Sorrow Ventaxis was born from a line in a Florence and the Machine song. It began in 2015, when I was supposed to be working on the sequel to The Sin Eater’s Daughter. I’d gone away on a trip to Croatia to visit a walled city as part of the research for it, and while I was there, I’d taken a side trip to Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for a couple of days. While I’d been there, a local tour guide had told me a story about the bridge there, and it fascinated me. So much, that when I ate my lunch, overlooking the bridge, I started to sketch my own version of the story out. But I didn’t have a character for that story, or any idea what would happen next, so I put it aside, and carried on writing The Sleeping Prince.
When I’m trying to puzzle things out, I go for a walk, and listen to music, and I was doing that, trying to unknot a plot problem. While I was walking, my IPod started playing a song from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence and the Machine’s 2015 album and I was pulled out of my thoughts by a particular line ‘Oh the Queen of Peace, always does her best to please, but is it any use? Somebody’s gotta lose…’
I restarted the song, and listened to it properly, and by the end I knew who the queen of peace was, and how she related to the bridge that had haunted me since I’d seen it. The opening of the song talks about a king who has gone mad with grief because he lost his son, and as I walked the whole story spun itself in my head – a girl who wasn’t wanted, trying her best to prove her worth by fixing the mistakes of her grief-addled father. A girl who knew she had a job to do but was terrified that she was cursed and could only ever make things worse. Sorrow’s name was taken from the song, from the line ‘Sorrow that you keep’, and the curse that’s laid on Sorrow when she’s born, and that haunts her throughout her life is a homage to that line.
Sorrow – for that is all she brings us.
At first I thought Sorrow’s world was going to be a kingdom – it was what I knew, from writing my previous books. But because of the global state of the world, politics kept creeping in, and I realised quite quickly that if Sorrow had a fight on her hands for her place in that world, then an election was even more exciting than just a ‘rightful heir’ scenario. I built the world around her the way I always do – from the ground up. I took my cues from the way Sorrow looked in my mind – my stories never begin until I have the character, and so far they’ve always been hyper-realised in my imagination. I could see Sorrow had bronzed skin, dark haired and eyed, and so I knew she lived in temperate place; somewhere warm all year round, the houses would be thick walled and one storey to help keep them cool.
I also knew I didn’t want to write in a pseudo-medieval secondary world again – I wanted something a little more modern, so I could write more diversely. I think especially when you write fantasy you have to be aware just how much you’re asking an audience to suspend their disbelief – I feel asking them to imagine too much pulls them from a story, and for me the easiest way to ground it is to keep the basics close to what we know. So I tend to use real-world geography, climate and natural features to do that. And I also pick an approximate real-world time period to give the technology of the world a relatable baseline, too. I settled on early-Victorian as a historic baseline, mostly because of Queen Victoria herself, and her attitude towards grieving after Albert died. It meant I could include things like universities, ballets, wheeled chairs, spectacles, and gas lamps without asking the reader to place them in an unfamiliar setting, or jarring them from the world. I’d rather save the heavy-lifting imaging for things like the magic system of the book – which in this series is tied to nature.
I think we need fantasy more than ever. We live in a time where the answer for everything lies at our fingertips – almost any question can be answered by the Internet – and yet I’ve never felt so uncertain about mine, or the planets, future. All the knowledge available can’t make these times any less frightening or confusing, so having books – especially fantasy fiction – to retreat to feels like a sanctuary. It’s somewhere I can go and the world is a little simpler, despite usually being more impossible. In a fantasy world you rarely have to guess who the monsters are, because they’re clearly monsters – unlike in the real world where our monsters look like we do. I also especially feel fantasy for young adults is a place they can go and see their peers fighting evil regimes, overcoming ogres and nightmares, taking power and control of their own lives, which isn’t something easily achieved in our world. But maybe if they read enough fantasy books, they’ll become real-world heroes and heroines too, and save us from ourselves. Let’s face it, right now we really need it.