The Big Idea: Kester Grant
A dash of history, a pinch of literary invention, and a soupçon of imagination — all of these combine in The Court of Miracles to create author Kester Grant’s new novel. She’s here now to tell you how all these ingredients came together.
As I left the cinema after seeing Disney’s latest Jungle Book movie, I was mulling over the plot’s premise: young vulnerable man-cub is adopted into a dangerous jungle of wild animals. The jungle is ruled by a strict hierarchy, and the man-cub must adapt to the animals’ way of life and navigate his way among them.
Then it struck me—if you remove the words animal, jungle, and man-cub, that’s exactly the same premise as Oliver Twist—a young, naïve boy is adopted into a dangerous criminal world. . . .
Marveling at previously unseen threads of commonality, my brain grabbed the next link in the chain, this time from my favorite classic, Les Misérables—young, naïve Cosette is left to the charge of the criminal Thénardier and his gang of murderous burglars.
In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Cosette is soon rescued by the fugitive Jean Valjean and given a life of safety and comfort. Yet the aspect I had found so compelling in The Jungle Book and Oliver Twist was the characters learning to navigate the dangerous new society. I started to compose a story in which Cosette is thrust into a larger criminal society, and I didn’t have to look much further for more ideas than Hugo’s second most popular work, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
In Paris in the 1600s, a large portion of the population was wretchedly poor. Begging, thievery, and prostitution were rife. The slum districts were known as the “Courts of Miracles” because of the cynical belief that beggars, who faked injuries to gain more alms, could relax their roles there and were thus “miraculously” healed. A popular Parisian urban legend states that in these slums, criminals, migrants, and unwanted people had formed an organized criminal society. Although historically untrue, Hugo adopted these ideas, presenting them as a part of the world of Hunchback.
The underground criminal society, the titular “Miracle Court” of my debut book, came full circle back to The Jungle Book. I extrapolated the animal clans and their customs and strict laws onto a world of criminals, divided into guilds according to crime: Assassins, Thieves, Beggars, Prostitutes . . . I wove the strict rules and hierarchies that they would live by.
But it didn’t seem enough to have them simply exist. I also wanted to create a feeling of rich, layered otherness for the Miracle Court. So I researched countercultures: how they are formed and what makes them different. Our day-to-day language and expressions, our western curses and oaths, and our celebrations and customs often stem from religion or historical events that form our cultural identities.
The first Parisian police chief, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, was tasked with eradicating with the city’s crime problem. He achieved his goal by clearing out the slums, arresting anyone found within no matter whether they had committed a crime. This included the imprisonment and institutionalization of many poor, foreign, and unwanted members of society (the disabled and the sick), as well as a vast swath of criminals. I made this event the birthplace of my Miracle Court, adding Paris’s long history of violent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities to de la Reynie’s purge. I posited that within the dark walls of the city’s prisons, the Wretched, who had been displaced, killed, and institutionalized, formed an underground society in order to protect each other against their powerful enemies.
One of Europe’s oldest folktales is the ballad of Ysengrim the wolf and his long war against the wily fox Rennart. With the Miracle Court’s “birth” in place, I wove a mythology that served as the basis for their counter-society. I created a brother for de la Reynie and had him stand against the purges and so get swept up in them, losing his family, title, and position in de la Reynie’s quest to clean up the city. De la Reynie became Ysengrim the boar, and his brother, Rennart the fox.
Thus, the Wretched don’t curse by the devil but rather say, “Ysengrim take you!” In the mythology of their people’s origin, Ysengrim is the true villain. When surprised they cry “Rennart’s eyes!”—Rennart being one of their founding fathers. When they gather, each member of the court bears a candle in memory of the darkness of the prisons where their people first came together. All their laws are also created to preserve and protect their society. Their Guild of Letters—devoted to spying and white-collar crime—does not exist solely for illegal profit but also to create a vast library of knowledge that might enable them to safely neutralize any of the Miracle Court’s enemies and thereby protect their people.
In order to make Paris a city thick with paranoia and conspiracy, I took one turn from historical truth by having the French Revolution come close to succeeding, but ultimately failing. The leaders heads were mounted on pikes outside the royal palace, and the paranoid nobility was left ever watchful for any signs of further uprising. To this I added another other urban legend of the era—the idea that the nobility was poisoning the city’s wells to keep the numbers of the poor down in order to prevent uprisings. I wove this into the story as fact. Thus, setting up deeply entrenched factions within the city—the nobility who were almost overthrown by the failed revolution had seen the violent retribution the poor would have subjected them to. The Wretched, who knew they could trust neither the nobility nor the average Parisian, formed their own society to protect themselves and the man on the street, some of whom believed in the cause of the revolution.
Into this murky jungle of opposing factions, comes one little girl: Cosette, along with her Bagheera-like mentor Eponine “Nina” Thénardier, Black Cat of the Thieves Guild. The two of them are caught between these societies at odds with each other.