Vietnamese American author Vanessa Le—a medical student at UC Irvine—makes her debut with YA fantasy duology opener The Last Bloodcarver. In the city-state of Theumas, 18-year-old Nhika peddles homeopathic remedies to upper-class clients. After a home visit goes awry, Nhika is outed as a bloodcarver, someone with the feared ability to manipulate biological processes with a single touch. When she’s kidnapped and sold on the black market to a wealthy industrialist family, she fears she’ll be forced to using her powers for nefarious deeds. Instead, they ask her to heal the comatose witness to their patriarch’s suspicious death. Reluctant to get involved in such high-stakes political drama but eager for the opportunity to use her gift to heal, Nhika steps into a world of glamour, intrigue, and hidden agendas. Le spoke with PW about her desire to write a story that was meaningful to her own identity, and how she combined her heritage and medical background to craft her debut.

How has your debut experience been so far?

I don’t want to speak for all debut authors, because I know the experience can be very mixed, but my time so far has been absolutely perfect—better than I could have possibly imagined. I think that’s largely because of my agent [Ramona Pina at BookEnds Literary], who has been a real advocate for me, but also because of my editors [Emilia Sowersby and Emily Feinberg] and the entire Roaring Brook imprint. They’ve been so great about making the process as smooth as possible and keeping me updated with good news, bad news, and deadlines.

The reception for The Last Bloodcarver has also been so much better than I could have hoped. It’s been a fantastic couple of years working on this book and its sequel—no complaints, just a lot of excitement and high hopes. I feel like people in publishing always say, “Hurry up and wait,” and, so far, that’s definitely been true. There have been moments where everything’s just gone so fast. Getting an agent and landing a book deal—even writing the book—all happened within five months. After that, it was really slow. But then it was really fast again! It’s been a whirlwind.

You’ve described The Last Bloodcarver as having “a little bit of silkpunk.” Can you elaborate on that?

When I was first developing The Last Bloodcarver, I had been thinking about how I really like when worldbuilding acts as an extended metaphor in conversation with the story. In creating Nhika’s medical magic, it got me thinking about the Industrial Revolution. Bloodcarving plays with the idea of building someone up with muscle and bone and tissue; it was analogous to building something out of mechanical parts. If you learn about the body, a lot of it is also physics. I think it’s insane that we are a feat of physics just as much as we are a feat of biology.

I was researching different genres of fantasy such as gaslight/gaslamp and Victorian era, but something that really struck me was silkpunk, which was originally coined by Ken Liu with The Grace of Kings. Contrasted with steampunk, silkpunk had almost necessary biological elements that I had never really considered before. You have these elements of natural construction where things that are created by humans mimic animal or natural biology. I was really drawn to that, because it provided a natural tie-in with human biology and created a canvas for the symbolism of Nhika working closely with anatomical structures. There’s a section of Theumas that’s obsessed with mechanical engineering, which parallels Nhika’s abilities, but that concept is a lot more accepted and even celebrated than her bloodcarving. I felt that if I set her within this family, who are the leading manufacturers of these mechanical structures, it would lay a lot of groundwork for growth in either direction about her learning what it meant to live in a society where nothing is built for her.

How did you draw from your Vietnamese heritage to create the world of The Last Bloodcarver?

I stopped writing for a long time in college. I only started again because I watched the trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon, which was based on Southeast Asian culture as a conglomerate, not specifically Vietnamese culture. I realized that while there have been a lot of Vietnam War stories, I had never seen Southeast Asian culture used to create a secondary world in fantasy before. I wanted to write something that gave me that same feeling as watching that trailer and seeing a part of my culture reflected in something so big and mainstream.

When I started, however, I was developing a world that went very deep into the mythos of Vietnam. But I’m Vietnamese American, and with that comes a different experience of the culture. When the setting was something inspired by Vietnam, it felt disingenuous, because I have never even been to Vietnam. My parents don’t want to go back to Vietnam. So, I was like, “Why am I writing about Vietnam?”

I grew up in a very white city [Portland, Ore.], and my experience with my heritage involves living with one foot in American culture and one foot in Vietnamese culture. I created Theumas as an analogy for the American Dream. You have this meritocratic city, basically promising everyone that if they’re smart enough, if they work hard enough, they can achieve anything. But when Nhika is experiencing this world, she discovers that that’s not the case. There’s a lot of hidden agendas, biases, and prejudice that get in the way of what they tout as this meritocracy.

I wanted to write something as close to my own experience of being Vietnamese as possible. I wanted to convey something more meaningful to myself, but I also didn’t want to speak over motherland Vietnamese voices. I didn’t want to write their story; I wanted to write my own. Nhika is the daughter of immigrants, which is very close to my own experience, and she has this feeling that she’s the last bloodcarver, regardless of if she actually is because in many ways, feeling separated from your own community, from those big markers of your own culture, feels a lot like being the last of something, even if it’s not true.

In what ways did your medical education inform how you developed Nhika’s bloodcarving abilities?

I actually came up with the idea for The Last Bloodcarver when I was reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, who writes so uniquely about geology and how it works within the book’s magic system. I was like, “Wow, I need to write something like this.” Except, I don’t know anything about geology—but I do know about medicine. I was on the pre-med track at Brown University, and now I’m in med school. So, in many ways, I feel like my medical journey has followed Nhika’s medical journey: she starts being curious about medicine, and as she learns more about it, she also learns what it means to be a healer.

Nowadays, inspiration comes from everywhere. I’ll be sitting in a classroom, and my classmates or professors will be talking about some disease, and I’ll think, “I’m making that a plot point.” It just ties in seamlessly. It’s been fascinating, being able to combine medicine and writing, because I like to write about things that are personal to me. I think it’s very natural that my debut main character is a healer because I consider that to be a part of my identity.

Characters perceive Nhika’s magic as being something sinister rather than healing. Why was it important for you to weave contemporary ideas of good and evil as it relates to medicine into Nhika’s story?

What really inspired me was my own struggle getting into medical school. I applied when the pandemic broke out, and that delayed my application by two years. I consider myself someone who’s come from a culture of healers: my parents are doctors and my grandma worked in a hospital as a laundress when she immigrated here. I feel a close affinity to the role of healer. So, not being able to stick to this timeline that I had set out for myself was a really tough thing to navigate. It felt like I was losing a core part of my identity. That’s where Nhika’s struggle with being seen as a dangerous bloodcarver versus a healer, or a heartsooth, comes from; she knows in her bones that she’s a heartsooth, but no one else in her world sees her that way. If somebody doesn’t see you in the same way that you see yourself, are you even who you thought you were?

That’s something that she grapples with throughout her journey because it was something that I was also grappling with. Luckily, I made it into med school and I’m still on track to my goal. Similarly, Nhika finds that no matter what anyone else thinks of her, being a heartsooth is an unshakable part of her identity. It’s not something that anyone can take away from her through words or actions. I think that’s something I had to learn in my own journey.

The Last Bloodcarver by Vanessa Le. Roaring Brook, $19.99 Mar. 19 ISBN 978-1-250-88152-6