Interview: Melissa McShane on “The Smoke-Scented Girl”

Evon Lorantis, magician-inventor of spells for his country’s defense against the power-mad Despot, is stumped by the mystery the government brings him: a rash of spontaneously occurring fires, hotter than any natural force can produce, melting stone and vaporizing flesh wherever they strike. The government believes it is a weapon that will finally defeat the Despot. And they want Evon to harness it.

In investigating the problem, Evon discovers these fires are no accident. He sets off on a journey across Dalanine to track down the rogue magician behind the fires, hoping to persuade her to turn aside from her vigilante crusade to serve her country. But the woman he finds is nothing like he expected.

As Evon attempts to untangle fact from myth, what began as an assignment becomes a challenge that will require every ounce of magical ability he has—and will irrevocably change the course of his life.

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He breathed shallowly, inhaling the scent of char and snow and, distantly, someone’s dinner. He had no idea if this next part would work. He’d worked it out by candlelight the last two nights while Piercy muttered in his sleep, scribbling notes and crossing them out and sketching the shape of a spell he wasn’t sure was even possible. Tracking someone when you had a piece of them, a hair or a drop of blood, that was a commonplace. His quarry hadn’t left anything like that behind. But she had left something else, if Evon could manage to find it. If it even remained here. If the spell worked.

He chalked a rune on the back of his left hand, then closed his eyes and let his mind wander. The bitter brown scent of burned earth. The clear crystal smell of snow melting. Mutton boiling over a fire, cold damp stone like ancient caverns. He pinched his nostrils shut with his left hand, pressed down on his eyelids with his right, and whispered, “Olficio.”

Even with his fingers clamped over his nose, the raucous clamoring of a thousand odors made him stagger. There was a river—he remembered their coach passing over it—a quarter of a mile away, and he could smell the water rushing past its banks, throwing up the rougher scent of the rocks it wore away at. The nearer smell of mutton drilled into his lips and tongue, warring with the bitter coffee flavor of olficio and making him want to vomit. He swallowed hard and kept his eyes shut. Trees with green sap flowing through their veins waiting patiently for spring. The sharp musk of a fox in its den. And somewhere, in all of this olfactory noise, a scent that didn’t belong.

He became gradually aware of a more human smell, the noxious odor of a body infrequently bathed and the warm, slippery scent of greasy hair. It permeated the stones, but faintly, as if the air was tugging it free and blending it with the wind that blew through the wrecked cottage. Fullanter. Then, even more faintly, the scent of smoke. Not the smoke of a campfire or even of a burning building, but a darker, thicker smell, slightly sour, as if someone had smeared grease on a hunk of ancient cheese and then set it alight. Evon let it seep into his closed nostrils and into his lungs. It wasn’t exactly an unpleasant smell, but it made him uneasy, as though he’d invited something to take residence in his body that might not be the most gracious of guests. But nothing happened. He let the scent fill him to the core, then said, “Desini,” and the smells vanished so completely that even after he lowered both his hands, he felt as if his sense of smell had been surgically excised. Only the thick, sour smell of smoke remained, trailing away out of the cottage and down the road south toward Chaneston.

—from The Smoke-Scented Girl by Melissa McShane

The Interview

Where did the idea for The Smoke-Scented Girl come from?

I don’t actually come by ideas easily. I have to fight for every one. In this case, I had actually run out of things I wanted to write, and I decided to try a brainstorming technique where I came up with dozens of potential book titles and chose one that appealed to me. The Smoke-Scented Girl felt like it had a lot of potential. It wasn’t until much later, after the book was written and published, that I discovered I’d seen that phrase before—in the opening scenes of Andrea K. Höst’s book Hunting! I’m not sure how much I was influenced by that glimpse, but I’d like to think I was subconsciously inspired.

Both The Smoke-Scented Girl and The God-Touched Man are set in the world of Dalanine. What did you most enjoy about creating this world?

I wanted a world that would feel familiar to readers and yet be its own place. The original idea had Dalanine as a Victorian-inspired alternate reality, with magic as a utilitarian force replacing technology. That meant magic had to be something anyone could learn, not something they were born to. The magic system was probably the most fun part of this world creation, because I drew on a lot of common elements—magic words, gestures, symbolic material components—and tried to reach beyond the way they’re often used. For example, the spell words Evon uses are based on Latin words, but I used ones that aren’t instantly recognizable as roots for English words. Looking for alternatives was a lot of fun, not least because I discovered Latin words I’d never heard of.

What magical elements in The Smoke-Scented Girl are not based on folklore and legends, but instead are completely made up—and why?

The magical elements that come closest to being entirely made up are the places of power that exist here and there throughout Dalanine. They are places saturated with magic from the wizard wars that happened hundreds of years ago, and their basic natures have been altered by that magic. Some of them are offset in time, while others are summer or winter year-round, and there’s one that is permanently on fire. I liked the idea of magical fallout, so to speak, and magic as a contaminant. They started out as background detail that explained why the magicians of Dalanine’s present don’t do magic the way magicians used to, and about halfway in, they became a major part of the plot.

Why do you think so many people are drawn to reading stories about magic?

I know for me, stories about magic make me feel in touch with something greater than I am. The world is a big place, and so much of it is still strange and unknown, and I think that appeals to a lot of people. Magic is an extension of that. Stories about magic promise to expand our horizons by inviting us to step outside the mundane world. And, like any good story, they offer us the chance to experience things outside our own lives.

You moved quite a bit growing up. How has this influenced your writing?

I never put down roots anywhere because I was always conscious of how my family would eventually leave. Among other things, this kept me from feeling tied to one place and therefore falling into the trap that sometimes happens of believing that the way things are done in my hometown are the way they are done everywhere. I think that shows up in my writing as the wide variety of fantasy subgenres and tropes I’ve tackled over the years; I want to explore different ways of thinking and different personal expectations. The constants in my life were family and family traditions, and I like to write about the ways people build connections that aren’t based on place.

Set in England in the early 1800s, your series The Extraordinaries focuses on women who use their magical talents not only to fight a war, but also challenge the expectations and prejudices of society. What inspired you to create this series?

The Extraordinaries started as a dare by my husband after I said how much I like Regency fiction but didn’t think I could ever write one. I had a magic system I liked (really superpowers like the X-Men) and the idea of combining what is a more modern take on magic with the sensibility of the early 19th century captured my imagination. From there, the intersection of magical talent with society and culture inspired each woman’s story as each of my heroines mastered her talent as well as discovering where she fit into society.

Is there something from a legend, fairy or folk tale, or myth that you haven’t yet used in your writing, but would like to?

I want to write about elves—not friendly, wise Tolkien elves, but the powerful, alien creatures who have no compassion for humanity (kind of like what Terry Pratchett did in his book Lords and Ladies). I’d like to tell a story about how elves were locked out of our world for centuries and are only just finding a way back in, and what happens when they do. I think I have a plan for that, but it’s some distance in the future.

What story (or stories) are you working on now, and what’s fun about what you’re writing?

I started working on a series about werewolves in northern Italy in the late Renaissance—or, more specifically, a fantasy analog of that time and place. I started writing it because my daughter loves werewolves and I thought it would be fun to write a series she would want to read, but it soon became something I’m passionate about for its own sake. Part of what makes it fun is that it’s a procedural series, with the two main characters investigating mysteries or solving problems, which means I can go on writing about them indefinitely. Since my other series to date have all had arcs that eventually came to an end, this is an exciting change.

About Melissa

Melissa McShane is the author of more than forty fantasy novels, including Burning Bright, first in The Extraordinaries series; The Book of Secrets, first book of The Last Oracle; and the Crown of Tremontane fantasy series, beginning with Pretender to the Crown. She lives in the shadow of the mountains of the West with her husband, children, three very needy cats, and a library that has finally overflowed its bounds, which means she needs more bookcases.

Find Melissa

Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter ~ Goodreads ~ BookBub

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