The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas

The American Midwest is many things, including the breadbasket of the nation — but is it a fertile field for fantasy tales? Author Sarah Prineas asked herself this question prior to writing her new young adult fantasy novel, Winterling. Her answer awaits you below.


When starting my new book, Winterling, I wanted to achieve two big things.  One was that, after writing three books in the Magic Thiefseries, which had a male first-person narrator, I would write a girl-power book.  I got that part of it done just fine.  As the reviewer for Kirkus noted, “Unusually, almost every character … is female, portrayed in all ages and roles—authority, hero, villain, mentor, warrior, healer, servant and goddess.”

The other thing I wanted to do was shift from secondary world fantasy to portal fantasy, and to begin the story in Iowa, which is where I live.  The Big Idea here is that the landscape of Iowa, as you can see, is beautiful:

But it is a highly industrialized landscape, too.  Farming here is done on a massive scale—there are way more hogs in Iowa than people; the state is the world’s second biggest producer (after Brazil) of soybeans, and the US’s biggest producer of corn.

While doing research for Winterling I learned a lot about the natural history of Iowa, relying most on a terrific book from the University of Iowa Press by Connie Mutel called The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa.  What I learned is that a hundred fifty years ago, Iowa was made up of oak savannah and vast prairies like this:

The effect settlers had on this land was profound, and the transformation from wilderness to farmland happened very quickly.  In a short time the land was tamed—it was made “useful” and “productive.”

There’s not a whole lot of scope for fantasy in a place like this.

In Winterling, the Iowa landscape is an important character.  It’s used for industrial agriculture; the land is groomed, tainted with herbicide, insecticide, chemical fertilizers.  But still, folds of wildness are hidden away here and there, in patches of oak woodland, and in ravines tucked between soybean fields—and I was able to find some magic left in those places.  In Winterling, hidden in one of these wild patches is a “Way” leading to another world that is magical and dangerous, a place where my protagonist goes to set right a terrible evil.  What she does changes that world, and our own.


Winterling: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.


10 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas”

  1. My daughter has the Magic Thief series. I don’t always look in YA for her, so I’m glad to see this here so I can look out for it. Thanks!

  2. My daughter’s another Magic Thief fan. This has now been added to her wishlist, so I remember it for her birthday! Her dad’s from Iowa, so I’m extra-excited about this!

  3. I am a huge fan of Sarah Prineas. Many years ago on the Online Writing Workshop, she was a friend and mentor to me. My own writing improved vastly when I listened to her gentle but insightful critiques of my work. I struggled to return the favor as her writing was always just so good.

    The Magic Thief series is one both I and my son have enjoyed. Winterling, I have a feeling, is going to be even better.

  4. We loved the Magic Thief books, so this is definitely going into the queue. One quibble, though:

    “There’s not a whole lot of scope for fantasy in a place like this.”

    Writers like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint might beg to differ…

  5. ‘T’aint so. Prairies of the pre-Invasion midwest featured grasses that tended to grow 5-6 feet or taller, not just the shorter stuff pictured. Read Curtis’ magisterial Vegetation of Wisconsin for an excellent description.

  6. Saw the cover, and thought ‘jeebus, thats a big moon’. But I assume it is the extra gravitational pull of that ginormous moon that allows that horse to fly.

  7. Oooh, sounds like a fun story. I have no problem reading YA even though I’m nowhere near the targeted age group! As for Iowa, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a swath of it several years ago on a tour of county nature centers. I was most impressed with the rolling hills and the smart naturalists :).

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