Janella Angeles on Creating a Mysterious World of Magic

Posted by Sharon on August 1, 2020
Magic shows take a different form in Janella Angeles’ debut young adult novel, Where Dreams Descend, the first book in the planned Kingdom of Cards duology. Instead of tricks that depend on mirrors or sleight of hand, Angeles’ magicians perform real magic. They can summon fire, manipulate memories, create illusions, and more.

When the Conquering Circus comes to the ruined city of Glorian and declares a competition to find its next headlining magician, showgirl Kallia is determined to win. Never mind that she lives in a world where only men are supposed to perform magic for public entertainment. But as her fellow competitors begin to disappear mysteriously, Kallia finds herself caught in a game with much higher stakes than she could have previously imagined.

Angeles spoke with Goodreads about how her novel responds to The Phantom of the Opera, the role fanfic played in her development as a writer, and the fictional world—aside from her own—she’d most want to enter.

Goodreads: No one anticipates debuting their book during a pandemic! How are you? Have you been able to do some book launch events virtually?

Janella Angeles: To say it’s been a lot is definitely an understatement. Like many authors in my shoes, I had such a different picture of what my debut year would look like, and even the beginning of the year truly felt incredible as I was able to travel for some promotional events (a huge dream of mine), which I’m immensely grateful for.

But when the pandemic really hit in March, I’m not going to lie, it was devastating. Having to suddenly pivot everything both professionally and personally, returning all those author hopes and dreams I’d been yearning to experience back into the drawer I’d been working for so long just to open—and then most significantly, all that with the sheer amount of pain, injustice, and loss in the world—was and still is a lot to process. We’re always told debut year is supposed to be stressful, but this level of stress is for sure in a league of its own!

One thing that has been so heartening to witness is the outpouring of support for debut authors in this time, as well as the opportunity for more virtual events that I’m hoping will continue even when we can safely gather again. I’ve been on a bunch of virtual panels, and while it’s different from actual in-person conversations, there’s that same excitement of getting to engage with readers from across the world, supporting book festivals and booksellers who have had to do their own lion’s share of pivoting during this pandemic, and having insightful conversations with so many incredible authors.

Though no one expects debut year to look quite like this, it’s important to see the light that’s still coming through in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.

GR: Tell us a bit about your writing journey. When did you start writing? And now having gone through the publishing process, what advice would you have for your younger self?

JA: I’ve always been a reader, but I would say my writing journey really started when I got into fan fiction around the age of 12. I was obsessed with reading it late into the night, eventually got brave enough to try my hand at it, and was hooked. There’s something enormously joyous about writing fan fiction, and it was truly the best jumping-off point for discovering my own storytelling voice and fostering that creative passion. Looking back at my younger self, I’m the first to admit I wasn’t a particularly gifted, academic, or athletic child—but writing was the thing that fit me for the first time, and I knew from there on that I wanted nothing more than to tell stories for the rest of my life if I could.

As an avid YA reader in high school during the great boom of YA fiction, I knew immediately those were the books I wanted to be writing, and I set out to do everything I could to make that dream happen. It was not an easy process, filled with lots of ups and downs and far more frustrations than victories, but every moment leads to this moment. And I would tell my younger self to keep going no matter what, because she will get there.

GR: Early reviewers have been really excited about the world-building and atmosphere in Where Dreams Descend. (Chandeliers! Ruined cities! Circuses!) What were your influences (literary or otherwise) when it came to creating the setting and the tone of the book?

JA: I’m so honored by the excitement! When I set out to write Where Dreams Descend, I really wanted to create a world that could be its own thing while also being able to slip into the seams of its core comps: The Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, and The Night Circus. These works are richly atmospheric, romantic, and visually driven, which absolutely set the mood for Where Dreams Descend in all the places we visit, like the devilish, smoky Hellfire House, the cursed shadows of the Dire Woods, the icy, fading city of Glorian.

Visualizing all of these places and the details that define them felt akin to setting the stage, where the backdrops drastically shift as the show goes on, leading us deeper into the story. I was also deeply inspired by Cinderella (1997) starring Brandy and Whitney Houston. Along with being one of my favorite film musicals, it’s one of my favorite settings because it was the first fantasy world I felt like I could step into, with people of color everywhere in the forefront and the background, joyously thriving from charming marketplaces to dazzling ballrooms. I’d never wanted to enter a world so badly, and hoped to create one with that same energy in Where Dreams Descend.

GR: Can you tell us a bit about the prejudice against female “show magicians” in your novel? Were you thinking about any real-world parallels when it came to the opposition Kallia faces from her male competitors and judges?

JA: In Where Dreams Descend, men dominate the magical stage and the spotlight, and that’s how it’s always been. Anyone else who dares to challenge or try taking some spotlight for their own is often silenced.

These parallels are not uncommon to us by a long shot, mirroring the sexism and traditionalism we so often see. Much of my own experiences fueled this book (growing up in an all-girls school with a far better-funded/regarded brother school just down the street kind of sticks when you’re young), but a big magician-related spark to this came from watching a reality competition show about stage magicians. In the show, there was a panel of expert judges with contestants trying to amaze them with their tricks.

In one episode, a girl entered as a contestant—one of two probably in the entire show altogether—and in her intro, she said “magic is a very male-dominated world,” which prompted me to look closer. There’s a reason why female magicians are commonly mistaken for the assistant, why magicians have predominantly chosen female assistants at that. Or why when we think of magicians, we automatically think of Harry Houdini or David Copperfield before anyone else. Those who are always given the spotlight are also given an invisible power and credibility, which is as real in our world as it is in Where Dreams Descend.

Though it sounds bleak, the spark really came when the girl contestant still said she came to win regardless of everything. Even though she didn’t, I couldn’t help but take away a glimmer of a story where a girl entered a competition just like this, and bested everyone based on her power alone.

GR: Without giving away too much, can you tell us more about the complicated dynamic between Kallia and Jack? Through much of the book, he claims he’s trying to protect her, but his actions often result in hurting her physically or emotionally. What were you exploring there?

JA: Definitely no spoilers, but a lot of this hearkens back to The Phantom of the Opera (both the book and the musical, but I predominantly refer to the musical as my inspiration). While Phantom is objectively one of the most beloved and successful musicals of all time, the dynamic we see between Christine and the Phantom is fraught with a thorniness that can often get overpowered by the passion and romanticism of the work. As the audience, it’s as if we’re getting seduced by the Phantom alongside Christine, even as he’s outright taking her to his lair or doing that weird thing where he pretends to be her father.

When looking at any piece of art, it’s important to acknowledge these flaws and the questions we should be asking. Additionally, I think any kind of reimagining is an interesting vehicle to explore certain dynamics that come with the original source material territory, and see how new characters might challenge or explore them differently. While Christine is often overpowered in her own story, Kallia’s sense of agency and awareness naturally drives her to question and challenge certain behaviors, which brings (and will continue to bring) something new to her uneasy dynamic with Jack for sure.

GR: If you could steal one piece of magic from your book to be able to perform yourself, which would it be and why?

JA: I would love to infuse instruments with the memories of songs so they could play whatever I wanted. I love music and am a huge fan of instrumental covers (especially when I write), so this power would just bring me so much joy.

GR: Have you finished writing the next book in the duology? Was it easier or more challenging to write than this book?

JA: I’m still hard at work with the sequel right now, which I will 1,000 percent admit is more challenging to write than the first one. They always say the second book is much harder, which I expected, but having never written a sequel or the end of a series, there were so many obstacles I’d never encountered before—including working through the pandemic, which is a creativity-draining hurdle none of us could’ve anticipated. But having known how it was going to end for a while, I’m happy to guide these characters to the end, and I can’t wait for readers to see what happens next.

GR: Who are the YA authors you really look up to?

JA: I have so many, but ones who’ve impacted my own writing journey and love of reading over the years are the brilliant and inimitable authors such as Leigh Bardugo, Roshani Chokshi, and Julie C. Dao.

GR: Which YA books would you recommend to our members?

JA: For anyone interested in learning more about children’s and young adult literature, especially through a critical lens that focuses on the lack of and need for diverse representation, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas should be required reading.

In the realm of fantasy, I absolutely recommend the captivatingly bloodthirsty Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, and Fire by Kristin Cashore, which is a classic in my heart.

Some excellent contemporaries I still think about long after reading them are The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo and Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno.

GR: Finally, what are the books you’ve read recently that you can’t get off your mind? Anything you’re pushing on your friends and family?

JA: My most recent read was listening to the audiobook of All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, a deeply moving YA memoir and such a standout (and I highly recommend the audio as the author narrates). I’ll also never stop yelling about the wild fantasy ride that is Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald, which is hilarious and truly unlike any YA fantasy I’ve ever read.


Janella Angeles’ Where Dreams Descend will be available in the U.S. on August 25. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Debra Petersen (new)

Debra Petersen (Queen of Historical Fiction) I absolutely devoured this book, cannot wait to read book 2!

message 2: by NevaReads (new)

NevaReads Debra Petersen wrote: "I absolutely devoured this book, cannot wait to read book 2!"

100% same. August* 2021 is far away, but I'm sure will arrive faster than we think.

(* I assume that this is the publication month.)

message 3: by sassyspines (new)

sassyspines So excited to read this! It sounds amazing!

message 4: by Gwen goodrich (new)

Gwen goodrich How old do u have to be to read this book cuz yea

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