Gabriela Houston is a Polish-born British author with a knack for spinning myths into captivating modern retellings. Hot on the heels of her debut novel, The Second Bell (out from Angry Robot Books), comes her middle-grade book The Wind Child.
In anticipation of the book’s release, I have had the pleasure of talking to Gabriela about the inspirations behind the book and her unique take on Slavic folklore.
- What drew you to adopting Slavic folklore in your fantasy works?
I’m Polish, and the Slavic fairy tales were a big part of my early childhood. As I grew, I became more interested in other nations’ mythologies: Greek, Norse, and Japanese especially. But there was always this sense that there is this whole world I haven’t truly explored. And Slavic mythology is so full of wonder, and darkness, and adventure, it’s very much worth sharing.
- What was the most challenging aspect of working with Slavic folk figures and narratives?
There is very little in the way of consistency in the source materials. Unlike its Norse or Ancient Roman counterparts, Slavic mythology was never contemporarily put into a set text, detailing the pantheon and the roles of the individual spirits and creatures. What we know now, has been carefully pieced together by archeologists, comparative linguists, historians and ethnographers from folktales, songs and archeological finds. The resulting image is incomplete, and sometimes contradictory.
On the upside, writing Slavic-folklore-inspired fiction is not an exercise in academic accuracy. Like a magpie, I swoop in towards the shiny bits of research and weave them into something new. And the ambiguity around a lot of the mythological elements gives me more freedom than if I was writing novels inspired by, say, Ancient Egyptian mythology.
- I am fascinated by the Gamayun figure. What’s her story?
Gamayun was a half-eagle, half-woman, sometimes described as a creature serving the fates.
In The Wind Child, I was very interested in the complexity of belonging to more than one world. Mara, the protagonist, feels ever pulled by the two sides of her heritage, the human and the godly. Looking more like one than the other doesn’t erase the complexity of her being, and it’s something she has to come to terms with as well. Her best friend, Torniv, feels like an outcast, being the son of an absent Botrish mother, and brought up among those who despise him for it. In following Mara he ends up choosing another double existence, as it were, by becoming a bear-shifter.
In exploring those issues, I thought Gamayun would be the perfect bridge between the worlds for the two protagonists. She is the guardian of the half-things, as she describes herself, and very far from the cold perfection of the gods and the suspiciousness of the humans. She has the qualities of kindness and understanding, which are so precious and so necessary, to a child especially.
- Were there any differences between Slavic and Western supernatural beings that particularly surprised you during your research?
I wouldn’t say they surprised me, as I grew up reading both. There are some elements to Slavic folklore which are dictated by the complexities of the geopolitical landscape of the lands they stemmed from. It’s also crucial to me to separate what we know of the old Slavic mythologies from the later, Christianity-influenced interpretations.
It is my view that the ancient Slavs valued the following of the rules that secured a certain balance between the human and the spirit- and the natural worlds. Those rules might not be in your favour, but they will always be followed, even by the most vicious of creatures. And something that features prominently in Slavic folklore, for example, that I haven’t noticed to the same degree in, say, Norse mythologies, is the importance placed on the qualities of kindness and gratitude. A hero who is open and generous towards the feared and the unwanted is always rewarded, while the shifty tricksters are rejected by the humans and the gods alike.
- In both The Second Bell and The Wind Child, protagonists are raised effectively by single parents. What led you to explore this family dynamic?
I’m interested in the stories that focus on the complexities of family relationships, often in their multi-generational context.
In The Second Bell, the two main protagonists are mother and daughter, who are rejected by their own people, one because she values her child above the laws of her society, and the other for the qualities she was born with. I was interested in exploring the closeness as well as the insularity of the bond between the two of them. I wanted to show how the need to protect doesn’t just go from parent to child, but is a mutual push and pull of love, duty, and the need to keep the people we love safe and happy, even at great personal cost.
The Wind Child, in a way, is a continuation of that line of thinking. How far a child, bonded strongly with one of the parents, would go to keep that parent from harm. What would they go through to avoid having to say goodbye.
Mara’s loneliness and sense of isolation in The Wind Child, is profound, and so is her need to hold onto the one relationship which kept her grounded in her early childhood. Mara’s mother, the goddess Zevena, is a cold and distant figure, with no malice perhaps, but for a child like Mara, Zevena is simultaneously too much to strive to match, and too little when it comes to the affection and reassurance she needs.
- You describe Dogoda with stag antlers. Why that particular choice?
I like the concept of the unsettled form of the wind spirits. Shape-shifting is a very prominent motif in Slavic folklore, and it made sense for me to show this link between the God of Summer Winds and the nature we see in the summer: the lushness, the thriving life. And stag is a powerful symbol of all of that. Also, I thought it looked cool!1
- Where are Mara and Torniv going next?
The Wind Child completes the arc of Mara’s journey to rescue her father, but along the way she stirs up a lot of trouble. I hope to be able to show the world how she gets out of it in volume two, but the Gods of Book Sales must be on my side in this to allow me to release it.
The Wind Child comes out in February 2022 from UCLan Publishing, and you can read Fab’s review of it here.
1 An indulgent question on my part, since I study all manner of horned and antlered creatures in literature. In Western Europe and the US they are most likely to be based on the Horned God, a pagan deity of animals and wilderness. But it is fascinating to see how enduring this motif is across cultures and historical periods. And Gabriela is absolutely right – it does look very cool!