Helen Corcoran, author of Queen of Coin and Whispers, tells us about why she wrote her amazing debut novel.
I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. I can’t pinpoint when reading became a need on par with breathing, but I know when I realised I wanted to be a writer. I was eight, reading one of Enid Blyton’s Amelia Jane books, and it clicked in my brain that someone had put all these words and sentences into chapters, and had made a book that I couldn’t put down until I reached the end. More than anything, I wanted to be that kind of person.
Like most readers, I devoured books, tore through them like they’d all disappear if I didn’t read fast enough. My library loan limit went up and up, as my parents and the local librarian tried to keep up with me. I still wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. So, I read and read, as if hoping what to write would present itself in the words.
And it finally did.
A bookseller suspected I might like a book called Alanna: the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. They were right.
My world was blown wide open. I’d dabbled around fantasy and magic, but now I flung myself into the genre and didn’t look back. Dragons, wizards, monarchs, vampires, werewolves, mages; Tamora Pierce, Michael Scott, Philip Pullman, Christopher Pike, Mervyn Peake. I worked through them all. I’d found my genre: I loved reading in a way I hadn’t before. I was living in a village in Cork, but books presented me with a window to different worlds.
But they weren’t giving me a mirror: characters in which to see myself reflected. I wasn’t searching just for characters to empathise with and look up to, but also for ones who were queer. Because—like many teenagers before me, and many more after me—I’d realised I wasn’t straight.
Female characters in fantasy at the time—and even still now—usually have predictable tropes and roles: queen, princess, witch, whore. Sometimes they’re mages, depending on the magic system. Several were secondary characters who propped up the main character’s journey. If they were a queen or princess, they married a man.
The situation wasn’t much improved when I started discovering queer fiction. If queer characters weren’t dying, they were splitting up or hurting each other. They didn’t get happy endings. They didn’t appear to deserve them.
If you keep not finding characters like yourself in media, you start to lose hope. You stop hoping for happy endings. You take what you can get, accept the few scraps of representation: the odd queer character here and there. You flinch when something terrible happens to them – they’re abandoned, they’re rejected, they die – but you keep reading or watching because some representation is better than none. You hate the misery, but their existence proves you’re not alone, that there are people out there like you, even if you only see them in books or on TV. You’re careful, on high-alert, if they seem to be in a secure, happy relationship, or if they’re a main character, because something terrible is surely about to happen.
I kept reading, kept watching. Things slowly improved. I found Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, all of Sarah Waters’ work (a big jump in subject matter). Ash by Malinda Lo almost made me cry: a lesbian retelling of Cinderella with a happy ending. I was a bookseller by this point, and bought the US hardback months before the UK publication, desperate to read about characters similar to me who got a happy ending—in a fantasy novel! I made it a staff choice—echoing the bookseller who’d given me Alanna: the First Adventure years before—and it sold consistently, sold well, for over two years.
By this time, I was in my early twenties. I’d defaulted to straight characters in my books, but things clicked yet again when I gave lesbian characters a go.
And then one September, when I was shelving in the teen fiction section, two young women walked into my head: Lia, a newly-crowned queen, and Xania, her new spymaster. Both lesbians, both clever, both brave and angry, and both about to fall in love with each other.
I knew immediately that both of them would be alive by the end of the book. And that they’d get a happy ending, though the kind of world they lived in meant they’d have to work for it.
I ended up spending years with them, writing and rewriting their story. There was something different—something special—about this book. It was worth sticking with.
I wrote Queen of Coin and Whispers for me: the teenager who loved fantasy (now the adult who still loves it), and was searching for a mirror amid the magic, the dragons, and the werewolves. It’s a book with a lot of women, who love and hate, and want power and everything that comes with it. They’re kind and they’re ruthless. They’re in high-ranking positions of power and prestige, and no one comments on it because it’s not unusual in this world.
Lia is a queen, who grew up a princess and knew she would inherit the crown from her uncle. She firmly believes she is up to the task of turning her weak, bankrupt country around. Xania believes her father was murdered. She’s logical, a courtier and Treasury employee, and out for vengeance.
Against their duty and vengeance, falling in love is the last thing they want, though they also can’t stop it.
Queens, spymasters; political intrigue, revenge. I hope it can be a window for people who love these things, but I also hope Lia and Xania can be mirrors for people who’ve been searching for them in books. It’s never too late to find them.
Helen Corcoran, June 2020
Queen of Coin and Whispers is out now and available in all good bookshops!