Aisling Fowler was watching her husband play a video game when inspiration for the heroine of her début novel first came to her. “He’s very keen to stress that he’s not a gamer,” she laughs, talking to me over video call from Sydney, where said husband is currently working. The female main character was very active and heroic and something about her connected with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who Fowler had loved obsessively as a girl. “I suddenly thought, ‘Why aren’t I writing characters like this?’ Almost immediately Twelve came to me. Not fully formed, but the idea of her. I knew that she was brave and bold and didn’t really care what people thought of her.” Fowler sensed anger in her too, and in trying to unpick where that came from, the story unfolded.
Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest will be published by HarperCollins this autumn. It’s a thrilling, immersive middle-grade fantasy balancing high-stakes adventure and nightmarish monsters with humour, friendship and an unforgettable heroine. The book is set in the world of Ember, a vividly imagined prehistoric world inhabited by seven clans and plagued by dark magical creatures. Many years before the story begins, The Hunting Lodge was built, a place where warriors forsake their names and blood ties to serve the clans and fight the monsters. The main protagonist, known as Twelve, is a Huntling, an initiate living and training at the Hunting Lodge.
“Twelve has a quite dark past,” reveals Fowler, “which is hidden, as all of the huntlings’ pasts are kept secret. She’s trying to come to terms with that and she has an ulterior motive in being there.” Unexpectedly, the Hunting Lodge is attacked, its defences breached by monsters and a student kidnapped. Horrified at the slow response from the adults, Twelve impulsively heads into the wilderness, determined to track down the missing girl. But she’s not the only one. She meets two boys, Five and Six, and the Lodge’s guardian, a stone dog, who has been sent in place of the hunters. The four make an unlikely group as they set off into the mountains and wilderness of the Frozen Forest, a particularly dark and magical part of Ember.
“It’s the story of how they try and find this girl, the secrets that they all have and ultimately how they forge an unlikely friendship,” Fowler explains. The dynamics of this group and the development of their relationships form the heart of story. Like Twelve, “Five is quite prickly and difficult. They’re determined they don’t like each other”. Six, on the surface, is understanding and empathetic “but he’s very good at keeping secrets”. Dog is a brilliant character, destined to become a fan favourite. “I imagined him like a typical guard dog, dutiful, loyal and protective. Outside of his comfort zone, he is no longer fighting battles and is now on a quest. He isn’t quite as confident and certainly doesn’t know what to do with these three bickering children.”
Striking the right note
As the book progresses, fragments of Twelve’s past and the source of her anger are revealed in flashbacks. Striking the right note with the darkness was, says Fowler, a really difficult balance. “I’m very aware that it is at the darker end of middle-grade and I didn’t want to push it past that.” But what was important was to make Twelve truly brave. “For a character to be truly brave,” she continues, “there has to be something genuinely frightening for them to face, and so I created the monsters and her past.” We see Twelve, at first, as fiery, strong-willed and confrontational but pet squirrel Widge reveals another side. “I tried to soften her with Widge so you also see her as loyal, protective and much more vulnerable. She’s a multi-layered character.”
Fowler describes her younger self as “the most bookish of bookish children”, reading widely and eclectically, and writing too. “I was always making up stories—that makes me sound like a horrible liar—and I think I even sent something to Puffin when I was about 11. They very politely rejected me.” The idea of writing endured but it wasn’t until she was training as a nurse, and met another student working on a book, that she began to approach it seriously. “It was a real lightbulb moment for me, almost an epiphany. She was doing exactly the same course with all the constraints, time pressures and night shifts, but she was making time for it. I realised that was the key to it.”
Fowler worked on Fireborn for around 15 months before sending it to agents. Her first draft was, she recalls, “absolutely horrendous. Twelve came the most fully formed, the other characters developed as I wrote. The world became richer and deeper as I wrote, but it was very two-dimensional at the start.” Her connection with agent Claire Wilson was immediate. “The suggestions she came up with just chimed so strongly with me. I felt that she was steering the story true.”
The pair worked on the manuscript for a further three months before Wilson sent it out on submission. What happened next is the stuff of publishing fairytales: pre- empts began to come in the very next day, resulting in a record-breaking UK auction, won by HarperCollins, with rights sales in 22 territories to date. It was, says Fowler, “unexpected and frankly a bit terrifying. The most wild ride. I’m still processing it.”
Although the book is a highly satisfying adventure in its own right, there is a sense that this is just the beginning for the Fireborn narrative, with such a rich world to explore. Future books will see the story move away from the Hunting Lodge, out into Ember to learn more about the clans, monsters and even witches. Fowler’s time in Australia has given her the space to press on with the trilogy. “I’ve tried to keep my head down and keep writing. I wanted to feel I was in a good place with the series before the books came out,” she tells me. Book two, slated for an autumn 2022 publication, is already with her editor and she is deep into the third adventure.
The next step is returning to the UK for publication and finally seeing her book in the hands of young readers. What does she hope they will find in Fireborn? “When I’m reading I always want to get back to that childhood state of really loving a book and wanting to stay up reading all night. I hope that for some readers it is that book. And if that book is for them, it will become part of the books that make them book-lovers and readers for life.”
Twelve stepped out of the Great Hall, her mind whirling. Horror at Seven’s fate coiled in her stomach. The girl had been taken and the Hunters were just sitting in their council house, arguing, while Seven was being whisked further away.
An idea, bright as a beacon, flared to life, but Twelve pushed it away. She could not abandon her plans for some girl she barely knew. She turned away and stomped across the training ground.
“I don’t care. I don’t care,” she whispered to herself. But the lie tasted foul and the frozen Hunters stared at her in silent judgement. Widge listened with his head cocked to one side, unconvinced, then gently nudged her cheek and licked her earlobe. He always knew when she was upset. Twelve ran her fingers through his fur and remembered when Seven had given him to her.
“I’m not good at taking care of things,” Seven had said, her smile strange and twisted. “But I think you might be.”
Widge had been small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. His eyes were barely open, his fur barely there, but he was beautiful even then. It had been obvious that Seven wanted to keep him, but she’d given him to Twelve instead and never asked for anything in return. A voice echoed in her memory.
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