Welcome to the last stop on this tour! So happy to welcome back one of the best #UKYA authors I know, the lovely Zoë Marriott, to celebrate the last book in her trilogy Frail Human Heart! I fell in love with The Night Itself, the first book in The Name of the Blade series last year, and I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end. Today, we get an insight into what inspired Zoë to write this series.
How the Name of The Blade was Born
By Zoë Marriott
It’s finished! Hurray, hurray, HURRAY – it’s finally finished! The trilogy that I spent the last five years of my life writing (and rewriting and revising and then rewriting again) is actually, really, truly done. It’s a surreal sort of moment. I’ve been working on this story and living inside these characters non-stop for half a decade and now… it’s all over. Wow.
I’m triumphant and proud, as you would expect. But there’s some sadness there too, at letting Mio and Shinobu and Jack and Hikaru and Mr and Mrs Yamato and the King and Hiro and Rachel and Mr Leech and Araki go forever. They’ve been my constant companions for so long. There’s a sense of nostalgia for all the time that’s passed and the changes that have taken place in my life – and how changed I’ve been as a person and a writer – throughout the process of writing of these books. So now seems like a good moment to take a look back at how it all began.
It started in mid 2010. I’d just finished work on the first (terrible) draft of my fourth novel, FrostFire, which was a high fantasy. At that point I’d written two high fantasy novels and two fairytale retellings, but I was something of an oddity within YA. It was before before Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass or Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books had hit the shelves, before the Game of Thrones TV series or the Hobbit remakes. It was before the Dystopian craze had really swept the YA world. Before John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars had been released and ‘saved’ (ahem) YA with a realistic contemporary renaissance. A trip to the YA or Teen section of the local bookshop yielded an overwhelming abundance of a certain kind of book: paranormal romances and urban fantasies.
Now, I’d always been a fan of these genres. I’d grown up on and adored the works of Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy and Neil Gaiman, who beautifully illustrated all the terror and magic hiding in the ordinary everyday world. And I’d even pitched a couple of supernatural stories with a contemporary setting to my agent at that time, but she believed it would be better to stick with what I was already known for, and shot those ideas down.
Because I’d been working intensely on FrostFire for a year, and mostly only reading books I already owned – old favourites and books in my TBR pile – I’d missed out on a lot of the newest YA novels. So when my two friends (Tina and Rachel, otherwise known as Ferret and Roccie) took me out for a celebratory day trip in Lincoln and we inevitably ended up on a book-shopping spree, they both had armfuls – literal armfuls – of recommendations that I simply HAD to get, right then and there. I staggered home on the train with two canvas book bags and two plastic bags full of new books, the vast majority of which were YA supernatural or paranormal with a contemporary setting.
I read and read and read. Some of these books were transformatively wonderful. Some were fun and entertaining. Some were mediocre. Some were flat out awful. But they all had something in common, something which, having just finished writing a novel that was set in a fantasy version of Northern India and the Himalayas, was particularly striking to me: these books were overwhelmingly white.
I’m not just referring to the characters, although the vast majority of the characters were, indeed, white. Here or there you’d find an Asian best friend or a black sidekick, but easily 90% of the casts of these books were white, and considering that many of them were set in large modern cities in the UK or US, that seemed extraordinarily inaccurate. But I’m also referring to the mythologies that the writers chose to utilise for their books. Over and over again I saw witches, vampires, werewolves, elves and fairies. There were trolls. There were angels and demons. Everything seemed to come from a Western Judeo-Christian standpoint. There was nothing WRONG with that, per se, but after a while even the most skillfully written novel with the most unique take on Western Mythological Creature #3 started to feel a bit… samey.
And that’s not even touching on the lack of gender-presentation and sexual diversity in these novels. Again, there was the occasional gay character, but they were nearly always exactly that – a young gay male. The lack of lesbians or bi or pansexual people, or non-binary or trans* people also felt like kind of a gaping hole in a genre that was supposed to represent the contemporary world.
Soon my edits for FrostFire came in and I went off to tear the book up and make it better – which meant I went back on a self-imposed New Book Ban. But this impression of the unnatural homogenization of urban and paranormal fantasy sort of niggled at the back of my mind. In a way, it seems as if my brain was already making a space ready for the inspiration that was to come.
In September of 2010 I was hanging out with my writing group online when one of those same friends (Ferret) posted a poem by Robert Graves, ‘The Bedpost’. Here’s an excerpt:
Whom she hated most,
Stole away his arms and helmet,
Turned him to a post.
As a post he shall stay rooted
For yet many years,
Until a maiden shall release him
With pitying tears.
But Betsy likes the bloodier stories,
Clang and clash of fight,
And Abel wanes with the spent candle-
Basically, the unfortunate warrior Abel, having fallen afoul of an enchantress, is turned into an inanimate post of wood and can only be freed by Betsy (whose bed the post becomes part of) but she’s not into him and so the poem ends with him still trapped. That seemed an extremely unsatisfying ending to me. I posted to say ‘Someone needs to get on that and write a better resolution, please!’ To which, of course, Ferret, and Roccie replied – ‘Why don’t you do it?’
I can’t really describe the starburst of inspiration that went off in my head right then. It was made up of dozens of different parts, glimmering fragments that had apparently been streaming through my mind like comets for months, just waiting for the chance to collide with each other.
Some of it was all those lingering, niggling thoughts about the things that were missing from most of the paranormal and urban fantasy on the YA shelves – about how there ought to be something out there that had a diverse cast of people of colour, and PoV characters who were lesbians or bi or non-binary and who got a satisfying love story of their own. Some of it was all the research I had done into Japanese myths and legends while writing my fairytale retelling Shadows on the Moon, none of which had actually made it into the book. Some of it was my own strongly held feeling that London is a magical place and deserves more YA novels that pay homage to it. And probably some was that I’d been watching season two of Avatar: The Last Airbender and had wistfully thought that it would be cool if an idea for an epic series like that, with apocalyptic stakes, would present itself to me, since all my books up until then had been standalone with smaller, more personal storylines.
These are screencaptures of the pages of my OneNote notebook (I make one of these for every novel I write). Many of these notes are from the same day that The Name of the Blade was born (in an undeveloped, still mostly unformed iteration) in my head:
I don’t think I’ve ever been so bowled over by an idea. Luckily, by that time I had a new agent who was more open-minded towards genre, and when I pitched this idea to her she was enthusiastic and supportive enough to reassure me that I was onto something my publisher would like too.
Looking back at my first ideas about the book, you can see how much changed between inspiration and writing, how characters and their functions shifted, how the stories developed into something entirely different than I initially planned. That’s all part of writing. What didn’t change was my love for my Big Secret Project aka The Katana Trilogy aka The Name of the Blade. Even when I was struggling and I hated everything about writing a trilogy, I still loved my characters and what they represented.
Now that the series is complete and all three books are on the shelves, I hope they represent those same things to my readers. The idea that the everyday world is full of magic if only we know the right way to look. That families are vital, not just the ones we’re born with, but the ones we chose. That giving others the chance to redeem themselves can redeem us too. That courage and love are as strong as death. And that diversity is reality, and embracing the world as it is makes both fiction and our own lives richer, more meaningful, and better. Always.
About Zoë Marriott
Zoë Marriott is the author of many critically acclaimed and beloved books, including The Swan Kingdom, which was long-listed for the Branford Boase award, and Shadows on the Moon, which won the prestigious Sasakawa Prize and was an American Junior Library Guild Selection. Zoë lives in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Visit Zoë’s blog at thezoe-trope.blogspot.co.uk or her website at ZoeMarriott.com. Follow her on Twitter (@ZMarriott).