Blood Debts is a Black queer YA fantasy steeped in magic and the type of family feuds that would make Game of Thrones proud. Despite having opposite relationships with their generational legacy, Cris and Clem come together to solve a thirty years’ old mystery while the other powerful families have no limits on the things they’ll do to stop them from inheriting a throne upon which they belong.
I am so honored to have author Terry J, Benton-Walker on my blog to talk about the origins and evolution of this debut which will delight fans of epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and young adult books in equal measure.
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Building Out Blood Debts
How did you go about crafting this family saga that has all the trappings of epic and contemporary fantasies?
There were several inspirations for the story of Blood Debts that I took from my own experiences with some of my favorite stories.
The expansive world and complex, layered characters in Game of Thrones and the cutthroat politics that impacted who would end up on the Iron Throne inspired the richness of the Blood Debts world and powerful families all vying for power in the magical contemporary New Orleans.
My next influence was the impeccable exploration of the cycle of violence in the video game, Last of Us Part II, which has since become my all-time favorite game, and, in my honest opinion, is the best story ever told in interactive media. That experience inspired me to do something similar with Blood Debts, which is why I decided to tell this story from multiple varied perspectives to show readers the nuances of intergenerational trauma, violence, and systemic oppression and how they affect us all differently.
Lastly, I am a huge fan of American Horror Story: Coven (which, at the risk of starting a riot, I believe is the best season), and I particularly loved the layered conflict between the two primary witch covens. After I signed with my agent, I completely rewrote the manuscript and expanded the world and magic system, which allowed me to explore how magic and history impacted different communities and cultures of New Orleans and the larger story world.
What sort of research did you do to create the magic system? From where did you draw inspiration?
Generational magic is inspired by Voodoo, so I did a lot of research regarding the very real histories and rituals, which, I should note, are sacred to Afro and Afro-Latinx communities and should always be respected. When drafting Blood Debts, I did a lot of work in coffee shops and would get interesting looks from other folks whenever I pulled out my Voodoo spell books to reference haha.
Between signing with your agent and the book we’ll have in our hands today, what have been the biggest changes? What has stayed the same?
So much has changed with this story since I signed with my agent back in 2019. I first started working on Blood Debts (previously titled, Queen) back in 2017, and while the core story of the twins, Cristina and Clement, leading their family in reclaiming their stolen throne after a massive betrayal three decades prior to the story’s opening remained the same, a lot of minor details changed, such as expanding the world and magic system to include light and shadow magic and a massive reduction in the cast (believe it or not since the cast is, technically, still huge). There’s a cute black cat that readers meet in the third act named Phillippe, who used to be Justin Montaigne’s older brother in an early draft but was cut.
Is Blood Debts your first book with the intention of pursuing traditional publishing?
It took 8 years and 7 manuscripts for me to sign with my agent. Blood Debts actually was not the book I queried her with; it was manuscript #6 that failed in the query trenches after a lot of requests that ultimately ended in rejection. When my agent asked what other stories I had in the pipeline, I mentioned Blood Debts and that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She read it, loved it, and suggested a total rewrite and re-imagining of the world, and I said YES without hesitation–and am so glad that I did.
What do you know now that you would tell past!Terry?
Stop wasting time and money working on that fantasy with that all-white, all-straight cast and write your truth! Haha.
A while back, I met Tim Floreen, author of Willful Machines and Anatomy of a Murderer, which were some of my favorite books–and also the first time I’d connected with a gay male character in a speculative work, even though they weren’t Black. I was just so happy to see a gay character I could relate to that I latched on immediately.
I reached out to Tim on Twitter, and he was so incredibly kind. We talked a lot, and he was one of the first people to encourage me to write my truth. I’ll be forever grateful to him, and I really miss him and his stories.
How has your experience been working with the team at Tor Teen?
Everyone at Tor Teen has been incredible at every step in the process. It’s honestly been a dream publishing Blood Debts with them. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into me and my career and this story, which makes me very hopeful that other publishers will take note of how supporting marginalized authors, especially Black gay artists, is extremely important and worthwhile.
What are books that are out now or forthcoming that you are looking forward to reading?
I’m listening to the audio of We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds and HOLY HELL am I obsessed! OBSESSED, I tell you! The narrator, Tamika Katon-Donegal, is utterly brilliant. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Your Lonely Nights Are Over by Adam Sass is coming out this September, and it’s a Slasher that’s a Queer Scream meets Clueless and has one of my favorite opening chapters of a young adult book I’ve read recently.
I’ve also loved the thriller, The Black Queen by Jumata Emil (out now!), and I’m really looking forward to All the Fighting Parts by Hannah Sawyer, which comes out later this year.
Terry J. Benton-Walker is the author of Blood Debts, his magical young adult contemporary fantasy debut, coming from Tor Teen in the US on April 4, 2023 and from Hodder & Stoughton in the UK on April 6, 2023. Alex Wise vs the End of the World, Terry’s apocalyptic middle grade contemporary fantasy debut, is also coming from Labyrinth Road and Random House Children’s on September 26, 2023. Terry is also the editor of the upcoming young adult horror anthology The White Guy Dies First, which is releasing Summer 2024 with Tor Teen. He lives in Atlanta, GA.
Connect with Terry on Twitter (@tjbentonwalker), Instagram (@icecreamvicelord), or his website: https://www.tjbentonwalker.com.