Lore and escapism were what drew Terry J. Benton-Walker to fantasy books, even as a child growing up in a part of rural Georgia with no bookstores. His love for expansive worldbuilding and magic systems continued into adulthood, but he felt frustrated that he could not find himself anywhere in these fantastical worlds. It was in that empty space where he wished to see Black children wielding magic that his desire to create his own stories was born.

“I want to write stories for kids who are like 16-year-old me,” he says, “because we deserve to see ourselves as the protagonists, and heroes, and the villains, and everything that we can be in an epic fantasy.”

Benton-Walker brings young Black heroes to the forefront of his YA debut, Blood Debts (Tor Teen), which is flooded with Southern culture, an extensive cast of diabolical characters, and a magical system inspired by Afro and Afro-Latinx rituals and practices. In the book, Black 16-year-old twins Clement and Cristina must put aside their personal differences when they realize that their mother’s sickness is the result of a hex placed on them by someone in the magical community who wants to see their family exterminated. Their only chance at staying out of harm’s way is to reunite their drama-filled family and investigate a 30-year-old murder that tarnished their reputation and forced them off the throne of the magical world.

Benton-Walker’s road to publishing began in 2010, when he wrote his first full-length adult novel; he began querying in 2011. He went on to write several adult and children’s manuscripts over the course of eight years, before a cold query to Patrice Caldwell, who was at the time an editor at Disney and is now an agent with New Leaf Literary & Media, landed him the opportunity to move forward.

“I can’t lie, it was hard,” Benton-Walker says of his years in the query trenches. “There were so many times where I thought it was not going to happen. I was close to giving up when I asked myself, ‘Well, if you give up on this, what else are you going to do?’ ”

Benton-Walker signed with Caldwell in 2019, and the pair reworked many aspects of Blood Debts, including bringing in an original magic system and fleshing out the historical background. As a Black writer with a Black agent, Benton-Walker notes that his experience collaborating with Caldwell was a far cry from working in corporate management consulting for 15 years, where he faced racism and homophobia. “Patrice was one of the first people in a professional setting to actually hear me when I brought up a concern and take action with my best interest at heart,” he says, “and I will never forget it.”

In 2020, Blood Debts sold in a three-book, mid-six-figure deal for North American rights to Ali Fisher at Tor Teen, whose editorial vision for the book aligned with what Benton-Walker imagined. “The first thing that she asked me was, ‘What did this story mean to you? And what do you want it to mean to your readers?’ ” he recalls. “I’ve been really lucky in the sense that we’re very equally yoked when it comes to creativity.”

Benton-Walker worked on Blood Debts over the course of 2020, while caring for his young son Aiden with his husband amid the pandemic and protests over the murder of George Floyd. These conditions felt incredibly close to the story he’d created, Benton-Walker says, noting how “the theme of justice started to creep into Blood Debts and it really helped me save the story.”

Blood Debts was released in April, earning starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, and Benton-Walker has no plans of slowing down. His forthcoming projects include his middle grade debut, Alex Wise vs. the End of the World, out from Labyrinth Road this fall, with book two of that series in the works; The White Guy Dies First, an anthology of YA horror slated for summer 2024; and Blood Justice, the second in the Blood Debts trilogy, due in April 2024.

On what readers can look forward to in the Blood Debts series, Benton-Walker says, “The world is bigger, there’s more characters. It’s more intense. The last 25% of the book is completely unhinged. I’m so proud of it.”

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