Read an extract from Bontle Senne’s debut novel Powers of the Knife – Book 1 in the “Shadow Chasers” series, an Afrocentric, contemporary children’s read.
Senne is no stranger to the book world – her work “includes writing and reviewing books, consulting, thinking about digital innovation in publishing, being on the board of three education NGOs and being a minority owner of a feminist publishing house”.
Powers of the Knife is published by Cover2Cover Books and will be launched at Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg, on 14 April.
The book is written for older children, and includes illustrations. It’s homegrown fantasy that kicks off in Jozi and takes its readers to the rural areas to search out family history … all via a magical dreamworld that is stranger than imagination.
Author Sarah Lotz calls it “fast, fun, and a blast to read”.
Senne will be appearing at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, and at the Kingsmead Book Fair.
We asked her about the shift from advocacy to writing fantasy adventure for children – what she describes as “no rules, fear is normal, risking everything is what it takes” genre.
Read an extract below.
Why have you chosen to write for this age group?
On my first day working in publishing, as an intern at Modjaji Books, my boss Colleen Higgs said to me, “What we really need are local children’s books. If you want to make a different in local publishing, make children’s books”. At the time, I was young(er) and a little self-important so I rejected the idea immediately: I wanted to make “serious” books. I wanted to write “important” literary novels. But over time I realised that, in a Southern African context, children’s books are the most important books we have. There are few books for this age group that are contemporary, Afrocentric, accessible and just fun.
And why these characters?
I love writing girls that kick-ass so that was a given. Nom had to be different from some of the other girls I was writing at the time and – because I had already decided to name her after my mom – I weirdly thought about what my mom would have been like at that age. Their personalities are pretty similar: action-orientated, fiercely loyal and independent. But Nom needed to have some kind of counter-balance so I wrote a bit of myself into Zee: more analytical and skeptical, more grounded but willing to take as many risks for things that are important to him. I find that they are still growing to be more like themselves, and less like who I initially thought they were, every time I write them.
What is next for the characters in the story? Any sneak highlights to look forward to in the next book?
Dragons! Winter is coming! No, I joke … next is finding Zee’s knife. More monsters, more Shadow Chasers, more of Nom running face-first into danger …
Are you as adventurous as the characters in your book?
I’m not fighting a secret army of monsters or anything but kind of, yes. I have a very risk-taking nature and I get more impulsive as I get older. As long as it doesn’t involve heights or extreme sports, I’m in.
* * * * *
Read an extract from Chapter 9 of Powers of the Knife:
What?” Nom asks.
“Nomthandazo, we don’t have time for this now. Think of a house – quickly!” Itumeleng says.
Nom does what Itumeleng says. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
Nom tries to think of the kind of house she’s seen on TV. A house surrounded by trees and a high brick wall to protect it. A house made of wood with a big bedroom for her and one for Zithembe.
One that smells like Gogo’s cooking all the time and where she can have chocolate anytime she wants.
“You did it!” says Itumeleng.
Nom opens her eyes to see that the garden has vanished. In its place the house she was just thinking of has appeared.
“Wow,” Nom says, staring in amazement at the house.
Itumeleng pushes her from behind in the direction of the front door. “We have to hurry.”
“OK, OK,” says Nom. “I’m going!”
Itumeleng opens the front door and steps aside so Nom can enter. The smell of Gogo’s cooking is everywhere. Nom heads straight for the pile of chocolate on the table in the TV room.
While she is unwrapping her first chocolate, they hear the sound of something big landing on the roof. The whole house seems to shake.
“What was that?” Nom asks.
“You have your Shadow Chaser’s knife, don’t you? That’s the only way you can enter the dreamworld. It’s also the only way to make wishes in the dreamworld,” Itumeleng replies. “But the monster that trapped me here took away my knife: my wishes don’t come true any more.
“The thing is, the dreamworld can also make your nightmares come true. That’s what is happening now. The Army knows you are here, they can feel your magic. So they sent some of your nightmares here to find you.”
Nom is on the verge of remembering all the bad dreams she’s ever had, but she immediately stops herself. In this world, whatever she thinks of can actually happen. She has to be careful about where she lets her mind go.
Nom puts down her chocolate and takes a deep breath. “What did you say about a monster trapping you here? And what is this Army you were talking about?”
“You have a lot of questions, bathong,” Itumeleng says, smiling. It’s the first time that Nom has seen her smile. She realises that Zithembe has his mother’s smile.
Nom doesn’t say anything but waits to hear Itumeleng speak. What Zithembe’s mother knows is important, and Nom feels they may not have very much time to talk. She can hear what she thinks are monkeys climbing the trees around the house. Nom hates monkeys.
“I am a Shadow Chaser,” Itumeleng says, “which means that I am part of a special group of people who are meant to protect people in the real world from the monsters in the dreamworld. Your aunt was a Shadow Chaser, you are a Shadow Chaser and so is Zithembe.”
Author image courtesy of Africa 4 Tech