Heather Rose Jones is a fantastic author whose historical fantasy books centre queer women and their lives and adventures. I’m a huge fan of her Alpennia series, and really looking forward to reading the newest standalone in it, Floodtide. I was lucky enough to hear her read from Floodtide at WorldCon over the summer, and I was instantly drawn into the little magics explored in it – charms to help with laundry, for example. I love how fantasy can open a window into the realities of life, and in this fascinating guest post, Heather explains a little bit about why and how she chose to focus on the smaller, day-to-day magics of women in her new book.
Magic in the Laundry
When I started developing the place of magic in the Alpennia series–long before I had any idea it would be a series – my basic principle was “stuff works.” What if (I asked myself) all the traditional practices, the rituals of folk religion, the charms and divinations, the prayers and curses, what if they all worked the way people expected them to? Maybe not consistently. Maybe not for everyone. Maybe not every time. But what if the right person, with the right skills, in the right context, using the right formulas… what if they could make stuff happen? And what if – maybe – they couldn’t always tell how they’d done it? Or even if they’d done it?
For the stories I wanted to tell, I needed ambiguous magics–things that you performed whether you knew they worked or not because… well, just because. Because that’s what people did. And sometimes they worked.
The protagonists of my first few books are most familiar with high magic. They participate in mystery guild ceremonies that are nearly indistinguishable from religious rituals. They celebrate religious rituals that sometimes have mystical effects. The first time Margerit Sovitre is consciously aware of participating in a miracle, she’s helping with a saint’s day festival and sees flowers bloom under her hands before their time. Antuniet Chazillen can just barely make out the mystical currents in her alchemical experiments, but she can feel the power in the gemstones those experiments produce. Luzie Valorin writes operas that raise powers she can neither sense nor understand.
But for Floodtide, the newest Alpennia novel, I wanted to focus on much smaller magics.
When you live at the bottom of society, when you have no power and very little money, every scrap of advantage and hope is meaningful. Maybe the old woman who sells charms in the marketplace is a fraud, but maybe her work has real power. Maybe that little bundle of cloth and thread will keep your husband from straying. Maybe the candle she blesses will bring luck to your business and the beer won’t go sour. Maybe if you say the charm she teaches you just right – and it has to be exactly right – your daughter’s fever will cool. That hope is worth a coin or two, isn’t it?
Rozild Pairmen isn’t a charmwife. She doesn’t know how to call luck or cool fevers. She’s just a laundry maid, but she knows charms for getting stains out and making better soap. At least, that’s what her Aunt Gaita said they’d do so it makes sense to use them.
That is, Rozild was a laundry maid until someone told the housekeeper what she’d been up to with Nan under the covers at night. Now she’s standing in the cold outside Madame Dominique’s dress shop begging for a chance to start over and learn the trade she’s been dreaming of.
Her apprenticeship as a seamstress wasn’t supposed to include magic, but Dominique’s daughter Celeste has one of the rarest magical talents: the ability to see magic at work and know which charms are true and which are false. It’s a dangerous skill. The women who sell magic in the market are jealous of their stock in trade and some of that trade won’t stand up to scrutiny.
Roz’s friendship with Celeste pulls her deeper into the world of the charmwives, even as fate hands her a chance at a higher ambition than she dared dreamed of. All she would need to give up is her apprenticeship and the friendships she has woven around her. Then the river begins to rise and those friendships may prove more important than any of them know.
One of the things I love in researching magic for these books is discovering the diversity of practices and symbolic systems that have existed side by side with the streams of knowledge that survived the test of science and experiment. Within the framework of knowledge that people had in pre-modern times, magical practices were often as effective – or ineffective – as formal medicine. But I’m even more interested in how closely those magical systems of knowledge sometimes came to truth without knowing it.
When I was creating the rules for how Antuniet’s magical gemstones were created, I compared alchemical practices and the earliest manufacturing techniques for synthetic gemstones and found them startlingly easy to blend together. When I needed to know how Rozild’s washing charms worked, I braided together 19th century household manuals and medieval magical texts. And the religious-based magic of the charmwives comes directly from traditional – if unapproved – practices associated with the cults of patron saints.
Floodtide is a stand-alone novel that intersects with the existing Alpennia series. Set in the early 19th century, in a country that slips sideways into the world we know, the Alpennia stories revolve around the communities that women build at all levels of society, from low to high, and of the mystical skills that shape their lives.
Floodtide is out now from Bella Books, and you can find more from Heather Rose Jones at alpennia.com and her Twitter. She also runs the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, which looks at published research of interest to writing historic lesbian characters, and includes a podcast!