Traci Chee’s debut novel, a fantasy trilogy opener called The Reader, was a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize; We Are Not Free, her 2020 historical novel about Japanese American teens detained during World War II, won multiple accolades; her 2022 fantasy, A Thousand Steps Into Night, made the National Book Award longlist. With her newest fantasy novel, Kindling (Harper/HarperCollins, Feb. 27), Chee adds to her unbroken string of Kirkus stars. As in the films that inspired it—the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai, and its 1960 American remake, The Magnificent Seven—seven warriors come to the defense of a peaceful village against a band of marauders, but Chee’s characters are teens whose martial magic literally burns its wielders out by their early 20s. Cast adrift after the war they’ve fought has ended, they bear scars both physical and psychological. Chee spoke to Kirkus via Zoom from her home in California; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Kirkus review called Kindling an exploration of “shared trauma.” Was that something on your mind as you were writing it?

One of the reasons I wrote Kindling now is because of that collective-trauma element. I’ve been in love with the Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven story for decades, and I’ve always wanted to write something inspired by those films. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to justify telling the story again, when it had already been told so perfectly in 1954. I watched the most recent Magnificent Seven, the one with Denzel Washington, during the pandemic. I started thinking, What if it wasn’t veterans of the Civil War or samurai, but children? Why would these former soldiers have to be children? What kind of world would ask so much of its children—to give their lives for it, to fight for it, to sacrifice for it?

Then I stumbled upon [the idea of ] this magic system that literally shortens the lifespans of the people who wield that magic. We have these characters with their shortened lifespans, fighting for a future that they probably won’t see—and that is something that reflects on our world today. When I was growing up, we were promised certain things for our future. You could have stability, and safety. But Columbine happened when I was a teenager. Since then there have been more and more mass shootings, often in schools, and since then we’ve seen the instability in our financial system [and] this divide between the haves and the have-nots. We’ve seen climate change—we’ve seen its effects; we’re living with them right now. And we’ve seen the forecasts for what that’s going to look like in the future. We can’t promise [safety and stability] to our young people. And yet they’re the ones on the frontlines of these fights. I think about young people organizing, mobilizing, voting, and fighting, because we haven’t been able to solve these problems for them. I felt like I could speak to that [idea] through fantasy.

Kindling’s second-person narrative voice is incredibly striking—tell us how you found it.

I actually struggled against this voice for a very long time. I go through this process, in my early drafts, where I’m really just trying to home in on the voice, the tone, the language. Very early on, I came up with the second-person perspective, this you. I thought, OK, that’s really neat—but it’s not possible to [maintain] over the course of an entire novel. I did one chapter in second person for We Are Not Free, and I was like, No way, no, I can’t do 400 pages of this. It’s unsustainable; it will be unreadable.

For the next, probably, 10 drafts, I tried writing anything but that second person, because it was terrifying. But none of those other drafts were working. Around draft 12 or 13, I finally embraced it. Once I [had decided on it,] I realized that the fun of second person is that it’s secretly a first person, and figuring out who was that secret first person was a real treat. I landed on this idea of [the narrator] being like a tragic Greek chorus of kindlings who have fallen in battle, literally haunting the seven main characters: narrating their own lives, their own actions, their own thoughts, their own feelings. That was so much fun, because if they’re ghosts, then that gives me the ability to be beautiful, ethereal, soaring, super poetic at points, and then because they’re children, it allows me to also be very petty, very jealous at times of the lives that these characters are allowed to live. They can call out the main characters, like, “You’re lying about that.” That was so much fun.

Reading Kindling sent me to Seven Samurai. I was struck by how closely you hewed to your inspiration while making it your own story.

Oh, I’m so excited that you saw it! I love it. Did you also love it?

Oh my gosh, yes. It was a 3-1/2-hour movie made in 1954, and it was incredible.

I know it’s so long, but also it’s just so good. And I love that slow burn of it, where you’re not sure about these characters at the beginning. But then, by the time you get to the end, each one of them is so precious to you. That was something that I really loved about it, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven as well. I wanted Kindling to be recognizable as a Seven Samurai story, and for me, that meant the shape of it. We have the three acts. First, the warriors are gathering. Then they’re preparing for the defense of this little village [in the second act]. The last third is that very big battle at the end. And three always survive in a Seven Samurai story. I knew that I’d have to kill off more than half the kindlings by the end. I needed to figure out which ones were going to have the most impact in that way, and which ones needed to survive thematically as well. And I wanted to keep the idea that these characters who don’t have really that much to gain are fighting for this village of strangers because that’s who they are. They know that some fights have to be fought and are worth fighting, even at great cost to themselves. Those elements were important. But within that [aspect], I felt like I had a lot of flexibility in terms of who exactly these characters were. This is an advantage of telling it in a novel format—you can really get inside the heads of these characters and live through their pasts in a way that you can’t with a film. That was really, really fun. A huge challenge, of course, to do that for seven characters, but it was such a joy to really get to know each of them.

I confess I teared up more than once while reading your book.

That appeals to the fantasy writer in me. I love making readers cry.

Vicky Smith is access services director at Portland Public Library in Maine