Nicola Davies on the Characters in The Song that Sings Us

Nicola Davies on the Characters in The Song that Sings Us

Illustrations by Jackie Morris


My novel, The Song that Sings Us has had some lovely things said about it by reviewers and writers. I think my favourite came from Imogen Russell Williams reviewing the book for the Guardian: ‘story-telling at the most poetic scale, strange, bloody, grand and unforgettable’. Comments like this are wonderful of course, but what every writer wants is feedback from real readers. Thank you to Grace, age 11, in National Geographic magazine for saying that the book was ‘amazing in every way and so THRILLING’. As more and more readers find this story, I’m getting more lovely feedback and also lots of questions about the characters.  

So here is a bit of background for some of the main ones. I won’t describe the physical appearance of the human characters – I know how they look in my head, but it’s how they look to you as the story plays like a film in YOUR head that counts! I want you to be able to imagine yourself inside any of them, the way I put myself inside Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, but here is a little background information to help you imagine my cast!  

Toren Sisal

Toren is the mother of the three main human characters, Harlon, Ash and Xeno. At the time of the story she is still a relatively young woman, in her late thirties. She’s a little above average height I think, strong and athletic. Toren is the daughter of a retired military man and a beautiful heiress. She trained in the military herself as part of an elite force a bit like our SAS, but shortly after her training she ran away to join the eco-rebel forces fighting oil exploitation in the White Sea, my world’s equivalent of the Arctic. Toren is a warrior and gives the care of her first born daughter, Harlon, to her partner Tui, while she goes on to be a leader of a very successful and rather violent group of eco-activists, Green Thorn.

At the time of Tui’s death she is travelling back to rejoin and revitalise Green Thorn. But she discovers she is pregnant with twins and, to protect her children, she runs to the mountains to raise them in isolation giving herself a false name – Breen Avvon.

Toren isn’t naturally motherly to her three children, eldest daughter Harlon and younger twins, Ash a boy and Xeno a girl. But she tries. She loves her children with a deep, fierce passion; she cares for them, educates them, and prepares Harlon in particular to be a warrior, like her. When the time comes, something in Toren is relieved to return to the life of an activist and soldier, but this time without bloodshed… well, not much bloodshed. She does still shoot somebody in the head…  

Harlon  

At the start of the story, Harlon is in her mid-teens and has been raised by her mother to be a warrior, the protector of her younger siblings, Ash and Xeno. This has created a little separation between her and the twins. 

Harlon’s sense of responsibility for them has made her a bit stiff and fierce at times. The fact that she doesn’t have the gift of Listening (the ability to tune in to the thoughts of animals) as they do, makes her feel very different from her siblings. Sometimes she feels she is the sensible one while they are both a bit dreamy, and sometimes she feels like the stupid one because she can’t do what they do.

Harlon is strong, fit, and well trained, but doubts her abilities at first, blaming herself for things that are beyond her control. But she is more like her mother than she realises: mentally tough and resilient. Yet there is something more to Harlon than that. She is Tui’s child too, and although she lacks his talent for Listening, she has his ability to connect in another way. The song he and his friends, the humpbacked whales, have planted inside  Harlon’s brain is there waiting for the right moment. Harlon’s intelligence and bravery, her ability to analyse and then act, are ultimately what save the world.  

Xeno  

Xeno’s words pepper the story of The Song that Sings Us. She speaks in riddles but riddles that prove to have a deep meaning. Living in isolation on the mountain has allowed her family to get used to her strange, disconnected way of communicating and her eccentric behaviour. They come to accept the fact that Xeno is really more comfortable communing with birds than with humans.

But Xeno hasn’t really chosen to be this way. Her Listener power is the strongest of anyone in the story, stronger even than that of her father, Tui. So strong, in fact, that she cannot tune out the consciousness of birds. She connects with them automatically, like a radio tuned into multiple stations and perpetually on. Some of what flows into her mind she loves, but more often it leaves her overwhelmed, confused, and not really able to exert her own will or personality.

She seems vulnerable, fragile, and the character least able to take care of herself. Yet she is the one who engages most directly in conflict with the evil leader of the Automators, Doada Sisal. It is the making of her. She finds her will to resist him, and she finds a power that she thinks does not belong to her, but to the birds with whom she connects so powerfully. But she discovers at the end of the book that she is indeed powerful, and that she can be herself.

Ash

I’m often asked (or even sometimes told) which of the characters is most like me. Harlon and Toren are who I would like to be: warriors with the ability to think fast and make good decisions under pressure. Aspects of Xeno, her alienation from the world, and her struggle to make herself feel autonomous, are like me. But the human character who was easiest to write was Ash. He has a strong sense of fairness and looks at the world with clear eyes which sometimes find human behaviour strange or even ridiculous. He is the one who I used to make a commentary about some of the aspects of the Automators plans, which I find unacceptable in our world.  

Ash loves his sister Xeno as if she were a part of himself. He looks up to Harlon and his mother and is afraid when his support system is taken away. But Ash is pretty flexible, and very resilient – he can adapt to hardship very easily and find something to make him happy in the simplest of things. He has a wry, sideways sense of humour, which he soon finds he shares with the Gula.

If you ask Ash at the start of the story, when he is about 12, where he would like to spend his life, he would say, ‘here on the mountain, of course’. He would never expect to end up on the mast of a ship sailing the oceans, and absolutely loving it. He is an unexpected adventurer, who lives in the moment.  

Doada Sisal  

Doada is desperate to conceal any information in case it undermines his rise to complete power in Rumyc. He was his mother’s darling son, spoiled by her. But he had inherited the Listener talent from his father’s side of the family, something his mother would disapprove of. Throughout his childhood he conceals this talent and through that grows a desire for secrecy and control and a taste for cruelty. He sees that his greatest chance of complete control, of complete power, lies through the Automators and their rise to power. So he must rid himself of the Listener power, which he does through a hideous self experiment.

Like his mother, Doada likes beautiful things, clothes, objects, and any kind of luxury. He sees them as his right. He’s good at manipulating people but has no real relationships in his life. No one would be good enough for him and anyone who got close might find out things he would be too ashamed to reveal. Doada is vain and deluded to the point of insanity. He is the only character who I would describe visually: he looks exactly like the UK politician Jacob Rees Mogg.

The Gula  

The Gula is a wolverine, an animal with a bad reputation with humans for wanton destruction. But wolverines are just supreme survivors, incredibly tough and with a steely determination to get what they want. I did a lot of research about wolverines for another, non-fiction book, and unearthed lots of recent discoveries made through radio tagging. These studies in some ways reinforced the image of the wolverine as an indomitable survivor – one radio-tagged wolverine went straight up a 2000 foot vertical rock face in winter, in a blizzard, in the dark, because it was the shortest route to the next place it wanted to be. But they also showed that wolverines are not so solitary, that their bonds with their children are lifelong, reinforced by children visiting both mum and dad’s territories to hang out with them as adults.  

The Gula’s vision of the trail came out of research too. Many indigenous hunters, when tracking animals using sight, sound, and smell cues, plus knowledge and memory, report the trail manifesting as a golden thread that they can actually see. It isn’t hard to imagine that an animal with such acute senses and high intelligence as a wolverine might experience something similar.  

The Gula is wise, and intuitive. She trusts her senses, and what they tell her, and she trusts her brain’s ability to interpret that sensory information and give her an unshakeable direction in which to go. Having lost her own cubs, Ash becomes her cub substitute and she will never, ever give up on him. But in following Ash, she has experiences that no wolverine would normally have, and it makes her into something even more extraordinary.  

Enkalamba  

I find it incredibly moving that many people’s favourite character is Enkalamba and that her story arc moves many readers to tears. She is another character who grew out of research for other books, and from my own interest in elephants and in animal intelligence and consciousness.

Elephants, like humans, are social beings.They communicate with sound, smell, and touch, and form strong life-long bonds with family members and friends. They rely on each other and in particular on the matriarch of their group, who is the repository of knowledge. Her long life and long memory are the group’s insurance policy against drought and famine as the matriarch remembers where food and water can be found in a range of different seasons and conditions.

Studies of elephants show that they grieve over dead relatives and friends and even return to the place where a loved one died. So they are complex beings but their huge brains are arranged very differently from our own. Experiments have shown that they are very intelligent but the nature of that intelligence and the workings of their minds we can only guess at. Enkalamba finds human minds very different, and very difficult to navigate, but she is bright and very motivated to understand. Without any of her own kind left to take to she seeks communication with other beings and through that feels, ever more strongly, that all life is one kin. And I agree with her.

Skrimsli  

Everyone’s favourite tiger sea captain! Skrimsli is a hero in a striped coat. His long associations – both very bad and very good – with humans have made him into a being not quite ‘tiger’, not quite ‘human’, but entirely himself. 

I’m not going to say much about him here as I’m right in the middle of writing his backstory for the next book in the series. But he is based on a Siberian tiger, not a Bengal, so he’s a tiger whose ancestors hunted in the boreal forests of the north, and who is used to frosts and snow.  

In writing about Skrimsli I’ve thought and read quite a bit about how language influences our thinking, on the sorts of thoughts and the sorts of communication that are only possible with language. Because language is what changes Skrimsli. I’m not sure what all his story is yet but you’ll be able to read about it soon. 


Pick up a signed copy of The Song that Sings Us here!
Pick up an unsigned copy here

Letter from a very small country with big neighbours (no, not Russia)

Letter from a very small country with big neighbours (no, not Russia)

Luīze Pastore is an award-winning Latvian author whose children’s novel, Dog Town, was published by Firefly in 2018. In this new blog she writes for Firefly readers about her horror at the war in Ukraine, and what it means for the children of Latvia, which was itself part of the USSR until 1991.

My name is Luīze Pastore. I am Latvian. In the last ten years I’ve been writing stories for Latvian children and most of them have our complicated history as the background to my plots. Mostly because it is simply impossible to avoid the history if you want to write a truthful story about anything in the Latvian past.

I was born in the USSR in 1986, and I was five years old when my father left our house to join other civilians in barricades in Riga to defend the dream of maintaining our free, sovereign country. He was there with his bare hands ready to face Soviet tanks. Latvia, which had just regained independence from the Soviet Union, anticipated that the Soviet Union would attempt to regain control over the country by armed force. It is probably only now that I fully comprehend the level of bravery that these people like my father had. Watching the Ukrainian civilians lying down in front of Russian tanks is heroism worth showing to my kids.

Here in Latvia our kids are waking up in a safe place. Our country has been a member of NATO since 2004 and we are reassuring our children that this means that we are “all for one, and one for all”. There is no fear that this promise would be lost. But I am very sure that every child in this country knows that the war is very close – just across two borders – and that it affects every single one in the world. Latvian children – Latvian speaking, Russian speaking, with Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian or Estonian backgrounds are joining their parents in peaceful protests, demonstrations and concerts, helping to pack humanitarian aid supplies to donate, showing all their support to Ukraine and admiring its level of bravery no one has seen before. It’s bravery has made Ukraine the “biggest” country in the world.

My children are five and three years old, and they know that soon there will be a Ukrainian family living in our house. They are packing their best toys to give away to children that might take a refuge under our roof. They are watching photos of newborn babies in the bomb shelters in Kiev. They do not get to watch war scenes, but they see rage, tears, sadness and determination in their parents’ eyes. They are slowly comprehending their privilege in being free – one thing no child in the world should busy their brains with.

I’ve been living in a free country since I was five and never imagined that the day when I should prepare my kids for 72-hour survival mode would come. I don’t want to live in the world where my children need to know how to pack a “72 hour survival bag” and how to safely evacuate to the basement of our house in the case of air strikes. I choose a world where my kids have terrible morning tantrums over a “wrong breakfast serving” instead of freezing in silence overhearing a daily dose of adult news in the radio. I want the same thing for the Ukrainian children – to have ordinary lives with ordinary happiness and ordinary failure.

There are a great many Russian-speaking families in Latvia that have different thoughts. People are overhearing small boys playing war games, shooting their wooden pistols in favour of the Russian side. This is the result of Russian media propaganda, the terrible lie bubble. Now that the propaganda media are finally banned and cut off in Latvia, people start to open their eyes. And it will not be easy times neither for them, nor for us because the integration of the Russian-speaking population for years and years has been a failure. Our children meet in the same kindergarten, though they never meet on the same ground. Luckily this is just one part of the Russian speaking population. The rest stand for Ukraine, for democracy, for European values.

We are not a particularly religious nation. We know that praying is not enough.
But Latvians are famous for their ability to sing the enemy away. Peaceful protests may seem naïve, but they perform a significant role – they bring people from different backgrounds together in times when everything and everyone is trying to split them apart and set them against each other. The “evil president” – as my children call Putin – thrives on frightened and fragmented society; this is exactly why one of my tasks is to teach my children not to become russophobes.

They are still allowed to hate the “evil president”. Obviously.

#slavaukraine #westandwithukraine


Luīze Pastore is the author of ten children’s books, and has just won the New Horizons Bolognaragazzi Prize 2022, to be awarded at the Bologna Book Fair later this month. Her work has been translated into French, English and Estonian, and includes Dog Town (Firefly Press 2018) which was a Guardian pick and a Times Children’s Book of the Week. Luīze lives in Latvia with her young family and dog.

Libby and the Parisian Puzzle Scavenger Hunt!

Libby and the Parisian Puzzle Scavenger Hunt!

Join us as we celebrate the publication of Libby and the Parisian Puzzle by Jo Clarke with a ten-day blog tour. Follow Libby and friends through Paris and discover all about the different locations (and much, much more) in the book!

Hosted by ten fantastic bloggers, each stop on the tour has a letter hidden in the post. Find them all and the word they spell out to enter the prize draw below and be in with the chance to win a fabulous Paris-inspired prize bundle!

Terms and Conditions
These terms and conditions apply to the prize draw for the Libby and the Parisian Puzzle prize bundle. There will only be one winner and one prize.
The ‘Entrant’ is the person who fills in the form.

  1. Entrants must be aged 18 or over or have permission to enter from a parent or guardian.
  2. No cash alternative will be offered. The Prize is non-transferable.
  3. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. The decision of Firefly Press on all matters is final.
  4. The winner will be notified by telephone or email, and MUST respond by midnight within seven days of the date of contact. If a selected winner refuses the prize, another entrant will be selected at random from the remaining eligible entries within a reasonable time frame.
  5. Entry to the prize draw is conditional on acceptance of these terms and conditions, which are governed exclusively by English Law and under the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts. By entering this prize draw you are deemed to have read and accepted these terms.
  6. No employee of Firefly Press can enter.
  7. The contact details you provide upon entry to the prize draw will be used to contact entrants if necessary to notify the winner, and will not be shared with other companies except to the extent necessary to provide the prize. We will only use your email address and other personal information in compliance with the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (including any amended, equivalent or subsequent legislation).
Keeper of Secrets: Rewilding and nature in fiction

Keeper of Secrets: Rewilding and nature in fiction

Keeper of Secrets author Sarah J Dodd discusses Emily’s emotional journey and the themes of nature and the wild.

When people ask me why I decided to write about the rewilding of lynx in Keeper of Secrets, the answer is – I didn’t! Not at first, anyway. I’m not the kind of writer who plans a story at the outset (though I sometimes wish I was – it must be so much more efficient), so I simply started with a setting and a season – a misty, mysterious village in winter. Then I brought in my protagonist, Emily, with her grief and loneliness, which seemed to match the darkness of this northern location. I knew I wanted to include big cats roaming in the wild because that has always intrigued me, and that’s when I came across the concept of rewilding lynx in the UK.


Straight away, I realised that it would probably provoke strong opinions in people, either for or against, and thought it would be a great background for the more central story about Emily and her emotional journey. It’s also very topical, since there are consultations taking place now about whether to try this out for real. In the book, different views are raised with (hopefully) equal empathy, from the sheep farmers worried about their flock to the ecologists passionate about restoring the balance of nature. I hope it’s clear throughout Keeper of Secrets that the lynx are beautiful creatures, simply being their natural predator selves. Even when Emily tries to rescue a lynx kitten, it never becomes a pet and she is forced to recognise that nature needs to stay wild and can’t always be tamed to suit humans.

Cover of Keeper of Secrets and a photograph of author Sarah J Dodd

The emotional themes of the book are loneliness and loss, things that we all experience at some point. Loneliness is the invisible ‘beast’ that stalks Emily and frightens her even more than the ones she can see. All the characters in the book have this in common, even though they are lonely for different reasons. They may completely disagree about the lynx rewilding project, but they still need each other. I think this is really important for children to realise – that you can be friends with someone who sees things differently than you do. If we can all learn to listen more and judge less, and to come together around our shared humanity, then perhaps the loneliness beast will become endangered or even extinct.


It’s well documented that being in nature is good for mental and emotional health, and if even one more child or family ventures out into the countryside as a result of reading Keeper, that will be a huge bonus. But reading is also an important way to keep ourselves robust and curious, to realise that, whatever difficult emotion we may be experiencing, we’re not the only one. My overwhelming motivation in writing the book was that a child out there who is lonely or grieving might read it and find comfort and relief in knowing that they are not, after all, alone.

Draw A Monster Competition – with Matt Cherry

Draw A Monster Competition – with Matt Cherry

Follow our courageous hero monster spotter Edwin Spook as he travels across the globe to save his monster friends from certain doom, stop the dastardly Monster Catcher and discover the secret recipe of Monster Soup.

To celebrate the release of Monster Spotter’s Handbook we are launching a fantastic drawing competition. Draw and colour in one of these fun monster characters for the chance to win a fabulous prize!

  • The slimy bogsplotter
  • The sparkling star statue
  • The frost-bitten frozen yomp
  • The giant oober beast

The prize

A signed and dedicated copy of The Monster Spotter’s Handbook and a limited edition badge.

The winners

Four winners will be drawn after entries close at 17:00 on July 31st 2021.

Terms & Conditions

  1. The competition is organised and run by Matt Cherry and Firefly Press Ltd (the Organisers).
  2. The competition is open to residents of the United Kingdom aged 12 or under, except employees of the Organisers and their close relatives and anyone otherwise connected with the organisation of the competition or winner selection.
  3. There is no entry fee and no purchase necessary to enter this competition.
  4. By entering this competition, you agree to these Terms & Conditions.
  5. Entries must be sent via the submissions forms found on the Competition Details page of this website. Submissions via Twitter or any other avenue will not be considered.
  6. Only one entry will be accepted per person. Multiple entries from the same person will be disqualified. 
  7. No responsibility can be accepted for entries not received for whatever reason.
  8. The prize draws will be held as follows:
  9. All correct entries received between 09:00 on June 24th 2021 and 17:00 on July 31st 2021 will be entered into a prize draw on August 2nd. After 17:00 on July 31st 2021, no further entries will be permitted.
  10. If any winner cannot be contacted or does not claim the prize within 14 days of notification, the Organisers reserve the right to withdraw the prize and pick a replacement winner.
  11. The Organisers will arrange the prize delivery date and location with the winner/s. 
  12. The Organisers reserve the right to take photographs at the prize-giving. By entering this competition you agree to grant the Organisers royalty free and perpetual rights to display the prize-winning drawings online and on social media. 
  13. By participating in the promotion, you grant the organisers the right to announce your name publicly on the website and other media channels. 
  14. Prizes are detailed on this website. The organisers reserve the right to replace the prizes with alternatives if circumstances beyond their control make it necessary. 
  15. Competition deadlines may be changed by the Organisers at their discretion and will be communicated on this website.
  16. The competition and these terms and conditions will be governed by English and Welsh law and any disputes will be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
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