Karah Sutton author essay

A Wolf for a Spell

A Wolf for a Spell By Karah Sutton

I’ve always been captivated by fairy tales, and my debut novel, A Wolf for a Spell, is a tribute to the Russian fairy tales I’ve loved all my life. But it’s also a love letter to the natural world. It surprises me how much I enjoyed creating a wild world, when for so long I avoided the wilderness. My favorite passages to write were the descriptions of leaves, clinging brambles, and squelching mud.

Ages eight and nine were my Robin Hood phase. Not only was I determined to learn archery, but I fell deeply in love with the notion of living carefree in the forest. There was a problem, though: I really wasn’t an outdoorsperson. The woods made me uneasy. At summer camp, I stayed near the water and worked on my swimming technique.

The forest was a place I accessed mainly through stories, starting with fairy tales, then the Robin Hood books I devoured, and later the books of Patricia Wrede and Gail Carson Levine. I obsessively rewatched Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and usually turned up at sleepovers with my worn-out VHS of the Broadway production. (Much of the adult humor went over my head.) What was it about the forest that fascinated me? What was it that frightened me out of exploring it myself?

Probably many of the same things that fascinate and frighten us all. Journeys into the forest are as old as storytelling itself. The forest holds a mystical sense of danger and opportunity. It has the ability to conceal unknown creatures within its depths to capture and transform us.

These fears are not entirely unfounded. The news is full of cautionary tales of people getting lost in the woods. They might lose the path and freeze when the sun goes down. Or maybe they encounter a venomous spider or snake. Not to mention bigger animals such as grizzly bears and mountain lions. And then there’s poison ivy!

When we enter the forest, we are entering nature’s domain. We are at the mercy of critters and plants that live there. The woods are their home, not ours.

When I moved to New Zealand as an adult, I married into a family of conservationists. Suddenly my holidays were filled with treks up mountains and daylong hikes. The thing that inspired me was how dutifully and respectfully they approached even a short walk. You bring clothes that will keep you warm if you get lost. You never go on long walks alone, and always let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. You stay on the path to avoid trampling plants or the homes of animals. You leave nothing behind, and take nothing with you. People who ignore these practices are regarded as reckless amateurs, not brave adventurers.

One morning while out camping, I woke to see a wētā clinging to the fabric of my tent. My first instinct was to scream. I don’t do well with insects, and wētā are enormous, bird-sized crickets, named after the Māori god of ugly things. But a fellow camper excitedly led the wētā onto a stick and began to explain their incredible anatomy, their importance to New Zealand culture, and that some species are very endangered. I crept as near as I dared for a closer look. I still half wanted to scream, but a sense of wonder also started to bubble up inside me.

Once you respect the forest as a wild place, you can fully appreciate its beauty (even when it seems ugly at first glance). And once you understand its dangers, you can also see its fragility. How an act as simple as not washing your shoes can have disastrous effects if you track soil or algae to places they don’t belong. In New Zealand, the introduction of rats and weasels when humans arrived led to native birds competing for food and entire species being driven to near extinction. We humans have an extraordinary power over nature that should not be taken lightly, just as it has extraordinary power over us.

This relationship, the power that nature can wield and the respect we should show it, is a theme I have always explored in my writing and is central to A Wolf for a Spell. The villagers fear the forest because of its mystery and danger (and perhaps a witch or two), but the animals also fear humans because of their traps and weapons. Instead of caring for the forest and enjoying the benefits it offers, the humans let their fear lead to destruction.

Our own forests are every bit as magical as the forest inhabited by Baba Yaga, and as in need of protection. In writing A Wolf for a Spell, I wanted to dare readers to enter a world of danger and adventure and to leave with a greater awe and respect for the natural world around them, inspired to fight for its preservation.

Karah Sutton

Karah Sutton has loved Baba Yaga, ballet, and blini ever since she had to do a research project on her Russian heritage in the third grade. Her hunger for adventure inspired her to move from Kentucky to New Zealand, where it was rumored she would find talking trees and the occasional wood elf. Karah spent four years as a bookseller before she turned to writing her own fiction. A Wolf For a A Spell is her first novel.

Visit her online at KarahSutton.com or follow her on Twitter @Karahdactyl

Pauliina Hannuniemi is a Finnish illustrator with her Bachelor of Arts from Metropolia UoAS. This is her first book.

Winter Escape Reads

Books to dive into this winter!

The Camelot Betrayal

The Camelot Betrayal By Kiersten White

The second book in a new fantasy trilogy from New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White, exploring the nature of self, the inevitable cost of progress, and, of course, magic and romance and betrayal so epic Queen Guinevere remains the most famous queen who never lived.

EVERYTHING IS AS IT SHOULD BE IN CAMELOT: King Arthur is expanding his kingdom's influence with Queen Guinevere at his side. Yet every night, dreams of darkness and unknowable power plague her.

Guinevere might have accepted her role, but she still cannot find a place for herself in all of it. The closer she gets to the people around her--Brangien, pining for her lost love Isolde; Lancelot, fighting to prove her worth as Queen's knight; and Arthur, everything to everyone and thus never quite enough for Guinevere--the more she realizes how empty she is. She has no sense of who she truly was before she was Guinevere. The more she tries to claim herself as queen, the more she wonders if Mordred was right: she doesn't belong. She never will.

When a rescue goes awry and results in the death of something precious, a devastated Guinevere returns to Camelot to find the greatest threat yet has arrived. Not in the form of the Dark Queen or an invading army, but in the form of the real Guinevere's younger sister. Is her deception at an end? And who is she really deceiving--Camelot, or herself?

His Dark Materials: Serpentine

His Dark Materials: Serpentine By Philip Pullman; illustrated by Tom Duxbury

A bewitching tale with a fascinating new glimpse of young Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon. This companion to the New York Times bestselling His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust series follows Pullman's beloved characters on a brand new adventure. 

After the world-altering events of The Amber Spyglass,  Lyra and Pan find themselves irrevocably changed. In this new companion story,  set after the stunning conclusion to the original His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra and Pan will journey to the far North once more, hoping to ask the Consul of Witches a most urgent question.

This brand-new story, a beguiling must-read for Pullman fans old and new, is a perfect companion to His Dark Materials and a fascinating bridge to The Book of Dust.

Watch the HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, an original series starring Lin Manuel Miranda, Dafne Keen, Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson!


Starsight By Brandon Sanderson

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Reckoners series, Words of Radiance, the Mistborn trilogy, and the Stormlight Archive comes the sequel to Skyward. The epic adventure continues in this story of a girl with a secret in a dangerous world at war for humanity's future.

All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she's a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned about her father were crushing. The rumors of his cowardice are true--he deserted his flight during battle against the Krell. Worse, though, he turned against his team and attacked them.

Spensa is sure there's more to the story. And she's sure that whatever happened to her father in his starship could happen to her. When she made it outside the protective shell of her planet, she heard the stars--and it was terrifying. Everything Spensa has been taught about her world is a lie.

But Spensa also discovered a few other things about herself--and she'll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.

A Universe of Wishes

A Universe of Wishes By Dhonielle Clayton

From We Need Diverse Books, the organization behind Flying Lessons & Other Stories, comes a young adult fantasy short story collection featuring some of the best own-voices children's authors, including New York Times bestselling authors Libba Bray (The Diviners), V. E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic), Natalie C. Parker (Seafire), and many more. Edited by Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles).

In the fourth collaboration with We Need Diverse Books, fifteen award-winning and celebrated diverse authors deliver stories about a princess without need of a prince, a monster long misunderstood, memories that vanish with a spell, and voices that refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. This powerful and inclusive collection contains a universe of wishes for a braver and more beautiful world.

AUTHORS INCLUDE: Samira Ahmed, Jenni Balch, Libba Bray, Dhonielle Clayton, Zoraida Córdova, Tessa Gratton, Kwame Mbalia, Anna-Marie McLemore, Tochi Onyebuchi, Mark Oshiro, Natalie C. Parker, Rebecca Roanhorse, V. E. Schwab, Tara Sim, Nic Stone


Warmaidens By Kelly Coon

“A dark, delectable, and utterly unique series that readers will want to drown in.” —Laura Sebastian, New York Times bestselling author of the Ash Princess series

is the action-packed conclusion to the heartwrenching Gravemaidens fantasy duology. Kammani and the maidens are now going to war against the ruler who tried to entomb them.

Just a few moons after escaping the tomb in Alu, Kammani and the other runaway maidens have found refuge in the city-state of Manzazu. There, Kammani has become a respected healer, especially among the warriors she’s brought back from the brink of death. Now that the nightmares of Alu are fading, she can finally decide whether or not to take Dagan’s hand in marriage.
But when an assassin murders a healer he believes is Kammani and attempts to kill the displaced queen of Alu, the maidens realize they’ve been found.
Hungry for revenge, Manzazu’s queen wants to strike back at Alu with her fiercest weapons—her scorpion warrior maidens—but Kammani knows that war harms more than it heals. To save the innocents and any chance of a future with Dagan, Kammani must take down Alu’s ruler before their lives burn up in the flames of war.

The Way Back

The Way Back By Gavriel Savit


Perfect for readers of Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, a sweeping historical fantasy that follows two teens on a journey through the Far Country, a Jewish land of spirits and demons.

For the Jews of Eastern Europe, demons are everywhere: dancing on the rooftops in the darkness of midnight, congregating in the trees, harrowing the dead, even reaching out to try and steal away the living.

But the demons have a land of their own: a Far Country peopled with the souls of the transient dead, governed by demonic dukes, barons, and earls. When the Angel of Death comes strolling through the little shtetl of Tupik one night, two young people will be sent spinning off on a journey through the Far Country. There they will make pacts with ancient demons, declare war on Death himself, and maybe-- just maybe--find a way to make it back alive.

Drawing inspiration from the Jewish folk tradition, The Way Back is a dark adventure sure to captivate readers of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust.