A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
One Song to Rule them all, One Song to find them
One Song to bring them all and in the darkness bind them…
OK, that sounds… a tiny bit sinister, but I promise it’s not. What am I on about, you wonder? Well, the other day I was listening wistfully to some of my old WIP playlists. I tweeted a link to a particular track saying ‘If you want to know what my Beauty & the Beast retelling feels like as a song, this is it.’
Then it occurred to me that actually, there’s a song like that on the playlist for every book I’ve ever written, going right back to my very first YA novel that didn’t even get published. One Song (if you will) that just summed up the atmosphere, the central character’s struggle, the soul and feel of the thing for me.
Sometimes I got this wrong in my initial playlist and then got stuck and had to re-think because that key track acts as a sort of story linchpin for me, drawing all the other songs, other moods, other characters in towards the nameless, ineffable thing that I was trying to get at with this particular story.
This struck me as kind of cool. And I thought maybe it would be interesting to share them. So I decided to do a post about it, and here we are.
First up is the One Song for BLOOD MAGIC, which was the first YA novel I ever completed. I sent this to every single children’s book publisher in the UK, and two in Australia, and was rejected by all of them – but it was this book which caught the attention of my first first editor when it landed on the slushpile of my current publisher Walker Books, and launched me on my publishing journey. So it served a very useful purpose in the end.
It was a high fantasy novel about a young noblewoman with a magical ability so terrifying that it would have led to her instant execution if she was found out (which of course, she eventually was). She ended up saving her country and her King’s life with that talent, but the story had a bittersweet ending, with her and her lover spared their lives as a result of the King’s gratitude, but at the cost of being banished from their beloved home country. Along the way the heroine – Rialenthe, Countess of Kefari (*snorfle*) – lost her father and her best friend. Really, it was quite dark and I think the One Song definitely reflects that! It’s Elysium from the Gladiator soundtrack by Hans Zimmer:
The next book is my first published one: THE SWAN KINGDOM, which was a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale ‘The Wild Swans’. The song is called Cumulus by Imogen Heap, but I always identified it so strong with my heroine’s character and her journey through the story from tentative, unsure, and afraid, to strong, beautiful and confident, that in my head the song will always be called ‘Alexandra’. There’s so much in this song that links to the way I feel about the book, and when I listen to it I imagine clouds passing over the sun, ripples moving across the surface of deep green water, and tall rushes singing in the wind.
Next up is DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES – the book where I took the ‘lost heir’ or ‘lost prince’ trope and tried to turn it on its head by having the conquering royal hero who must reclaim their throne and bring balance to the Kingdom be a biracial girl with facial disfigurement and an awesome, disabled husband. I used a lot of the Gladiator soundtrack for this as well, but when I think back to writing it, the song I know I listened to the most, and which summed up the epic, tense, high fantasy vibe I really wanted was The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance:
I wrote all the fight scenes to that – I probably listened to it over a hundred times just writing the final confrontation between the heroine, Zahira and the antagonist alone. Incidentally, the singer, Lisa Gerrard, is the same one you hear singing on the track Elysium above.
My third book, SHADOWS ON THE MOON, is a Cinderella retelling set in a fairytale version of Feudal Japan, where the heroine witnesses her family murdered and discovers she has a talent for concealing herself with illusions when this talent is all that saves her own life. After the shocking discovery of whom was responsible for the attack that killed her father and adopted sister, she becomes ruthlessly fixated upon revenge and decides to try to win the Prince’s favour in order to use his political power to destroy her enemy.
This book actually had two really significant linchpin pieces – I think because it’s so long and took so long to write. The way the heroine exchanges identities throughout the book probably has something to do with it, too. I thought long and hard about which song to include, but eventually decided to go with the first one, because I think the second is more about the mask that the main character is wearing (playing the part of a beautiful courtesan named Yue) in the final part of the book than the person she really is inside (a frightened, bereaved young woman named Suzume). So you get The Meadow from the Twilight: New Moon score by Andre Desplat. It sums up Suzume’s desperate search for a place to belong, an identity that feels like it’s hers, a family that’s worth of her. Weirdly this isn’t on the soundtrack that’s on Spotify – I had to link to YouTube instead:
The next one makes my dilemma over the One Song for Shadows look like cake, though. It’s FROSTFIRE, the companion novel to Daughter of the Flames, another epic high fantasy, this time about a young woman named Frost who lives under a curse of berserker rage that can be triggered at any time and which has ruined her life. In her search for a cure she gets tangled up in the conflict left over after the events of the previous book, and comes to love two men whose lives hang in the balance of that battle.
Now, when I first began writing this book, Frost was a boy. Love interest #1 (Luca) was a girl, and the third person in their triangle was a boy called Arian. But then I realised Frost had tricked me. I knew Frost was a tall, very physically strong person with daddy issues who wielded their father’s axe, so I assumed boy, but actually the character was a girl. But I didn’t see why Luca should have to change. So I wrote a lesbian high fantasy. But that version just didn’t work for my editor – not because of the sexuality of the protagonists, but because in my eagerness to get my first queer love story right I’d focused on that romance to the exclusion of everything else and the voice, pacing, plot, other characters… basically nothing else really worked for her. So threw out the entire first draft and started again from scratch and Luca ended up being a boy (I still think of this book as a queer love story, btw, since my head canon is that Arian is bisexual).
Throughout this whole process of changing genders and writing new books with the same title and character names, I went through many, many, maaaaany tracks which I thought might be this novel’s One Song. But I didn’t find it until midway through writing that final, definitive version. You can imagine my relief! It’s The Gravel Road from the score for The Village by James Newton Howard:
This song still makes me tear up a little – it speaks so poignantly about Frost’s longing and loneliness, her romantic, loving heart. Plus, there’s a certain series of notes within the piece (near the middle) that sounds like the distant call of a lone wolf to me, and that’s a very important image in the book.
Now onto the NAME OF THE BLADE trilogy! This is my very first trilogy and also my very first urban fantasy story. It’s set in contemporary Britain and is the story of a British-born Japanese teenager who ‘borrows’ a priceless ancestral katana (a Japanese longsword) from her family’s attic and unwittingly unleashes the Gods and monsters of mythical Japan onto the streets of modern day London. The book has an all PoC cast and includes genderfluid and gay characters, plus unexpectedly badass parents, smexy fox spirits and all kinds of chaotic shenanigans.
For a while I was a bit stumped by how to pick a One Song for the trilogy, since each of the three books had a different playlist and a different One Song. And this post is already long enough! But then I whapped myself on the forehead for being so dense, because there’s always been a single One Song that I’ve returned to again and again that just sums up everything I love about the trilogy, everything that makes it special to me – the fast pace, the Japanese influence, the modernity – and everything that makes the heroine Mio (who hangs onto her sense of humour by her fingernails, almost to the very end) a unique character. It’s Paprika from the Paprika score by Susumu Hirasawa (again, not available except on YouTube – why do you hate me Spotify?):
Finally, it’s the One Song that started it all, the track that sums up the essence of BAREFOOT ON THE WIND, my most recent fairytale retelling and the companion novel to Shadows, set in the same Japanese influenced fairytale world of Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni.
This song sums up everything about my heroine, Hana. She’s quiet and pragmatic, and just gets on with things – but underneath the matter-of-fact exterior there’s such a painfully deep well of feelings which she’s desperate to find a way to express. The narrative of the story and the deepening, changing relationships between her and the other central characters builds up inexorably towards a confrontation between Hana, a perfectly ordinary village girl who has only common sense, kindness, and determination on her side, and the monstrous magical forces aligned against her. This One Song really captures that sense of running out of control towards something that may be miraculous or fearful. It’s Experience by Ludovico Einaudi and I love it:
I hope this has been as interesting for you to read and listen to as it was for me to write! What a fun trip down memory lane…
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an evil cocker spaniel (also known as Trash Puppy). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom, a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon, and the Hillingdon Book Award for Barefoot on the Wind.
Books: THE SWAN KINDGOM | DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES | SHADOWS ON THE MOON | FROSTFIRE | THE NIGHT ITSELF | DARKNESS HIDDEN | FRAIL HUMAN HEART | BAREFOOT ON THE WIND