Back in 2002, back when Harry Potter WAS the YA genre (Number One, and then twenty empty spaces behind it before the next contender…), I attended that year’s World Fantasy Convention.
At that time, I had no real interest in or intention of paddling in the YA pool. My writing was aimed at an adult readership, not least because of the way I have always used language, rich and lush and peppered with words that other people mutter about having had to get the dictionary out for (someone once accused me of swallowing one when I was a child). But I wandered into a panel on YA mainly because it boasted panelists who wrote books I loved, YA or not YA. Jane Yolen was one of them, and she had plenty to say at this panel… and I listened attentively right until someone at the back of the room raised a hand with a question, and pulled up Harry Potter. And Jane Yolen sighed and said that she was wondering how long it was going to take for that particular elephant to waddle into the room, and with an air of resignation let the panel slip from YA to HP.
And then she said something.
She said she had never particularly liked the way that the Potter books had treated girls.
And I missed the rest of the panel. I was sitting in the back, with a story flowering in my head. A story as American as Harry Potter was British. A story not about the Boy Who Lived, but about the Girl Who Couldn’t. A story… about a GIRL.
Things fell into place very quickly. My Thea – Galathea Winthrop – was that rare thing, a Double Seventh. A seventh child of two seventh children. In her world, a world where magic was part of life, where they had a Federal Bureau of Magic (or FBM) in the government, that would be one of the most magical things she could possibly be – and her potential was unlimited, and its manifestation eagerly awaited.
Except that she.. COULDN’T. It wasn’t even that she was BAD at magic, it was just that she couldn’t DO any. It was, as she herself put it, as if she were standing behind a thick glass wall – she could see the magic but she couldn’t touch it, couldn’t do it. And the more time passed the more despondent and discouraged she became and the disappointed her family, and her world.
Until as a final attempt at triggering something her father takes her back in time… to the tender mercies and the teachings of a shaman from a long vanished tribe, the Anasazi. Cheveyo of the Anasazi awakens something long sleeping in Thea, and introduces her to the world of the Elder Days and ancient magic rooted in Native American lore.
It is this that becomes the first part of the solid bedrock on which Thea learns to take a stand. That took up most of the first book, “The Gift of the Unmage” – that, and this glorious concept of the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a school where untalented children of magical families are warehoused, safely out of the way of their more endowed siblings. Except that the school… is far more than it seems, and the motley group of friends that Thea finds there turn out to be more important than their apparent status seems to indicate.
The second part of Thea’s coming of age is her unexpected ability to channel something that looks very like magic through computers. In her world, computers are almost the only thing that is proof against magic – they are practical and rooted in the empirical world, and they have been used to store magic spells on, because it’s safer than storing them in the classic grimoire books. Magic locked up inside a computer was supposedly tamper proof and escape proof.
Until that stops being the case. Until (in the second book, “Spellspam”) the spam emails familiar to so many of us start bearing real live spells which are triggered if the email is opened, and sometimes if it’s barely looked at. In the opening scene of that book, an email flogging “The clearest skin you can ever imagine” delivers precisely that – skin that turns TRANSPARENT. (Oh, I had fun with these.) It seems that Thea is no longer the only one who can tamper with magic through computers. There Is Another. And she is roped in to help find that other, and stop them.
Except that that the other turns out to be a lost boy, a ghost, a spirit of someone who never quite lived, and quite insane. Dangerous. And Thea is forced to be the one who deals with containing that threat. She is made to do something that utterly horrifies her, and the guilt of it wraps her like a second skin. But somewhere in the process of doing this – with the help of her friends from the Last Ditch School – a magical object is discovered, a white cube with the sigils of the Elements on its sides, a cube that is clearly full of magic but which nobody can quite figure out except inasmuch as it is known that its provenance can be traced back to one Nikola Tesla, the only human Wizard who could command all four of the elements, Air, Water, Earth, Fire, with Fire the strongest of all.
And Fire is something that has touched Thea, too.
In the third book, “Cybermage”, Thea comes into her own… and is revealed as an Elemental mage. A powerful one, fulfilling all her Double Seventh potential and then some – she’s added something new and different to her array of gifts, something that Tesla himself names by calling her “cybermage”, a mage who can do computer magic. Thea helps Nikola Tesla, who had been tricked into losing his Elemental magic by trying to protect it and had been a lost and wounded creature ever since, to regain his magic, in the face of attempts of the grasping greedy race called the Alphiri (think High Elves with the souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi) to steal it for themselves. The Alphiri are defeated, Nikola Tesla is redeemed, and Thea finds her place in the world.
That seemed to be the end of it, a nice tidy place to finish, except… that it wasn’t.
Some years later a fourth book would come knocking, demanding to be written, the rest of Thea’s story, taking the whole tale neatly back to its beginnings. “Dawn of Magic” concludes the Worldweavers saga in epic fashion, and is quite possibly one of my favorites amongst my books, because of the way that the main triad of characters – Thea, Tesla, and Coyote the Trickster who goes by the name of Corey – carry the story on their very capable shoulders.
This book… is all about human magic, and what it is, and what it means, and where it hides. There is a luminousness to it, a quiet shine; it wasn’t the easiest to write, because I had a couple of false starts until I found the true road through the story, and it took a while, but what emerged was worth the journey.
So that’s the meat and potatoes of it. But going back to that panel in 2002… I wrote a book about American magic, about an American girl. I wrote that book that Jane Yolen whispered about between the lines in that panel. I wrote a book about the GIRL who had the adventures. And it was good. Girls can. Girls SHOULD.
Thea Winthrop was nobody’s sidekick – she went out and grasped things with her own two hands. She didn’t follow – she sometimes walked beside (one can’t do better than that, with Nikola Tesla), but more often than that, she was in the lead. She did the difficult things that others shied from doing, and lived with the consequences. She could be hurt. She could falter. She could fall. But she had known the bitter taste of defeat once – back in the days when her magic was not accessible to her, when she couldn’t, when nobody believed that she could – she had seen the disappointment in her father’s eyes, and she would never go back there again. Not willingly.
She would take risks but they were risks that were her own choice to make and if she failed at least she would fail flying and not crawling in the mud. She was the girl next door in so many ways – but she was always extraordinary, even when she herself could not see that about her.
I had, on my hands, a Heroine.
The books, when they came out, garnered two very different sets of reviews. On the heels of the fade of the HP phenomenon (#1 in this series came out from Harper Collins in 2007) some reviewers came up with various iterations of “For those suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal, this is just the ticket”, implying that the books were more of the same HP juggernaut stuff. Others begged to differ and specifically described the books as wholly original, owing nothing to Harry Potter. Either way, they were hitting SOME sort of target. Because they aren’t a household name you will gather that they didn’t hit the HP bullseye – but for those who found them, and treasured them, the books seemed to find a very special niche.
And Thea Winthrop, although no Harry Potter, was the girl who held her own against anybody.
There would be absolutely no problem in the way the Worldweavers books treated girls. They treated them as equals, as worthy, as real. These books treat girls as people. And I’m proud of that.