Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rats Have History, Too! Hilary Wagner's NIGHTSHADE CITY

One of the things I like best about participating in a writing group is the opportunity to read other members' works and celebrate their successes. Today I'm excited to tell you about Hilary Wagner's recently released middle grade novel NIGHTSHADE CITY (Holiday House, September 2010), a captivating adventure tale written in the tradition of the Brian Jacques's REDWALL series. With its charming characters, high-stakes mission, and empowering message, NIGHTSHADE CITY is a book that should grace every middle-schooler's beside table.

Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of remarkable rats of superior intellect. Following the Bloody Coup, the once-peaceful democracy has become a dictatorship, ruled by decadent High Minister Killdeer and his vicious henchman, Billycan, a former lab rat with a fondness for butchery. Three young orphan rats--brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover--join forces with Billycan's archenemy, Juniper, and his maverick band of rebel rats as they plot to overthrow their oppressors and create a new city--Nightshade City. This impossible-to-put-down fantasy explores timeless themes of freedom, forgiveness, the bonds of family, and the power of love.

Love is what keeps hope alive in the hearts of the rats of the Catacombs, once free and equal citizens and now nothing more than slaves to the appetites of Killdeer and the whims of Billycan. Killdeer asserts his control by destroying--or attempting to destroy--families, the basis of rat society. After murdering or exiling parents, he forces young boys into barracks as members of the Kill Army, bound to revere and protect him. Girls sleep in crowded dormitories and work endless hours in the kitchens, preparing food for the army. Yet the deprivation and capriciousness of life post-coup cannot extinguish the love that binds families together, even if only in memory. Brother tends brother, uncle niece, mother children. Families care not only for their own members but for orphans and the less fortunate. (In an ironic twist at the end, a father's love for his adopted son sets the stage for complications sure to come in Book Two, scheduled for publication in October 2011.) Juniper, a true hero motivated by a thirst for justice rather than revenge, devotes all his energies to creating a new city where generosity and selflessness can again prevail. The vision underlying NIGHTSHADE CITY is an immensely positive one. Evil is a harsh reality, but not indomitable. I found myself completely caught up in this well-written, thoughtful tale and rooting for its lovable, courageous characters in their quest to conquer selfishness and fear.

[One small caveat--The evil rats are vicious creatures and depictions of fights between the rodents tend towards the graphic. These parts might be a bit intense for very young or squeamish readers. The violence, however, is never gratuitous.]

In keeping with this blog's focus, I asked Ms. Wagner a few questions about the role of history in NIGHTSHADE CITY.

1. How important is history to the rats of the Catacombs? How does their memory of the past shape their present actions and their plans for the future?

History is extremely important to them. Their tumultuous past is what drives them to change their future. They once had a peaceful existence, but were taken over by a horrible dictator--High Minister Killdeer. And after eleven years of oppression, the rats finally fight back.

2. Did you have any particular eras of American or world history in mind as you wrote NIGHTSHADE CITY? Did you model any of your characters on historical figures?

There is a very French revolutionary feel to them. Omar Rayyan, the illustrator picked up on that right away--they are ragtag in appearance, but charming all the same. I didn't model them after any historical figures in particular, but I'd say some of the main characters, specifically the bad ones, are an amalgamation of some particularly wicked rulers in world history. My editor says my rats are very Dickensian--they are quite well spoken, I must say!

3. When you were creating your rat society, how far back and in how much detail did you construct their history?

Their history goes back several generations, revealing how the Catacombs came to be and why they are so very dear to the rats that dwell within. KINGS OF TRILLIUM, Book II of the Nightshade Chronicles, goes even further back into their history, revealing why they are so unique compared to other rats--even other creatures.

4. What ideas would you like your young readers to take away from the book regarding the relationship of past to present?

I want readers to realize change is possible. No matter what odds are against you or how unattainable something seems to be--change can happen, but you have to make the change yourself. You have to step up and say, "No more." I want readers to realize that it's never acceptable for a few to decide the fate of many. You have a choice.

5. Are there any YA works of historical fiction you'd like to recommend?

Since I like novels with a creepy charm, I have to recommend An Acquaintance with Darkness by Ann Rinaldi. Post Civil War grave robbing--what could be finer? ;)

6. What are you working on next?

I have a new animal series in the works, which I cannot talk about, per my publisher--top secret stuff and it couldn't be more different than NIGHTSHADE CITY! I'm also thinking about Book III of the Nightshade Chronicles, which will reveal the rats' full history, with some shocking twists about where they came from and what they really are.

Thanks so much for having me, Julianne. The history in my book is so important to the story and I never fully realized how my rats have such a deep, intricate history and at times quite a messy one! ;)


Be sure to visit Ms. Wagner's website for more information about the book, including a lengthy excerpt.

NIGHTSHADE CITY is available on-line, at Barnes and Noble stores nationwide and Indie Booksellers as well.


Amy said...

Fascinating interview, ladies -- and Julianne, great review!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Amy!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, and lovely review, Julianne!

Hilary Wagner ~ Debut Author said...


Thanks so much for having me on your wonderful blog! This was a lot of fun!

I never thought about what a unique history my rats have! I can't wait to reveal more!!!

xoxo -- Hilary

Julianne Douglas said...

Glad I could help get the word out about your wonderful book, Hilary!