An interview with: Kester Grant on The Court Of Miracles

We catch up with Kester Grant on the day she’s been told her debut novel, The Court Of Miracles, has hit the Sunday Times Bestsellers list…

Kester Grant - The Court Of Miracles

In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as The Court of Miracles.

Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie).

When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger – the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh – Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice – protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.

We speak to The Court Of Miracles author Kester Grant about Les Mis, The Jungle Book and just what we can expect in the rest of the book’s series…

Hi Kester, first of all congratulations on The Court Of Miracles being on the Sunday Times Bestseller list…

I know, it’s amazing I mean obviously it’s my debut so for me it’s like “ahhh, best day of my life!”.

Where did the idea for the novel first come from?

Well, I’m a giant Les Mis fan, I saw the musical for the first time when I was a small child and I’ve seen every iteration and read the original book, and every single time I would be so frustrated with the Marius, Eponine and Cosette love triangle. In the book, Eponine and Cosette grow up together with a very abusive criminal man, and then one of them is, for all intents and purposes, sold to a stranger. Years later when they meet again, the only thing one of them says to the other is, “oh I was a young girl with her once”. And I just thought that is just not how females are! You would love each other, you would hate each other but you would definitely have a reaction to one another that was not solely based on this guy that you had both fallen in love with.

So that was the main thing that didn’t ring true [to me] and then Hugo’s character is really interesting. In the original book, she’s self-taught to read and write; she’s literate when most people around her aren’t. She’s obviously part of Thénardier’s burglar gang – called the Patron Minette – her father is extremely violent but she’s not afraid to stand up to him to protect Marius or Cosette and Valjean when needed. In the Les Mis book, it’s mentioned that one of the members of her father’s gang, called Montparnasse, was as close to a son-in-law as Thénardier would ever have, implying that he would have a relationship with Eponine. And when she rats them out and she screams to stop them breaking into Valjean’s house, Montparnasse offers to slit her throat. This whole side of the story is completely… well, not gone to waste… but there’s so much in there about this girl who has all these skills growing up amongst criminals and this dangerous world.

So there was that connection. And then I had gone to see The Jungle Book film that came out a few years ago. I loved it. I know The Jungle Book inside out, back to front from Kipling’s original book.

Walking out of The Jungle Book film, I was like ‘it’s very strange how Mowgli in a jungle full of wild animals who could kill him at any second, and living by very strict laws, hierarchies and rules, is the exact same story as Oliver Twist who’s a little boy who appears in the midst of a criminal underworld…’. Actually. Similarly to that, Cosette gets adopted by Thénardiers who is a criminal and a con man and he has a gang of burglars and I’m like ‘hang on this is the same story!’.

So those two things collided in my mind. I had this vision that just came to me of Eponine hanging off the side of a building – it was night time, it was a storm. She was exhausted and drenched to the bone. She had searched every window of the whole city of Paris every night relentlessly looking for the sister, the adopted sister who had been taken from her.

Also, if you’re two young girls living with a criminal and your father pays a man to take your sister away; what do you think happened to her? Obviously you think she’s been sold, as a child, which is horrific, into prostitution. That really struck me, I thought ‘what would Eponine have thought?’ even if Eponine had hated Cosette. You would surely be traumatised by that. Surely you would either be afraid it could happen to you or wonder what had happened to her. And that’s where The Court Of Miracles was born out of.

What element of Les Miserable did you decide you definitely did not want to have in The Court Of Miracles?

Well, Marius [from Les Mis] is just the worst character, he’s bad enough in the musical, but he’s 100 times worse in the original written text. He’s the worst. There’s an entire chapter where he weeps on a tree and holds Cosette’s foot. I’m not even making that up. He’s not even a revolutionary like they show in the musical. He’s not a revolutionary, he’s a Napoleonist and he just kind of wanders into the fight because he’s like ‘oh my girlfriend’s gone’ that’s it. He’s just the worst and he was kind of standing in the way of this epic tale about these two girls [I was writing] – one brought up by criminals, the other kind of thrown into this criminal world. He was present in the first draft of the book when I sold it to the publishing house and I just struggled every time I had to write a scene with him. All the scenes with Marius and Enjolras St. Juste (it was Marius originally as well as St. Juste, and St. Juste was just a secondary character) and I was saying to my husband ‘if only I could write this scene with just St. Juste it would be 3 million times better’.

There is also the famous scene in Les Mis where Marius falls in love with Cosette instead of Eponine and it was just it was awful, I hated watching it for years. Every time I watch Les Mis I would rant about it for like an hour to anyone who was nearby. Now I’m having to write it and it just went against everything I know about two girls growing up in a traumatic household and the kind of relationship they would have had. It was just nonsensical. So I said to my editor, “listen, could I cut Marius?” and she said “absolutely!” and everything was just three million times better and now we just have St. Juste who became the amazing star that he is and I love him.

You have also said that The Jungle Book has been a big inspiration – is that why you’ve included quotes from the book in your novel?

The Court Of Miracles is actually a retelling of The Jungle Book as well. It’s a lot harder to see [than Les Mis] unless you’ve read the book recently because The Jungle Book is… well… it’s two books and I took all the Mowgli stories. The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories, it’s not one long narrative. In fact some people, when they read The Court Of Miracles say it feels a little bit episodic because that’s how I wrote it.

I can tell you all the different characters from The Court Of Miracles mapped straight onto a Jungle Book character: So Ettie is Mowgli, she’s the innocent naïve person, thrown into the jungle. Nina is of course Bagheera who is my favourite jungle book character (I was in love with Bagheera since I was a tiny child and to this day is my biggest crush – it’s not weird at all!), which is why she’s called The Black Cat.

The Tiger is Shere Khan obviously. Then Balloo who in The Jungle Book teaches the law and Hathi (the elephant who keeps all the histories) combined make Orso the Dead Lord. The word ‘orso’ actually means bear and they keep calling him a bear for an insult [in the novel]. Madame Corday is Kaa, who in The Jungle Book is an ally of Mowgli and not an enemy like they show often in the cartoons and films. Then (and this is very obscure), Col-Blanche, the master of the House Of Poisons in the Assassin’s Guild, is the tiny, not-well-known Jungle Book character called White Hood, who is this blind white snake who lives underground. Who am I missing? Oh, Femi is Chil, the kite bird who just carries messages over the jungle and Gavroche is Grey Brother, who is Mowgli’s adopted younger wolf brother.

Oh, and the royals [in the novel]! They are the equivalent of the Bandar-log – the monkeys – in that they are nihilistic, and they kidnap Mowgli, so they take Ettie [in The Court Of Miracles].

Anyway, each character was specifically mapped [from The Jungle Book]. Especially the first draft, it mapped exactly. For instance, in The Jungle Book there’s a story where there’s a drought in the jungle and everybody comes to the Peace Rock because now the water has gone down, the rock is exposed and the law says no one can fight at that time, and all of the animals come together and that actually became the fountain scene [in The Court Of Miracles].

It got a little more obscure as the book was edited, and now [those elements] serve as a layer that most people don’t really see. The main element in The Jungle Book that I pulled is that each criminal Guild associates to an animal clan, even if that clan didn’t necessarily exist in The Jungle Book. So, for instance, the smugglers are known as rats – and when I describe them, I say that they’re wearing furs and when I describe their movement I try to make them rodent-like. The Assassins are known as the bats. The thieves are either cats or dogs or horses. So, I pulled a lot of that in.

Of course, The Jungle Book is also hugely based on the law of the jungle and the rituals and rights of each clan so, I pulled all of that. It’s been hugely rewarding because people rave about the world-building of the Miracle Court itself in the novel. It’s kind of a sub-culture that exists unto itself. It’s not based on a religion or the history of Paris – all of that came from the root of the pattern of The Jungle Book. It added that element of paranoia into the book in that it is a dangerous feral jungle – that kind of wildness to it that would have been very cliché to describe it in normal terms. It’s one of my favourite books ever.

How long did it take you to write The Court Of Miracles?

I had the idea for The Court Of Miracles and I wrote it in six weeks to apply for a competition called Pitch Wars where you get mentored by two published authors and then at the end of the mentorship of two months they help you edit it. Then there’s a big showcase and all of these big agents (mostly in America) come and look at an extract. I don’t even know how I heard about this [competition] but I thought ‘well it’s a deadline! Might as well’.

I got in with the book but my pitch was ‘Les Mis meets The Jungle Book’ and everyone who hears that pitch gets really confused. They’re like ‘does Valjean grow up with wolves?’. It was just hilarious so eventually, my publisher was like ‘I think we’re going to go with something a little bit different because putting The Jungle Book on was confusing!’.

How much research did you do ahead of writing the book?

So what happened was, I walked out of The Jungle Book film – I was in the States and I had the idea. I don’t think I did much with it except I knew it was about Nina and Ettie. I started to do research on a 48 hour flight from the States to where I live now in Mauritius (you have to stop off in London, the connecting flights were in Florida. It’s the worst). So I had this raging fever and I had a million tabs open on my computer and I was just eating the history of Paris, from this origin all the way through to Napoleon’s fall. And taking notes and getting ideas.

I knew there was going to be a criminal underground. The idea of the Miracle Court actually comes from another book by Victor Hugo called Notre-Dame De Paris, or The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. He took an urban legend of the time that said the city’s poor had created an underground mafia and it was called the Miracle Court because beggars who were pretending to be injured every night would be miraculously healed. Anyway, I took that and threw it into my story because I knew I wanted to have this big criminal society.

Then I went online to see what kinds of crimes there are and I looked up laws. I had a whole list of different crimes and said ‘okay, we can split these into guilds’ and then I thought if you’re two young girls living in a criminal world, who is the most terrifying criminal?’ and obviously it would be the human trafficker. So automatically I was like ‘okay that’s your big bad guy. That’s your Shere Khan’.

I then just mapped out the Guilds and the plot but as I said, a lot of it was suggested by The Jungle Book or Les Mis already. And I just put it together, probably within a week. I’d done a tonne of history research and then I wrote it. But once I had finished writing it, I went back in and fleshed out the world-building and I really looked at what creates a sub-culture. If you look at a sub-culture that happens in prisons or in weird cults – what defines them? I did that as a secondary step.

I had already written the book. The secondary step was building the Miracle Court mythology; their legends, the way they swear, the way they talk, the way they promise… even the way they move and look. For instance, when we greet each other, we say hello. Why do we say hello? Where does that come from? I realised that we don’t see most of our culture because we’re so used to it, but it mostly stems from things that have happened to us, or religion. And I wanted the Miracle Court to not be religious in any way. So if you don’t celebrate all of these traditions that originally either come from Pagan worship or the Roman Catholic Church, what is it that you celebrate? Asking myself these kinds of questions built up my world in the second step. If I had done that as a first step I knew I would never have stopped researching!

What’s your favourite Guild?

I don’t find the Thieves Guild that exciting because there’s so much literature written about thieves so I think it’s kind of old hat. Everyone loves the Assassins Guild, but I personally like the Guild Of Letters. I’m clearly a Guild Of Letters member. In the first book, we talk a lot about them being auditors and accountants but they’re more than that. They’re spies. There’s a member from the Guild Of Letters in every level of society – they’re forgers (and all the white-collar crime) and spies. You’ll find out in Book Two [of The Court Of Miracles] that they have massive underground libraries full of information about everything and everyone. So they are librarians as well. So clearly the Guild Of Letters is the best!

Why did you decide to have Nina be part of the Guild Of Thieves?

I think it was just automatic because in Les Mis, Thénardier’s Patron Minette (who are actually hilarious) are a gang of burglars and they wear masks when they go and do their burglaries, so it’s all very theatrical. So it was automatic in my mind that Nina, before she even joined the Miracle Court, would be helping her father do burglaries. But I think as the story grew, I never once questioned that she shouldn’t be in the Thieves Guild as it kind of made sense. Nina’s not very bloodthirsty – she fights but she doesn’t enjoy fighting. She’s not a killer at all. Nina doesn’t actually have the stomach. She would do anything to protect someone and to survive, but I don’t think she has the stomach for some of the Guilds’ nastier works.

Being written in the first person, the novel has a close focus on Nina. How did you go about creating the character?

Being in the first person is interesting because I don’t normally write in the first person. Being of a certain age, I’m 35, everything I’ve ever read in England was written in the third person, but I knew I was writing a young adult book, or at least one bordering on young adult, so I had been advised to write in the first person, which I hated. It was completely unnatural to me but I think it’s worked very well for Nina. It’s actually very difficult because you can’t write anything where Nina’s not present. Any scene that you want to happen elsewhere just can’t happen!

That aside, Nina came to me fully formed. As I said, I saw her hanging off the side of a building. Her character, everything about her, was already there. I never had to think about how would Nina react to this or try and figure out her voice. That happens to me with all my main characters. I have another book coming out next year, it’s basically like The Jungle Book but on speed. It’s about two monkeys and the main character is the same – she just ‘was’.

Initially, when I was in the competition, some readers were very divided on Nina. Half of them adored her and half of them were like, ‘she’s not nice’. But I couldn’t change her, because it would feel like lobotomising your child. I could change other characters around her because they weren’t as fully formed, but she was. In her entirety. So it was very easy to write her, very easy to write from her point of view. I have since been told, from my best friend and all of my siblings, that Nina is actually like me and of course it was easy to write her because she does what I would do. Although I have none of her skills! But it’s true she’s very prickly and so am I. People either love me or I rub them up the wrong way without intending to in any way shape or form.

She was an absolute joy to write, whereas Ettie was a lot harder to write. Some of the other characters were a lot harder. But I think characters [in general] come quite easy to me. I don’t generally struggle with characters unless I’m writing Marius, because Marius is a whole bunch of garbage. That was his main flaw, that wasn’t my fault, he was just useless!

The Court Of Miracles

Were there any characters (apart from Marius!) you didn’t enjoy writing?

Ettie was difficult to write I think because I’ve always struggled with the character of Cosette. Cosette is a very blank character – she’s just brought up in this way, she doesn’t really have any opinions. We don’t know anything about her except she kind of likes her dad and she’s randomly fallen in love with this guy. So it was very hard and my editor had to really push me to make her likable because everyone wanted to slap her in all of the early drafts of the book, she was so annoying. So I had to try and make her loveable and beautiful and blonde!

When I was reading young adult [novels] a few years ago, it was very much ‘here’s the beautiful blonde princess that we’re all just obsessed with because she’s so wonderful and everyone just loves her’. So I kind of had that prejudice when I started writing a beautiful blonde character. I know it’s wrong but it’s there. I really had to pull hard to try and think of what is loveable about her. Why do we love her? Will she change and grow a lot over the next two books?

We really like Nina’s sisterhood relationship with Ettie…

There’s going to be two sequels [to The Court Of Miracles] so there might *hint hint*, be a bit of jealousy or triangles or things between them but I want to root it in the reality of two girls who love each other and are loyal to each other as sisters.

What character did you particularly like writing?

I love writing St. Juste. He is just a joy because he’s so obsessed about revolution and freedom that he’s hilarious to write. I think he’s one of my favourite characters to write.

Strangely enough, The Tiger was also loads of fun to write. I think it’s because he’s so flawed. The Tiger’s story is a tragedy, it’s like a Darth Vader story – a person falling to the darkness is such a fascinating thing to tell. In many ways, he’s also very similar to Nina. Nina, if pushed a certain way, if she allowed herself to go a certain way, could easily become very similar to him. I’m not saying she would become a human trafficker but Nina is basically a walking PTSD case. She’s like Batman! She’s like Samuel Vimes in Ankh-Morpork [in Discworld]! She was a child brought up motherless in the house of an abusive man and forced into criminality. She watched the only mother figure she had, her big sister, be sold into human trafficking and then realising what that actually meant and now she’s had to swear off all ties to her family (even though her family wasn’t great but still) to sell herself into the service of a criminal world, which is violent and dangerous.

The Miracle Court in general call the city their mother and they speak of her as if she’s a person. But Nina actually personifies the city in times when she’s under great stress. She hallucinates that she hears the city talking and in my mind, it’s because this is how Nina compartmentalises her life and this world, so she can feel in control of it.

If the city is a person, a cruel mother, and a dangerous woman who plays games with the lives of her children, then life makes a little more sense than ‘oh its all just completely random and anything could happen to anyone at any time’. So in the same way that if you took Batman/Bruce Wayne or Sam Vimes and you sat then down in a psychologist’s chair and actually listened to them and delved deeply into their psyche, you would see that they are really disturbed individuals. That their traumas have led them into this deep sense of duty. This is more Sam Vimes than Batman but if you read Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch series he speaks about the city, Ankh-Morpork, as a woman. As this terrible terrible woman but it’s the same – [Sam Vimes] is just one of my favourite characters of all time.

How did you create the culture for the criminal underworld in The Court Of Miracles?

When I was trying to make [the criminal underworld] into a culture that was different from those who would walk by day, I realised that they needed to have their own belief system. For us, that is generally based on whatever cultural religion we come from; that’s where we get our traditions and our habits. So I said ‘okay, if they don’t have a religion then what do they swear by?’. A lot of our original swear words, our promises and our oaths, even our exclamations of delights all come from religion. So if you have no religion, how do you even speak? So I thought ‘who are the gods or the heroes of old if you look at Greek mythology? Well, surely they would be the people who first formed the Miracle Court originally.’

In my research, I read the fascinating story of [Gabriel] Nicolas de la Raynie who was the police chief of Paris. I think it was in the 1600s. He was charged with clearing up the city slums which were so dangerous that anyone who walked through would get mugged and possibly die. So he arrested everyone. He literally arrested everyone assuming just they were poor or criminals or beggars or ethnic minorities or mentally unstable! He just put them either in jail or asylums for beggars, poor houses, workhouses. Even if they weren’t in actual prison they were locked up in these houses and couldn’t leave. That’s how he cleaned up Paris. And then this idea just got born that while this man was there, cleaning up the streets by just locking everyone up, he would have an adopted brother who would say ‘this is slightly immoral’. Because Nicolas de la Raynie wasn’t doing a bad thing but his methods were just…

So I thought he should have a brother who should stand in moral opposition to him and that was sewn together with this folk tale from Europe call The Fox Reynard [Reynard The Fox] and his enemy the wolf Isengrim. And I fixed on that and said ‘okay Nicholas de la Raynie is Isengrim’ who I changed to a boar because I want to use wolves elsewhere in The Court Of Miracles. He’s the boar Isengrim and his brother is the fox Reynard and his brother is being arrested along with everyone else because he stands against him. [Now they’re] in jail and they don’t know how to get out. That’s where they all band together for their own survival and they form the Miracle Court to escape and to gain revenge and to protect one another. So this gave me my heroes of old, these are the people [the criminals] swear by. This is why they swear by Reynard’s teeth or Isengrim be damned because this is their god and their devil. Isengrim is way worse than the devil for them.

The Court Of Miracles includes short folk tales to tell the history of the city – how did they come about?

Originally the book had the history of Paris by the Dead Lord in between every single chapter and I think it was a bit too weighty and a bit boring in places. So my editor said ‘let’s scrap that’ and I said ‘okay but then I’m going to put the short stories in’. The only story that was in there originally was the one about the cats and the mice that impacts the story directly. That Ettie tells in the palace. Which is about the revolution. But then I thought ‘hmm okay, there are four sections, why don’t I put this at the beginning’. And then I needed other stories for the other sections! This is now a habit of mine, because in my book coming out next year Goldenpaw, I’ve done exactly the same thing. I can’t stop myself it’s like some kind of story disease I have.

The Court Of Miracles is the first book in a trilogy – have you mapped out the rest of the books?

I’m a big plotter and stories tend to come to me fully formed. Not only that but they tend to sprout sequels and mini-series and sub-series before I even put pen to paper, that’s just how my mind works. So I already knew how the series would end but, in fact, after that, I got an idea for book four and I think it wraps up the story really well. Although it could end on Book Three let’s say…

So what I’m trying to do right now, writing the sequel, is squeeze the whole of that, all the way up to the tail of book four, into two books. I don’t know if it’s going to be possible because it might just be too much stuff. The Court Of Miracles was quite a breakneck pace but I’m talking even more so. I mean I have to fit a lot in but I just really want it to push further.

I can’t say too much more without being a spoiler but my original Book Three ending kind of ended things in a way that a trilogy might end but I thought to myself ‘no, there’s a lot of unresolved things here. You need to go back and wrap things up in a more epic way for the country as a whole, for the city as a whole, rather than just for your four main characters’.

There’s always going to be themes of revolution. In the next two books there’s going to be a revolution. Guild wars and slavers and all sorts of things like that. In a way it’s easier to write about revolution and bringing a system down. But what is harder is building a new world and building a better system. It’s not as romantic. Instead of ending it on the point of ‘we’ve blown everything up hopefully it’ll work from now on’, I thought ‘well shouldn’t we end on the note building something better?’.

This is personal for me. I see this series as not really the story of Nina. I see it as a story about Paris in a certain era of history and you have four different characters which come from four different sections of Parisian society. They would have been friends or lovers or husbands and wives in a normal world but because of the era in which they live, they’re set against each other. The ending of that chapter of the story I want to tell is in Paris. So I’m struggling right now because I’m super late on my deadline to hand in Book Two and I’m trying to cram in as much as possible without making it just be too much.

There is a real mixture of good and bad in The Court Of Miracles – some of our heroes are criminals who do bad things, while some of our villains have relatable traits. Was that intentional?

Yes, that was totally intentional. People are often saying ‘oh the heroes and the villains’ but in my mind, there are no heroes and villains in the book except for… oh for the time being maybe Ettie but not really. But there are no real good guys and bad guys; there are different people who have varying levels of morality and immorality, and most of them it’s because of some terrible thing that has happened to them.

I mean the nobles [in The Court Of Miracles] were always monstrous in a way but they have become 100 times worse because they saw what the people of France were about to do to them. Which historically, the people of France, the revolutionaries, led the terror – they murdered everyone right left and centre! Then of course the revolutionaries famously turned on their own.

There was terrible suffering that led to the revolution but the revolutionaries were all mental. They literally murdered each other because they were so paranoid! Robespierre got rid of the Roman Catholic Religion entirely and then invented his own religion! Look it up its called the Cult Of The Supreme Being!

Then there were three guys who had joint power who were supposed to form an equal government. One of them rose to power and his name was Napoleon and he became a dictator. Although he was a dictator who took over almost all of the world, the people of France loved him. [Then] the people of France themselves in a strange turn of events turned on him in the end and betrayed him. Otherwise, he might still have been in power for years and years. And Napoleon is a big feature in Books Two and Three… just saying…

The Court Of Miracles by Kester Grant is out now. Read our review here.