Lee Crawford is an awkward teenage girl. She’s a lot like me at age 15. Her standard uniform is a men’s Army coat, old boots and jeans. She doesn’t wear any makeup to speak of. Her day-to-day look says “It’s none of your business if I’m a boy or a girl. Back off.” But Lee is also a singer, and she can’t be so invisible when people are listening. That means dressing up for her part-time job singing at funerals, but it also means letting people see her real self once in a while. That’s one of her big dilemmas.
Lee’s story is about voice, as a metaphor and as a real thing. Specifically the voice of a young woman who’s gone through severe trauma. The Songbird Thief is a fantasy, so Lee has to literally wrestle with the magic power of her singing voice and learn how to control it. But it’s also about how Lee expresses herself — to strangers, to the people she loves, and to the people she fears. Survivors of family violence often find themselves examining how the past informs their choices in the present. It’s a step toward breaking the grip of the abuse. That’s also a major question for Lee.
When we first meet Lee, she’s convinced that she is going to turn out to be a bad person because she is half Winter Fey. Those are the evil fairies — or at any rate, they’re much readier to slit your throat than the Summer Fey are. Lee doesn’t think she has a choice about ending up just like them: capricious, cruel, with no morals at all.
But fashion. On her way to coming out of her shell, Lee also gains a healthy dollop of physical confidence — something I love to witness as a writer, since I adored shy Lee so much from the second I met her. She travels to the Winter and the Summer Realms, and in each place, they dress her up in fey clothes. They’re trying to flatter her; their ultimate goal is to harness her singing voice for their own use. But those fine outfits also give us a glimpse into how Lee secretly sees herself.
In the scene I wanted to share with you here, Lee is at a Winter Fey party. The fey are dangerous, but they’re also powerfully seductive, and being dressed by them opens a few doors in Lee’s mind that had been closed until now.
Excerpt from The Songbird Thief:
“No, I have to go home,” I say to the wall of silver-draped girls who have me trapped. I may not have a strong idea of where “home” is right now, but I definitely do not want to stay here. A girl with deep green skin brushes my mouth with her fingers, as if to say Stay. I shiver when she touches me and the shiver takes me by surprise, like my body is running away without my brain into some unfamiliar country. It’s a good-feeling shiver, but it scares me not to be in control. “I have to go,” I say again, and her mouth widens into dimples and she shakes her head.
There’s no escape anyway. I look around at the brown and teak and pale faces, and someone’s silver eyes smile at me out of a face painted with blue leaves. I feel the tug and press of fingers, the whoosh of cool air, the rustle of fabric, and when the fey girls pull away, my thrift-store dress is gone. In its place are a silver top and midnight blue trousers made of heavy silk twill that pools around my ankles, where they’re tucked into low suede boots. Around my hips is a leather belt with a row of silver rings in place of a buckle. It all fits the way my own clothes never do, not too loose in the chest or too short everywhere. I feel vulnerable, conscious of the snug fit over my hips and the low top leaving more skin bare than I’m used to, but I feel a rush of rock-star feeling too. I sway to watch the fabric bell out around my knees, and I hear laughter. One of the girls who dressed me holds up a silver-rimmed mirror, and I see that they’ve made up my face too. Where all I had on was lip balm before, now I have the smoky eyelids and dewy lips of a model. I look like a girl—a real girl, not a flagpole dressed in a man’s coat from the Army-Navy Surplus store. Even my hair is lying in glossy curls, not its usual fuzzy cap of neglect.
The silver girls stop smoothing down my hair and now they’re tugging at my arms, but I can’t go with them wherever they’re trying to take me. I want to leave. The girl with green skin gives me an appreciative look from boots to hairline, and her breath blows on my ear as she kisses my cheek, and I feel that shiver of pleasure again in parts of my body I’m not used to being conscious of when anyone’s there. Then she grasps my shoulders and spins me around to face the crowd.
Where’s the harm in a little petty theft now and then? Fifteen-year-old Lee is about to find out. Lee has a gift—the ability to use her songs to enchant prospective victims, making them easy to rob—but it isn’t without a price. The source of this mysterious ability is revealed when Lee comes to San Francisco, fleeing her stepfather’s abuse: she is half fey. This knowledge puts a strain on Lee’s relationship with her friend and secret crush, Sonja, since Sonja thinks entanglements with the fey only lead to trouble. As her adventure takes her deeper into the intrigues of the Faerie Realm, Lee discovers her power has the potential for more than fun and profit. Some would use it for evil, and only Lee can decide if there’s good to be found in her songs.
Skye Allen is the author of a YA LGBTQ+ urban fantasy novel, Pretty Peg. Her short fiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Of Dragons and Magic and her poetry in Insomnia and Sinister Wisdom. She is also a musician and occasionally performs around the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her wife, their cat and a flock of chickens. The Songbird Thief is her second novel.