Up until Women of Wasps and War, all my writing has been supernatural mysteries, sometimes with a smidgen of silly steampunk, with strong female leads. While as a reader, I’m a fan of fantasy and historical fiction, I’m not generally a fantasy writer.
So how did I end up writing a grimdark historical fantasy novel?
First, we need to go back to the 1990s when someone somewhere told me the gruesome but very true story about The Angel-makers of Nagyrev. Between the World Wars, a group of Hungarian women poisoned up to 300 people over a fifteen-year period. The first question which springs to mind is why.
As was often the case in the recent past, it was the custom in rural Hungary for women to be married off without their consent, often coupled with abusive or alcoholic husbands. During World War I when the men were away, the repressed women finally got their first taste of freedom, and other men. But when the war ended, many of their husbands returned and the men expected their home life to go on as it was before. The women had other ideas.
The tag line hit me instantly – not every wife was happy to see her husband return from war.
This true story has been knocking around inside my head for twenty years. This was a tale that fascinated and horrified me and I couldn’t shake the burning desire to tell it. But how?
At first I tried straight-up historical fiction and set the story in post-World War I rural Australia but I’m no historian and I was daunted by the volume of research required to get the small-town world correct. So I put my draft chapters aside (now languishing somewhere on a dead hard drive) and moved on. There’s another story here of me ignoring my craving to write (but I’ll save that sad tale another time but it has a happy ending).
In the following years, I wrote dystopias and silly steampunk novellas and my confidence in world-building grew until I struck upon the idea of creating my own world to fit the Angel-maker story. Historical fantasy was freeing, like steampunk, it allows us writers to use history when we want and also make up/mash up stuff into something new.
And so the world of Ambrovna was born, based around a Northern European nation of the 10th-11th century.
The Wikipedia entry for the Angel-makers of Nagyrev paints the women as monsters, whereas in Women of Wasps and War, I chose to tell a story of conflicted women, forced into a corner by the actions of their husbands to assert themselves and right the wrongs. To build this world, I wove in the stories of powerful women from the 10th-11th centuries from not only the gentry but the merchants, the servants and the serf classes. I researched the food, the clothing and the religious beliefs and then jumbled it all up together to create something new. With a little help from a fabulous Introduction to Fantasy course at Writers Victoria from C.S. Pacat.
Women of Wasps and War also involves a trial and so, for the first time since leaving university, I went back to my law degree to refresh my memory on the history of legal systems and the assizes.
And in a twist of historical fate, I was writing the ending as Trump was elected in the United States, which may have influenced the ending. You’ll have to read Women of Wasps and War to find out.
Women of Wasps and War
Agata, the Duchess of Ambrovna, was never meant to take the throne. In a land where men rule, her sole purpose was to smile and curtsey.
However, when war left her land leaderless, the Fatherhood religion begrudgingly allowed a first; a woman to rule.
Now the war is over the men have returned more arrogant and cruel than ever, and the Duchess is shoved back into a life of needlework and silence.
But with her new thirst for justice, Agata is reluctant to allow her country to return to its old ways.
Without her position of power, Agata and her circle of women look to the taboo wisdom of the Wasp Women for answers. But this ancient knowledge comes with consequences, and with death and treachery on the horizon, Agata must decide whether it is worth the risk.
About Madeleine D’Este
Madeleine D’Este is a writer, reviewer and podcaster from Melbourne with an unhealthy love for black coffee, folklore and dark synth music. Aside from Women of Wasps and War, her books include a series of steampunk cosy mystery novellas The Antics of Evangeline and a young adult dark fantasy set during a school production of Macbeth The Flower and The Serpent. Find out more at www.madeleinedeste.com.