Stephanie Burgis writes historical fantasy, most notably the Kat Incorrigible and Harwood Spellbook series. She’s one of my favorite authors and a perfect author to spotlight on the Fantastic History blog.
Cath: Although not all of your novels are set in what might be called Austen-ian times, two series are. What is your attraction to this time frame, and why do you choose to write in it?
Steph: I imprinted HARD on Regency England as a kid when I fell in love with the novels of both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. They were both incredibly formative for me – but so were JRR Tolkien, Emma Bull, Ellen Kushner and Robin McKinley. So it’s probably natural that I just love mixing magic with Regency-style manners!
Cath: What do you think was your most challenging bit of research to find out about this time frame for your stories?
Steph: The hardest part with my Kat, Incorrigible trilogy (which was set in real 19th-century England, with magic added only in secret and on the sidelines), was figuring out all the small day-to-day details that don’t generally get mentioned in contemporary novels, like: how would my heroine actually go about lighting a candle in the middle of the night?
Since the Harwood Spellbook series is set in an alternate history – in which magic is an accepted part of life – I don’t have to stick nearly as closely to the real-life details of British history. However, it’s led to a different major challenge, which is to extrapolate plausible world-building that stems from not only major use of magic but also MAJOR differences in the historical timeline and in the social structures of the nation. I’ve always been a history geek (I was reading British history books for fun when I was a teenager!), and I don’t just want to hand wave any of this – so I’ve really tried to come up with timelines and changes that seem possible to me.
Cath: I’d like to focus on your new series, as you have two novellas out, and a one soon on the way. The Harwood Spellbook is set in Angland, rather than England. Clearly, this is an alternate history. What is different about the universe of the Harwood Spellbook, as opposed to Jane Austen’s England? Could you give us some examples?
Steph: The first, major difference in the history of Angland is that, in this world, Boudicca actually succeeded in throwing out the Romans – because she married again, this time to a practicing magician. Her political savvy and leadership abilities combined with his magical skills to form a winning combination for a new nation – and together, they set the mould for gender roles in Angland from then onwards. In the 19th century, Angland is ruled by a group of women known as the Boudiccate, while Angland’s upper-class young men are all expected to become magicians after training, first at prep schools and then at the Great Library of Trinivantium.
Of course, I always enjoy writing characters who *don’t* fit neatly into their social structures, though! 🙂
Cath: In Snowspelled, we meet Cassandra Harwood, who is atypical because she is a female who practices magic in Angland. You allude many times that men are the more emotional sex, and therefore more suited to magic. In what other ways are gender roles different than we expect from our world in the Harwood Spellbook series?
Steph: Men are the one who can be “hopelessly compromised” if they’re seen kissing a woman to whom they aren’t married; women are considered “naturally” more hard-headed and practical (and thus unsuited to irrational magic, but perfectly suited to pragmatic governance); women are expected to issue marriage proposals, not men; at the end of a formal supper, men are required to stay at the table until they’re summoned to the parlour, so that the women can have a safe space to talk politics in private until they’re ready to deal with the gentlemen again for the rest of the evening. I had fun turning traditional Regency social rules topsy-turvy! 😉
Cath: Amy and Wrexham are fantastic leading characters, and both of these characters have had to work their way up to their positions. There is clearly room for capable people to move up the ladder, but not without struggle. At issue in both of their stories is the idea of marrying well, or who is suitable for whom. What does a good marriage mean in Angland, and why is it politically advantageous? Do your characters pay any price for marrying out of emotion?
Steph: A “good” marriage in Angland is one that will advance both partners’ careers and statuses in life. Any woman who wants to become a member of the Boudiccate is expected to marry a practicing magician; any ambitious magician will have his own status and prospects improved by marrying a political wife.
On the other hand, it’s considered perfectly acceptable for a woman who doesn’t plan to enter the Boudiccate and has no need for heirs of her own body to marry another woman instead of a man. It’s not a society without restrictive social rules – they’re just *differently* restrictive than real-life 19th-century English rules.
My characters, unfortunately for them, don’t fit neatly into any of these established patterns. Cassandra Harwood is Angland’s first woman magician, and in Volume II (Thornbound), she has to face some of the unjust but very real professional issues created by her marriage to another magician; her sister-in-law, Amy Harwood, married a man who refused to study magic, and was therefore denied her expected place in the Boudiccate; another romantic couple in the series, Miss Banks and Miss Fennell (who will get their own novella sometime in the next year or two!), are determined to work around the rules of Boudiccate membership by being the first-ever f/f politician/magician married couple.
Cath: Jonathan Harwood, Cassandra’s older brother, is discriminated against, discounted because he is a man who does not practice magic. More so than social position, gender roles and a failure of their expectations causes more difficulty in this book. In your next book, I understand you will be making more changes regarding how Anglish society views gender in your next novella. Can you talk about what’s going to happen and how that’s going to change?
Steph: Yes! Thornbound is where the political consequences of both Snowspelled and Spellswept really start to take shape. (Note: Spellswept is a prequel to Snowspelled, but it was published afterwards; there’s no need to read it before you read either of the other books, but I hope you’ll enjoy the others even more with that backstory filled out.) Now that Cassandra has finally shattered the rigid, age-old rule that only men can study magic, every politician can see the next big question coming: why can’t men enter politics, too? There are people (both men and women) who are excited about these oncoming social shifts, people who are absolutely terrified of them (on both sides), and people who are utterly furious – and Cassandra has to deal with sabotage on multiple fronts as she fights to establish her own radical new school.
Cath: And speaking of Jonathan, how hard is it to write a quiet character to convey the qualities of that character? (which you do brilliantly, by the way).
Steph: Aw, thank you for that! 🙂 Really, a character doesn’t need to be talkative to be expressive, as long as the few words he (or she) speaks are to the point and their actions speak to what they feels. In the case of Jonathan, I was also aided by the fact that I was writing about him through the lens of an extremely emotionally intelligent heroine, Amy, who is gifted at reading other people through their shifts in expression and other physical tells. (Which is, of course, extremely important in her political career!)
Cath: For writers who wish to write in this time frame, can you recommend any good books, websites, or other sources?
(strong>Steph: The best thing for writing about any historical period (IMO!) is to read contemporary diaries and letters from the period, along with biographies that give you an idea of the kinds of lives that real people led. I’ve read Jane Austen’s letters obsessively, because they’re far more conversational (of course!) than her novels. Back when I was writing my Kat, Incorrigible novels, I made a routine of spending 10 minutes at the beginning of each writing session just reading random Austen letters to put myself in the right mood! There are also countless biographies of Jane Austen and her family, Fanny Burney, and lots of other fascinating women from that time period.
Cath: Finally, when is your next Harwood Spellbook novella coming out, and where can readers find it?
Steph Thornbound (Volume II of The Harwood Spellbook) is coming out on January 7th in both ebook and paperback. I can’t wait! It isn’t available for preorder yet, but you can already add it on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35502203-thornbound
Spellswept (the prequel novella) will become available as a standalone ebook on October 30th, and preorder links should go up around September 30th at the latest. (However, you don’t have to wait to read it – you can buy it now as part of the anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society, which I co-edited with Tiffany Trent!)
And you can sign up to my newsletter to get advance excerpts of all of my books, occasional free tie-in short stories, AND the chance to win ARCs ahead of time.
Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She is the author of four MG fantasy adventures, including The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Bloomsbury 2017) and the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy (published in the UK as The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson). She has also published two historical fantasy novels for adults, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets (Pyr Books 2016) and nearly forty short stories for adults and teens in various magazines and anthologies. Her first book, A Most Improper Magick (a.k.a. Kat, Incorrigible in the US), won the 2011 Waverton Good Read Children’s Award for the Best Début Children’s Novel by a British Author.