Lucy Hounsom’s debut fantasy novel Starborn is one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year, drawing comparisons to Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan, David Eddings and Karen Miller.
“Kyndra’s fate holds betrayal and salvation, but the journey starts in her small village. On the day she comes of age, she accidentally disrupts an ancient ceremony, ending centuries of tradition. So when an unnatural storm targets her superstitious community, Kyndra is blamed. She fears for her life until two strangers save her, by wielding powers not seen for an age – powers fuelled by the sun and the moon.
Together, they flee to the hidden citadel of Naris. And here, Kyndra experiences disturbing visions of the past, showing war and one man’s terrifying response. She’ll learn more in the city’s subterranean chambers, amongst fanatics and rebels. But first Kyndra will be brutally tested in a bid to unlock her own magic. If she survives the ordeal, she’ll discover a force greater than she could ever have imagined. But could it create as well as destroy? And can she control it, to right an ancient wrong?”
We spoke to Hounsom about Starborn, the challenges of writing a first novel, and the state of British fantasy literature.
How would you pitch Starborn?
Canavan meets Eddings with airships, buried truths, mythic citadels and plenty of magic.
It’s your first novel; is it a story that’s been with you for a long time?
The roots of the idea were planted when I was 17 and reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which, despite its faults, is still one of the greatest fantasy epics. It caught me up in visions of reincarnated heroes and sorcerers roaming a vast world, against which a wonderful coming-of-age story is played out. I wanted to write a book to stir the imagination, to pluck a reader right out of their life and drop them into something other. And fantasy was such a comfort to me as a teenager. Starborn is a paean to those books that helped me through some difficult years, so you could definitely say it’s been brewing a long time.
Where did the character of Kyndra spring from?
Starborn begins in a traditional way – with a young person living an ordinary life in a quiet town. In wanting to challenge that trope, I moved away from the established rendering of the hero as a hard-working, honest sort, instead drawing Kyndra as she would more likely be: sheltered, idealistic, stubborn, diffident… She is the orchestrator of her situation and whether or not she sees her role in the world as destiny is up to her.
Do you have to work harder to write relatable characters in fantasy, or are good characters just good characters?
Fantasy writers have to juggle character creation alongside a high-pace plot and worldbuilding, which makes developing relatable characters that little bit harder. Not being able to give enough time to side characters is a real concern of mine, but since fantasy tends to come in trilogies, there’s always an opportunity to develop a character in subsequent books. I don’t think any of the above excuses poor characterisation, however. Good characters are just good characters, as you say, and fantasy is a magnificent arena in which to construct them. Some of my favourite characters come from series like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.
Starborn is the first in the series; does writing a novel knowing that it’s a Part One require a different approach? Is it daunting at all?
It requires an awareness that your protagonist will have to develop gradually over hundreds of pages; they can’t have reached their pinnacle at the end of book one since that leaves them with nowhere to go and the reader will probably lose interest. I like to think a series also offers the opportunity to build your world slowly, instead of bogging the reader down in details. Reserving information for later books invites your audience to keep reading and it also keeps the world alive for you, as a writer. I like to think I’ll discover things about my characters and their world right up until (and even beyond) the end of the series.
It’s been a whirlwind of awesome. I’ve never wanted to do anything but write fantasy professionally and now that I am, it’s a dream come true. The process from finding an agent to signing a contract, to editing and cover design and proof reading has taught me a huge amount about the industry and I’ve made a lot of new friends and contacts along the way. Now that publication day is so close, I’m excited and nervous because the book isn’t mine anymore – it’s the reader’s and I hope they’ll make it their own.
Have you always been drawn to the fantasy genre?
I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but fantasy is a way of life for me. It’s my comfort and ambition, my hope and my heart. It’s my first love and nothing else touches me in the same way. I love its limitless vistas and the promises it holds for adventure and I love travelling with characters as they face the trials and wonders of their worlds. I suppose I live vicariously through the genre because I tend to interpret things in imaginative terms. There’s something enduring about fantasy. Its roots are ancient. And it speaks the simple, archetypal language of myth – what Alan Garner called the crystallisation of experience.
We do seem to be in the middle of a really wonderful fantasy boom at the moment. Do you keep up with what’s going on in the genre and the novels that people are talking about?
Absolutely! I’ve just written an article on the British female fantasy scene and for that I’ve been reading a host of new writers whose books cover all aspects of fantasy from epic to urban. Between Game of Thrones and Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, fantasy has blazed its way into the mainstream and it’s a brilliant time to be a fantasy writer. Fantasy is finally shaking off the more negative aspects of its branding and not before time – it has so much to contribute to our culture.
Do you have a favourite fantasy heroine?
There’s far too many to choose from, so I’ll pick out a few from the books I’ve just finished reading: Jen Williams’ Wydrin for her humour and her dubious morals; Genevieve Cogman’s Irene because she’s a librarian who uses her brain, not her brawn; and Samantha Shannon’s Paige because she’s brave and a rebel who stands by her principles.