The Big Idea: Greta Kelly
Well-worn phrases can still have life in them, as author Greta Kelly discovered in the writing of her latest, The Queen of Days. What maxim has her attention, and will it have yours? Read on to find out.
Blood is thicker than water.
It’s an idiom so well worn we barely even have to think to understand it. And yet stories about families—whether through birth or the happenstance of fate, are ones that I find myself drawn to like the proverbial moth. So it may not be a huge surprise to find out that the Talion Gang—the crime family at the heart of The Queen of Days—act more like a chaotic group of unruly siblings than a band of criminals looking to go pro.
Capturing their interactions was some of most joyous writing I’ve ever done, in part because their quirks and turns of phrase were so deeply inspired by my own siblings. (I suppose there is something to be said about writing what you know—another adage so well-worn its fraying at the edges.) Their arguments and inside jokes and easy affection almost seemed to write themselves. And for all their charm and endless banter, they were also supremely practical in assessing their own shortcomings. And they are manifold.
In broad strokes The Queen of Days is about a crew of thieves setting out to stop their city’s governor from resurrecting a fallen god. Nothing about that sentence accurately conveys how out of their depth they are. And they know it. They’re thieves in the most 1920’s sense of the word; they’re the kind to toss a bomb into a bank and clear out the vault in the chaos. But stick around to clean up the mess they made? Hard pass. To say these gremlins are a grudging band of heroes is an understatement. Hell, I had to take their city and chuck it out to sea just to make it harder for them to run away.
If they had any chance of surviving this story, let alone come out on top, they’d need help. A weapon of last resort. They’d need The Queen of Days. They’d need Tassiel.
But the Talion Gang was already bound together so deeply by blood that the idea of bringing a stranger into the mix was a daunting one. It was clear what the Talion were getting from the deal—Tassiel was vastly more powerful than the motley group of humans. She was very clearly their best chance of survival. But she was more mysterious too. Alien in a slightly off-putting kind of way. And in early drafts of the book, I found myself wondering what she got out of all this mess.
I wrote in circles trying to untangle her reasons for agreeing to join the gang in this fool’s venture. Revising and refining. Draft after draft, I finally threw my hands in the air and gave her her own point of view chapters…and they just didn’t work. The majority of the book was written in first person perspective from the leader of the Talion, Bal—which suited him to the hilt and helped me illustrate his brazenness and impulsivity, his fears and vulnerabilities. But that wasn’t working for Tass.
And then it hit me. For all her strength and magic and power, Bal and his crew had the one thing she didn’t: each other. Tass’s family cast her out, left her for dead and never looked back. And so seeing the Talion, working among them, must have been torturous for her. But Tass would never acknowledge that pain, nor the desire behind it. She was an unreliable narrator, not out of malice, but for the simple fact that there are things she couldn’t admit. Not to herself. Not out loud.
And so I took a chance and rewrote her chapters in third person. Mind you, it was still a close third person, but the change made all the difference. It allowed me to pull back the lens just enough to let her wounds see the light of day. To reveal where she’d lied—to herself more than anyone else.
What she wanted, more than money or vengeance or redemption, was a home. A family. All it took was a slight shift in perspective for me to see it. For Bal to see it too. And suddenly the way forward became clear. If Tass was going to join the crew, she’d have to join the family too.
Blood may be thicker than water.
But the strongest bonds come from time served.