Thursday, 25 February 2021

UKYA Spotlight: A Crown of Talons by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr - Q&A with Holly Race

Katharine and Elizabeth Corr are sisters and co-writers of The Witch's Kiss trilogy and A Throne of Swans. The second novel in the Swans duology, A Crown of Talons, was published in January by hot Key Books. Katharine and Elizabeth very kindly answered some questions about how they approach series of different lengths, how to build fantasy worlds and creating suspense.

- Hello! Thank you for chatting to me. To start off with, can you introduce the world of A Throne of Swans, for anyone who hasn't yet read it?

The main kingdom of A Throne Of Swans is Solanum. It's part of a world ruled by the minority - the nobles - who can shapeshift into huge, people-sized birds that represent their family line. In Solanum the ruling family are swans. Everything is organised for the convenience of the nobles. For example, the roads are bad because the nobles don't use them, and the architecture reflects the fact that they arrive at places by flight (so there are landing platforms built into their dwellings). The majority of people are flightless, but they have few rights and little representation and are kept down (mostly) because the shapeshifting power of the nobles allows them to burn flightless with the slightest touch. Solanum is ruled by a monarchy, advised by a royal council and a larger body that represents the nobles, mostly following ancient laws known as Decrees. It's divided into six dominions, each of which is controlled by a Protector. 

- Aderyn's our way into the world of Solanum - a noblewoman who is drawn into Solanum's politics in A Throne of Swans. Can you talk a bit about where we find Aderyn at the start of A Crown of Talons?

[Spoiler alert!] A Crown Of Talons picks up about three months after the events at the end of A Throne Of Swans, when Aderyn decided to enter into a political marriage with her cousin, Aron, in order to save her lover, Lucien, and stop the country falling into civil war. She is now queen, and is trying to steer the country towards reform (particularly with regard to the treatment of the flightless) at the same time as searching for the villains (no names because spoilers!) who fled at the end of Swans. She's also dealing with the emotional trauma of trying to be happy in her marriage while still being in love with Lucien. Into this mix is thrown another problem: the flightless of Celonia, a neighbouring country, have risen up and driven out the nobles. Aderyn tries to steer a line between giving sanctuary to the Celonians and stopping Solanum being drawn into a war, or ending up embroiled in its own revolution. There are plots everywhere!

- There are! I love it! It’s such a brilliant idea to retell Swan Lake. I remember seeing the ballet once as a child and reading A Throne of Swans gave me exactly the same feeling of poetry and romance and graceful, magical danger. What inspired you when you first came up with the idea?

We've both always enjoyed watching ballet, and Kate and one of her daughters takes ballet lessons too. It was her daughter who first suggested Swan Lake as a source of inspiration. But we decided straight away we didn't want to do a retelling that stuck too closely to the original, particularly since we were more interested in the villains: what caused Rothbart (the evil wizard) to turn Odette into a swan, and why did his daughter Odile go along with it? Aderyn was called Odile in our original draft, and eagle eyed readers will spot from the family tree that Aderyn's father is indeed named Rothbart.

- A Crown of Talons has, from the outset, an incredible sense of menace and claustrophobia. We don’t know who Aderyn can trust, even amongst the characters we’ve come to know and love. Do you have any tips on how to create that atmosphere and feeling of paranoia, for any writers reading this who are crafting stories with political or thriller elements?

There is a lot of politics in Talons, and we found that writing in the first person helped with developing that sense of menace - as a reader you're really up close with Aderyn's thoughts and plans, and her sense of anxiety - and sometimes panic - comes through. It's also helpful to thread hints through the story. For example, we included a scene in Swans where Aderyn overhears Lucien dictating a letter in the middle of the night. It's not until about a third of the way through Talons that particular bird comes home to roost, so to speak! We were constantly sowing little seeds of doubt as we went along, trying to keep the reader on the edge of their seat!

- You succeeded! The world of Solanum is so rich and detailed, and we see a lot more of it in A Crown of Talons. How much of the world building - the Pyre Flames, the litanies, the other islands (which I won’t talk about in detail in case of spoilers!) etc - did you work out before writing A Throne of Swans and how much did you invent as you drafted?

We worked out most of it as we were drafting. We knew up front that we wanted the setting to have the feel of the English eighteenth century. So for example they have telescopes and clocks but they don't know what fossils are. We also had in our head the sort of things that we'd need to think about to build a convincing world: social structure, religion, geography, history and so on. But we didn't have all the details pinned down in advance; the world almost revealed itself to us as we were writing it, if that makes sense.

- Your first series - The Witch's Kiss - was a trilogy. How different is it to plot a duology as opposed to a trilogy?

With The Witch's Kiss we knew we wanted to take the classic trilogy approach of having the second book end up in a dark place; book two ends on a cliff hanger with no certainty that either of the two main characters are going to survive. With the duology, we decided that we needed the first book to have an ending that wasn't a cliff hanger as such but that did leave very obvious questions to be answered.

- I understand that as a writing duo, Katharine is the one responsible for character deaths and Liz is the one trying to save them? I love that! Has your writing dynamic changed at all over the years that you’ve been writing together?

It's remained remarkably constant, especially re the killing / saving aspect! If anything, it's become a little smoother. We both know what our strengths are now so we have no difficulty dividing up the work in a way that best reflects that.

- Are you able to tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

We would love to but it's still under wraps right now! Hopefully later this year we'll be able to spill the beans... 

- I can't wait! Right, finally, which actors would you want to play Aderyn, Aron and Lucien in a screen adaptation of the books?

That's a tough one! We're not great at picking actors, but here goes: -

Aderyn - Florence Pugh

Lucien - Xolo Maridueña

Aron - Luke Newton (though he'd have to dye his hair!)

I love love love these choices! Thanks so much, Kate and Liz - it's been a total pleasure.

Thank you so much for having us on the blog, Holly!

You can buy A Throne of Swans here, A Crown of Talons here and The Witch's Kiss here. They are beautiful, evocative YA fantasies with hauntingly dark edges.


Holly worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her debut novel, Midnight's Twins, is published by Hot Key Books. Its sequel, A Gathering Midnight, will be released in June 2021. She also selectively undertakes freelance script editing and story consultant work.

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