Sweet City – The Jailers

Photo by Oriol Portell on Unsplash

I often look back at my books and wonder how I ever entertained the earlier versions of the stories within them. Once the words are published, it sets that world for me, bakes the clay so indubitably that it’s difficult to believe it was ever any other shape.

But Sweet City certainly almost was a very different place. Matron Goose, the Houses based upon taste/personality types, the Gingerbread Men, the four gelatinous mascots, and the Sorting Mat didn’t exist in the original version of The Mythic and the City of Sweet Sorrow.

But, after the first draft, I was faced with a need to revamp the entire prison section of Book Three. Once I realised the true inspirations for the prison camp—fairy tales and horror stories—I turned to the staples of those genres for inspiration, particularly for the jailer characters.

Matron Goose

The character of Mother Goose from our stories is often depicted as a human woman but also as an actual goose. I, of course, went with the latter. I could hardly resist the image of a human-sized fowl wandering around an underground slave mine.

Matrons are a staple of boarding schools where they are regularly portrayed as strict and aloof, sometimes evil, so I dubbed her Matron rather than Mother Goose to evoke boarding-school-fiction and to make her sound a little less cuddly.

Matron Goose originally suffered a terrible fate, murdered by angry children when they take control of Sweet City. But I was unhappy with this. Not the fact that she was torn apart by the escaped prisoners, that I quite liked. No, I felt her character was too one-dimensionally bad, her fate too obvious. So I added in the plot revelation that our Goose had been raised by the city’s true overseer, the Mad Catter and, thus, was yet another of his victims.

The Sorting Mat

The Sorting Mat was originally a Sorting Rat, meant to evoke the various rats that pop up in fairy tales. But there was already a rat character earlier in the novel. Also, once I realised that City of Sweet Sorrow was a horror book I kept pushing myself to crank up the creep factor just a little more and a rat just didn’t seem scary enough. Further, the object this rat-who-sorts is based upon is just that, an object and not a living being.

The Sorting Mat is an overt parody of the Potter-verse’s Sorting Hat. I loved how turning the Hat into a Mat somehow made it both less and more disturbing. Unlike the Hat, the Mat isn’t placed upon your body. However, the concept of having any children in skirts stand astride the Mat added a whole new layer of perversity and violation to the process of being sorted. Up-skirting is an indecent violation of privacy. Sweet City is a dangerous place, where the whimsical is deadly, and I wanted readers to feel that right from the start.

The Sugar Plum Airy

I experimented with different devices while looking for the way that each “winning” child would be chosen, but most involved something dancing above the crowd. I liked the idea of the children watching this thing swoop over their heads, praying that it would find them.

I love to play on words and Sweet City is literally a town of candy, so I focussed on phrases and concepts growing from that base. The Sugar Plum Fairy is a well-known character and allowed me the wordplay of “airy”, here meaning literally something in the air.

The airy is described as “a figurine of…a robin”. It’s white with a serrated surface and comes to life when Matron Goose tosses it into the air. Amber suspects it’s made of sugar and, although it’s not confirmed in-book, our girl-genius is rarely wrong. It is made of sugar.

It homages Enid Blyton’s The Little Sugar Mouse. That’s a children’s story where the titular mouse suffers a grisly fate when he ventures into the rain. This bleak tale was the perfect raw material for the bleakness of Sweet Sorrow itself. The idea of a bird raining down a blessing is also meant to evoke The Happy Prince, another children’s story with a dark ending (Spoiler Alert: the bird dies!).

The Gingerbread Men

The revelation over the Gingerbread Men—that they are zombified corpses of the victorious children who everyone believed had been returned home—is heart-breaking and horrible and my second favourite twist in Book Three.

Again, the Gingerbread Men did not exist in the original draft, where I used O’phion snake-men as the prison guards. I then added the Men, but as golems of dough brought to life Frankenstein-style (there was even a scene where Lucy witnesses the process of how the cookie batter magically comes to life). Finally, I made them former prisoners, covered with dough.

I never note how many there are but we are told that Trip, the 10 year old that Lucy finds herself stuck with, “identified over sixty different guards in the Bitter camp”. Thus across the four houses we can assume there are about 240 Gingerbread Men. That’s a lot of dead children!

They are not all uniform, which should have been a clue to the eagle-eyed that they’re not being pumped out, cookie-cutter-style, and that there’s something else going on here. I do love that Trip and Lucy decide to nickname the guards, giving them names that range from Grumpy and Clumpy, to Bumhead, Streaker, Judy, and Alan. It’s literally what I would do in their situation!

Bonus Round

What is my favourite twist in Book Three? If you want to know get in touch with me and I’ll reveal it! The answer may surprise you!