Over the past few years, we've been reading Sarah Beth Durst's Queens of Renthia series, each new installment even better than the last. Every book features strong female heroines facing incredible odds, showing women of different ages and backgrounds forced to make difficult decisions that may change the course of their lives—and the fate their kingdoms. In our Q&A, Durst shares some insights into her female-focused fantasy novels and the inspiration behind their conception.
You’ve written many middle grade books before you started on the Queens of Renthia series. What made you decide to tackle adult fiction?
When I was a kid, I used to tape together all the scrap paper I could find and draw giant maps of imaginary worlds. I always thought that someday I’d write epic fantasy novels about those worlds. So this wasn’t a decision to do something new—it was more of a return to an early love.
The truth is that I love fantasy—all of it, from glitter-pooping unicorns to eternally snarky vampires to queens with the power to control armies of bloodthirsty nature spirits. I’m drawn to stories with an element of the impossible, and it’s the story itself that determines whether it’s best suited for middle grade, YA, or adult.
The world of Renthia lives in a tense, symbiotic relationship with nature spirits that often turn violent. What gave you the idea for Renthia and how did you know where to start telling this story?
I fell over. Seriously, this trilogy was born in a moment of extreme klutziness. A couple of years ago, I was at a writing retreat in the Poconos. I’d just arrived, and I was walking up to my cabin—every writer was given an adorable cabin nestled in the woods. I was admiring the trees, the bird song, the frolicking deer . . . and I tripped over the step to the porch and fell flat on my face. Cut my lip, tasted blood, and thought, “Bloodthirsty nature spirits!”
As to knowing where to start . . . I actually started with what is now book two. I wrote about ninety pages of THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, and my amazing editor at Harper Voyager, David Pomerico, said, “Can this be book two?” I said sure, and now I can’t imagine the series existing without THE QUEEN OF BLOOD. It was absolutely the right place to start, with Daleina’s story.
I began the trilogy with a glimpse into Daleina’s childhood: the moment she should have been chosen for a very special destiny . . . but she wasn’t.
Daleina is an un-Chosen One. She’s a mediocre student who has to work twice as hard to even be on the same playing field as her classmates. But she is determined to save her family and her people. I wanted to write about someone whose true magic is her determination. Daleina makes her own destiny.
In Renthia, only women can hold the power to control spirits. Why was it so important for your world to give women this unique ability?
My childhood heroes were Alanna the Knight Protector, Polgara the Sorceress, Harimad-sol, Menolly with her fire lizards, the Queen’s Own Talia . . . So when I sat down to write my own epic adventures, I knew I wanted to write about kickbutt women. I wanted to create characters like the ones who inspired me and who taught me how to be brave and how to reach for my dreams.
In the third novel, The Queen of Sorrow, you also tell the origin story of the spirits and how they came to hate humans so much. Did you always know this about the spirits, or was it something that you discovered along the way? And what was your overall plotting process like for the trilogy?
I love discovering things along the way. One of my favorite characters, the poison-maker Garnah, didn’t exist in the original outline. She waltzed into the story, and I loved her so much that she stayed.
But the core worldbuilding for Renthia . . . the heart of the magic . . . I knew that from the very beginning. I’d decided on the origin of the spirits before I even wrote chapter one.
Many fantasy novels follow the “common person discovers they are special” or “chosen one” tropes, but in the first book of the series, The Queen of Blood, you turn that on its head. Daleina, the protagonist, isn’t incredibly gifted but works hard to pass her classes and aspires to better the world around her. Why did you want to tell the story of a “normal” woman just trying to do the best she could?
I am still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts. (Maybe Errol was supposed to deliver it?) So yes, I do adore Chosen One stories. But with The Queens of Renthia, I wanted to write about ordinary people doing the extraordinary.
One of the things that I think fantasy does best is tell stories of hope. Little guy conquers the massive evil, love conquers hate, friendship wins, etc. —there’s a long history of these themes in fantasy literature, and it’s one of the things that drew me to the genre in the first place. I love stories that say if you work hard enough, care deeply enough, you can save the world.
The next novel in the series, The Reluctant Queen, follows Naelin, a woman of great power who is also a mother of two. It’s rare to see a fantasy protagonist trying to learn her power while simultaneously caring for her children. What drew you to writing a heroine who also has a young family? Why do you think this type of mother is so rare in fantasy novels?
When I created Naelin, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that there aren’t many middle-age moms who kick butt in fantasy novels. I was just focused on creating a character who made the most sense for the story I wanted to tell.
For The Queen of Blood, I played with the trope of the Chosen One. So for The Reluctant Queen, I decided to tackle the trope of the reluctant hero. I love tropes! Fulfilling them. Subverting them. Ripping them apart and seeing what makes them tick . . . So for my reluctant hero, I thought, “What if I give my character a reason to be reluctant that is legitimate—a reason that I agree with?”
In other words, what if she’s right?
Naelin is afraid that if she uses her power, she will draw spirits to her, and they’ll most likely kill her and leave her children motherless. And she is absolutely right—using her power will dramatically increase the risk for both herself and her children. Naelin is far more interested in saving her children than the rather nebulous (and impossible) goal of saving the world.
I loved writing Naelin. And I think there should be more moms out there facing down monsters! Why should adventures be only for the young?
The Queen of Sorrow expands the world of of Renthia, taking readers to new lands across the world you’ve created. How did you approach this novel knowing that you’d be leaving Daleina and Naelin’s kingdom of Aratay and introducing new places?
I had so much fun writing about the other lands! Renthia is a world with out-of-control nature spirits, and so as a result, it’s full of the extremes of nature: Lothlorien-size trees with cities nestled in their branches, mountains so high they pierce the sky, and glaciers that seem endless, with ice palaces hidden in their hearts.
Much of this trilogy takes place in Aratay, the forest kingdom, where people live high above the ground and traverse their land via massive ziplines. But The Queen of Sorrow also ventures into the mountain land of Semo, and there are glimpses into some of the other places as well. I’d been imagining these other lands ever since I first sketched out the map of Renthia. I hope readers enjoy visiting them as much as I enjoyed writing them!
This is the last book in the Queens of Renthia series, but will you be revisiting this world again in future novels?
Yes! I just finished revising a standalone novel set in Renthia, in the islands of Belene. An all new story with all new characters—and a lot of sea monsters! It’s called The Deepest Blue, and it will be out in 2019.
Who are some of the women fantasy writers who have inspired your writing?
So many to choose from!
Some of my favorites: Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia A. McKillip, Patricia C. Wrede, Diane Duane, Madeline L’Engle, Tanya Huff, Lois McMaster Bujold, Margaret Mahy, Gail Carson Levine, J.K. Rowling, Susan Cooper . . . And I’m inspired by more recent writers as well, such as Laini Taylor, Rae Carson, and Jessica Day George . . .
I am so grateful to all of them for creating wonderful worlds that I want to visit again and again and characters who will live in my heart forever.
Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of sixteen fantasy books for adults, teens, and kids, including The Queens of Renthia series, Drink Slay Love, and The Stone Girl's Story. She won an ALA Alex Award and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and has been a finalist for SFWA's Andre Norton Award three times. She is a graduate of Princeton University, where she spent four years studying English, writing about dragons, and wondering what the campus gargoyles would say if they could talk. Sarah lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat.