A Dearth of Fairy Godmothers

(Guest post by Kat Howard)

I am not the sort of writer who generally knows where she’s going when she begins a story. I’ll start with a character, a voice, a scene, and then I just write. So when I started writing An Unkindness of Magicians, I didn’t know that much about what I wanted the book to be.

What I did know was that I wasn’t writing a fairy tale.

I love fairy tales. My first novel, Roses and Rot, is full of them, and I’ve retold them elsewhere as well. I’m certain that they’re something I’ll return to. But with An Unkindness of Magicians, I wanted – I needed – to tell a different kind of story.

Fairy tales often rely on the idea that good will be rewarded. That the deserving daughter will go to the ball, that an old woman will offer a wish in exchange for a kindness, that a mechanical bird will cry out against injustice.

An Unkindness of Magicians is not that kind of story. There are no fairy godmothers coming to save anyone.

Magic is not a thing that is given as a gift in the world of An Unkindness of Magicians. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is wielded like a weapon, it is kept behind locked doors, it is taken.

We say things that happen easily, unexpectedly, miraculously, happen as if by magic. But that’s always struck me as a too-easy explanation. Magic embodies the imagined; it makes the impossible commonplace. If magic were real, practicing it would not be an easy thing.

But even in a society of magicians, people with magic in their very bones, people for whom the right words could conjure the impossible, there would be people who would want magic to be easier.

There are always people who think that things should easier.

That’s not to say that ease is bad. There is an ease that comes with practice, with skill, with study. If you work, you may find that what was once difficult comes with ease. There are also technologies specifically designed to make tasks easier, and of course those should be used.

The problem with ease is when you make your own life easier at someone else’s expense. Those aren’t fairy tale creatures anymore. Those are things from a horror story, vampires and other such ghastlies that feed off the blood and life and soul of others.

An Unkindness of Magicians is not a horror story either. What it is, is the story of a corruption. A thing like a pea, put under mattresses and quilts to bruise the flesh of a true princess, only instead of a pea it is rot, and it has spread through everything.

But An Unkindness of Magicians is also not simply the story of a corrupt society that collapses under its own weight. It is the story of what happens when society stands on the brink of that collapse. Of the people who say enough, and the people who are still willing and happy to sacrifice anyone so long as they get theirs.

Here is the other thing about fairy tales: evil is punished. The doves peck out the eyes of the cruel stepsisters. Bones sing to name their murderer. There is a sense, at the end of the stories, that justice has been done.

An Unkindness of Magicians isn’t that sort of story, either. Sometimes justice can’t be done. The dead do not sing, but stay silent and dead. Even if you cause people to look, straight on, at what they’ve done, the past cannot be unseen.

There is no inherent reward or punishment here. The last words I typed in An Unkindness of Magicians were not “happily ever after.” And anyone who is saved, saved themselves.

(Editors note: Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians was released on September 26, and is now available at all booksellers.)


Kat Howard lives in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in Year’s Best and “best-of” collections, and performed on NPR. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was named one of the best SF/Fantasy/Horror books of Summer 2016 by Publishers Weekly and is a finalist for the 2017 Locus Award for First Novel. Her second novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, was published September 2017 from Saga Press, who are also publishing her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in fall 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @KatWithSword.

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