By Alaina Lavoie
Today we’re pleased to welcome Rebecca Kim Wells to the blog to discuss Briar Girls, out November 16, 2021!
The Cruel Prince meets A Curse So Dark and Lonely in this epic reimagining of “The Sleeping Beauty” that follows a teen girl on a quest to wake a sleeping princess in an enchanted forest, while searching for the truth behind her own deadly curse.
Lena has a secret: the touch of her skin can kill. Cursed by a witch before she was born, Lena has always lived in fear and isolation. But after a devastating mistake, she and her father are forced to flee to a village near the Silence, a mysterious forest with a reputation for luring people into the trees, never to be seen again…
Until the night an enigmatic girl stumbles out of the Silence and into Lena’s sheltered world. Miranda comes from the Gather, a city in the forest brimming with magic. She is on a quest to wake a sleeping princess believed to hold the key to liberating the Gather from its tyrannical ruler—and she offers Lena a bargain. If Lena assists her on her journey, Miranda will help her break the curse.
Mesmerized by Miranda and her promise of a new life, Lena jumps at the chance. But the deeper into the Silence she goes, the more she suspects she’s been lied to—about her family’s history, her curse, and her future. As the shadows close in, Lena must choose who to trust and decide whether it’s more important to have freedom…or power.
Briar Girls is inspired by Sleeping Beauty. What drew you to retell this story in this setting?
I have been in love with fairy tales and fairy tale retellings for as long as I can remember. One of my favorite books as a kid was Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine’s fantastic take on Cinderella. As I got older, I fell head over heels for Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, which is based on The Six Swans. So when I started writing seriously, riffing on my favorite stories came naturally. Briar Girls is more of an “inspired by” book than a direct retelling, but it used to have a much broader mishmash of fairy tale influences. The two that remain most prominently are Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. As far as Sleeping Beauty goes, I was never that impressed by the evil fairy that I found in Perrault’s version of the story, so I asked myself, why would the antagonist curse the princess, really? What do they stand to gain? And of course, I do love a good sinister forest. The setting of Briar Girls began to unfold from there. It’s also always important to me as a storyteller to portray complex, layered female characters. I hope I brought compelling depth to both my Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel analogs.
What do you think makes retellings so popular and what is it about classic stories that compel authors to turn to them again and again for inspiration?
I think retellings are popular in part because of the cultural permanence and simplicity of the original stories. Using the original stories as frames invites many readers into the narrative in a more active way, as they bring their own understanding of the original to their reading experience. And there are holes in every one of these classics that create opportunities for a writer to reinterpret or reimagine an entirely new adventure to their own liking. When I think about fairy tales, I’m always interested in the side characters, the antagonists. I love to ask “but why?” and see what answers come knocking.
How do you think Lena’s loneliness influenced her decisions, especially at the beginning of the story? What made you want to explore the ways that loneliness and desire can push people to do things they might not otherwise do?
At the beginning of Briar Girls, Lena’s loneliness is all-encompassing and unbearable. It drives every single one of her decisions until other emotions and understandings rise to the surface, and she finally begins to make decisions based on what she’s moving toward, not what she’s running from. I think all of my protagonists are at least a little lonely—they’re all a little apart from the communities that should embrace them. Obviously, Lena’s situation is the most extreme! But I don’t know that I necessarily set out with loneliness in the forefront of my mind. First I was thinking about betrayal. Lena is betrayed by so many people, including those she should be able to trust the most. Aside from the literal consequences of her curse, this betrayal is the cause of a lot of her loneliness. Part of her journey is realizing that even when she thought she was safest, she was being lied to—she’s always been more alone than she realized. That’s a really horrible epiphany. After that, of course, she would want to do whatever it takes to alleviate that aloneness.
If the characters in the last TV show you watched were thrown into the plot of Briar Girls, could they survive? How would the main character of that show deal with having a curse that if they touch someone with their skin, that person will die?
I’ve been watching Only Murders in the Building recently, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as true-crime podcast aficionados who live in the same building but are strangers to each other until there’s a real murder, and they decide to put together a podcast about it. I regret to say that I do not believe either Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) or Oliver Putnam (Short) would survive long in the plot of Briar Girls. While I do enjoy them immensely, they’re both too comfortable and too soft to get out of the deadly world of the Gather. (Sorry!) Mabel Mora (Gomez) would make it. She has strong survivor vibes. She’s also a loner, so it’s very possible that if she had Lena’s curse she’d just keep up her loner habits and use the curse as an excuse not to interact with people.
Many fantasy narratives deal with the fact that curses can also be opportunities if reclaimed by the character, and that powers and special abilities can turn into a curse. How do you feel about the duality of curses? How do you think Lena feels about it (without giving away spoilers)?
Firstly, I love the unexpected twists that a well-worded curse or spell can provide. Secondly, I am super into the duality of everything, not just curses. Light and darkness, protagonists and antagonists—nothing is ever all one or the other, at least not in my favorite fiction. I love the richness and complexity of gray areas where there are no easy answers. Lena does not, at least not at the beginning of her story. It’s easier for her to believe in a world where the witch who cursed her is evil and her father is good because that’s how she copes with the terrible restrictions on her life–even when there is clear evidence that the truth is not nearly so clean cut. It takes realizing that there are advantages to her curse, monstrous though it may be, to make Lena understand that nothing is as simple as she would like and that no one will tell her what the “right” answer is. It’s painful, but she has to confront the fact that she can be “good,” the type of good she’s been told her whole life is important, or she can be true to herself, but not both. She has to be the one to decide what she wants her own future to hold, make her own choices, and live with them—no matter the consequences.
If you could design your dream panel to promote this book, what would the panel be about? Who else would be on it with you?
This is such a difficult question! I suppose if I had to design a nonexistent panel promoting Briar Girls, it would be about very angry girls and I’d love to talk with Julie C. Dao, Maggie Tokuda-Hall, and Kylie Lee Baker.
What other books do you think Briar Girls is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming YA?
Briar Girls is a great story to pair with any book that asks you “but who are the good guys, actually?” and “what is the worth of being good, exactly?” It’s about learning and trusting who you are in an impossible world, and would pair well with books with protagonists who make difficult choices—not always the “right” ones—in complicated situations. I’d put it alongside books like Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Night Shine by Tessa Gratton, and Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman (all recommended!). As for other YA I’d recommend: Kylie Lee Baker’s The Keeper of Night is a fantasy steeped in folklore featuring a deliciously angry protagonist who is not pleased with the ways the world has mistreated her. Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is the queer anticolonial fantasy of my dreams, and I cannot wait to read her graphic novel Squad (with Lisa Sterle). Lastly, if you’re into gorgeous queer fairy tale retellings, pick up everything Anna-Marie McLemore has written. (I’m super excited to read their Gatsby remix Self-Made Boys, which will be out in 2022!)
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
“What are your favorite Bachelor-inspired books?” The current answer is One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London and The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun.
Rebecca Kim Wells writes books full of magic and fury (and often dragons). Her debut novel Shatter the Sky was a New England Book Award Finalist, an ALA Rainbow Book List selection, an Indies Introduce selection, and a Kids’ Indie Next Pick. She is also the author of Storm the Earth and Briar Girls.
Alaina Lavoie is a program manager at We Need Diverse Books and a book reviewer for Booklist. She has worked with WNDB since 2015, beginning as a volunteer and joining the staff in 2019. She also teaches in the MFA, MA, and BA programs of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Boston Globe Magazine, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Bitch, Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, and more, under the byline Alaina Leary. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife, their three literary cats, and a rainbow bookshelf. She is almost always covered in glitter.