The Striga and Her Mother: Revealing The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston

In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her…

We are so excited to share the cover for The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston, a Slavic folklore-inspired fantasy full of suspense and dark twists! Check it out below, along with a short interview with the author.

The Second Bell publishes March 9th 2021 with Angry Robot.

In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget.

Nineteen year-old striga, Salka, and her mother, Miriat, made the choice to leave and live a life of deprivation and squalor in an isolated village. The striga tribe share the human belief that to follow the impulses of their other hearts is dangerous, inviting unspoken horrors and bringing ruin onto them all.

Salka, a headstrong and independent young woman, finds herself in a life threatening situation that forces her to explore the depths of her true nature and test the bonds between mother and child…

Gabriela Houston was born and raised in Poland, brought up on a diet of mythologies and fairy tales. She spent her summers exploring the woods, foraging and animal tracking with her family. At 19, Gabriela moved to London to study English Literature and obtained a Masters degree in literatures of modernity. She has worked as an assistant editor and as a freelance writer. Gabriela’s short stories have been selected for the Editor’s Choice Review by Bewildering Stories and have been featured on the Ladies of Horror Fiction podcast. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

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The Second Bell is your debut novel. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The Second Bell is inspired by Slavic mythology, and follows a young woman, Salka, who was born with two hearts, in a place where that brands her a striga, a monster. When she’s born, rather than abandon her in the forest, her mother, Miriat chooses to leave her town with her child, and brings her up in a community of outcasts high up in the mountains. I’m interested in how deeply social and cultural taboos can influence how people interact with their own families, and how resistance is never straightforward. And then, of course, at its core, The Second Bell is a story about a mother and her daughter, the lengths to which they will go to protect each other, and how the internalised fear can strain their bond.

Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?

I grew up obsessed with the writing of Jack London and James Curwood, specifically the snowy, forbidden landscapes of the far North and the theme of a human against nature. I also heavily drew on my own memories of the long Summer days I spent in my grandparents’ wooden cabin in the Polish countryside, surrounded by a forest and a lake, where I’d go fishing and animal-tracking with my grandfather, and forage for berries and mushrooms in the woods. So you will see a lot survivalist stuff in The Second Bell and a lot of hostile, yet beautiful nature.

Where did your ideas come from? What’s the idea behind The Second Bell?

The ideas come from the internal store of what I like to call “interesting stuff”. Every time you read an article, have a good conversation, go for a walk, you add to your stock of curious little tidbits. Then every now again you take one of those tidbits and think “Huh, I wonder what a person would do, if faced with such a situation, but with an added twist of X.” Then it tends to flow from there. It’s not very mystical, I’m afraid. For the starting point for The Second Bell, I thought of how hard it would be to stand up to your community when in spite of the love you have for your child, you yourself still believe that child might carry evil inside them. And then for the child themselves, as they enter adulthood, how would they see themselves in a hostile environment?

Who is your favorite character in the book?

That’s a difficult one! I love them all for very different reasons. But I suppose if I had to choose I’d say Miriat, Salka’s mother. She gives up everything for her child in spite of a lifetime of social conditioning that says her daughter’s striga nature is evil. The fierceness of her love overcomes everything else, but none of the choices she has to make are easy.

As we’re revealing the cover today, can you tell us a bit about the process behind creating it?

First of all I want to say I’m aware the process here was unusual in that I was actually encouraged to have an input, for which I’m incredibly grateful. I filled in a brief and sent some inspirational images which I felt gave a sense of the energy I thought was needed. Then the extremely talented designer at Angry Robot, Glen Wilkins, prepared some early designs which helped us hone in on the direction and then it was mostly small tweaks. Since The Second Bell is inspired by Slavic Mythology, it was important to us to have some elements of that reflected in the design. I’m incredibly excited about the end result—it really reflects the energy of the story, I think.

And what about you—tell us about yourself?

I came to the UK at 19 from Poland to study English Literature. Then, displaying a rather tenuous grasp on reality, I decided it’d be a great idea to do an MA in Literatures of Modernity, thinking to pursue a career in academia. Since deciding I much prefer writing books to analysing them, I’ve held different positions in the publishing sector, as a marketing underling, assistant, writer-for-hire and editor. I’m a voracious reader, and I’m also pretty obsessed with art. There’s a lot of talented people out there who produce amazing stuff, and thanks to the modern technologies, it’s all at our fingertips. It’s an exciting time to be alive, for sure.

How long have you been writing and how did you start?

I’ve been writing since I knew how: small vignettes, comic scripts, short stories, truly awful poetry…As a kid I wanted to be a writer/illustrator and I would spend a lot of time developing stories, and trying to bring them to life. But it wasn’t since I became a mum that I have gained the razor-sharp focus which allowed me to make that jump, to become open about my commitment to being a writer. Kids are hard work, but they do put things in perspective, where you have to make a conscious decision about who you want to be and what is important to you. Once you make that jump, the rest is just typing.

Lastly, what is at the top of your TBR pile?

I have a whole shelf of TBR books and a whole list on my phone as well! When I finish one book I tend to go to my list and think about what kind of a mood I’m in, like when a month back I read all of Leigh Bardugo’s novels in quick succession, then after I really needed a modern palate cleanser and so I read the wonderful, if slightly traumatising, Pretending by Holly Bourne. At the moment I’m reading The Tethered Mage, a Venice-inspired fantasy novel by Melissa Caruso, which has a lovely, rich setting you can lose yourself in, and the next on my list is Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which has garnered some wonderful reviews. I do have the slightly obsessive personality of a collector, and when I really like a book by a new author I don’t move on until I have read every single thing they have ever written!


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