In A Consuming Fire, Laura Weymouth’s fourth YA historical fantasy, a young woman sets forth from her isolated village as the latest in a long line of sacrifices to the god of the mountain who rules over an alternate version of Britain. However, her true goal is to avenge the god’s victims by slaying the god once and for all. PW spoke with Weymouth from her home in upstate New York about the emotions fueling this story, how it reflects real world events, and what makes this her darkest book yet.
A Consuming Fire is a very passionate, even angry story. What sparked this approach?
While they’re not directly related, this is a bit of a follow-up to my third book, A Rush of Wings. I’ve referred to that book elsewhere as a hymn to anger. The main character of that one is very angry, and so I have these two books where I very much wanted to explore the theme of anger. I came up with both A Rush of Wings and A Consuming Fire in late 2016, around the time of the #MeToo movement. There was this corollary to it called #ChurchToo, which was primarily women in the Evangelical church attempting to get that denomination, that organization, to reckon with sexual harassment and assault within the church, as well as with the way that particular branch of the Christian church has demeaned and mistreated women throughout its history. I was raised Evangelical, so I wanted to write a fantasy that dealt with those feelings, and with that experience of growing up in a religious system that views you as lesser, and expendable, because you’re female. I did this as a fantasy because that’s the lens through which I like to interpret things.
This story is centered around the relationships between the god of the mountain, the Elect who serve him, the general populace, and the girls sacrificed to him. How does this reflect your interest in the intersection of faith and art?
My background is in medieval history. I went to college for medieval and Renaissance studies, and while A Consuming Fire is a historical fantasy, it’s essentially set around the mid-medieval period. A lot of art at that point was created by the religious element of society. You had monks and nuns creating beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Churches were one of the primary forms of art, and the primary venues in which to see art during this period. In A Consuming Fire, you’ll see that nobody really comes in contact with a book outside of the Cataclysm, which serves as the Holy Book within this story. And there’s not much art outside of things that have been created for a religious purpose. There are the charms outside of Anya’s village, Weatherell, which are artistic in a sense, and there are the different centers of worship seen throughout Anya’s journey. I’d say that it maps onto how medieval period art was primarily a religious undertaking.
There’s a heavy theme of sacrifice running through the book, from the various aspects—such as voice, memory, or physical parts—that the god takes from the Weatherell girls sent to him, to Tieran sacrificing his happiness for the people he loves. Can you expand on this element of the story?
I don’t really think you can talk about organized religion and the way that it tends to exploit specific groups without discussing how it leverages the concept of sacrifice against them. And how you need to be sacrificing the fullness of this aspect of your identity in order to fit in with our concept of how this religious system should look. There’s a verse in Romans that’s very popular in Evangelical churches about being a living sacrifice. That can be a beautiful thing if viewed generously and in the correct light, but it can be really destructive and manipulative as well when weaponized against people. That’s the verse that inspired me to have the Elect attempt to turn Anya into a living prayer so she becomes their message to the god of the mountain.
In A Consuming Fire, you offer some potent imagery and atmospheric language, especially when describing those sacrifices.
Descriptive writing is one of my favorite things. I feel like my first book, The Light Between Worlds, had a lot of beautiful imagery and was lovely to read, and only had a few darker moments. But over the course of each book, I’ve been getting darker and leaning more towards more disturbing imagery, to the extent that my fifth book, which comes out next year, has instances bordering on horror. So there are definitely some creepy spots in A Consuming Fire, and it all stems from my love of evocative, descriptive writing, which can skew towards the beautiful or the disturbing.
Anya is motivated by anger and vengeance, and both of your lead characters are fundamentally broken people in some ways, but your story also includes opportunities for healing and hope. How did you balance these facets?
I like to show both sides of this coin because as a writer for young people, I feel I have an obligation, if I explore darker themes and moments of hopelessness, to also provide a counterpoint of hope. In my own life, I’ve had darker moments and have always come out into the light at the end. As an author, I want to give my readers a story in which the characters go through difficult and trying times, and persevere and push through them. Anya and Tieran are my favorite central couple so far because they’re kind of walking disasters. They’ve experienced a lot of trauma and difficulty, but they’ve continued to be compassionate throughout, and have empathy for other people and a sense of humor.
A Consuming Fire is set in an alternate version of Britain, centuries after the end of the Roman occupation. How does your version compare to actual history, and what inspired this deviation?
In our world, the Roman occupation was about 500 years long. In my world, it lasted another 500 years, which puts you around 800 to 1000 AD, and then add a couple hundred years to get to Anya’s time, which is solidly in the medieval period. I initially thought about writing this as a dystopian setting, but that’s not really something that publishing is interested in doing at the moment. They wanted another historical fantasy from me. I thought a very insular and isolated Britain, after the Romans had failed, would feel as close to a dystopia as you could get in this sort of area in which I like to write. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, because it feels like they’re totally cut off from the outside world. I love the little details you can see throughout the book of how the occupation still impacts Anya’s version of Britain even now. In the book, there are these old Roman roads , the high and the low, which reflect things which really exist. There are the sunken lanes, which are old folk paths, which I wrote as a hidden network that the common people use. And there are the much more well-maintained cobbled roads, which are the province of the Elect who took over after the Romans in my world. So it was all little bits of real history that inspired these things.
What’s next for you?
My fifth YA historical fantasy, The Voice Upstairs, comes out from McElderry in October 2023. It’s a murder mystery set in a big estate in the 1920s. It has a forbidden upstairs/downstairs romance, and all sorts of eerie, supernatural happenings. I’m really excited to share that one with everybody, because if you want twists, this has lots of them. I’m also working on an adult fantasy, which I hope to finish this month. It’s kind of my magnum opus, so I’m really thrilled about it.
A Consuming Fire by Laura E. Weymouth. McElderry, $19.99 Nov. 22 ISBN 978-1-66590-270-0