should-you depends on who died, how, when and what their wishes were. It's certainly not a power to be used lightly, and I don't think there's any easy or right answer.

Would you rather be a bone reader, a bone wizard or a bone maker?
I've spent way more time thinking about this than I probably should have! I don't think I'd like to be a bone reader—the power to predict the future is, frankly, too much responsibility. It shattered Marso. Bone maker is tempting. I love Kreya's contraptions: the bird skeleton, the ragdolls, the crawler. (A reader called my book "bonepunk," and I adore that term.) But I think I'd choose bone wizard. Make the right talisman, and incredible powers can be yours!

Very curious to hear what other people would choose . . .

In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies.

Interview by

At the beginning of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, Jess Teoh moves back to Malaysia with her parents. The recent Harvard grad is struggling with typical post-college angst and also trying to figure out how to come out to her family (or if she should come out at all). But then the ghost of her grandmother, Ah Ma, starts talking to her, revealing that Ah Ma was a spirit medium devoted to a god called the Black Water Sister, and that she and the god intend to use Jess’ body to get revenge on a local businessman from beyond the grave.

You’re perhaps best known for your historical fantasies. What drew you to Black Water Sister’s contemporary setting?
I love historical settings, but I've also always wanted to write a novel about Malaysia, where I grew up, and the people I grew up among. Black Water Sister's protagonist, Jess, isn't me—her family and problems are different from mine—but in creating them, I drew a lot on my own life. And even though it's set in the 21st century, it's still in many ways a novel about history and how it shapes our present.

Jess is an unwilling heroine and, in some ways, an underpowered one. The feeling that she’s trapped in her fate with the god only grows as the book goes on. The idea of the reluctant hero is such an interesting one that’s been done in so many different ways. Do you have any favorites from literature?
I've been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which is an old favorite and a formative influence, and of course Frodo Baggins is a classic example of the underpowered hero who has a quest forced upon him. I think that's a big part of the lasting power of that book, this idea of small hands moving the wheels of the world. The journey from being or feeling powerless to finding your power has an immediate relatability that makes it a very compelling narrative for a storyteller to draw on.

“I'm much more interested in what is than what should be."

How do you think Jess’ life might have been different if Ah Ma hadn’t spoken to her?
The book starts with Ah Ma saying to Jess, "Does your mother know you're a pengkid?"—pengkid being a Malay slang term for tomboy or lesbian. Jess' journey brings her to the point where she can give the answer that she needs to give. If Ah Ma had never spoken to her, I like to think that Jess would someday find the courage within herself to give that answer, but it might have taken a much longer time.

This book features gods both major and minor, real and created. What drew you to writing about a “small” god (one of your own creation) instead of one of the “big” gods?
What interests me about histories and stories and places is often the specific, the local—the small, if you like. What isn’t generalizable to other places and peoples. For example, probably my favorite Malaysian gods are the Datuk Kong, local guardian spirits who are primarily worshipped by the Chinese community but who themselves may be Malay-Muslim, Orang Asal (Indigenous) or from some other ethnic background or faith tradition. If you pray to a Datuk Kong at a specific shrine, you won't necessarily find that Datuk Kong anywhere else. A helpful Datuk Kong features in the book.

I wanted the Black Water Sister to be a god that was similar in scale, a god who is very much of her time and place. I was also conscious that in writing about spirit mediumship and the Taoist pantheon, I was writing about a living faith tradition. By making up a god, I was trying to put a respectful distance between the story I invented and the actual religious practices that inspired it.

Both the god and Ah Ma are incredibly strong and often terrifying, but they’re also surprisingly weak if you know how to push them. What fascinated you about supernatural forces that are simultaneously so powerful and so weak?
The three main women in Black Water Sister—the god, Ah Ma and Jess—function as images of one another. So in the same way that Jess is weak but has strengths that neither she nor the god and Ah Ma initially suspect, the god and Ah Ma are strong but also weak in ways that Jess and the reader discover over the course of the book. Part of the reason why it's important for the god and Ah Ma to have weaknesses is that, even though they're Jess' adversaries, they're also bound to and dependent on Jess. One of the book's major themes is interdependency—what responsibility do you owe those to whom you are connected by blood or circumstance?

Some of my favorite (and more lighthearted) scenes in Black Water Sister involve Jess’ aunt and mother arguing about the efficacy of their respective religious beliefs. Where did those scenes come from, and why did you want to have your characters discuss different belief systems?
It seemed natural to me to include such discussions. There tends to be an idea of religions being mutually exclusive: If you say you're Christian or Muslim, that implies a whole worldview that excludes any belief drawing from any alternative faith tradition. But that doesn't actually match the reality in a multicultural society like Malaysia. 

My aim wasn't to suggest that any one vision of the world is the correct one but to represent that diversity of belief that exists within families and communities and even individuals. As a Chinese Christian, for example, you may still revere your deceased relatives, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship. I suppose some people would say that is wrong, but when it comes to this sort of thing, I'm much more interested in what is than what should be.

What does your writing process look like? Has it changed at all during the pandemic?
It's changed with every book! To complete my first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I wrote in the evenings and weekends while working full time as a corporate lawyer. I went part time after getting my book deal, so I benefited from having a couple of working days a week to devote to writing the follow-up, The True Queen. Black Water Sister is the first novel I've completed since having a baby—and that really messes with your schedule! The pandemic aggravated the "lack of time" issue, but I'm lucky to have a very supportive partner and family. I aim to write a little bit on a regular basis, so not every day, but most days. That will get you surprisingly far.

You’ve published several published books, but you still work as a lawyer. Do you find that any lessons from your work as a lawyer bleed into your writing, or vice versa?
Like many creators, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to writing. This is genuinely unhelpful. It makes you feel that the best outcome, if your work can't be perfect (and no work can ever be perfect) is for it not to exist. The single most helpful thing my legal career taught me was that the work just has to be good enough. Clients won't pay for you to spend hundreds of hours on something to make it perfect; it just has to solve whatever problem they have. Bringing that "good enough" mindset to my writing has made it possible for me to write much better stories than I otherwise could have done.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Black Water Sister.


Not a moment is wasted in Black Water Sister. Was there anything that you left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have made it into the final book? 
In earlier drafts of the book, Jess was aided by a retired Indian Malaysian teacher called Puan Thilaga. Puan Thilaga represented a few different things—the diversity of Penang and the syncretism of its religious traditions, but also the possibility of acceptance and reconciliation, because she had a different attitude toward queerness than the older generation of Jess’ family. I ultimately cut Puan Thilaga's chapters from the book as they weren't really pulling their weight, but I miss her.

In a recent Twitter thread you talked about your love of Tolkien and the necessity of good food writing in epic fantasy. There are also some memorable moments with food in Black Water Sister. Why do you think great fantasies often feature great food?
My favorite books tend to combine the sublime with the mundane. Fantasy is a great vehicle for that because it's capable of conveying a sense of the numinous—the inscrutable, the magical, the extraordinary—while also being attentive to the small details of everyday life, like what meals the characters are having.

Who are you reading right now? What are you most excited about in fantasy today?
We're in a real golden age of fantasy at the moment, with so many exciting voices from historically underrepresented groups being published. Shelley Parker-Chan's alternative history novel She Who Became the Sun is bound to be a huge hit. It combines drama, romance and tragedy in an epic reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of China's Ming Dynasty. I'm also really looking forward to reading Isabel Yap's debut short story collection, Never Have I Ever, which mixes magic and Filipino folklore with immigrant tales; T.L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, an Edinburgh-set urban fantasy about a teenage speaker to the dead who draws on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to solve a mystery; Aliette de Bodard's Fireheart Tiger, a romantic fantasy brimming with political intrigue set in a precolonial Vietnamese-esque world; and the concluding installment to Fonda Lee's Green Bone Saga, an epic family drama with all the style and excitement of a Hong Kong gangster movie. 

 

Author photo by DJ Photography.

A ghostly grandmother refuses to give up her grip on the living in Zen Cho’s new fantasy.

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Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen. We talked to Lostetter about how she developed her alchemy-inspired magic system, why The Helm of Midnight needed to be told from three different perspectives and more.

Your past work has been in the realm of hard science fiction. What led you to write your first fantasy novel? Was there anything that surprised you about writing in this genre?
I've always dabbled in both sci-fi and fantasy in my short fiction, and the first draft of The Helm of Midnight was about halfway done when Noumenon went out on submission, so in some of ways I think of it as my second novel, rather than my fourth.

I think secondary-world fantasy's greatest strength is also its biggest challenge. The author is responsible for every aspect of the world. So, when I'm writing it, I get to break free from reality, but there's also no real leaning on reality. For example, if a government functions a certain way, it's because I chose for it to function that way, not because it just does. And I can use a lot more short-hand in sci-fi, because there are real-world touchstones I can reference directly. In fantasy, if I want to use cultural touchstones, I have to establish them first.

Is there another subgenre of SFF that you haven't explored yet that you would like to? And are there any that you have no interest in?
I'm a very never-say-never kind of writer when it comes to dabbling in different genres. I like to keep my options open and play around. I have an alternate-history novel with giant monsters and dieselpunk aspects that's been sitting half done on my hard drive for a while, and I would love to be able to get it out into the world one day.

"To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with."

The setting of The Helm of Midnight is elaborately detailed. What is your approach to world building? Where and how does a world begin to take shape for you?
My world building is a tad haphazard in early drafting. I usually only have a tentative grasp on the rules I'm trying to put in place, and end up just throwing in fun things that I later either change to conform to the rules or reform the rules around. The Helm of Midnight was especially challenging world building-wise, because I knew from early on that I wanted hidden history to be a big part of it. Which, essentially, meant I had to world build in layers.

In your magic system, people can bottle and harness emotions, thoughts and time. Do you remember how you first came up with this idea?
The Helm of Midnight incorporates one of my previously published short stories, which features the knowledge-based and time-based magic. When I expanded the world and integrated that short story into a new plot, I wanted to expand the magic system as well. Since the system already focused on enchantments, I decided the magic itself should be mined and harvested from different materials: knowledge magic is in wood, time magic is in sand/glass, nature magic—which is characterized by evolution and transference—is in metals and emotion-based magic is in gemstones.

If you had the chance, would you like to have such powers yourself?
I think any of these enchantments would be great to have—save for the fact that I know how they're made. Let's just say Arkensyre's enchantments are not responsibly sourced.

What was your inspiration for the five-pointed, multi-gendered pantheon?
I hadn't yet built a religion for the Valley of Arkensyre when I expanded the magic system into five magics, and it felt natural to assign each kind of magic to a god. You'll notice above that I only mention four kinds of magic, and that's because when we're first introduced to the world in The Helm of Midnight, one god and their magic-type is unknown. I chose to have a five-gendered pantheon because I wanted to highlight that many genderized aspects of culture are constructions. Five gods with five genders means it's natural for the people of Helm's world to treat gender more like a spectrum, and to reflect their pantheon by using any of the five gods' pronouns for themselves.

The Helm of Midnight is written from three perspectives, all of which take place in different timelines. What was challenging about such a complicated structure? Why was this approach the best way to tell this story?
Each character has their own journey, and the three perspectives end up converging with all the force of planets colliding—which was very exciting for me to write, and I hope is equally exciting to read!

To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with. The novel kicks off when his death mask—imbued with his knowledge and an echo of his personality—is stolen. Knowing how and why he began killing prior to his death is essential to grasping what's really going on in Arkensyre Valley. Krona is a Regulator, tasked with re-containing his mask. Hers is the present-day perspective and really gives us a baseline understanding of how society is "supposed" to work. It's Melanie who feels like the odd one out at first. Her storyline might initially seem divorced from the other two, but the entire narrative hinges on her and her bizarre encounters with magic.

Essentially, it took three perspectives across three timelines because there are aspects of the story that are outside each character's purview. The audience is getting the full story, not the individual characters.

Melanie's point of view was the only one that gave me any problems structure-wise, which I think stems from the fact that her perspective is the one that incorporates the original short story. It was also a bit of a challenge to make sure all three perspectives wove together in a way that made each chapter in a new point of view naturally flow from the last.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Helm of Midnight.


What's one thing you would suggest a reader keep in mind as they read this book?
Each character is moving through the narrative acting on what they believe to be true, rather than what is true.

What's next for you?
I have another book coming out this year! Activation Degradation will be released on September 28, 2021. It's a thriller-esque sci-fi novel set in Jovian space, featuring soft robots, queer space pirates, action-adventure and unreliable narration.

 

Author photo © Jeff Nelson.

Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen.

Interview by

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.

I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.

Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.

"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."

Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.

Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.

Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Master of Djinn.


Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?

What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!

What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.

What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world.

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