I have always loved fairy tales.
I love stories sculpted out of ancient prophecy and malicious curses, magic healing tears and quests to recapture jewel-encrusted chalices. The problem is that I always wanted to believe in these stories but I had a hard time letting go of reality and explanations. What powers the spells? How does a 900 lb. unicorn fly through the sky on such delicate, prissy wings? How exactly do you make the jewel-encrusted chalice so that it doesn’t it leak out magic after 600 years sitting in a cave?
Many authors (or filmmakers) shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s magic. Get over it.”
I’ve read a few authors who manage to pull it off – they build a carefully constructed world where magic has consequences and phenomena gets explained. And while I still enjoy a good romp with enchanted jewels and riddle-telling centaurs, ultimately I think what I yearned for is a fairy tale that I could believe happens in our world. Maybe I haven’t outgrown the childhood notion that magic is possible in this technology-driven, over-plasticized world of ours.
But what if there’s already magic around?
What if we forgot to notice?
In King Perry, I decided to blur the boundaries between our ordinary world and magic. I had help. Cover artist Anne Cain created a masterpiece in which one of the two main characters, Perry, greets the sunrise wearing a gold-spangled shirt. Looking at the cover, it’s not clear whether the sparkles are created by the sun off his shirt, sunlight captured by dissipating mist, or perhaps Perry himself radiates some mystical power all his own?
Hard to say, really. Which is exactly what I wanted.
To build a magical world for a world which has no obvious magic, I decided I needed to focus on four things: mystical settings, a rich mythology, Cinderfella-like transformations, and (of course) a deep-rooted curse.
In King Perry, I chose San Francisco as the setting because it’s one of the most mystical locations I know. Golden, green, sunny, and deliciously chilly, the bay area is nothing short of a fantasy landscape. In King Mai, the setting is completely ordinary: corn fields in the Midwest. But throughout the course of the magical tale, they are transformed into drag queens, accountants, bathhouse men, a gospel choir, and finally, a regiment of Found Kings. I love it when the completely ordinary becomes extraordinary.
In my latest king book in the series, The Butterfly King, the mystical setting is New York City.
While approaching the fabled Waldorf Astoria, narrator Vin Vanbly says:
The Waldorf Astoria comes into view. In some ways, it looks like every other off-white skyscraper in Midtown, concrete, narrow windows, the floors going up, up, up. But far above our heads, the building’s true character shines, an Art Deco crown, bolding proclaiming this location as the true seat of power in this kingdom of New York. Of course, a dozen other glorious landmarks make this same claim—Grand Central station and the New York Public Library—and why shouldn’t they? In a city rich with kings, why not bless each intersection with magnificent thrones, reminders we already live in the kingdom?
Magic might exist in our physical landscape if we allow ourselves to see with the eyes of a believer.
Of course, every fairy tale must have a mythology and this world is no different. In all three books, Vin weaves a surreal (and borderline ordinary) tale about the kingdom of kings…
Once there was a tribe of men, a tribe populated entirely of kings. Odd, you may think, and wonder how any work got done in such a society with everyone making rules. But these were not those kinds of kings. They required no throne rooms, no jewels, no gold crowns. They chose to king as they went about the business of living. The gardeners, the blacksmiths, even the tax collectors, were fair and just kings. In this tribe, all brothers were rightful owners of the kingdom. You might come across King Ryan the Protector or King Galen the Courier, on your way to visit The Sculptor King. They loved freely with open hearts, some lying with other kings and some seeking women as their queens.
As the story evolves, Vin and his weekend guest seem to meet (or at least experience) some of these kings, leaving the reader must decide ‘how much of this is true?’ Vin indicates some of the king names represent real people…but which ones? Who is real and who is not?
When I’m lost in a book, whether about vampires, 16th century peasants, or a detective whose sidekick is a talking pencil, I want to believe in the mythology, puzzling over the tantalizing question, “Could this possibly be real?” Whether I achieved this outcome in The Lost and Found series is debatable, but that was my world-building goal.
One of my favorite part of fairy tales is the transformation – the sudden appearance of a mysterious, glittering princess at the masquerade ball, the stable boy who discovers he’s actually the missing prince. When I see the stable boy discover his inner king, I believe. When Cinderella is dressed in rags again but carries herself with the grace of someone who knows she has a fairy godmother, I soar. While magic may have helped, that transformation comes from within.
I won’t reveal much about the Butterfly King’s transformation because, gosh, that’s the point of the book. I will say that to build this transformation, I charted out the character’s progress on flip chart paper. What encounters would tweak his growth? Which individuals would inspire and enrage him, using their own personal magic to spark his own? I scribbled out arcs, surprise meetings, and necessary ingredients in the spell.
The Butterfly King’s growth mirrors Joseph Campbell’s articulated hero’s journey: the reluctant acceptance of adventure, the first descent into darkness, the dark night of the soul, the healing balms of unanticipated help along the way, and ultimately, the darkest dark, which brings the hero in contact with his fierce limitations. And he responds by transcending those limitations, utilizing a power from within that leaves the rest of us slack-jawed with wonder.
Ultimately, this is the real magic for me –people who can transcend their lifelong restrictions to find new power, new grace, and a new self who remembers the old story, but no longer needs to sweep out the fireplace. That part of life is over.
Finally, building a world of magic kings and powerful healing requires a dark counterpart — an ancient curse not easily undone. Again, I do not wish to reveal too much plot, but I must at least explain that the focus of the curse is the narrator, Vin Vanbly. King Perry introduced the curse; the next book expands upon it, helps us understand the curse’s impact on Vin’s life.
A short internal monologue from the next yet-to-be-released book in The Lost and Founds series illustrates this. Vin ponders to himself…
Our chase through this cornfield exhilarates me, a rat who has hidden always in the maze of life, trying to navigate its tricky relationships. I don't have friends because while I understand people very well, at some point they all end up thinking I'm creepy.
I grew tired of those suspicious looks, the dark wonderings if I have disturbing psychic powers or some ability to force their vulnerability. I don’t think so, but it’s possible, I guess. I have heard it in many flavors: how can you know what you know? Why are you this way? A friend should have the right to come to you and say, "I need tell you something" and not get in response, "I think I already know." So, I quit trying to make friends.
Readers have emailed me, begging to know whether Vin’s curse ends soon. Will he know happiness? Well, the fairy tale ain’t over until the last dragon’s been slain. So hang in there. Each book reveals a little bit more of Vin’s curse…and each book heals Vin just a little bit more as well.
But who can king the king maker? What kind of man? Time will tell…
And to me, this is the real magic: we care about an imaginary world.
I love writers who build unique and fascinating new worlds, worlds I can’t help but read through, breathless, trying to absorb each nuance and fascinating detail. I have believed in zombies, aliens, true love, family redemption, and small miracles. I have gasped through wedding proposals, hurricanes, evil murders, and men who fall in love with other men.
I guess there really is magic in our real world: books.
Edmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, the Butterfly King and Filthy Acquisitions. (The Butterfly King comes out in mid-September.) Every day, he tries to believe in magic. Many days, he succeeds.