MECHANICA Excerpt

Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait. I am certain your father still keeps it in the foyer—no one will have touched it in years, I hope. But you, darling, will be able to find the key.

Walk to the end of the hall and open the cellar door. It has no lock; do not fear closing it behind you. Go inside.

Be careful when you walk down the stairs; the wood is weak and treacherous. Bring a candle. The cellar is very dark.

At the bottom of the stairs, turn left. An old writing desk lurks there, in the shadows. Push it aside. No doubt you’ve grown up a good strong girl, and won’t need help.

Look: there is a door in the wall.

You won’t see a keyhole, but run a finger over the place where one would be. I know no daughter of mine will mind the dust.

Twist the key into the keyhole. You might need to worry it a little.

There, darling. You’ve found it. Use it well.

 

My mother was wrong about one thing: the cellar door did have a lock. Stepmother locked me inside enough times for me to know.

She was right about everything else. I was plenty strong enough to push aside the writing desk; I only cursed myself for never having done so before.

Of course, I’d thought Mother’s workshop was long since destroyed. I’d seen the fire myself.

Besides, that desk had long been my dearest friend. The first time Stepmother locked me in the cellar, a forgotten stack of brown and brittle paper in its top drawer and a cracked quill and green inkbottle underneath provided me with hours of amusement. I drew improbable flying machines and mechanized carriages; I drew scandalous, shoulder-baring gowns with so many flounces and so much lace that their creation would have exhausted a dozen of the Steps’ best seamstresses.

Not that Stepmother hired seamstresses anymore. I provided her with much cheaper, if less cheerful, labor. I sewed all of her and my stepsisters’ dresses, though my fingers were not small or nimble enough for the microscopic stitching they required. I took care not to show how much I preferred fetching water and chopping wood to sewing. Stepmother considered ‘hard labor’ the most punishing of my chores, so she assigned it often.

I never told her how those chores offered me precious, rare glimpses into my memories of Mother. I could see her face, wreathed in a subtle powdering of soot, laughing at my disapproving father as she carried a cord of wood or a sloshing pail of water down to the cellar. Until recently, those memories, and a few of her smallest inventions, were all I had of her.

I had to hide her machines from Stepmother, of course: the whirling contraption that dusted cupboards for me, the suction seals that kept mice out of the drawers, the turn-crank in one closet that polished shoes. Mother had taught me enough to keep her machines in repair. When she was alive, she’d dreamed of my going to Esting City for a real apprenticeship, as she herself had always longed to do. But Father would never hear of it.

Anyway, neither of them were able to help decide my future anymore. Now that they were gone, all I knew was that I could not abandon their house to the Steps.

I digress. Father always told me not to worry over things that can’t be helped, but I never took his instructions to heart.

He died on New Year’s Eve, the year I was ten. I wept noisily over the dispatch letter that announced his death, smearing tears onto the sleeves of what I didn’t know would be my last new dress for years. Stepmother stood silent behind me.

He had taken his new wife, with her two mewling, puny daughters, only a few years earlier. I’d tried to befriend Piety and Chastity at first, to beguile them into joining me for a horseback ride, a walk, or even a simple game of boules on the lawn.

When I finally understood their horror of fresh air, I tried sharing my books with them. These, at best, were met with glazed expressions and simpering giggles behind my back. At worst, their pages were ripped out and replaced them with ladies’ magazines. To improve my taste, my stepsisters said.

At least in those days I had books of my own.

After Father died, the Steps grew so much worse. Within a day of his death they ousted me from my lifelong bedroom, and I was too stunned with grief to argue. My room was next to my stepsisters’, and Stepmother said they needed the additional boudoir space. She liked everyone to think that she would never grant her daughters any excess, but in private she spoiled them as if they were the Heir’s famously beloved horses.

On the night after she dismissed our housekeeper, she told me to wash the supper dishes. Then—the only time I’ve done it—I did rebel. I screamed at her like a child, like the child I still was. My position in the family was all I had left to tie me to my parents’ love. Though I’d felt it slipping away, until that moment I had chosen denial.

Clearing my eyes of tears, I stared my stepmother down. She looked back at me. Though I had only seen coldness and distance in her face before, I saw something else then. I saw challenge. We both knew what she was doing: she was making me a servant. But I began to think she might be testing me, preparing me for some sacred rite of entrance into her true family. Making sure I was a good daughter.

So I nodded, and I looked down, and I retreated to the kitchen. When your heart is broken, it’s easier to follow rules. I kept waiting, too, hoping I might pass her test. I carried that hope with me like a rosary, counting the worn beads each time she assigned me some yet more menial chore.

If it were ever a test, I must have failed.

Despite what she has reduced me to since Father’s death, though, I still cannot believe Stepmother is entirely evil. Do not mistake me: she is cruel, sharp, and she spoils her own children to a fault, while denying me any scrap of affection. She takes a hypocrite’s great pleasure in her own abstinence. She enjoys denying herself more than she would ever relish an indulgence. I could list her flaws for days.

But she gave me my mother’s letter. I didn’t know why she did, or why she didn’t read it first. Perhaps, I’d thought, it was because she loved her own daughters too much to disrespect another mother’s wishes; perhaps I would never know the reason.

It must have been her, I thought, finding the envelope slipped under my doorjamb one autumn morning.

 

for Nicolette

on her sixteenth birthday

 

Stepmother even gave it to me on the correct day.

After dusk, I crept through the hall to the portrait of Grandmother. She cut an imposing figure atop her huge black stallion, Jules. Mother’s family had long been famous for their hunt horses, and Jules was the greatest stallion they ever produced. There were rumors, even, that Fey blood ran in Jules’s veins—but if that were true, the records of it would have been destroyed years ago, after King Corsin’s quarantine on Faerie. No one would admit to the least association with the Fey any more, not after a Fey assassin killed the last Heir.

Our country had to learn how to live without magic, after that. We were still learning.

Still, with his long, powerful legs, streaming mane, and bright-gleaming coat, Jules looked as beautiful as Fey horses were said to be. Mother used to tell me that together, he and Grandmother could put the men to shame at the foxhunt—I always loved hearing that story.

No key hung on the wall when I took down the picture. Annoyed, I squinted at the letter again.

Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait.

I puzzled for a moment—then had to laugh at my own stupidity.

I dug a ragged fingernail into the paper at the back of the frame. It exploded in tiny brown fibers that blanketed my hand to the wrist and suffused the air with feathery, antique dust. I grinned, feeling rough metal against my finger. I hooked my fingertip around the key and pulled it from the frame.

It was a skeleton key, quite large. The prongs on its shaft were many and complex.

I pocketed it quickly and rehung the portrait, feeling like the heroine in a two-penny storybook. Grandmother watched me from her gilded frame.

I kept near the wall as I walked to the cellar door. I could hear Piety’s snores and Chastity gibbering in her sleep. Stepmother slept even more deeply than they did. Still, I stayed silent as a huntress, groping toward the secret I could sense just ahead of me. Any false step might wake the Steps and pull it out of my reach.

I double-checked the lock on the door and crept down the stairs. I held my candle high. I had chosen a plain kitchen candlestick—Stepmother would miss the scented beeswax. So it was by a crude and greasy light that I found my mother’s gift.

It was easy enough to push the desk aside; finding the door was harder. The flickering candlelight revealed nothing until I practically had my nose to the seam. I was covered in spider-silk before I saw it.

But there it was, obscured behind seven years of grime . . . and something else. Something not quite a shadow—something I might have thought was magic, before the quarantine. Dark, with a darker shine. But as I put out my finger to touch it, it vanished, and I thought I must not have seen it at all.

I stepped back, relishing this last moment of mystery. I put a fair amount of force behind the key, expecting rust to have diminished its fit.

But it slipped in like a foot into a slipper, and I stumbled against the opening door.

A rattling overhead drew my attention. There were round, spiked shadows in the darkness of the ceiling, rotating at the same rate that the door was pulling open—being pulled. Inside the room, a hissing sound stopped and started in a heartbeat pattern.

I picked up my candle and entered.

The door swung shut behind me, as smoothly and quickly as it had opened. I didn’t feel trapped—I felt welcomed, wrapped in my mother’s love. I surveyed my inheritance with awe.

There were charts on the walls, mapping the inner mechanisms of a thousand wonders. There was a coal-powered loom, a sewing machine—thank goodness, I thought, my finger still stinging from the last time my needle had slipped—and an automated rocking chair and cradle. This last made my heart ache with loneliness for her and for my own childhood, but I could not stop to examine it further; I was too curious about her other designs. I was particularly drawn to an acidic rainbow of dyes painted into a line of circles, next to long notations of their formulas. I could smell the oil lubricating the gears that had swung open the door.

A bookshelf on the far side of the room completely covered the wall. It sagged into a smile under the weight of its leather-bound occupants. Stuck into the wall amid the books, a desk sat draped with reams of paper and half-finished diagrams. A pair of glass and leather goggles rested on top of one blank sheet, still dusted in soot. I recalled the pale rings around Mother’s eyes.

I jumped when the room’s thick silence broke. A small chest on a low shelf thunked once, and again, in a determined beat.

I sighed, relieved that no one had discovered me. But what lay in that dark box?

Years of unhappiness had made me fearless. I expected a family of rats, and when the thing in the chest scurried into shadows as I opened the lid, I assumed I was correct.

Then I heard the soft whirring of gears, and my nervousness dissolved into delight. I had found another of Mother’s creations.

I lowered my palm gently into the box. I found myself cooing and nickering to the thing inside, as if it were a shy cat.

“Come on, now,” I said quietly. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” I turned my gaze politely away.

I felt a delicate nipping at my little finger and had to laugh at the sensation. Something rounded pressed against my palm, and I looked down.

A metal horse nuzzled my finger. No taller than my hand at the shoulder, he was the most delicate little toy I had ever seen . . . and yet more than a toy: he moved of his own volition, and the way he regarded me was more than lifelike—was life itself.

He was made with too much care, too much precision, to be intended only as a plaything. His head and neck were copper, gone a bit green, and his flanks were blown glass. Through it, I could see his clockwork musculature turning back and forth as he pranced beneath my fingers, and even a tiny clock face that looked as if it had been taken from a small pocket watch. He had no mane, but a tail of silver chains that he flicked back and forth and lifted for balance when he moved. Etched into his right flank was the name Jules II. Subtle puffs of steam blew from his nostrils. When I stroked his belly, I felt the heat of some inner furnace.

The chest that held little Jules was, in fact, a sort of stable in miniature. There was a bottle of oil and a rag in one corner. A crinkle of green rust, his outline, blossomed in another; he had clearly lain dormant for years. But how had he known to awaken? And what else could my entrance have aroused, in my mother’s world of mechanical wonders?

I lifted Jules from his confinement and set him gently on the floor. He reared up on his steel haunches and looked at me pointedly. We regarded each other.

Then he set off at a canter toward the far corner of the room. I followed—though I paced him easily, of course, even when he broke into a jingling gallop. I felt as if I’d stumbled into Faerie.

Jules halted in front of yet another door, just as subtly set into the wall as the first had been. This one was wider, and streaked in places with dried grease.

I saw a smudged black handprint among the streaks. When I placed my own hand there, it matched exactly. I knew even before I pushed the door open that here was where Mother kept her workshop, and the first room was simply a designer’s studio, a repository.

I opened the door and more gears sprung to my aid. The hissing was louder in here, and the air was humid with steam.

Jules pranced eagerly at my feet, his metal hooves clacking against the stone floor. Before me lay a world of possibilities.

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Five Good Things, no. 11

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·Well that, first of all! My editor emailed me the other night with the news and I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to tell my husband what I was laughing about. Mechanica‘s Kirkus star made me cry, but the New York Times list was a crack-up.

·He and I spent the next day touring Connemara with some friends, and of course he told every waiter and cashier we met about my Bestselling Author status while I cringed and blushed and smiled. I told him he’d just better get ready to retire as soon as some actual money comes in from my new celebrity.

·I finished a short secret book project and sent it off to my agent for inspection. I’m proud of this one and it’s kind of a new direction for me, so fingers crossed!

·We milked Nuala and Nell for the first time this week and had enough to put in the tea (Richie’s tea anyway because eugh, black tea for me thanks) plus a small batch of oatmeal soap and a tiny-tiny batch of soft cheese, just enough to mix with the garlic Richie grew last year and spread on three pieces of toast. And devour.

·For Mother’s Day, Jezebel’s toast to the brave kids who broke up with their toxic moms. When I posted this on social media the other day I heard from even more friends who’ve been through that. All of them said it was really hard but the best thing they’d ever done for themselves, which is just how I feel. There are so many of us who’ve ‘broken up with’ our parents. The more we say it, the weaker the stigma gets. We’re all here, and we’re all stronger for something hard that happened to us. Celebrate that today if nothing else. ♥

Five Good Things {No. 10}

·I finished writing the Mechanica sequel, and I sent it to my editor a whole hour and seven minutes before my deadline! In the process I suffered a little, wore the same clothes too many days in the row, and took advantage of my spouse’s willingness to do both our shares of housework for a long while. I am hugely relieved to have it done, and hugely excited to get to edits (a way more enjoyable part of the process for me than drafting).

·In related news, and after a lot of brainstorming and debate, that book has a title now: Venturess. I would love to show you the cover (I haven’t seen it yet myself!) but for now, check out my pin board/procrastination central:

Follow Betsy’s board VENTURESS on Pinterest.

·We also had some new arrivals to the house in March: four little goat kids, each of them cuter than the last. Our first-time mothers Nuala and Nell both had healthy twins, and they are already rampaging all over the yard like tiny hellions.

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·Since I’m a twenty-seven-year-old, six-foot-tall little old lady, I’m training to walk a marathon. I hate running, but I love long walks, I want to get a bit stronger, and I have a little more time on my hands now that my book is turned in! Yesterday I walked through the ruins of a grand old Big House that got ransacked during the Rising, and then through the lushest old Irish forest I could imagine, and I fell in love with the place where I live all over again.

·The Parabola Podcast is going swimmingly, and I posted the third episode, “The Divine Feminine,” last Friday. Please give it a listen and subscribe on iTunes!

Five Good Things {No. 9}

We Are In Space

·Dallas Clayton‘s doodle wisdom lights up my social media.

·I’m on track to meet my deadlines for the Mechanica sequels. That doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s good and important. I sleep very well at night when I get my word counts done.

·Mechanica made the 2016 Amelia Bloomer Project list of recommended feminist literature for young readers. I am super delighted about that, and Nicolette is in really wonderful company. Do check out the rest of the list!

·Eleven-year-old Marley Dias has started a book drive to gather 1000 books with black girl protagonists, since she’s “sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” and she is my new hero.

·I dance on Moffat’s sexist Doctor Who grave.

Mechanica II & The Forest Queen

OK. Yes. OK.

Yay!

Deep breath.

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I have been secreting this news away for a little while (mostly), and I can finally share it with you. From Publishers Marketplace today:

Betsy Cornwell’s two companion novels to MECHANICA, the first following an inventor and her friends to the war-torn nation of Faerie, where they uncover heartbreaking secrets and struggle to stay together as their loyalties shift, for publication in spring 2017, and the second pitched as a feminist retelling of Robin Hood to follow in 2018, again to Lynne Polvino at Clarion, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (world English).

Nick, Fin, and Caro (and Jules, who seems to be everyone’s favorite, mine included) are coming back! I am writing madly to meet my deadlines right now.

And Nick and Fin’s favorite story, that one about Caro’s great-great-whatever-grandma, is coming to you, and hopefully your bookshelf, and more hopefully your heart, in 2018.

Two more book babies. They are unruly and wonderful and I love them already.

I am so very happy, and I hope you are too.

(Nick & Jules art from the always and ever incredible Laya Rose)

MECHANICA Blog Tour: Week Two Wrap-Up

necklaceI haven’t wanted to write this post, because it means the blog tour is over! But my second book is out in the world now, and that is the important part. It’s hard to let go of the finished books and move on to the ones that need finishing (or, um, writing in the first place). But I am excited about the projects, secret and not-so-secret, that I’m working on now, so let’s just enjoy this final Mechanica wallow, okay?

(There are about twelve hours left to enter the tour-wide giveaway, by the way, so get on it and win yourself a hardcover copy plus the beautiful watch necklace pictured here!)

Monday: Interview at Fiktshun

Nicolette is an inventor – what are some of her favorite or most interesting inventions?

There’s no fairy godmother in Mechanica (she’s absent from lots of older versions of the tale, too), so Nicolette does for herself: when she decides she wants to go to the royal Exhibition of Art and Science and its accompanying ball, she builds her own mechanical carriage, and even crafts working shoes from glass and interlocking gears, in order to get herself there in style.

Tuesday: Review at Bookish Lifestyle

Betsy takes the story of Cinderella and warps it into a steampunk feminist retelling where Cinderella is an inventor, there’s no fairy godmother (unless you count her mechanical horse, Jules, whom I adore), and instead of waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet she saves herself.

Wednesday: Interview at Supernatural Snark:

What are three books we might find on the shelf in the secret cellar workshop Nicolette discovers?

Ooh, cool question! Nicolette’s a pretty omnivorous reader, so even though she lives in a fantasy world I would open a magic portal to slip her a collection of Christina Rosetti’s poetry (especially “Goblin Market,” which helped inspire the Night Market in Nicolette’s world), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Ada Lovelace’s work on the Analytical Engine. All of those brilliant women would be kindred spirits for Nicolette, and I know she’d fall in love with each of them.

Thursday: Review at Bookhounds YA:

I loved the fact that Nick doesn’t rely on a fairy godmother to make magic and did it all herself . . . Nick stole my heart with her wit and actions.  Her perseverance is something that should inspire any teen and show that fairy tale endings sometimes are being at peace with yourself.

Friday: Guest post at Me, My Shelf, and I

5. The great retellings don’t stop at Disney. Ever After and Ella Enchanted are two of my very favorite Cinderellas, but as I researched Mechanica, I discovered a gorgeous opera, Cendrillon,composed by Jules Massenet. I love it so much that I named my favorite character in Mechanica after him! The version starring Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote (yes, a woman sings Prince Charming!) is available on DVD and is completely breathtaking, especially the set design. Here’s a preview:

 

MECHANICA Movie Dream Cast

This is a movie that by necessity takes place somewhat Out Of Time, because some of these actors, okay, maybe couldn’t play teenagers anymore. But this is also a movie that Isn’t Actually Happening, so I get to take some artistic/temporal license.

There is only one character for whom I had an actor in mind from the very beginning. I had to search out most of the others–I only saw my Nicolette last week!

Nicolette/”Nick” Lampton (Cinderella): Paloma Baeza

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Horseman and I watched the 1998 miniseries adaptation of “Far from the Madding Crowd” last week, and I saw Nicolette in Paloma Baeza right away. My husband actually used a line from the book on me when we had just started dating, and it worked extremely well. We’ve watched several film versions since then–although we haven’t seen the newest one yet!–and Baeza’s is my favorite interpretation of Bathsheba by far. Her full-hearted expressions and determined edge would be perfect for Nicolette.

Margot Lampton (Nick’s mother): Caitriona Balfe

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Outlander much? God, I love that show. Caitriona Balfe is sharply intelligent and hot-and-cold enough to be so very Margot Lampton.

William Lampton (Nick’s father): Dan Stevens

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He was kind of the ultimate good guy in Downton Abbey, but I could definitely see Dan Stevens as Nick’s slick and increasingly bigoted father, William.

Mr. Candery: Gok Wan

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ILY Gok.

Stepmother: Angelica Huston

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Yes, she’s already played Cinderella’s stepmother, but LITERALLY NO ONE DOES IT BETTER. Besides, I probably wouldn’t have written a Cinderella retelling if I hadn’t had my period of Ever After obsession. (And by ‘period,’ I mean from when I first watched it at age ten up until now.)

Piety & Chastity: Ashley Greene & Rebel Wilson

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It was actually a toss-up between casting Rebel Wilson as Chastity or Caro, but I think she’d have more fun playing an evil stepsister.

Fin: Corbin Bleu . . . or Avan Jogia 

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Do I lose cool points for casting a HSM alum? Corbin Bleu’s got the hair and the bright smile. Avan Jogia has the eyes and the smolder. Can they just have a baby? (Also, Hollywood: you need more teenage non-white actors for me to cast in my imaginary YA novel movie adaptations. Seriously.)

Caro: Adele

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What, like no singer has ever crossed into acting before? Adele could be great, and Caro makes music boxes, so there’s an obvious connection. (Hollywood, you also need to provide me with a bigger roster of actresses who aren’t stick-thin.)

Fitz: Hans from Frozen

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The clear choice.

(I realize that I’m a horrible person for not liking that movie.)

Lord Alming: Denzel Washington

enhanced-buzz-10947-1347994428-5It’s been him from the very start, 2009 draft onward. Denzel or bust. (And he could totally rock a giant mustache.)

I’d love to hear your own casting ideas in the comments, pretty please with a cherry on top. It’s always so interesting to see how characters look in other people’s heads, and some of my choices I still don’t feel are quite right.