Sara Holland’s debut novel, Everless, is an absorbing and additive YA fantasy that imagines a world where time is literally a commodity controlled by the rich and drained from the poor. Here, Sara talks exclusively to us about worldbuilding in fantasy novels and why money, or lack of, is such an important factor in her book.
When it comes to fantasy novels, I think the best concepts are the ones that echo real-world conflicts.
How this is done varies from story to story and writer to writer—realistic struggles can be disguised, allegorized, transformed—but I most enjoy worldbuilding that takes the subtext in our society and makes it text, authors who find and untangle the unspoken currents that flow all around us. I think of the moment in Disney’s cartoon Pocahontas, when Pocahontas throws powder into the wind and renders it visible. Plus, it’s often possible to digest something in a fantasy context that in real life feels too huge and permanent to even look at directly—from large-scale conflicts like war, prejudice, and corruption; to individual fights like finding love or fitting in in a family.
But I think we fantasy writers are sometimes guilty of neglecting issues of money. Fantastical economies are vaguely drawn, and characters tend not to think much about how they’ll make rent at the castle or pay tuition for magic school. It’s understandable—it’s difficult to write a compelling scene about working a dull job for hours on end, or balancing one’s checkbook for the hundredth time in the hope that the numbers will suddenly, magically work.
Yet, for everyone except for a lucky few among us, the aphorism “time is money” is pretty much true—both on a individual level (if you’ve ever worked a wage job, the literal hours in your life have been assigned a dollar value) and on a societal one. Especially on my side of the pond, your wealth or lack thereof can impact the length and quality of your life because of how it affects access to food, shelter, healthcare. And money anxiety can suffuse life at all its stages—whether you’re hoping to pass along money to your children or just struggling to keep the lights on.
Despite an enormous amount of luck and privilege, there have been times that I’ve lost sleep worrying about money. I still spend a lot of time doing mental math: I should have this much of an emergency fund by such-and-such date, I need to pay this much per month to someday slough off my student loans. So I’m struck whenever I see those calculations reflected on the pages of a book. For instance, there’s The Name of the Wind: when the protagonist gets to university, tuition comes at a steep price. He always has that number in the back of his mind, and is thinking about how he’ll get there, and what he’ll do when next semester rolls around. Or in Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker is never not thinking about the reward—thirty million kruge—that will allow him to [spoiler alert!] avenge his brother. I saw my life and concerns reflected there in a way I never had before.
So with my book Everless, I tried to reflect money anxiety by imagining what it would be like if our abstract system—where money is bits of colorful paper or even just numbers on a screen—was concrete and even visceral. In Sempera, people’s time, in the form of a metal called blood-iron, can be drawn out of your veins and forged into coins. The sellers of time, then, become tired and weak—a gross process, but not so different from the effects of working a long shift on your feet or living a life in which money anxiety is always hanging over your head. I hope that readers will see themselves reflected in Jules’ trials, and cheer for her when she decides to bring the system down.
Sara Holland grew up in small town Minnesota among hundreds of books. After graduating from university, she worked in a tea shop, a dentist's office, and a state capitol building before heading to New York to work in publishing. These days, she can be found exploring the city's bookstores and consuming too much caffeine.