Kate Mascarenhas: Crossing genres


11 December 2020
The Thief on the Winged Horse author writes about creating fluidity in her work by combining genres
Kate Mascarenhas: Crossing genres Images

I think of genres as families. Books aren’t grouped according to strict checklists. But within the same genre they might resemble or influence each other. Sometimes there’s a marriage; an adoption; a disownment. And it’s a sensible idea to keep widening the gene pool. 

My first novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, asked how, if time travel were commonplace, our experience of agency and everyday human feelings like grief might change. Primarily I thought I was writing science fiction, driven by psychological questions because I’m a psychologist by training. But the story also shared DNA with locked room detective novels, queer romance, and children’s time slip stories. I centred women’s experiences rather than men’s, which was incidental to genre in my view and not a new feature of time travel stories, but it caused confusion by running counter to some people’s stereotype of science fiction. My UK publisher marketed the book as literary speculative; my US publisher, crime. Across territories reviews typically described the story as genre-bending. I preferred to see it as the latest fruit from a tangled family tree.

By the time I started my next project, combining genres felt like second nature. I assumed it meant I wasn’t committed to a particular niche, which was naive on my part, but also freeing. After a few years sweating over paradoxes and closed timelike curves, I was happy to give physics a break. And I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to write about another violent murder so soon.
Instead I wrote a kind of fairy tale: The Thief on the Winged Horse. The setting is our world, though it doesn’t always feel like it. A dynasty of doll makers claim they have access to fae magic; they lay enchantments upon dolls, which then evoke specific feelings when touched. Family hierarchy determines who gets to lay enchantments, and men have typically monopolised these opportunities—much to the fury of the heroine.

Remembering that the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream speak in trochaic tetrameter I initially drafted a third of the book in the same meter. The line breaks were removed in successive edits for ease of reading, but the rhythm of those sections remains, contributing to a sense of other worldliness. Though I set the story in contemporary Oxford, I wanted to convey that centuries of secrecy and tradition have made the dollmakers quaint. They keep themselves to themselves on a river island, admitting newcomers only after careful vetting. Their entertainments, dress and way of speaking feel out of joint with the modern world. Atmospherically, then, the story can feel like a historical... until the jolting point when a stranger uses his mobile phone. The heroine’s alcoholic father sneaks out across the river to drink at Wetherspoons, where the beer is cheaper, and a mother seems daring for sending her daughter to the local comp.

Within such a claustrophobic atmosphere, there is ample opportunity for resentments to fester. The women quietly seethe at their exclusion from magic. Their anger is interwoven with other, mundane injustices. They are paid poorly; their creativity is belittled and co-opted; they are continually expected to cater to men while hiding their rage. Somebody steals a precious doll, prompting the arrival of the police. Paranoia builds and, as the old order is threatened, the culprit becomes almost irrelevant; the characters each look to turn the crisis to their advantage.

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In my view, this novel is a fantasy. It’s certainly on a fabulist branch of the genre family tree. But I know there’s a risk some fantasy readers might feel miscued due to the nature of the worldbuilding. The mechanisms of enchantment are kept simple, and no underlying system is explained. Encounters with the fae have an ambiguous status: they might be real, or they might be a hallucination. They might be both. Some chapters are sufficiently rooted in the familiar to feel like a realist story of family dysfunction, only for the fantastic to seep back through. During promotion, we’ve taken to calling the book magical, rather than fantasy per se, to avoid readers being misled; and yet these categories are related closely enough to feel arguable.

Thief is a second novel, which raises one final problem in relation to genre. I thought I’d successfully avoided a pigeon hole by writing a cross-genre debut. I hadn’t anticipated that people might expect me to continue melding genres—but in the same combination as before. The risk is that readers who enjoyed my time travel murder mystery will feel disappointed by the switch. But I trust there will be returning readers who find the contrasts pleasantly surprising; and that new readers will enjoy Thief in its own right as a member of the speculative fiction family. I look forward to hearing their reactions.

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas is published by Head of Zeus.


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