It’s been 15 years since Alison Croggon introduced readers world over to the land of Annar and the Bards who live there in her popular Books of Pellinor. The fantasy quartet follows the saga of Maerad, a young slave girl who discovers she is the inheritor of a powerful gift, one that marks her as not only a Bard of the School of Pellinor but also the chosen one destined to save their world. Together with the help of her mentor (and eventual romantic interest) Cadvan, and younger brother Hem (once known as Cai), Maerad sets out to fight an otherworldly evil that threatens it.
Croggon’s latest book, The Bone Queen, returns to that world — only 50 years before the events of The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing — and sees Cadvan go up against its titular villain, a cruel, tyrannical being unleashed onto all of Annar by the Bard of Lirigon himself. But with darkness gathering, his mentor Nelac and rival Dernhil figure she might still linger yet, while another young Bard, Selmana, is troubled by an ominous presence and her new ability to travel between worlds. So to assuage his own guilt, and face up to his darker past, a younger Cadvan must earn the Bards’ trust and join forces with Selmana to bring down the Bone Queen.
With The Bone Queen celebrating Croggon’s return to the world of Pellinor, and this year marking the 15th anniversary of the book’s premiere, EW spoke to Croggon about her inspirations for the series, what it was like writing younger Cadvan, and whether she’ll ever revisit the world again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to write a prequel to The Books of Pellinor?
ALISON CROGGON: When I finished the series, I was like, “It took me 10 years. I can never write a long book ever again in my whole life.” But also, I felt that story was finished, and that I’d completed it. But when you start a book, it’s whether that idea starts possessing you, and I was thinking about the Bone Queen and Cadvan and that tiny story in The Gift and his past. That was the genesis. It was another story I felt I could write.
I’d forgotten this about the earlier series, but once again you frame The Bone Queen like it was a “found text.” Is there any particular reason you decided to approach the books that way?
It actually came after I wrote the story. As you know, there’s a lot of world building in The Gift, and quite early in the writing of the book my editor at the time suggested footnotes. But I was like, “I don’t want to do footnotes.” So, it ended up I liked the conceit of them being translated texts and all the about what that meant, and these made-up histories and libraries of texts that people were examining. It was fun. I was mildly making fun of some of my academic friends. But I was also thinking about On Exactitude In Science by Borges, and how it did have footnotes, and getting this really dizzy kind of feeling when I was reading it because I was believing the story as I read it as if it was actually real, as if it was a nonfiction text, not a fictional one, even though I knew perfectly well it was a fictional text. I liked that, but of course, when it was published I was really astonished that people thought it was real. I was quite embarrassed. I got a really bad review from someone who said, “Oh, well, it’s not very original, because it’s a translated text.” And I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not!
Was Tolkien one of the influences for the books? Because there is a sprawling mythology in them.
Yeah. I started writing the Pellinor books when my kids grew up enough to reread all the books I loved as a kid. So I reread things like Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, which was another big influence, and Tolkien, and a bunch of other books. I just remembered my first ambition. When I was 10 and I read The Lord of the Rings, I was like, “I’m going to write a fantasy book.” So I sat down and I actually wrote quite a lot with my special black fountain pen. And then I threw it away when I was 14 because it was my juvenilia. I’ve always regretted that. But, 30 years later, I suddenly remembered that ambition to write a fantasy book. That’s how [the series] started, basically.
But by then obviously I had grown up and I also knew, as much as I loved The Lord of the Rings, and I still do, it’s also racist and sexist. I read the whole thing to my daughter when she was 10 and she paid no attention except when there were girls in the story. Then she’d wake up. Only there are not a lot of girls in all those pages of The Lord of the Rings. So I was also thinking of the Chronicles of Pellinor as a kind of counter-argument. “What if there was this fairly utopian world where people were actually equal and it wasn’t even a question?” There are women in authority, just as there are men in authority. So that was one of the things behind it.
That’s one of the reasons I loved the books so much. But also because it features one of my favorite scenes ever, which is when Maerad experiences her first period. It was so funny, but also so relatable.
I thought it was hilarious myself. I made the mistake of reading it to a class of 10-year-old boys once. That went down eventfully. [Laughs] They got really quiet. But yes. The whole of The Gift is structured around Maerad’s period. So every significant event occurs when she has her period. Like when she’s really powerful when she discovers her power, all that kind of stuff. It’s all subtextual, but that was how I was writing it.
That’s fascinating! What made you decide to do it?
Just simply that this is power. This thing that’s thought of as generally impolite and unspeakable, something we don’t mention, is a part of our lives. When we first meet Maerad, she’s pretty stunted in a way because she’s had this brutalized upbringing. She’s a bit backward in some ways, socially and sexually, and she hasn’t had her period. So she’s quite old when [her period] does happen. Maerad’s awakening into herself is a whole thing. That’s what these books are about, Maerad discovering herself, and also relationships and love. Of course, part of that is sexual awakening. The thing about menstruation is, it’s part of maturity. So she’s growing up and becoming who she is.
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What would you say is the benefit of having a fantasy set around a young teenage girl?
I wanted to take all those tropes, because I love them and they’re very satisfying, and I wanted to use all those things because they’re so compelling. But I wanted to see how they could be outdone a bit because the hero is always a man and there’s always a “return to order” and it’s always a patriarchal order. In the Pellinor books, that return is of a different kind. Also I started writing the books in the late ‘90s during the Balkans War, and part of it was wanting to write for young people. I wanted to write about things that mattered to me, like what it means to be human and, How do we relate to ourselves and the natural world? That’s what the Elementals [in the books] are. The natural world is not human and in many ways has nothing to do with us, and in a way, it must have its own autonomy. It’s not there to be exploited by human beings. It exists in its own right.
What were some of the inspirations for the whole Barding culture you came up with? That was one of my favorite things.
Well there were lots of inspirations. It was part of being a poet. I joked to a couple of friends that it was my essay on poetry. [Laughs] Bards obviously have got nothing to do with actual historical bards. So I was kind of drawing on the idea of the sacred, magical making, but developing it and making it in a way a lot more contemporary, if that makes sense. Because of course it was only men who were bards, with a couple of exceptions, and it’s a slight problem with poetry still sometimes… It was also the whole idea of an ideal community of learning and making and healing. All those things go together. In a very small way, I was pulling on things that I’ve experienced in artistic communities maybe that can be like that… I suppose it’s a formalized thing of the creativity that exists in everybody and how that is the thing that’s so often suppressed in our society. But it is actually a kind of magical thing that we can make things and we can make beautiful things. That’s one of the few things about human beings that’s really amazing. [Laughs] That we can do that and also that we can actually love people. So, it was just making a fantasy around that.
Maerad did have a crush on Cadvan when the series first kind of started. But when did you realize you wanted to see them together romantically?
I was ambivalent about that all the way through because Cadvan’s so much older than she ism — it could be so creepy. And how could that be an equal relationship? She also was really, just to me personally, important. As people were reading them I had so many fans writing me, shipping Cadvan and Maerad and I was like, “I can’t do this.” But then I was like, “No. Actually, why not?” But then it was about how to do this in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel creepy. Hopefully, it doesn’t feel that way because by then Maerad is herself and she does know who she is and she is as powerful as Cadvan. And he has respect for her as opposed to just being her mentor and being patronizing.
How has it been returning to Cadvan’s story? Did you feel like you learned anything interesting about him as a character? Was your writing process still the same?
It was really interesting writing a story where I didn’t want to put spoilers in for the later stories. I didn’t want it to form shadows in later stories. But obviously, I’ve changed and other things have changed. The world developed in this story in a different way. I really enjoyed writing that book, but it was kind of tricky because I had to make sure that everything was consistent while at the same time developed because I have all these eager readers who pick that up. These are things that get past proofreaders and editors and stuff. It’s really lovely, but I was also aware of that. And there are other characters in the story, like Saliman. I enjoyed writing him too. But the whole book is examining Cadvan’s guilt, his deserved guilt, and his attempts to redeem himself. So really he has to understand and take responsibility for what he’s done. And he’s done this really badly. So, you know, the whole book is driven by the idea of, what does it mean to forgive someone? It’s not an easy thing, it’s not a straightforward thing… It’s much more complicated than that.
There are four books and now a prequel. Have you thought about writing another prequel? Or another book in the series?
I don’t know. I was going for my morning walk this morning and I was thinking, maybe there’s [an idea]. It takes such a long time to write books. And it’s really hard to write a long book unless you really do have some really passionate reason that drives it, something that you really want to explore. That’s why I could write the Cadvan book. There was that whole question about the crime, redemption, and forgiveness. At some point I had thought about Maerad. [Laughs] If only you just think a book and then it would happen.