If you’re looking for a decadent YA fantasy, this one is calling to you.
I’m super lucky to be able to interview Kate J. Armstrong, so read on for the Q&A too!
Nightbirds delivers this lush and detailed world that is so easy to get lost in. It has a unique forbidden-style magic system where a kiss can gift power and the set up reminded me of the Grisha dynamics with magic being praised and worshipped by some, but persecuted and controlled viciously by others. Add that into this Caraval meets Gatsby glittering and luxurious style world, and you have Nightbirds. The parties and balls and gowns were all beautifully described–and loved the contrast of that with rebellion and flames later on.
She grew up being told it couldn’t be, and she believed.
The story follows three main characters, our magical Nightbird girls: Matilde, Sayer and Æsa. Matilde definitely felt like a main character, confident and glamorous and privileged, who doesn’t notice she is a bird in a cage. Sayer has the bitter, stabby personality so immediate fave for me. Æsa is an absolute sweetheart and so caring and lovely. Like protect Æsa at all costs please and thank you. While there is also romance for each of the girls, the focus is on sisterhood and friendship. There are some side-character POVs and tbh quite a huge cast, so there’s a lot to keep track of making it perfect for readers who like fantasy that goes deeper.
Your magic is something rave and no doubt powerful. But it isn’t a poison… I know because it comes from you
The story also feels like a love letter to women empowerment, drawing off age-old imagery of girls as caged birds, girls being used by powerful men, girls as witches when they cannot be controlled. The Nightbird girls can gift magic with a kiss, but what if everything they’ve been told all their lives about their powers is a lie? It’s a story about girls uniting, raising each other up, and refusing to be held down by an oppressive society.
Would recommend if you like…
- lush and pretty world building with Caraval x Gatsby vibes
- girl friendships and empowerment
- magic, all the magic
- evil churches trying to control magic
- betrayals and twists
- romance! kisses! love!
Hi Kate, I’m so thrilled to have the chance to chat with you about your gorgeous debut, Nightbirds! Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey, from first seed of an idea to publication?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: It’s lovely to be here! I was hiking up a mountain in Montana when I had this very clear image bloom in my mind of an opulent room and a girl in a feathered mask kissing a boy who had paid for the favor. She was giving him something besides the kiss, too: magic. I wanted to know what sort of magic it was and why she would give such a potent power away. A few months later, I was sipping a champagne cocktail in a 1920s-themed speakeasy in New York City. The place was clearly meant to transport you back in time to the 1920s, that time of sparkling flappers, sultry music, and shadowy, illicit-feeling thrills. It had me thinking about that era’s Prohibition: the way the ban on booze made drinking dangerous, and thus accidentally made it glamorous, turning what had been a commonplace substance into a symbol of rebellion, decadence, and status. I thought about how, in chasing alcohol into the shadows, Prohibition also created a dangerous underworld that made its own rules. And then I thought: what if, in that masked girl’s world, there was a Prohibition around magic? What if the rarest and most powerful kind was intrinsic to women? What would happen if a coveted, illegal, morally controversial power was something only girls could claim?
I started writing Nightbirds in 2018, but I didn’t send it out to publishers until 2021. While this book might be my first published novel, I’d already written four before it. Number Four got me my agent, but it didn’t end up selling. That was a big blow to my confidence, but I felt sure that Nightbirds was something special. Lucky for me, my publishers agreed.
Nightbirds definitely is something special!! And the journey to publication is no easy feat for sure. What drew you to writing fantasy and what was your favourite part of creating the world of Nightbirds?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: Like most kids, I was always checking the crawl spaces under stairs and the backs of walk-in closets, secretly hoping to find a door to another world there. I love fantasy as a reader because it gives me a chance to walk through that door, to escape into another world altogether. I found myself drawn to fantasy because it gave me the chance to craft a world that enchanted me—one where I made the rules, but where I could also explore very real-world issues. As for creating the world, I loved every minute of it, but particularly building the magical system. There are two types of magic in NIGHTBIRDS: alchemical and intrinsic. The first is conjured by alchemists, and it can be used as medicine, but also as recreation, distilled into cocktails that will let you speak another language for a handful of minutes or make someone’s dress seem to spark and smoke. It is expensive, it effects fleeting, and can be deadly if brewed badly. But the most valuable magic is intrinsic, passed through bloodlines and only found in young women. Enter the Nightbirds, a secret group of girls who can gift their magic with just a kiss. I loved coming up with their powers and thinking about all the ways they could be used.
Matilde, Sayer and Æsa are all such complex and captivating characters–who came into your imagination first? And who was the easiest/hardest to write?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: Matilde arrived first, and pretty much fully formed! She’s the veteran Nightbird of the trio: spoiled, privileged, confident and sassy, she doesn’t see anything wrong with the Nightbirds system. When I thought about creating my other characters, I knew I wanted them to be very different from Matilde – I love a cast of very distinct characters who have to work to understand each other. I also wanted those girls to challenge and push her, and to let readers see the Nightbirds system through a totally different lens. Enter Sayer, the daughter of a Nightbird who fell from grace, who has some scores to settle. She’s a fan favorite already, and I can see why: her anger at the unjustness of the world, and her take-no-prisoners attitude, is something I think we all can cheer for! She has nothing but contempt for the system, and she forces Matilde to question who its rules were really built to benefit. After that came Æsa, who is the sweetness to Sayer’s sharp edges and the timid blush to Matilde’s saucy smile. An outsider from the wind-swept Illish Isles who has become a Nightbird to keep her family from starving, and raised by a pious father in the shadow of a church that preaches it’s a sin to use magic, I think she might be the most relatable of all the girls.
Matilde and Æsa were the easiest to write, perhaps because they were clear opposites: from the beginning, I understood who they were and what mattered to them. Prickly, guarded Sayer was a little more difficult to pin down. She’s the kind of person that isn’t easy to get to know, but once you’re under her guard she’s as loyal and steadfast as they come. I found that was true in writing her, too!
I loved how different they were and how that turned out to be an incredible asset to them working together as the ultimate team. When do you usually write and what is your writing space like?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: I like to write in the morning, when the world is quiet and the world hasn’t had a chance to intrude on my daydreams. And I like to write in lots of places: cafes, parks, the beach. All I need is my headphones and my writing playlist! Although when I first start a book, I tend to write things by hand, and I do a lot of that in nature. I do a lot of plotting while I’m out on walks. But the place I spend most of my time writing, these days, is in my garden shed. My husband took what was once a spider-filled tool shed and turned it into this amazing little studio, which I’m slowly filling with my favorite books and pieces of art (and, of course, a bed for my greyhound). I love having a small space that’s dedicated to writing. When I go in there, everything else fades away.
Can we beg for a hint about what you’re working on next?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: I’m working on Nightbirds’ sequel! I can’t wait for readers to find out what’s in store for the girls in this one. I can’t say much about it, other than there will be more of many things I love: intrigue, betrayal, big magic…and, of course, kissing.
And lastly! What have been some of your favourite author moments so far?
KATE J ARMSTRONG: There have been SO many. Holding my bound book in my hands for the first time. Seeing my beautiful maps in their final form. Meeting teen readers (and their moms!) on the road. Nothing fuels me quite like meeting readers in the wild.
Thank you so much for all these incredible answers, and congratulations on your beautiful debut!!
thanks to Allen & Unwin for the review copy
Date Published: 28 Feb, 2023
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Purchase: Book Depository, Dymocks
Add it on Goodreads
In a dazzling new fantasy world full of whispered secrets and political intrigue, the magic of women is outlawed but three girls with unusual gifts have the chance to change it all.
Magic may be illegal in Simta, but you can find it if you know which whispers to heed. None as tantalising as the ones about the Nightbirds, Simta’s best kept secret. These privileged girls have the ability to gift their magic to others with a kiss – something the church would have them killed for. But protected by the Great Houses, their identities safe behind masks, the Nightbirds are well-guarded treasures.
Matilde, Æsa, and Sayer spend their nights bestowing their unique brands of magic to well-paying clients. But this Season’s Nightbirds find themselves at the heart of a political scheme that threatens their secrets and their safety. When they discover that their magic is far more than they were ever told, they see the carefully crafted Nightbird system for what it is: a gilded cage.
Now they must make a choice – to remain kept birds or take control, remaking the city that dared to clip their wings.
Filled with sumptuous, cinematic writing and dazzling details, Nightbirds is a fiercely feminist fantasy debut where the most potent magic lies not in a kiss, but in the truth.
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