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Kester Grant on Reimagining Les Miserables

Posted on 5th June 2020 by Mark Skinner

As an uber-fan of Victor Hugo's nineteenth century epic, Kester Grant was eager to reimagine a fantastical version of Les Miserables in her own fiction. The result, The Court of Miracles, is one of the most eagerly anticipated fantasy novels of the year. In this exclusive piece, Kester explains just why she was so driven to pay tribute to her favourite book.

Reimagining Les Miserables is a hefty task! If you listen to the voices in your head, you wouldn’t dare attempt it; because, I mean honestly, who do you think you are to dare consider touching Victor Hugo’s masterpiece?  And also; how far to stray, what to change? The lack of diversity? The relationships between its women? How much is too much? And also, again, how very dare you presume to…

You really have to silence the voices, or else you’d never start. I’m never going to be Victor Hugo – I’m a mixed-race Mauritian lady – but I am a fan, and I could write an homage, an ode to the masterpiece that I best loved. So, I let loose and wrote gleefully, for the teenage version of me who would have keeled over in joy to have found such an irreverent book on her school library shelf.

Thus I viciously pruned a lot of the - forgive me - less beloved bits; the thousands of words about a priest who only appears once; the never-ending history of Parisian sewers; the linguistic background of French slang; Marius Pontmercy and his obsession with feet (you can thank me later for that last one!).

I stole the elements I loved: the epic Valjean-Javert manhunt! Enjolras’ obsession with revolution! Eponine being a thief! As a feminist, I dragged Eponine Thenardier out of the fridge where Hugo had left her, gave her canonical skills, and an opportunity to shine – she’s a self-taught, literate thief, who’s not afraid to stand up to her own kind. And tried to construct a more realistically female relationship between her and Cosette – one that did not revolve solely around a boy. In fact, I gave them a story which does not revolve around romance at all.

To that was added a healthy dose of fantasy world building to give a richness to the setting I created: a layer of the Jungle Book… mercilessly plundering Kipling, weaving in equivalents for the animal characters both visually and thematically and painting 1800’s Paris as a dangerous  urban jungle.

A City that’s almost a character in itself in the mind of our main character Eponine “Nina” Thenardier. Nina herself has a good dash of Batman’s obsession with Gotham and Sir Samuel Vimes love-hate relationship with Ankh Morpork.

The idea of the Court being a society of organised crime was pulled from Hugo’s other great master-work; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Court’s guilds carry echoes of the factions, and Game of Thrones houses, with their own laws, titles, mottos, loyalties, and hierarchy.

I fell down a rabbit-hole of what makes fringe societies different? There were considerations of language; how did they swear? What did they celebrate and who did they hold up as their ancestors, and what myths and legends were told about them?

I was drawn to questions of what makes family, is it blood relations? Or found family and adopted societies? Is it those who we love or those whose DNA we carry? And what of laws? How to obey them when they can be twisted and used for evil? How do you protect your peers from your own authority figures? How to stand against authority when no-one else will? And what risks would you run in trying to do so? And, what of duty? How to navigate when duty opposes our own desires? How do you love someone when loving is a betrayal of your people?

Not wanting to romanticize the historically factual suffering of the wretched of Paris, I included a guild of Prostitutes and discussed how they had been abused and manipulated by a vengeful human trafficker, which also allowed me to touch on trafficking, the plague upon humanity – the devouring Tiger that continues to prowl amongst us to this day.

And then, to zoom outward a little, and look at the Court of Miracles trilogy as a whole. There is a particular shaped story I wanted to tell over the three books. Inspired by my fascinating research into Parisian history; where I discovered a rebellious city, differing from the rest of France, oft given to violence, a place divided by religion and intolerance, an ungovernable people who made their own Kings afraid.

In the midst of this turbulent sea of elements you have four young people. Nina, streetwise member of the criminal underworld. Ettie, daughter of the poor working class. Enjolras St Juste, freedom fighter ready to start a second revolution, and the Dauphin, young heir to the throne of Paris. Each of the four are representative of their slice of society. I wanted to tell the story of Paris in a perfect storm of great political unrest and upheaval. The Criminal, the Poor, the Revolutionary, and the Nobility.  A story that set these four, who might have any other time in history been friends – and set them against one another, driven apart by the events unfolding around them, their duty, their loyalties, and their need to protect their people above all else. In essence, I wanted to tell a story about the city itself, about its history, and put characters we could believe in at each corner of it.

Some will tell you this is Nina’s story, but it isn’t that alone. Just as Discworld's City Watch series is not about Sam Vimes, but rather about his duty to the city of Ankh Morpork.

The Court of Miracles Series is the story of Nina Thenardier’s duty to her people. And it is the history of how that people; The Wretched – the criminals and unwanted members of society, weather one of France’s mightiest shakings.

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