The Cages We Create, a guest post by Kate J. Armstrong
I was sipping a champagne cocktail in a 1920s-themed speakeasy and thinking about magic. Well, not magic, exactly, but an idea I’d had some months before. I’d had this image of an opulent room and a girl in a feathered mask, kissing a boy who had paid for the favor. She was giving him something else, too: magic. Why all the masks and the secrecy? I wondered. Why would she give away such a powerful piece of herself?
I was still asking that question in that bar in New York City. The place was clearly meant to transport you back in time to the 1920s, that time of sparkling flappers, sultry music, and shadowy, illicit feeling thrill. It had me thinking about that era’s Prohibition. The way the ban on booze made drinking dangerous, and thus accidentally made it glamorous, turning what had been a commonplace substance into a symbol of rebellion, decadence, and status. I thought about how the rich could often drink without much consequence, while those with less were often the ones who suffered most under the law. I thought about how, in chasing alcohol into the shadows, Prohibition also created a dangerous underworld that made its own rules.
And then I thought: what if, in that masked girl’s world, there was a Prohibition around magic? What if the rarest and most powerful kind wasn’t a commodity you could bottle, but something intrinsic to women? What would happen if a coveted, illegal, morally controversial power was something only girls could claim?
That was how Nightbirds took shape. There are two types of magic in this world: alchemical and intrinsic. The first is conjured by alchemists, brewed up with plants and clever hands. It can be used as medicine, but also as recreation, distilled into cocktails that will let you speak another language for a handful of minutes or see more clearly in the dark. It is expensive, it effects fleeting, and deadly if brewed badly (much like 1920s bootleg). But the most valuable magic is intrinsic, passed through bloodlines and only found in young women.
Enter the Nightbirds, and specifically in this story, Matilde, Sayer, and Æsa: a secret group of girls who can gift their magic with just a kiss. And they do, for a price, gifting it back to the city’s Great Houses, who protect them from the religious zealots who would see them as blasphemous and from the Wardens who police the law. Prohibition wasn’t written to police these girls, exactly – such magic is thought by most to be extinct – but it also wasn’t built to protect them. Who knows what would happen if the wider world found out what they could do? The Great Houses know how valuable they are, and thus they keep their identities secret. The girls are expected to serve for a couple of seasons, then marry someone in the Great Houses and pass their magic on to future generations, making those families more influential and powerful than before. In return they are treasured, valued, and safe. All their lives, they have been given certain truths: secrecy is safety. The system was built to protect them. A Nightbird can only ever give her magic to others—never use it for herself. These rules are summed up in the secret phrase they often utter to each other: Fly carefully. But it isn’t long before Matilde, Sayer, and Æsa start to wonder if the rules they’ve been given might exploit rather than protect them, realizing it might just be a gilded cage. What would happen, I wondered, if they started questioning those rules, stopped giving their power away to others and started keeping it for themselves?
The Nightbirds system felt like a powerful means of exploring the cages girls in the real world so often finds themselves unwittingly pushed into. As I wrote this novel, I was thinking a lot about the frustrations, expectations, and limitations placed on girls; how often they are told to be nice, quiet, and accommodating, to fit into roles they didn’t ask for or make. It’s about how often girls with power and opinions are found threatening, even dangerous. The Nightbirds system gave me a chance to probe at issues of female power and agency, picking apart at the many ways in which we punish and shame girls for wanting to be loud and independent. It’s about girls pushing back against the structures designed to contain and control them. It’s also about finding strength in female friendship. So often we see girls pitted against each other, but I wanted my girls to find that their magic got stronger when they worked together. In friendship, and their growing bonds with other magical girls outside the Nightbirds system, they find a strength they didn’t have before.
Nightbirds is a fiercely feminist fantasy: a potent cocktail full of intrigue and glamor, but also questions about girls trying to claim their power and find their voices. I hope it’s one that will make readers feel the same thrill I did in that speakeasy, thinking about girls in feathered masks and the potential to be found in female power.
Meet the author
Kate J. Armstrong has always had a fondness for adventure. After graduating college, she left her home state of Virginia and has never really looked back. She’s explored many places and vocations, working as a high school English teacher and a nonfiction writer and editor for publishers such as National Geographic. In 2018, she started The Exploress, a women’s history podcast with a cult following and over half a million downloads. She is also the co-host of Pub Dates, a podcast that takes readers backstage to join her on the road to publication for her debut book, Nightbirds. When she’s not writing or recording, you will find Kate hiking mountains, crafting cocktails, finding excuses to dress up in historical attire, or reading way past her bedtime. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and their noble greyhound, Galahad.
Author website: https://www.katejarmstrong.com
Pub Dates: https://pubdates.libsyn.com
In a dazzling new fantasy world full of whispered secrets and political intrigue, the magic of women is outlawed but four girls with unusual powers have the chance to change it all.
The Nightbirds are Simta’s best-kept secret: Girls with a unique and powerful magic they can gift with just a kiss. Some would kill to possess them; the church would kill them outright. But’protect’d by the Great Houses, the Nightbirds are well-guarded treasures.
As this Season’s Nightbirds, Matilde, Æsa, and Sayer will spend their nights bestowing their gifts to well-paying clients. Once their season is through, they’re each expected to marry a Great House lord and become mothers to the next generation of Nightbirds before their powers fade away. But as they find themselves at the heart of a political scheme that threatens not only their secrets, but their very lives, their future suddenly becomes uncertain.
When they discover that there are other girls like them and that their magic is far more than they were told, they see the Nightbird system for what it is: a gilded cage. Now they must make a choice—to remain kept birds or take control, remaking the city that dared to clip their wings.
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Publication date: 02/28/2023
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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