By Skye Allen
I love science fiction and fantasy. They’ve been my go-to since reading the Narnia books as a kid. I love the infinite room for imagination. I love the notion of aliens and demons and government surveillance as metaphors for things like xenophobia and psychological trouble and, well, government surveillance. The book I’ve probably reread the most times is one of the original urban fantasies, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, which brought the Faerie world to the city by way of (who else?) mortal musicians. I read the cover right off my first copy.
But when I started writing Pretty Peg, for no reason I could express at the time, it came out plain. It was still squarely in the category of “genre” rather than “literary.” Being a queer YA mystery, you could even call it “micro-genre.” But it was set in the real world. There were no elves or shape-shifters or fey glamour, and the hot love interest was definitely not immortal. The one magical piece of the book was the toy puppet theater that my main character Josy thought her dead sister was using to communicate with her, and I wasn’t entirely sure why it needed to be there.
I knew the manuscript needed new life breathed into it, though. When I brought it to my writing class I got critiques that it was too grim, too freighted with family dysfunction, even that it was “claustrophobic” according to one sharp but accurate critic.
And I despaired of ever fixing that problem. I threw the manuscript away and stopped being a writer. That lasted about 24 hours.
Then I realized the only thing I liked in the whole book was the puppet theater.
And then I went back to what I love to read, and tried to forget about what I was trying to write. And when I remembered fantasy, I knew I would be okay.
There’s probably not a single sentence of my original manuscript that survived the fantasy revision. Suddenly the big bad guy was the Queen of the Winter Folk, the mysterious places Josy had to investigate to find her sister’s killer were all in the Faerie Realm, and the girl who swept her off her feet was an elf.
I needed a strong allegory for the transition from childhood to maturity in my YA story, and the old fairy tale theme about the woods being the place of change and self-discovery for the hero was perfect. Like in a lot of fantasy, the woods form the border between the Faerie Realm and the mortal world in my book. The story examines questions about death and grief, so bringing in characters who were immortal gave me a powerful contrast, a jumping-off point for the magnitude of grief and for that feeling of unfairness when someone dies. The book also badly needed a sense of fun – that’s what my beta readers were getting at. Before I knew it I had two girls making out helplessly because the fey band put a spell on them (what, your fantasies don’t involve accordion players?).
So that’s the story of how the fey came to inhabit my queer YA mystery. I hope it’s a better book for it.
High school senior Josy Grant already had plenty on her plate before she found the magic puppet theater her murdered sister left behind. Despite Josy’s grief, the responsibility of taking care of her family falls to her, and being queer doesn’t make dealing with school any easier. Things only get worse when sexy new girl Nicky tells Josy her sister died at the hands of a mysterious figure from the Faerie Realm called the Woodcutter, and if they can’t stop him, Josy and her remaining sister will be next.
They have just days before the Woodcutter strikes again on the autumn equinox, so Josy follows Nicky into the Faerie Realm to hunt him. Along the way, she discovers Fey gifts of her own and answers to the questions that have driven the Grant family apart. Nothing comes for free when dealing with Fey, though, and those gifts and answers might come at a terrible price.
Excerpt from Pretty Peg:
The band had all cleared off in the direction of the drinks. Only the keyboard player stayed, white trousers gleaming in the almost total darkness at the edge of the stage. She poked her fedora further back on her forehead and plinked out a creepy minor-key song that I recognized after a few seconds as “Hush Little Baby.”
“Hey, c’mere,” Nicky said, and took hold of a button on my jacket. Her face was close, so close I could feel heat from her skin on mine. I felt dizzy.
She turned her head suddenly. “Oi!”
Timothy was toeing her stretched-out thigh with a polished boot. “Hey, chica.” Nope. No kissing. I sat back and tried to think cold thoughts to calm down my pulse.
Timothy sat heavily and kicked a groove in the gravel. Little-boy motions. I could tell he was drunk even before he tugged the flask out of his jeans pocket and tipped it toward his mouth. His head wheeled to each of us in turn: “Oop, manners. You want some?”
“I’m all set.” I toasted the air with my coffee.
“Josephine Grant. The new favorite.” His eyes protruded like frog’s eyes under his overgrown curly hair, but I could see how he was used to people saying he was beautiful.
Nicky paused with an unlit cigarette in her mouth, match flaring near her face, and glared at Timothy. “What?” he protested. “S’true.”
She hissed something to him in an undertone. The band was back on the stage, the drummer slashing out a faint tsk-tsk-tsk on one cymbal while the guitar player blew into his microphone, so I couldn’t hear Nicky at all.
His head reared back like a horse’s. “No she won’t!” burst out of him in a harsh voice. He turned to me and pointed with a bony hand: “So how do you like fucking an immortal elf with all the sense of a pile of dung?”
I rolled out of his reach. “Hey, take it easy,” I said.
“You know she just brought you in for the reward, right?” He pronounced it RE-ward, like a cowboy, and shot a finger-gun from his imaginary hat brim. “Dominica loves her some pretty girls with meat on their bones. It’s just too bad about that, what you call her, ‘friend’ she got back home.”
“It’s not – don’t listen!” Nicky shouted to me, and she launched herself at Timothy.
Friend as in girlfriend. Sick realization broke over me like a raw egg. It was too good to be true. She fooled you. She fooled you because that’s what you are: a big fat fool. Like someone like her would give the time of day to someone like you.
Too fast, there was a furious animal-fight blur of elbows and boots and a sickening thwack when something fleshy hit something solid. It must have been Nicky, hitting Timothy, and it was over in seconds. Timothy held her off easily, crouching over her with her shoulder pinned to the fence. Her heels scrabbled in the gravel. He cradled his jaw with his free hand and muttered curses I couldn’t make out.
She lied. All that sweet talk, and I just believed her. Stupid. She was so cocky and I just fell for it. Because why wouldn’t a loser like me fall for an act like that? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
I stood up. My legs felt dead after all that time sitting on the cold ground, but I could walk. I didn’t care how wobbly I looked.
“Josy! Don’t leave! You can’t listen to him!” Nicky called.
I ignored her. I should have known her whole thing, the whole setup of a hot girl being interested in a girl like me, was too good to be true. Why did I have to fall for that? I shoved my thoughts about Laura out of my mind, and Margaret, and the fey, and the whole blur of the last day. I was humiliated, tired, bruised inside and out. I needed to be home.
Nicky called my name again. I shook my head. I tugged my hood over my hair and retreated toward the entrance without looking back as the band slid into a brassy version of “Mighty Quinn.” Never give your heart to the fey. Oh, believe me, I’m not.
You can buy Pretty Peg here:
You can find Skye Allen online here:
Skye Allen has had short fiction published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Of Dragons and Magic: Tales of the Lost Worlds and poetry in Insomnia and Sinister Wisdom. She works as a singing teacher and occasionally performs Irish music around the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her wife, two cats, and four chickens. Pretty Peg is her first novel.