As the branch manager for the Scottsville Library and a former young adult librarian at the Crozet Library, it’s safe to say local author M.K. England knows books. And when England set out to write a YA novel, it was important that the stories held personal resonance.
“I just wanted fun adventures that had people like me,” says England, whose sophomore novel Spellhacker is out now. “I knew those were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.”
In Spellhacker, an adventurous young adult sci-fi/fantasy mash-up set in the futuristic city of Kyrkarta, England follows Diz, a talented hacker with communication issues, and her three best friends: Ania, Remi, and Jaesin. In a world where magic—known as “maz”—was once a readily available natural resource, it’s been heavily regulated since an earthquake unleashed a toxic strain, causing a massive spellplague. The four friends combine their unique talents (Ania, a techwitch; Remi, a spellweaver; and Jaesin, brute strength) to run an illegal maz siphoning business, but it’s all coming to an end as Diz’s friends prepare to go to college and leave her behind. They agree to take on one last ultra-dangerous heist but get more than they bargain for when an explosion uncovers a conspiracy—and threatens the future of the world.
Spellhacker is an exciting romp through an artfully crafted world with fascinating technology, captivating magic, and a delightfully diverse cast of characters. And, believe it or not, the idea for the plot came about due to a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
“Something in the game we were playing made me think ‘magic hackers’—but that is not a book,” England says. “That is just the tiniest seed of an idea.”
Yet, it was a seed that would grow into an entire world. England began the work by asking questions to establish the necessary truths that would make these characters and this setting come to life. “I started poking at the idea and all the inherent assumptions,” England said. “That leads me out farther and farther until I have the basic building blocks of the world.”
However, while Spellhacker takes place in a deeply creative and believable world, the novel is driven by the strength of the characters—though England admits to initial concern that audiences wouldn’t connect with Diz.
“One of the things that made me want to tell this story—and want to tell Diz’s story specifically—is that she has some rather unhealthy things in common with me as a teen and early 20s person in that I did not know how to have healthy emotions and express them,” says England. “I knew that might potentially alienate people.”
Yet, despite her frustrating inability to navigate complex emotions, Diz is an acutely relatable narrator and, magic and futuristic technology aside, the impending transition point of her friends leaving for college is one with which many young readers will identify. After all, isn’t that why we’re drawn to fiction: to see reflections of ourselves in the plight of characters? England had this same desire as a young reader of science fiction—and a lack of queer representation helped inspire the types of stories they would go on to write.
“What I really wanted was a Star Wars book with queer characters in it,” England says.
And Spellhacker lives up to this goal. Unlike many other young adult books with queer characters, the story is not defined by queerness. While there is a love story between Diz and Remi, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, neither character’s sexuality or gender identity is ever discussed or utilized as a plot point—a choice that was intentional on England’s behalf.
“The world that I created is extremely queer normalized,” they say. “It is just not a big deal. It’s just part of the world that we don’t need to talk about because it’s not an issue.”
While England recognizes the importance of stories that focus on the modern, pressing issues LGBTQ teens face, both Spellhacker and England’s debut, The Disasters, tell stories of diverse characters simply living their lives. Sure, living their lives also involves trying to save the world, but that’s all part of the fun.
“There’s been a big push in the last few years to make sure we’re also including those stories where people just are who they are—and they also fly around in spaceships and have adventures,” England says.
When it comes to having adventures, Spellhacker certainly delivers. With cheeky dialogue and character chemistry that sizzles on the page, England’s novel explores themes of greed, power, environmentalism, family, love and trust. It begs the universal questions: What makes a family? What matters most? And what’s scarier: a potentially deadly strain of magic…or opening up your heart?
But most importantly, it invites readers to see themselves —even in characters with whom, at first glance, they may not have much in common. “I hope that, as with all books everywhere, readers walk away with greater empathy,” England says.