THE WINTRISH GIRL by Melanie La’Brooy
Melanie La’Brooy writes about The Wintrish Girl, her debut novel for young readers for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog.
The Wintrish Girl explores high fantasy archetypes of identity, light and dark and the quest. It has moments of unexpected humour and layers of meaning that are perfectly integrated into a riveting, wondrous story.
It is published by UQP.
The story of The Wintrish Girl begins on Talisman Day, in the rich and powerful province of Arylia. During the Talisman Ceremony, every child receives an object that gives them special powers and reveals their destiny. But there’s one child who won’t be getting a Talisman. Penn, the servant girl from the poor province of Midwinter, already knows that she’s doomed to a miserable, lonely life as a servant and outcast.
All Penn has ever wanted is the impossible: to return to her home in Midwinter and find her true family. But she’s trapped in Arylia, where an evil force is stirring once more. As mysterious and sinister events start to occur, the blame falls on Penn and she’s forced to run for her life, with a shadowy Night Hag in pursuit. Facing dangerous enemies with terrifying powers, Penn is going to have to take her fate into her own hands, with or without a Talisman…
The Wintrish Girl is Book One in my new Talismans of Fate series. It’s a funny, action-packed fantasy adventure for middle-grade readers – but it didn’t start off that way. It began life in my imagination as a much simpler story, intended for beginner readers. My daughter was quite young then and we were adrift in a sea of pink fairies – in books, on clothing, lunchboxes and backpacks. I wear a lot of pink and quite like fairies but the inundation caused a character to pop into my mind: a black-clad, outcast fairy who didn’t fit in to the glittery, fun-filled world she inhabited. I had the vaguest outline of a narrative that I thought would end up as a light parody of a fairy-tale world. I named my world the Empire of Arylia but then things got more complicated.
I knew that I didn’t want wands in Arylia. So how did people use magic? I came up with Talismans instead: objects that give their owners specific powers and define their future. But did that mean everyone in Arylia has a Talisman? Arylia is an Empire which meant that at some point someone had conquered someone else, so it made sense that the people in power had Talismans and everyone else didn’t. This led me to wonder why… you get the idea. The simple story I’d initially envisaged was rapidly becoming something very different.
As my world-building evolved, so too did my characters. The black-clad fairy grew into a far more realistic protagonist: the eponymous Wintrish Girl. The hero of my story, eleven-year-old Penn, has brown skin, short grey hair and no control over her life. Born in Midwinter, she has been raised in Arylia and brought up to believe that her grim fate is inescapable and tied to her racial identity.
With this backstory for Penn and my background in political writing (I used to write political opinion columns for The Age), I could dive into ideas that I really cared about. The Wintrish Girl contains themes of fate and belonging and tackles issues like racism and gender stereotypes (my main male character’s ‘superpower’ is kindness and there’s a Princess who has to save herself).
To explore the theme of fate, I decided to start The Wintrish Girl in familiar middle-grade fantasy territory: On Talisman Day all of the Arylian kids who are of age are given Talismans and assigned to one of four Guilds: Weapons, Treasure, Lore or Art, based on the Talismans that they receive. But my story ends up somewhere quite different from the trope because, by the end of the book, the whole system of having a magical power determine kids’ futures is being called into question. It becomes apparent that the system is seriously flawed, open to manipulation and that labelling kids and telling them what they will be when they grow up is a terrible idea. Penn is also wrong to believe that she’s the only one not in control of her fate due to her race. Even the Arylian kids, born into privilege and power, are imprisoned by a system that won’t allow them to choose their own destinies. There are parallels to be drawn with our own world here of course, with kids who are pushed from school age towards vocations they wouldn’t choose for themselves.
Of course, there’s no point exploring serious and worthy messages in a fantasy-adventure book if no-one reads it because there’s not enough fantasy or adventure!Bit by bit, Arylia filled up with wondrous creatures, fantastical places and a supporting cast of characters, all of whom were an utter joy to write. I invented words, a sentient library and a transportation system involving portraits. (The Aesthetical Rapid Transportation network or ART for short.)
The story idea that I first came up with bears little resemblance to the book that is now making its way into readers’ hands. But for me, that journey into the unknown is the truly magical thing about writing. Like Penn, I embarked on a quest, having no idea where it would take me. I hope that readers find The Wintrish Girl funny and exciting and that it makes them think, while also teaching them valuable life lessons like how to escape from an invincible prison tower. I’m about to dive back into writing Book Two of the Talismans of Fate series now. I’m over halfway through and there’s still not a single fairy – wearing pink or black – anywhere in sight.