In Song of the Huntress (Redhook, Mar.), which PW’s starred review said “stands out from the crowded field of legends retold,” Lucy Holland reimagines the Northern European myth of the Wild Hunt. She gender-swaps immortal King Herla, leader of the folkloric hunt, for a female war chief who meets her match in the historical warrior queen Æthelburg. Holland spoke with PW about her characters’ real-life inspirations, surfacing queer identities, and the finer points of historical accuracy.

What prompted you to wed a myth about otherworldly hunters to figures from British history?

My previous novel, Sistersong, got me into historical fantasy. Where I live in England, it’s a very mythic landscape, and I’m interested in the boundary between history and myth. I’m also very keen to re-seed queer identity into historical periods where it definitely existed, but from which it’s been, often purposefully, left out. We don’t get to hear very much from people who differ from the dominant narrative.

How did you choose the historical figures on whom the characters are based?

Ine and his wife Æthelburg of Wessex ruled for a very long time around the beginning of the eighth century, and their Kingdom of Wessex eventually became England. They were a power couple, but they had no children. There are many possible reasons no children are recorded—perhaps they couldn’t have them, perhaps they had them and they died. But I thought, maybe this is a chance for me to explore different identities. In the book, Ine is asexual and struggles with that, because he lives in a society that, like ours, is extremely binary. And the historical Æthelburg is believed to have been an Anglo-Saxon female warrior, which was quite rare. In the book, Æthelburg struggles against ideas of what women were expected to be like.

How did you approach writing about this violent period in British history?

When I have to write a violent scene, it’s the emotional impact that’s much more important to me than the gory details. Those are important, too, but I very much want to find out why these people are fighting, what they’re fighting for. That’s the heart of every battle,
especially the very visceral battles fought in this book.

What sources did you draw on to build your version of Anglo-Saxon England?

I wanted to make the book as historically accurate as possible. My first port of call was to get an idea, from a historian’s perspective, of the major things going on culturally, politically, and geographically in the area where it’s set, in the southwest of England. But there’s also a level of detail a writer needs to bring a world to life. I ended up on the Instagram accounts of local archaeology sites and people who would be considered amateurs but have a vast array of very detailed knowledge. LARPers are amazing for this, because they’re genuinely interested in reproducing things like the clothes, weapons, and tools of a period. There’s a great group called Thegns of Mercia who have enormous posts on their website about the difference between beer, cider, and ale.

The book took me the better part of three years to write. I was working with an established myth that I was deliberately subverting. But the heart of it is very much its three main characters and how their individual struggles with their identities impact each other’s struggles.

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