Today I’m excited to share with you an interesting interview with Frances Hardinge author of the brilliant new YA fantasy Unraveller which was published just last week (1st September)!  🙂  Now, this was a special interview which took place a little over a week ago, an interview between Frances Hardinge and Sarah Shaffi who asked some interesting questions with a chance later for bloggers to ask their own questions.  A huge thank you to Nina for setting this up and I really did hope I could make it to the event and get the chance to ask a couple of my own questions,, but unfortunately, even though I tried to be there, my internet connection just didn’t work at the time. 😦

Thankfully though, the interview was recorded and below are some parts I’ve transcribed.  I haven’t posted the entire interview, that would make for a very long blog post, but here are the first few questions which I found very interesting and which really made the book sound so appealing!  You can learn more about the book, some of the legends and myths which inspired the book and different characters, and more about some of the main characters too in the interview below, and scroll down further to find out more about the book and more about the author too! 🙂

Interview with Sarah Shaffi

Can you give a brief outline of the story you are telling in Unraveller?

Unraveller is a dark YA fantasy which is set in an imaginary country called Raddith and Raddith has two very peculiar things about it.  The first one is the Wilds, this is a strip along the coast which from the outside looks like a slightly damp, slightly grey rather unprepossessing strip of woods, until you go down inside and then you realise that actually these marsh woods are vast and this is somewhere where the normal rules don’t apply.  This is very much an area of dark dreams and strange creatures and dancing lights that may lead to your doom, and man eating horses.

So that’s the Wilds, but the strangeness of the wilds sort of seeps into the rest of Raddith as well.  And one of the ways in which it does this is curses.  If someone is consumed by rage or hatred or pain then they can develop the ability to curse their enemies.  And these are curse that can transform someone’s shape or steal their shadow or set them on fire or turn them to stone and there’s not really any defence against them.  And there’s only one person who can lift the curse, he’s called Kellen he’s about fifteen-years-old.  He’s got a very short fuse and a very big mouth and tends to get into trouble a lot.  And he is accompanied by his friend Nettle who is a lot more quiet and thoughtful and a bit more restrained, and who spent three years as a heron due to a curse that Kellen was eventually able to lift.

The thing about lifting curses is, it’s a great way to make enemies, the sort of enemies who can send curses your way, and it becomes increasingly clear that Kellen has a secret enemy of this sort, but we don’t know who it is.

Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

I often find it a really hard question to answer.  It’s like working out where a river starts because you have all these different kinds of streams of information that sort of coalesce and become one main current until eventually you can call it a river or a book idea.    But in this case I think the heart of it has been my reaction to all the old fairy tales, legends, stories, etc. Where somebody’s enchanted or transformed or cursed, and then that curse or spell is lifted.  That is usually really close to the end and we are left feeling that they will rejoice and be fine, and I have always looked at this and thought: Really?  Are we sure?   I’m not convinced that all of these transformations could be something you could just shrug off and I have a morbid interest in aftermaths and the bits of stories we don’t see, the bits that happen after the happy ending, the people whose perspective we don’t usually get.  So I guess that is one of the main inspirations for Unraveller.

Are there particular fairy tales you were inspired by?

Yes in some cases of the curses there’s direct inspiration of certain fairy tales and legends.  In the case of a character called Tansy and her curse, the way she has been cursed is inspired by an old folk ballad called Two Sisters.  There’s lots of different versions of it but in most of the versions there’s an older sister and a younger sister and they are interested in the same fellow, who appears to prefer the younger sister, causing the older sister to drown her.  And then somebody finds the body of this beautiful dead girl and, touched by the poignancy of the scene, the person who finds her makes her bone and hair into a harp, as you do.  And then takes this harp, as it happens, to the wedding of the older sister and the man who is the bone of contention, so to speak, at which point the harp reveals what has happened, the murder that’s occurred.

This is obviously not quite a fairy story but it’s one of these old tales and Tansy in this case is somebody who was turned into a harp by a jealous rival but while alive, which now I think about it, might actually be worse.  When she was in harp form she was able to communicate to Kellen’s ears, he was able to understand what this poor harp was saying and was able to lift the curse.  But again, you don’t expect that to be something that that person can just shrug off.

In the case of Nettle herself, Nettle and her siblings who were all transformed into birds by their stepmother, that’s partly inspired by The Children of Lir legend and partly by Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy tale The Wild Swans where, another evil stepmother, curses her eleven stepsons to become wild swans and their sister basically can only release them by knitting shirts out of nettles.  She sets about this, and she isn’t allowed to speak either, and a neighbouring king decides that he has fallen in love with this completely silent nettle knitting girl and decides to marry her.  But then he is persuaded by the archbishop that she’s actually a witch and agrees to have her burned at the stake instead.

Fortunately at the last moment as she’s being taken in the cart towards the stake swans fly down and she’s virtually finished the shirts, she throws them onto the swans and they change back, all except for the youngest who she hadn’t quite finished that shirt so he still has a sort of swan wing for an arm.  The misunderstandings are lifted and she marries the king after all.  And I had questions because I can’t help feeling that the herione’s marriage does not have a rock solid foundation.  And also can we go back to that poor guy with the swan wing now?  I’d like to know more about his subsequent life.  As I say, I have interest in the aftermath of things.

One of the things you’ve created are the little brothers, these magical spiders which sort of weave.  Can you tell us a little bit more about what was behind the creation of the Little Brothers and the myth you created around them in the book?

The little brothers are very much creatures of the wilds and they have a little more leeway in the great pact that has been signed by mankind and the wilds so that they’re allowed to operate in human territory.   It’s actually the Little Brother who bestow the ability to curse on people.  They think they’re helping.  They encounter people who seem really, really upset and they think we’ll give them the ability to write wrongs and equalize things, in a helpful way.  This isn’t perhaps the blessing they always think it is.  I did make them spiders because I wanted something small and unobtrusive that could infiltrate mankind’s territory, but the fact they are weavers was the main thing.  If fact they’re quite protective reaction to human weavers in Raddith and tend to get involved in their disputes, so it seemed apt.

I have an interesting relationship with spiders myself since I am a semi-retired arachnophobe.  I still struggle to pick one up in my hand or anything, but I can now put a glass over one which is not something I could have done once.

From small and unobtrusive to the complete opposite.  Tell us about the marsh horse which I understood to be a gigantic and very powerful and little bit blood thirsty horse that can only really be controlled by a person who has sacrificed something great and that something great is usually one of their eyes.  The trade-off is that they can then control the horse or work with it.  That relationship is interesting, it’s a very close relationship but is quite threatening to everybody else.

The marsh horse is partly inspired by the legends of the kelpie.  It is this aquatic horse-like thing that is not a vegetarian.  And of course with kelpies you’d have this beautiful black horse which particularly like the approach children and nuzzle them and persuade them to get on its back, which you shouldn’t do, because it will then run to the watery zone where it lives, dive in, drown you and then probably eat every part of you except your heart.  So best not to ride on the nice friendly horsey.

So I’d taken some of that idea and then added the notion of the pact and the way I saw it marsh horses in this world are very much a status symbol because they are sufficiently rare, having one pulling your carriage actually is something that will turn heads.  So very rich people will be very keen on the idea of having a march horse drawn carriage but less keen on sacrificing their eye, so I’d imagine you might well have some affluent people who have a marsh horse and then a coachman with one eye who they very, very carefully keep employed because the horse knows who it thinks it’s got the pact with and it’s not necessarily the person with all the money.

It is a very strong pact and its effects are powerful and not just in terms of controlling the horse.  It tends to have a strong effect on the person involved in that pact as well in that they tend to become a little greyer, a little less human-seeming, in some respects a little more wild.

What role do myths, legends and stories have in the book?  It is a world of stories, legends passed down through the ages, can you tell us a little bit about that?

It is a world where there are conflicting elements.  So the wilds, very much a zone of fairytales, of legend, tales that have a poetic likeness but aren’t reasonable, are arbitrary and cruelty, those sorts of stories, but where there are rules of bargain, rules of etiquette.  And then there’s the human world which is run by chancelry which is a guild of merchants that has a very pragmatic and logical attitude to the world and believes in things you can measure but at the same time is shaped by its proximity to the wilds and can’t ignore it and has to accommodate it.  And of course has to create little departments every time it has to deal with it, every time it infringes on mankind’s territory.  So in many respects the book is about the various tensions between those two.

When you described Kellen and Nettle at the beginning, they do sound like they are opposites and there is conflict between then despite them being friends and allies.  How important was that difference between them for the novel?

The difference is essential.  The Kellen and Nettle dynamic is one of the most important aspects of the book.  How they gradually come to understand each other better, while also understanding themselves a little better, and the various tensions and conflicts which develop, I cannot describe in too much detail without massive spoilers.


Thank you so much to Frances and Sarah for sharing this interview with all of us and I can’t wait to read Unraveller now, I’m especially interested in those eerie sounding marsh horses! 😮 🙂

About the Book

Unraveller book cover

In a world where anyone can create a life-destroying curse, only one person has the power to unravel them.
Kellen does not full understand his talent, but helps those transformed maliciously  – including Nettle.  Recovered from entrapment in bird form, she is now his constant companion, and closest ally.
But Kellen has also been cursed, and unless he and Nettle can remove his curse, Kellen is in danger of unravelling everything – and everyone – around him…

Buy from Amazon UK

About the Author


Frances Hardinge author pic
©David Levenson

Frances Hardinge spent a large part of her childhood in a huge old house that inspired her to write strange stories from an early age. She read English at Oxford University, then got a job at a software company. However, a few years later a persistent friend finally managed to bully Frances into sending a few chapters of Fly By Night, her first children’s novel, to a publisher. Macmillan made her an immediate offer. The book went on to publish to huge critical acclaim and win the Branford Boase First Novel Award. She has since written many highly acclaimed children’s novels including, Fly By Night’s sequel, Twilight Robbery, as well as the Carnegie shortlisted Cuckoo Song and the Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree.

Visit author’s website    Visit author on twitter


I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview today! 🙂  Doesn’t it make you want to read Unraveller right away! 😀  A review will be coming on this blog as soon as I can get it done, I’ve now just started reading this! 🙂

Did you enjoy this interview?  Have you read any other Frances Hardinge novels?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂