Books·How I Wrote It

Liselle Sambury's YA novel Blood Like Magic is a fantasy/sci-fi mashup about Black Canadian witches in Toronto

The Ontario author and vlogger spoke with CBC Books about writing her debut YA novel.
Liselle Sambury is an Ontario writer and YA author. (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Stuart W.)

Liselle Sambury is a Trinidadian Canadian YA author and vlogger from Toronto, currently residing in northern Ontario. Sambury's debut YA novel Blood Like Magic, is a dark fantasy story about Voya Thomas, a teen witch who is tasked with sacrificing her first love to save her family's magic. But when Voya does eventually fall in love with her soulmate, she is forced to make the choice between her morality and her duty to her bloodline.

Sambury spoke with CBC Books about writing Blood Like Magic.

Fun yet different

"Blood Like Magic is about a family of Black witches living in a near-future Toronto. It's about 16-year-old Voya Thomas who is given the impossible task of either killing her first love or losing her family's magic forever. 

"When I decided to start writing this book, I was actually working on a different book. But I had this idea stuck in my head about writing about a family of Black witches. At the time, I was living in northern Ontario and I was feeling quite homesick — it was the first time I was living that far from my family and friends. I thought that if I set Blood Like Magic in Toronto, I could reconnect with my hometown.

I thought that if I set Blood Like Magic in Toronto, I could kind of reconnect with my hometown.

"I started with an image of a girl in a bath of blood. I had to figure out what she was doing there and what was going on in that situation, all within the context of that idea of a family of Black witches. I ended up setting the book in the near-future because that sounded fun and different to me. I've always loved both fantasy and sci-fi, and so it wasn't completely out of left field for me to combine both genres.

"Blood Like Magic started with very simple components that ended up being built up significantly over time."

Genre mixup

"Interestingly enough, I wrote this book differently to how I write books today. The way I write books now is I plot them very meticulously and I plan out a lot of things ahead of time. But with Blood Like Magic, because it was already 10 days into National Novel Writing Month, I dove straight into it with minimal planning. I had some simple rules for the magic system: I knew that characters had to use blood to cast magic spells. If they didn't use blood for magic, they could use their 'gift' and that every witch would have their own unique gift. 

I had some simple rules for the magic system: I knew that characters had to use blood to cast magic spells.

"I ended up layering things on from there. When something came up that I thought was relevant to the magic system, I would work out how I was going to expand and incorporate it. 

"It was important to me to make sure the magic and the sci-fi elements blended together and depended upon each other. That way they could never be pulled apart; no one could say, 'Why don't you make this all urban fantasy or all sci-fi?'"

Building community via social media

"When I was at all different stages of being a writer, there were so many people that I'd watch on YouTube or listen to on podcasts. It meant so much to me to be able to hear the story and feel comforted, to feel like I wasn't alone, and to feel a part of the community and feel connected. 

I can share my experience — and hopefully it would resonate with people.

"I wanted to do that as well and give that back in a way. I can share my experience — and hopefully it would resonate with people. I hoped that people would learn and be more informed about the book industry. I'm sharing what I learned while also sharing my work and personal journey. I hope that it helps people."

Blackness and writing sci-fi and fantasy

"It's difficult sometimes being a Black author of sci-fi and fantasy because there's not many titles. Sometimes it can be heavy because you feel like you have to be everything for everyone.

"Where I had to go with this book is that I was very much talking about a specific Black experience — I was talking about being Trinidadian Canadian in Canada. Because I was drawing on so much of that personal experience, it felt to me more like I was getting at something more specific.

I was very much talking about a specific Black experience — I was talking about being Trinidadian Canadian in Canada.

"I wasn't trying to be everything for every Caribbean reader because I didn't need to be everything for everything. There are so many different kinds of Black people in Toronto. I didn't need to be all of that because I was looking at this specific instance.

"I don't want it to be seen as a universal perspective — there are universal elements that people can relate to. But I hope that Black readers from a variety of backgrounds could find something in there and feel represented in my way."

Liselle Sambury's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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