Girls can. Girls SHOULD

How Thea Winthrop became the world’s greatest wizard

Back in 2002, back when Harry Potter WAS the YA genre — (Number One, and then twenty empty spaces behind it before the next contender), I attended that year’s World Fantasy Convention.

At that time, I had no real interest in paddling in the YA pool. My writing was aimed at an adult readership, not least because of the way I have always used language, rich and lush and peppered with words that might send some readers to a dictionary.

But then I heard Jane Yolen say during a panel discussion that she had never particularly liked the way that the Potter books had treated girls. I missed the rest of the panel because I was sitting in the back with a story flowering in my head. A story as American as Harry Potter was British. A story not about a boy but a GIRL…a girl named Thea Winthrop.

The story became the Worldweavers trilogy, originally published by HarperCollins.

HarperCollins edition

Thea was a rare thing, a Double Seventh, a seventh child of two seventh children. In her world, her potential was unlimited, and its manifestation eagerly awaited. Except that she…COULDN’T. It wasn’t even that she was BAD at magic, it was that she couldn’t do ANY.

As a final attempt at triggering something, her father sends her back in time to the tender mercies of a shaman from a long vanished tribe, the Anasazi. Cheveyo of the Anasazi awakens something long sleeping in Thea, and introduces her to the world of the Elder Days and ancient magic rooted in Native American lore.

It is this that becomes the first part of the solid bedrock on which Thea learns to take a stand. That took up most of the first book, “The Gift of the Unmage” — that, and this glorious concept of the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a school where untalented children of magical families are warehoused, safely out of the way of their more endowed siblings.

The second part of Thea’s coming of age is her unexpected ability to channel something that looks very like magic through computers. In her world, computers are almost the only thing that is proof against magic — they are practical and rooted in the empirical world, and they have been used to store magic spells because it’s safer than storing them in the classic grimoire books. Magic locked up inside a computer was supposedly tamper proof and escape proof.

Until that stops being the case. In the second book, “Spellspam”, the spam familiar to all of us start bearing real live spells. In the opening scene of that book, an email offering “The clearest skin you can ever imagine” delivers precisely that — skin that turns TRANSPARENT. (Oh, I had fun with these.) It seems that Thea is no longer the only one who can tamper with magic through computers. There Is Another. And she is roped in to help find that other, and stop them.

In the process of doing this, a white cube is found that is clearly full of magic but which nobody can figure out how to open. Until Thea does in the third Worldweavers book, Cybermage, and discovers Nikola Tesla, the only human Wizard who could command all four of the elements, Air, Water, Earth, and Fire.

Thea helps Nikola Tesla, who had been tricked into losing his Elemental magic to regain it in the face of attempts of the grasping greedy race called the Alphiri (think High Elves with the souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi) to steal it for themselves. The Alphiri are defeated, Nikola Tesla is redeemed, and Thea finds her place in the world.

That seemed to be the end of it, a nice tidy place to finish, except… that it wasn’t.

Some years later a fourth book would come knocking, demanding to be written, the rest of Thea’s story, taking the whole tale neatly back to its beginnings. “Dawn of Magic” concludes the Worldweavers saga in epic fashion, and is one of my favorites amongst my books, because of the way that the main triad of characters — Thea, Tesla, and Coyote the Trickster who goes by the name of Corey — carry the story.

This book is all about human magic, and what it is, and what it means, and where it hides. There is a luminousness to it, a quiet shine.

Going back to that panel in 2002… I wrote a book about American magic, about an American girl. I wrote that book that Jane Yolen whispered about between the lines in that panel. I wrote a book about the GIRL who had the adventures. And it was good. Girls can. Girls SHOULD.

Thea Winthrop was nobody’s sidekick — she went out and grasped things with her own two hands. She didn’t follow — she sometimes walked beside (one can’t do better than that, with Nikola Tesla), but more often than that, she was in the lead. She did the difficult things that others shied from doing, and lived with the consequences. She could be hurt. She could falter. She could fall. But she had known the bitter taste of defeat once, and she would never go back there again.

The books, when they came out, garnered two very different sets of reviews. On the heels of the fade of the HP phenomenon, some reviewers came up with various iterations of “For those suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal, this is just the ticket”, implying that the books were more of the same HP juggernaut stuff.

Others begged to differ and specifically described the books as wholly original, owing nothing to Harry Potter. Either way, they were hitting SOME sort of target.

Because Thea isn’t (yet?) a household name, you will gather that they didn’t hit the HP bullseye. But for those who found and treasured them, the books seemed to find a very special niche.

Thea Winthrop was the girl who held her own against anybody.

There would be absolutely no problem in the way the Worldweavers books treated girls. They treated them as equals, as worthy, as real. These books treat girls as people. And I’m proud of that.

The essay in full can be read at the Book View Cafe HERE

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