Nightbirds by Kate J. Armstrong
‘I’ll tell you another secret ... about Simta. Everyone in this city wears a mask. They pretend they’re someone braver, smarter, more cunning: whatever mask best suits them. Wear it well and no one will see you – not the real you. They’ll only see what you want them to see.’ (Nightbirds)
The cover of Nightbirds with its suggestions of masks and masquerade lures the reader into this dazzling YA fantasy debut. Written by Kate J. Armstrong and published by Allen & Unwin, it features lush, fantastical world-building and relationships that highlight real-world issues. Romance and feminism coexist masterfully.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Kate.
It’s my pleasure! Thanks for having me.
Like one of your Nightbirds you’ve sprung fully formed into the limelight with this book. What is your background and how did you get to the point of achieving a feted debut YA novel?
My path to publication has been a long and interesting road. I grew up in Virginia in the USA, and I always loved writing short stories and poems. From an early age, I knew two things: that I wanted to explore the world and to be a published author. After college, I grabbed a backpack and went to Europe, an adventure that eventually led me to settle in Australia. But when it came to my other dream, it took me a while to work up the courage to try for it. I was in Brisbane, actually, when I wrote my first novel, after a grad school teacher gave us an assignment to write a first chapter. I wanted to see if I really could write a novel in its entirety. So I did, finding my voice in a story about teenaged witches and the boy next door who was fascinated by them. After that, there was no looking back. My career has taken me in many interesting directions – I’ve worked as a nonfiction editor for publishers like National Geographic, on books from everything to scaling Everest to the history of beer, and as a high school English teacher. Through it all, I wrote books, honing my craft and making writer friends who helped me get better. It’s easy to look at a debut and assume it’s their first book, but I wrote many before it. It took me over ten years and five manuscripts to get published, and I heard ‘no’ a lot along the way. But when I wrote my first fantasy, NIGHTBIRDS, it felt like I had something special. I wouldn’t want to be debuting with any other book.
What books or other sources have influenced you in the writing of Nightbirds? (Is Sintra in Portugal an influence?)
In terms of books, some of my biggest influences are works by Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater. I wanted NIGHTBIRDS to be as immersive and absorbing as SIX OF CROWS and as mood-filled and magical as THE SCORPIO RACES. Another source of big inspiration for NIGHTBIRDS was America’s Prohibition on booze in the 1920s. I did a lot of research on that law and all the ripple effects it had on society. I watched Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition, then thought about how everything I’d learned might change (or not) if the law banned magic instead of alcohol. My travels are also a constant source of inspiration to me, and I poured many of those places into the world I created. Simta is a mashup of New Orleans and Venice, with a healthy splash of Melbourne (hello, cobbled laneways and secret clubs). The Callistan is heavily influenced by the everglades in the Southern U.S., and the Illish Isles sprung out time spent in Ireland. I wasn’t actively thinking of Sintra, actually, but I’ve read about it in a lot of travel books in my time as an editor and the name Simta must have come from somewhere!
How does the cover of Nightbirds match your vision of the novel?
I got very lucky with my cover, though truth be told it doesn’t look anything like what I thought I wanted! I always envisioned something very graphic, without any people. Luckily, my publisher knew better. When they showed me this girl with birds in her hair, I was completely enchanted. I love how they seem to form a kind of living mask. The way she’s looking at you right in the eye, like she has a secret and she’s daring you to try and find it out, is equal parts seductive and fierce, just like my Nightbirds. It’s the perfect blend of intrigue, fierceness, and magic, and thus everything I wanted the cover to be.
How do you hook readers into your tale from the start?
People tend to have strong feelings about prologues: you either love them or hate them. I wholeheartedly fall into the former camp when they work well! In my prologue, we get our first glimpse of the Nightbirds from the perspective of a client, one of the people who pay for the privilege of kissing a Nightbird and receive their rare magic in return. My hope was that, in introducing the girls from an outsider’s perspective, the reader would feel the same mystery and thrill that a client would in going to see one of these girls for the first time. I wanted to give them the heady thrill of being allowed into a secret club that very few have access to, full of magic and possibility. And then in the first chapter, when we meet the girls and see the world through their eyes, we feel like we’re being let in on secrets that client would give his life to know.
Please briefly introduce the three Nightbirds – Matilde, Sayer and Æsa?
Matilde is every inch a Great House daughter: spoiled, charming, and privileged, she never met a game she didn’t want to play or a wager she didn’t want to take. Matilde hasn’t ever had to struggle for anything, and she is sure of her world and happy with the Nightbirds system. But she is less enamoured of her family’s plan to marry her off before the end of the summer season. And she has no idea how to cope with the newest Nightbirds. Sayer, the daughter of a Nightbird who fell from grace, had a rough-and-tumble childhood on the wrong side of the canals and holds a grudge against the whole system. She’s only joined the Nightbirds to make enough money to live a life of her choosing and take some revenge while she’s at it. Where Sayer is sharp edged and angry, Æsa is sweet and timid, an outsider from the wind-swept Illish Isles who has become a Nightbird to keep her family from starving. She is afraid of everything Eudea’s capital city has to offer, but perhaps her magic most of all. Raised by a pious father in the shadow of a church that preaches it’s a sin to use magic, she fears the consequences of giving people her magic—but a secret part of her also longs to let it out.
Do they all live in a gilded cage, or what sort of world do they live in?
The girls live in a decadent world, full of beautiful gardens and masked parties and privilege. The city’s Great Houses protect them, keeping their identities safe and secret from those who would want to harm them for the magic in their veins. In return, the girls gift paying clients from the Houses their magic. Eventually they will marry into one of these families and pass their magic on to the next generation. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that…right? They are told they are precious and that the rules are there to protect them. But they’re also valued for what they can give away to others rather than for who they really are. Are the girls living in a gilded cage? That’s a question I want readers to ask themselves throughout the novel. The Nightbirds system is both protective or exploitative, depending on which way you hold it up to the light.
How have you skirted the possible assumption that the Nightbirds work in a brothel?
I haven’t, really. I wanted that parallel to be right there, floating just under the surface, challenging the girls’ (and readers’) feelings and assumptions about the work they do. In the very first chapter, we see Sayer and Matilde fight about it. Sayer compares them to girls working in a brothel, to which Matilde replies: ‘must you say it like that? As if what we do is whoring?’ and Sayer answers back: ‘well, isn’t it?’ As I wrote NIGHTBIRDS, I was doing a lot of reading about courtesans and prostitution in different eras for my women’s history podcast, THE EXPLORESS. I was fascinated by how much power and agency that line of work could allow. Women had very little public life or influence in ancient Greece, but their hetaerae (high-class courtesans) did, influencing philosophers and politicians. Some of the wealthiest and most independent women in 19th-century America were madams who owned their own brothels, and prostitutes were some of the Civil War’s most successful spies. But of course, that work can also be dangerous and exploitative, rendering women both vulnerable and powerless. I wanted to explore that dichotomy, but in a way that made sense for teen readers. The Nightbirds system, and the girls themselves, ask a lot of questions about autonomy and agency, about who holds the power when who give away a piece of yourself to someone who is willing to pay for it.
How do you employ imagery and symbolism about birds and flight?
When we think of wings, of course, we think of flight, and thus freedom. Much of the wing imagery I used in this novel had more to do with showing all the ways the girls are being held down. There is a passage where Matilde reflects on her father’s butterfly collection.
‘She remembers him pinning them so gently to their bed of velvet, making sure the air was dry and cool enough to keep their wings pristine. The butterflies were well loved, coveted by other collectors. She never stopped to consider how disturbing they were. Dead bugs on display, pinned down just so others could admire them. Beauty trapped forever under glass.’
The flamemoths, too, are a symbol I very intentionally tied to the Nightbirds. We see them throughout the story, these glowing moths who are bred to light up Simta’s lanterns in its wealthier districts, shoved together into a glass box to shine for the enjoyment of others. But when set loose, they still tend to gravitate toward each other, pulled together by some force that Eudea’s scholars don’t quite understand. Careful readers wanting to track the internal shifts happening within these girls should make sure to follow the flamemoths!
What type of magic have you conjured in the book? What are its strengths and limitations?
There are two types of magic: alchemical and intrinsic. The first is conjured by alchemists, brewed up with plants by anyone with the knowledge and skill. It can be used as medicine, but also for recreation, distilled into cocktails that will let you speak another language for a handful of minutes or help you see more clearly in the dark. Our more experimental alchemist, Alecand Padano, has a penchant for crafting weapons: powders like Nightcloak, which when released onto the air will create a cloud of utter darkness. Besides being illegal, such magic is expensive, and its effects are fleeting, and deadly if brewed badly. It gives off a burnt sugar smell, too, which makes you more likely to get caught by the Wardens who police the Prohibition. The most valuable magic is intrinsic, which is passed down through bloodlines and only found in young women. Enter the Nightbirds, a secret group of girls who can gift their magic with just a kiss. Their magic can do things like let you wear someone else’s face, manipulate someone’s emotions, or make yourself invisible. It lasts longer, is untraceable, and much more potent. I think Lord Edgar Abrasia says it best: ‘One never forgets his first taste of a fine alchemical. It sparkles on the tongue like bubbly wine. But that is nothing compared to how it feels to kiss a Nightbird. Alchemicals are a blend of ingredients, and they require a set of human hands to craft and distil them, while a Nightbird’s magic is the finest spirit drunk neat. Alchemicals fade, but those girls are bottles you can continue to drink from. One can see why they are worth such a heavy price.’
Within the context of the plot, what are you suggesting about the power of women and the power of women’s friendship?
As I wrote this novel, I was thinking a lot about the frustrations, expectations, and limitations placed on girls; how often they are told to be nice, quiet, and accommodating, to fit into roles they didn’t ask for or make. Often girls with power and opinions are found threatening, even dangerous, which is something I think we all need to question. The Nightbirds system gave me a chance to probe at issues of female power and agency, picking apart at the many ways in which we punish and shame girls for wanting to be loud and independent. It’s about girls pushing back against the structures designed to contain and control them, and questioning the patriarchal structures that will dominate our world. It’s also about finding strength in female friendship. So often we see girls pitted against each other, but I didn’t want this story to be about rivalry. These three girls have little in common at the beginning of the story—they don’t even really like each other—but like some of the greatest friendships, their bonds grow through shared trial. They learn that things tend to go wrong when they don’t trust each other, and that together those trials are much easier to fight. They amplify each other’s magic, too, and it grows stronger when they are in tune emotionally as well as physical. I wanted my girls to find that their magic got stronger when they worked together, just as we are so often made stronger by the people we gather around us. In friendship, and their growing bonds with other magical girls outside the Nightbirds system, they find a strength and a courage they didn’t have before.
Why have you used the fantasy genre to tell this?
I wanted to tell a story in a secondary world so I could make up my own rules! I didn’t want to be married to how things are in our world, and I wanted to take my inspiration from different historical periods and craft them into a shape that excited me. But I also love how fantasy allows us a safe space to explore big and thorny issues. Nightbirds asks questions about sexism, power, privilege, patriarchy, and political correction, but it does it in a world full of masked parties and illicit speakeasies. I wanted to create a world that readers would be happy to get lost in, but one that spoke to some of the very real-world issues we grapple with.
The church and its paters and followers are told very blackly. Is there any light?
We do see the darker sides of Eudea’s religion: the Brethren who seem to want power more than they want piety, and the zealots who want to wipe magical girls from the earth. I was interested in exploring all the ways in which religious institutions can (and have) be used to justify witch hunts in the name of a higher power. But though we don’t see them much, there are church members who do good in the community, feeding the poor and housing its orphans. There is a reason the church looks down on magic use, too: it can be addictive, and it can lead to vice in their community. But I wanted to shine light on how patriarchal structures, both religious and secular, tend to want women to follow strict and narrow rules.
How much of book 2 have you written? Without spoilers, could you tell us something about it?
I’ve written all of Book 2, though it’s still in draft form: a diamond in need of a lot more polishing! I’m very excited about what lies ahead for my magical girls. In Book 2, we will see a lot more of the Eudean Republic than we did in Nightbirds, from the Illish Isles to the Callistan, and more of my favorite things: girls making mischief, powerful magic, and kissing.
How would you like readers to contact you?
I love hearing from readers! They can email me at email@example.com or connect with me over on Instagram @katejarmstrongauthor
Readers can also check out my newsletter at https://katejarmstrongauthor.substack.com