As a writer, there are some books that when I start reading them, I think, I wish I would have written this. Not because it’s on the bestseller list, although that would be nice!, but because it’s an original idea and well executed, and you know that people are going to love it. This is the case with Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski, a YA historical fantasy novel, taking place during 1492 and the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
But this book is not about Christopher Columbus. It’s actually about the smooth-talking, witty, and often humorous young hero, Baltsar Infante, who discovers toward the beginning of the novel that he is a Storyteller, a person who can conjure creatures from stories and bring them into the real world. He also discovers that the Malleus Maleficarium (MM) is after him (think SCARY and TORTURE in the name of Christianity. . .) because of his connection to an infamous man named, Amir al-Katib (“a sorcerer traveling west to prevent the destruction of the world as they know it”). Because Baltsar is being chased by the MM, he gets a job on Christopher Columbus’s ship as a translator. A half-genie he happens upon, Jinniyah, joins him, disguising herself as a boy, and off they set with a crew full of characters on the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria, trying to stay away from the MM and to find Amir al-Katib before he destroys the world.
Readers set off on an adventure with Baltsar and Jinniyah, one that will keep them turning the pages to find out where magic will take them on a voyage that everyone knows how it ends–Christopher Columbus doesn’t quite make it to India after all. . .You will love this fantastical adventure set in the 15th century, full of history and fantasy, but most of all a loveable, new hero that all readers can cheer on to the very end. I wanted to mention that Shana has an elaborate and wonderful website about her book, the research, plot, extra resources, and more at http://hammerofwitches.com . And here she answers a few questions for us about her idea, combining history and fantasy, and how to use this book with teenagers!
Margo: Welcome, Shana, to Read These Books and Use Them! I am so excited to be a part of the blog tour for Hammer of Witches. What a delightful, complicated, and original YA novel. What gave you the idea for Hammer of Witches?
Shana: Thanks, Margo! It’s great to be on the blog. The idea for Hammer of Witches popped into my head after I traveled to Portugal and Spain and started reading up on their histories. Unsurprisingly, 1492 was one of those “powder-keg years” when a fuse was lit, and everything went kablooey. In 1492, Spain ended a long war with a Muslim country, continued expanding its police powers and “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and tried to deal with being a multicultural society (mainly by repeating “Spain is a Christian nation” over and over). I thought, Hmm, sounds familiar. Might be fun to set a book there.
So I did. I wrote a book. A book with wizards in.
Margo: Yes, that’s what I love about it. It’s like a Christopher Columbus historical fiction novel meets magical realism. Were you at all worried that readers would “complain” about the fantasy you put into the middle of history? I loved it, btw!
Shana: It’s funny you should say that, because it was actually the other way around. I was worried the fantasy fans would complain about the history! We fantasy readers have no problem memorizing the names of every last king in Middle Earth or Westeros, but mention real history and we often revolt. For many of us, names like Galadriel of Lothlorien and Daenerys Targaryen roll trippingly off the tongue, while names like Antonio de Cuellar and Anacaona give us the shivers. It’s like what Junot Díaz said: “For many fantasy readers, elvish is A-OK, but Spanish? Ay, dios, no.”
To fantasy fans, let me assure you, the history in Hammer of Witches isn’t scary. The monsters might be scary, but the history is not.
Margo: See, my first book was historical fiction, so that’s why I thought about it in the opposite way. But you make a GREAT POINT! For my teacher and librarian friends out there, can you tell us a couple of the real characters you put into your book and how you chose to develop them as characters? (i.e., did you do research to get their dialogue right, etc?)
Shana: Yeah, when you write about historical figures, you need to do some research. It’s hard to write about Christopher Columbus without reading up on the guy, for instance. Lucky for me, there are lots of gaps in the historical record, and lots of contradictions, so I could fill in the blanks however I wanted. My research suggested that Columbus was driven, religious, had ridiculously high self-regard for someone of his background, and became more unstable as the voyages went on. Other people can read the same documents and see a different character entirely. Hammer of Witches is about the various ways we interpret history, so I tried to make Columbus an ambiguous figure, neither hero nor villain, so readers could make their own call.
The dialogue question is interesting. I’ll admit the dialogue in Hammer of Witches doesn’t sound historically-accurate, mainly because if it were accurate it would be in Old Castilian. Everything in the book is a translation, and I saw no reason to make my translations sound like Victorian English, which is what we normally think of when we think “old-sounding.” I’m not a fan of unnecessary archaisms. If Don Quixote is any indication, neither were the early modern Spanish.
Margo: That’s a great point! A lot of home schoolers read my blog, and I would love for you to talk to them about how they can use your book with their teens and what themes you explored!
Shana: Hi, home schoolers! Thanks for reading. I’m a teacher by background, and, if I were teaching Hammer of Witches, here are some topics I might have my students discuss: mythology and folktales, the Age of Exploration, prejudice, identity, different ways of reading, gender, violence, multiculturalism, quest stories, family. Come to think of it, you could read the whole thing from a psychoanalytic angle. My poor characters. Most of them could use a good shrink!
Margo: I think that could be true for most literary characters–the things we authors do to them! Anything else you want to add?
Shana: Just one final note: even though I’ve been talking a lot about history in this interview, Hammer of Witches is meant to be fun! Things you will find in the book: genies, dragons, swordplay, a demon-bird, the hero’s goofy attempts at humor, a hopefully-emotional climax, and a smooch or two. It’s not all history all the time. Cross my heart.
Margo: I would completely agree with that. Your main character is so endearing, and Jinniyah, the half-genie: well, I just adored her. Thank you so much, Shana, for sharing your thoughts with us!
Thank you, Margo!