Pria is just a little girl when zombielike monsters called grinlo kill her parents, but she already knows what it’s like to have adult responsibilities. She was born a princess, and because of her precocious gift for magic, she’s already being trained to assume the role of high priestess for the whole kingdom of Trimera. Her gift often exceeds her ability to control it, though. Can she prove herself capable of saving her people from an evil power that’s sweeping over their lands? That’s the question at the heart of Tanya S.M. Kennedy’s novel The Battle for Trimera.

Kennedy says that she has always been drawn to fantasy novels in which the landscape plays a significant role. Think: a band of companions questing through an ancient forest rather than highborn folk conspiring against each other as they luxuriate in their palaces. This is because the author has always felt drawn to the natural world herself. Or to put it another way, fantasy is a genre that allows her to add horses. Lots of horses. “If I can’t add horses….Well, the idea just makes me sad.”

A fondness for animals is something that young Pria and her creator have in common. In fact, Kennedy has turned her West Virginia farm into something of a wildlife sanctuary—especially for birds. “After almost losing a chicken to hawks,” she explains, “I started trying to encourage crows to come to our property. Crows will chase a predator out of their territory.” Now she regularly sees whippoorwills, and mourning doves have appeared by the dozens this year. She hears owls at night. She’s seen ravens for the first time since she visited the Tower of London as a tourist. And a little blue heron has gotten extremely comfortable around Kennedy. Recently, it stood in the driveway with a quizzical expression—as quizzical as a bird’s can get—to observe the delivery of a new dryer.

The author has vivid memories of interacting with wild creatures in all sorts of habitats as a child, and one of her favorite moments in this novel is an echo of those recollections. In this scene, Pria’s brother, Janu, has finally agreed to return to court after he took his little sister into hiding following their parents’ deaths. Janu has left his best friend, Mian, to watch over Pria while Janu escorts Mian’s mother—the royal siblings’ new foster mother—to their forest retreat:

Standing thigh-deep in the water stood Pria and Mian, both coated in

sticky mud. Pria’s eyes sparkled with excitement as she held out her cupped hands. “I caught one!”

Mian plastered on an innocent grin as his mother’s face twisted in horror. “Mother, Janu…didn’t think you’d get back so quickly.”

Mesha glowered at him as she knelt beside Pria. “Caught what, dear?” 

Pria opened her hands and Mesha screamed, falling backward as a large spotted frog exploded from the child’s muddy grip. Pria stomped. “Ah, I lost it!”

The girl pivoted to trudge back out into the water, but Mesha grabbed her arm and hastily pulled her up on shore. Mian was still sporting his foolish grin as the tall woman rounded on him. 

“Young man, your father and I are going to have a serious talk about you when we get home.”

Mian grumbled under his breath. “What else is new.” 

She shot him an angry glare as she pulled a kerchief from her sleeve and wiped at the thick goop covering Pria’s face. “You are beyond filthy, child.”

Pria rolled her eyes. “Of course! Frogs are very crafty; you have to have camouflage!”

In true fantasy spirit, The Battle for Trimera recounts an existential battle between good and evil, but it’s in little moments like this that the characters emerge as real people. Kirkus Reviews makes special mention of how Kennedy handles character development, noting that even minor players are three-dimensional and adding, “as for the protagonists, Pria in particular is given both space and time in which to grow.” This observation complements Kennedy’s own account of shepherding this character through her story. Pria, she finds, “needs a lot of hand-holding.” The author adds, “She’s a bit of a diva.” 

When asked to explain what she means by diva, Kennedy says, “She’s definitely the most polished of my leads. She’s in a political position, a public position. As a princess, as a high-priestess-in-training, she has to be conscious of how other people see her.” The author compares Pria to the heroine of A Maiden in the Foxcombe. “Kardin’s entire persona is that she doesn’t fit in with her society—at all. She just isn’t what the people around her expect a woman to be. She’s an oddball, always on the outs with everyone. Given Pria’s responsibilities, she doesn’t have that luxury.” Kennedy finds a little bit of herself in both characters. “I’m a weirdo. I stick out. But in public I have to put some effort into presenting a personality that’s more conformist.”

This is especially true in her professional life, Kennedy says. Working as a chemist in a corporate environment doesn’t give her a lot of opportunity to express herself. But, she explains, this doesn’t mean that there’s no connection between her work and her writing. “What is magic,” she asks, “if not chemistry?” She describes creating a spell as “mixing a little bit of this and a little bit of that” and tinkering until you get the result you want—a process familiar to any chemist. And her background in biology is a product of the same fascination with nature that draws her to fantasy.

Kennedy’s fiction, then, is set in invented universes but grounded in the reality we know. She sees fantasy as an engine for change, and this is why she loves to create—and read about—strong women who defy convention and reinvent their worlds. “I hope other people who think like me read my work and are inspired by it. I hope they encounter these heroines and think, ‘I’m not alone.’ If enough of us find each other, we can make a difference. We can make things better for ourselves—and basically, everybody.” 

“I’m writing how I would change the world if I could,” she says.

Jessica Jernigan is a writer and editor who lives in Michigan.