Lee Weatherly is the author of almost 50 books for children and young adults, including the best-selling Angel series. Her Broken trilogy - Broken Sky, Darkness Follows, and Black Moon - is set in an alternate version of the 1940s, where fighter pilots duel on behalf of whole nations, astrologers weed out the unworthy, and dangerous demagogues rise to power. Who can young Peacefighter Amity Vancour trust? And can she survive to help rebuild her world? Imogen Russell-Williams interviews her for Books for Keeps.
The setting of the Broken trilogy is an extraordinary mixture: film noir glamour, fascist repression, fighter-pilot heroism and astrology. What sort of research did you do in creating it?
I have a tendency to write about things I don’t know anything about, and flying planes is a really good example of that! I did a lot of research about Spitfires; I read memoirs of WW2 pilots, and I had a Spitfire manual at my deskside the entire time. The most exciting research was that I actually got to fly in a Spitfire, which was incredible. It was a two-seater, one of the old training planes used in the Second World War…I’d finished the first draft of Broken Sky by then – but flying in a Spitfire gave me so much respect for Amity! The film noir aspect I didn’t have to research too much, apart from re-watching my favourite films (I really love the 1930s and 40s era of Hollywood.)
On astrology, I did have to do some research, because it gets very technical in places, but the basics of it I already knew, because my mom and sister were very into [it] – so my sister might say ‘Oh, I’ve found someone new who I want to date,’ and Mom would say ‘Ooh, what sign is he?’…‘He’s a Capricorn!’ The fascist regime, obviously, is loosely based on the Second World War. I did a lot of reading about that, particularly as the series progressed.
At the heart of the trilogy is the idea of Peacefighting – after an apocalyptic war, international disputes are now settled by two pilots fighting in the air. Where did that idea come from?
I have absolutely no idea. I was having dinner with my husband at our favourite Thai restaurant, he was talking about something to do with his day, and this just dropped into my head from nowhere: ‘What if there was this futuristic society where conflicts between nations were solved with fights, one-on-one combats…’ So I interrupted him and said ‘Oh my god, I’ve had the most amazing idea, I must tell you this!’ Actually, when I was first thinking of the idea, I thought it was either going to be Spitfires, or dragons - and when I leaned towards Spitfires, that gave me the whole 1940s vibe. But the idea just came from absolutely nowhere.
Names - and aliases - seem very meaningful in the Broken world. How did you choose ‘Amity?
Well, actually, her name wasn’t Amity to start with. When I first had the idea, her name was Danni, and I had a very particular image of her; she was going to be small and slight, with short brown-gold hair. But, trying to write the book, it just wasn’t coming together. I was really struggling – and then, on Facebook, a writer friend posted something to the effect of ‘I’ve just changed my main character’s name and now the whole book is falling into place!’ And I thought ‘I wonder, if I change my main character’s name, would this help me?’
And, really, the name ‘Danni’ had nothing to do with this 1940s world. So I thought ‘I have this whole world where the concept of peace is so important…and since Peacefighting has been around for about a hundred years now, wouldn’t you start seeing that in the names?’ So I looked for names that meant ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’, and saw ‘Amity’, and thought, oh, that’s perfect. Then of course that gave me her father, ‘Truce’, and her brother, ‘Hal’, short for ‘Halcyon’, and it all fell into place; it gave a sort of richness to the world’s tapestry.
The interesting thing was that when I changed Danni to Amity, the character totally changed. Suddenly I knew her, and suddenly she was talking to me; and that magic absolutely worked – just changing her name changed my whole view of her.
Amity is a very gifted pilot, but she doesn’t set out to become Wildcat, the leader of the Resistance – in fact, she tries to avoid it. Do you think it’s problematic for women in fantasy to be ambitious or power-hungry
The short answer is no, I don’t – but I think that ‘ambitious’ and ‘power-hungry’ are two very different things. So Amity is ambitious; she wants to be a Tier 1 pilot, she wants to do the absolute best she can; she knows that she’s a skilled pilot and wants to take that as far as possible. But I think that [when] she’s Wildcat, ‘power-hungry’ isn’t particularly positive; whether you’re male or female, if you’re seeking power for the sake of power, that that’s not good in terms of the people whom you’re going to have power over. Amity is a very thoughtful and intelligent young woman, and in her role as Wildcat, she’s basically saying to people, ‘Go out, and risk your lives, and you might die, because I’m saying to you that this is a good thing to do.’ And she has very mixed feelings about that, as I think any thoughtful and intelligent person would.
Thinking about the idea of the power-hungry woman, though, Kay Pierce is pretty power-hungry. She’s an astrologer in a regime where astrology is used to control and terrorise people; and she doesn’t believe in any of it, but she knows what she has to do to stay alive and to rise to power. She’s determined to survive – and her survival looks really uncertain in places, but she’s going to do everything it takes.
You handle romance quite unexpectedly in the books. Was that planned?
Well, one thing I wanted to explore was that I didn’t want a love triangle. I had the idea that you have this main character, she’s madly in love with someone, he breaks her heart – and you know what? She gets over him, and she likes somebody else. In teenage fiction, I think, that isn’t always done – it’s like the first person you’re with is also going to be the last person.
Talking about teenage fiction, the trilogy doesn’t pull any punches – there are scenes set in concentration camps, summary executions, horrific injuries. Was there ever a point at which you felt ‘This is too dark for teenage readers?’
In book 2, it does go to some very dark places – both in terms of the world and in terms of Amity’s emotional arc. In book 1, she’s very idealistic, very black and white – ‘This is the right thing, so I have to do it’ – and so it felt important for her to be dragged down to the absolute depths, and to realise that in the right circumstances, she herself might do very unsavoury things, which gives her a much greater understanding of the world around her. So the darkness felt important…I think, though, that teenage readers especially are looking to find their place in the world, and looking at the world around them; they see injustice, they see that things aren’t perfect, and I think that they want to read about darkness as well as light.
Do you see echoes of current events in the chaos and oppression of the Broken world?
I think some parallels can be drawn between the current political landscape and the world of Broken; however, these weren’t really on the horizon when I was writing it. I’d finished the first draft of Black Moon by the time a lot of the more overt things started happening in the news, and it was very very strange; particularly the demonising of certain people: ‘These are the Others, and you should be fearful of them, and I can be the one to save you from them’, which is very directly addressed in Broken. So now, as a writer and as a human being, concerned about what’s happening, I do feel ‘I want to write something, I want to react to this,’ – and then I think ‘But I’ve already written the series I’d want to write.’
Imogen Russell Williams is a journalist and editorial consultant specialising in children’s literature and YA.
Broken Sky, Darkness Follows and Black Moon are published by Usborne, paperback, £8.99