Two young witches, once inseparable, are set at odds by secrets and wildly dangerous magic.
In the waning days of World War II, with Allied victory all but certain, desperate Nazi diabolists search for a demonic superweapon to turn the tide. A secluded castle somewhere in the south of Germany serves as a laboratory for experiments conducted upon human prisoners, experiments as vile as they are deadly.
Across the English Channel, tucked into the sleepy Cumbrian countryside, lies the Library, the repository of occult knowledge for the Société des Éclairées, an international organization of diabolists. There, best friends Jane Blackwood and Miriam Cantor, tutored by the Société’s Librarian—and Jane’s mother—Nancy, prepare to undergo the Test that will determine their future as diabolists.
When Miriam learns her missing parents are suspected of betraying the Société to the Nazis, she embarks on a quest to clear their names, a quest involving dangerous diabolic practices that will demand more of her than she can imagine. Meanwhile Jane, struggling with dark obsessions of her own, embraces a forbidden use of the Art that could put everyone she loves in danger.
As their friendship buckles under the stress of too many secrets, Jane and Miriam will come face to face with unexpected truths that change everything they know about the war, the world, and most of all themselves. After all, some choices cannot be unmade–and a sacrifice made with the most noble intention might end up creating a monster.
* * *
Writing from experience can add verisimilitude to a fantastical narrative…
Creatures of Charm and Hunger is set at the tail end of WWII, in the Cumbria region of England (very near the place where Beatrix Potter lived, wrote, and drew). Miriam, one of the co-tagonists, is a 15-year-old German Jew who has been living with English family friends for years, after her parents sent her away. Miriam, her friend Jane, and Jane’s mother Nancy are all diabolists—they summon demons and traffic with them.
A lot of that is well beyond my experience, it’s true! So, to anchor the narrative I made a few choices. I decided to tell a story about being frustrated about feeling ineffective in a world gone mad, which is something highly relatable to most of us I’d guess. Of wanting to spread one’s wings and getting angry when they feel clipped. And I decided to inject a little of my own experience of having a complicated identity. Miriam is actually half-Jewish—or not Jewish at all, depending on how Talmudic one wishes to get about it. That’s my life, too. My father was Jewish, my mother is not, and I grew up not knowing how to feel about it. We didn’t do a lot of Jewish things, and I knew I wasn’t technically Jewish, but growing up in rural Georgia in the 1980s meant I felt pretty Jewish when I’d experience bouts of antisemitism from my neighbors. So I decided to mine that strange sensation to give Miriam some (hopefully) realistic characterization as a counterpoint to her using diabolic astral projection to kill Nazis.
…but writing truthfully, from outside of one’s experience, is crucial in other ways
While I consider myself a fantasist, I also consider myself a realist. I write about people, and I spend a lot of time trying to craft realistic interactions between those people, even when they’re in speculative situations. And one of my missions in my Diabolist’s Library series was to write about people from all walks of life interacting with demons and diablerie. So, Creatures of Will and Temper had lesbian romance and a bit of straight romance too in with the fencing and the art and the secret societies; Creatures of Want and Ruin featured a healthy polyamorous relationship as a counterpoint to the rigid moralism of the villains, and in Creatures of Charm and Hunger I’ve got an ace character, Jane, and a coalition of diabolists of all sorts teaming up to fight Nazis. Researching asexuality, as well as everything else, helped me understand my world a bit better, and also served to increase the realism of a fantastical narrative.
Joy moments are crucial, especially for dark stories
Years ago now I read a review of Prometheus, the now-notorious Alien sequel that featured some real head-scratchers like male-only surgery pods, gay impregnation panic, and scientists who don’t seem to know a whole lot of, well, science, that remarked upon how there is only one real moment of genuine joy in the film. They pointed to that scene where the cyborg (or whatever; I’m not googling it) played by Michael Fassbender stumbles upon a bunch of glowing technology balls (I really do refuse to google) and looks upon them in awe and astonishment. Fassbender seems to have an experience of the sublime in that moment, one that stands in stark, regrettable contrast to the scientists and explorers, who come across as both tense and inattentive most of the time. That sort of filmmaking doesn’t exactly inspire the audience to feel much (for another example of this, see the dour “space sure is boring” turkey Ad Astra). There’s no wonder, no sense of anticipation or excitement felt by anyone on board the ship when they land on Alien Planet. One wonders why they became scientists at all!
Fassbender’s joy moment is indeed so remarkable that it was used widely as the image associated with the film. And there’s something instructive in this—something I thought about when writing Creatures of Charm and Hunger. Creatures of Charm and Hunger is a dark story, about war, about the perils of growing up and the perils of refusing to, about what drives us to want to be seen and what drives us to wish not to see. And when I read my draft through the first time, I saw a lack in it—the same lack Prometheus has. No joy moments. And these girls—they’re teen diabolists doing fantastical things with bizarre reagents. There needed to be moments of “oh fuck this is so COOL” in there with all the big feelings of anxiety and pain and rage and uncertainty.
Figuring out “how magic works” is not for me…
The biggest thing I learned working on Creatures of Charm and Hunger is that I freaking hate writing about “how magic works.” And I’m pants at it it, too—my agent told me to cut most, if not all of the specifics of diabolism from the novel. I was only too happy to; it was not good writing. Lampshading it was the right choice, narratively and aesthetically, but even dialed-back it felt overwhelming to make choices of that sort. I hated it so much I texted a writer friend of mine the following:
Just in case…
Every writer has things they do well and things that challenge them. I learned from Creatures and Charm and Hunger that figuring out how magic works isn’t for me—and that’s okay! It’s something I’ll think about moving forward, since I don’t plan on stopping writing magical and fantastical stories.
…but writing about cats sure is
Creatures of Charm and Hunger is a cat book. “What’s a cat book?” you might ask, if you’re not a cat person. But cat people… we know that all books with a prominent cat in them are “cat books.” Sabriel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bunnicula, The Castle of Llyr, The Master and Margarita—the list goes on and on. Cats end up in books because cats add a certain zest or whimsy to a narrative, and a prominent cat sticks in the mind, especially a well-written one.
Smudge, the cat in Creatures of Charm and Hunger is largely based on my own cat, the Toad. Toad… oh man, the Toad. He has always been a challenging kitty. Yes, I know the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic about how everyone (except replicants) thinks their cat is special, but as a life-long cat owner, I’ll tell you what: the Toad is a mess. (I hand raised him, and he has a lot of the problems that come from that, as well as other, weirder ones.) But, he’s my best boy, and I used a lot of his quirkiness to give life to Smudge, who ends up being even more unusual than most cats. Which is saying something…
I said above that I love writing people. It turns out, I love writing from life. Studying the Toad to add realism to my depictions of Smudge was no hardship. Most cat people will happily drop what they are doing to watch their cat clean their ears for minutes at a time! But this, for me, was different. I wasn’t just staring at him through my usual haze of toxoplasmosis; I was watching him to capture him, as I do with people. I’d never written a book with a prominent animal companion in it before, and I liked it so much, my next book is going to have one, too.
* * *
Molly Tanzer is the author of The Diabolist’s Library trilogy: Creatures of Will and Temper, the Locus Award-nominated Creatures of Want and Ruin, and Creatures of Charm and Hunger. She is also the author of the indie weird western Vermilion, an io9 and NPR “Best Book” of 2015, and the British Fantasy Award-nominated collection, A Pretty Mouth. For more information about her novels, her appearances, and her critically acclaimed short fiction, visit mollytanzer.com, or (better) follow her @molly_the_tanz on Twitter or @molly_tanzer on Instagram. She lives outside of Boulder, CO with her cat, the Toad.