by Charlie Winter

Adult Cozy Fantasy
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Query

There is great power in belonging, but Phinny doesn’t know how to belong. Between a neglectful father, his overwhelming shadow, and magic forcing her to flee from everything she’s ever known, she must discover how to make a new home. PHINNY INTO IDLEWILD is an adult fantasy complete at 99,000 words. An ode to the wild, whimsical magic of the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones, Phinny combines the sweetness of T.J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea with the lush, untamed atmosphere of Emily Tesh’s The Greenhollow Duology.

Phinny Fernsby, the conjured daughter of the Great Wizard Rasmus, has no magic, which at least means she can find comfort in never having to face the terror of souring: when a witch is lost forever in their own unsettled power. While Phinny’s eccentric but unreachable father spends his days buried in his spell-books, Phinny spends hers maintaining his life. But when Rasmus’s rival attacks—laying a curse that drives Phinny away—Phinny is thrust out of her father’s story and, finally, into her own.

Phinny flees to the feral prairies of northern Idlewild where, for the first time, she’s responsible only for her well-being and no one else’s. Here Phinny turns her knack for making the best of bad things into a new life, building a home in a ramshackle tower on the edge of the prairies and becoming a pet-sitter for familiars left behind when their witches travel. But Idlewild is in grave danger of souring. With the help of Arlen, the affable apple wizard of Idlewild, Phinny turns her attention to how best to heal a land’s belonging before her new home becomes just as lost as her old one. All the while, Phinny reckons with her own belonging, and the place that the people of Idlewild—including Arlen and the way he smiles at her—have within it.

I am a trans, queer man based in Australia, an academic by day and, by night, still an academic but much more distractible about it. When not performing the inexplicable rituals of academia, I write fantasy fiction celebrating everyday magic, eco-optimism, and queer identities, out of which I have two short fiction publications and one forthcoming.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

First Five Pages

The child, for all that she was being stared at by a great prairie cat, seemed to be making the best of things. She had a smooth river rock in one hand, which she turned this way and that to admire how it shone.

The great cat was solid-boned, his spotted coat dusky-brown and a black spike of fur down his back giving him a tremendously fierce appearance. Excessive fangs were visible behind curled lips and the paws that he stood upon were designed to solve all problems with permanent decisiveness. An easy solution to the problem posed by the child’s arrival seemed obvious. Still, he hesitated.

During that hesitation, the child offered the rock to the cat. He leaned down to sniff. Even his nose was bigger than those tiny fingers.

“Buh,” said the child, which roughly translated to ‘rock’.

Unaware of this translation, the great cat opened his mouth so that he could smell better. The child, seeing her chance, shoved the rock in.

The great cat spat out the rock—the child, affronted, retrieved it—and sat down to consider his options. Once, he would have eaten this child. But his teeth were yellowed, and his paws prominently boned. He had survived polar winters and hunted under midnight suns. He had seen magic wax and wane as it pleased. He had never, however, felt the magic surge like it had an hour before, or seen the night sky turn a blistering white. He had never witnessed something living pop into existence where no living thing existed prior.

The great cat looked up to where the moon should be. All that hung above was white sky: a flat, matte ceiling that spanned the prairies. Uneasily, the world below was as dark as usual night. Shadows were deep and long. Colour was dimmed. And a child had appeared where it hadn’t been moments before.

The great cat decided that if the child had been brought here by magic, then she must have a reason for being. He determined to take her to the wizards who must be responsible. But every attempt to scruff caused a flurry of wheeling arms, one of these landing across the great cat’s delicate nose.

He snarled.

The child snarled back, cackling when he twitched at the unexpected mimicry.

Human kittens are very strange,” said the great cat to the child. “How does your mama move you about if there’s no place to pick you up?

The answer was unpleasant. The child wrapped a firm hand around one of the great cat’s long canines and yanked herself upright using him as a steadying force, the other hand gripping the treasured rock tight. Before he could respond, she was standing on wobbly legs and his head had been pulled close enough to her mouth that she could plant a wet approximation of a kiss upon him.

The great cat was reluctantly flattered by this show of damp affection.

After some negotiation, he persuaded the child to hang from his thin ruff of chest fur instead of his tooth. The two set out across the prairies towards a distant smudge of trees.

Looming ahead was a human’s tower, which the great cat knew stood empty. It was a higgledy-piggledy thing bricked by magic and mortared by nonsense. Most of its shingles were shattered on the ground instead of sensibly affixed to the roof, several of the walls had ceased to characterise ‘structural’, and it even had a belfry populated by several generations of bats. He considered that the child could rest there.

However, they weren’t the first to arrive. In the tangled grass moments away from a door that led down to the dank, dark cellar, they found the bedraggled shape of a calico cat. She lay where she’d fallen. A smaller, stiller shape laid beside her: a kitten born dead.

The child, tired as she was, trotted to the cat’s side and crouched there, fingers touching the calico’s fur in a tentative patting motion. The calico began washing her lost kitten, who seemed even sadder in the unnatural light. The girl’s lip wobbled at such a sight. She sat down with a thump in the dirt, hugging the rock in both hands. She was hungry. She was tired. She’d stepped on a stone and hurt her bare foot.

Quietly, she began to cry.

The cats noted that the sky was clearing. Ink black spilled from flat white. The moon began to show his face.

The calico took charge.

Bring her out of the cold,” she demanded of the great cat, who bullied the child until she began a reluctant crawl towards the broken cellar door. They filed one by one into shelter as the world dimmed into a vague semblance of normality. The calico carrying her kitten came last.

But left to her own devices, the child had crawled into the shadows and reached towards the dark, rock propped upon her palm. She offered it once more as a gift, but this time not to a cat. Unlike the rest of the room, which was perfectly visible to all feline eyes, this corner remained obscured in unnatural darkness.

“Buh,” said the child. A long muzzle emerged to nudge the child’s outstretched hand, earning a giggle from her.

“That’s not for Eeny, either,” said the muzzle about the rock. The creature attached to the muzzle oozed out of the dark, which melted into normal shadows behind it to show that Eeny was a creature made of other creatures, having curved claws and a hare-like skull containing someone else’s sharp teeth. Tined antlers rose above long ears that scythed back. It was fleeced with wiry brambles instead of hair, and it smelled of books and spite and something bleeding. The child patted its flaring, blood-coloured nose as the cats backed away.

“Bad times come,” said Eeny in a hoarse voice. “Kittens must go where they’re needed no matter how much their mamas protest.”

My kitten goes nowhere,” said the calico. “She’s dead.”

For the first time, the child seemed uneasy. The calico picked up her bundle to trot forward between child and creature.

“Then shall we have a spell for babies?” asked Eeny, leering.

No, don’t!” snapped the great cat. Too late. Magic crackled…and there came a sound.

The calico dropped her bundle as it wriggled, modest heart beating once more.

“This kitten is not for you,” Eeny told the calico. “It is a come-home kitten for the girl. You may have healthy keep-close kittens forever in repayment, but you must give up this one. Eeny demands it.”

You undid the wizard’s magic,” said the calico. To the kitten, she made a noise—piep—which, in cat, meant many things but mostly ‘you are mine and I love you’.

The kitten breathlessly _piep_ed back: her first sound.

“Eeny undid unintended harm. The kitten was unintended. The child is unintended too. Harm happened anyway—and you, panther, are the wrong cat. This child is not for you, either.”

The great cat eyed Eeny. “What makes you so certain?” he asked.

“The right cat,” answered Eeny.

There was a creak overhead. The cats realised that while they’d been focused on Eeny’s fae magic, they hadn’t heard what had been happening above: human voices bickering.

The panther whirled to the broken cellar door from where they had come only to find that something was already entering. It was another cat but a cat like no other any of them had ever seen, long and lean and continuing to slink through the doorway long after one would expect the ferruginous body to end. It seemed that the new feline would never end, that there would be metres, possibly miles, of cat by the time he came to a stop.

This was a wizard’s familiar, a cat of true magic. Both wild and tame; both magic and real; both great and unusual. As he slipped into the room, he cast a spell to bring light to the dark. It revealed the great cat, and the small calico, and the human child with the newborn kitten in her lap. It did not reveal Eeny, who was no longer there to be revealed.

The child, seeing the newcomer, was captivated. The newcomer, seeing the child, was similarly mesmerised. He stepped boldly down to sniff her. The child reached up to press small fingers into the swirl of fur set right between his amber eyes. It was a possessive action, as though the tuft of fur was hers alone to touch.

A kitten,” said the newcomer, whose name was Fenwick, tone wondering. He did nothing to stop her free hand grabbing at his face, for he was never one to discourage curiosity. It was important that kittens learned to be curious and bold if they were going to grow up fierce.

“Buh?” queried the child, offering the rock.

Fenwick examined the river rock. As far as gifts went, it was a paltry one. It was as normal a rock as had ever existed and would be lost within a moment in a crowd of its kind.

“Thank you,” said Fenwick, accepting it with the gentlest mouth.

Fenwick didn’t protest as the child used his scruff to haul herself up. All he did was nudge her hand to ensure that she placed the newborn kitten down for the calico before he returned the child’s affections with his blunt nose. The girl, in turn, fondly petted the white glint of his sharpest tooth.




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Photo by Marcel Smits on Unsplash

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