Gina Chen is understandably hyped up. The local author just finished a Comic-Con panel and has been meeting fellow authors and fantasy fiction enthusiasts for most of the day. So while one would think she’d be exhausted after such a full day, the enthusiasm surrounding her debut novel has her buzzing.
“It’s been great so far,” Chen exclaims, adding that she has another day of promoting her new novel, “Violet Made of Thorns” starting in the morning.
The buzz surrounding the novel, just released on Delacorte Press, is just as palpable as Chen’s excitement. A fantasy YA (young adult) story about a sarcastic witch, complete with clever spins on the Eurocentric fairy tale tropes, “Violet” has already received a ton of praise from reviewers and other novelists. Not bad for someone who, just a few years ago, was writing fan fiction on the Internet in her spare time and thinking she was likely to work in tech for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t really start writing until I got to college,” recalls Chen, who majored in computer science at University of California San Diego. “I even think that coding can be a very creative endeavor, but I think that all of these types of creativity exist in my mind in the same place.”
Chen didn’t really have a sense that she’d ever be a novelist, much less on the verge of releasing her debut novel with a major publisher.

Still, she found that the reception she got from online strangers for her fan fiction was very encouraging.
“A lot of people would remark that they liked it, but some people would send paragraphs-long comments to me about how they related to my characters and how they’d never seen something like this before,” Chen says. “Some people would say that it was their favorite story ever, including published stories. I was just this college student writing these stories for fun. I never anticipated that sort of response.”
The question she’d almost always be asked, however, was whether she had plans to publish a book with her own original characters. Chen says she initially wasn’t sure how to respond, but the idea slowly began to percolate with her. She admits she had fallen out of the habit of reading novels while in college, so after she graduated in 2014, she began to immerse herself in authors such as Naomi Novik and Zen Cho.

“I think I always had a lot of ideas already living in my brain,” says Chen, who dedicated “Violet” to “the readers who believed in me before I did.”
“I think for a lot of people’s first novel, they just tend to dump out all these things that are already living in in their brain and onto the page,” she continues. “That’s what happened with me. I think this fairy tale world has already existed for me. If I was going to make up a world, this is the one I’d make.”
It is, indeed, quite a world she’s created. The first book in a planned duology, “Violet Made of Thorns” centers on a prophesizing witch (Violet) who finds herself in an esteemed role within the king’s court in the kingdom of Sun Capital. The problem is that she’s lied, schemed and falsely prophesied in order to get to where she’s at, not exactly traits one would necessarily want for the protagonist of a book aimed at young adults and teenagers.
“I am a better liar than I am a prophet,” Violet narrates early in the book. “I don’t believe there’s reason to our destinies. I don’t believe the world is just. I believe in wolves—in con men and crowned men who wear wickedness as if it were a talent. Who don’t ask for judgment before devouring what’s theirs.”
“I always was attracted to the practical characters, because that’s me,” Chen says when asked why she fashioned her novel’s hero as a sarcastic and sardonic sorceress who almost seems bitter at times. “The kind of values I had growing up were more like looking out for yourself and do these things so you can be successful for yourself.”
She goes on to say that her own experience and upbringing, the values of self-reliance and self-sacrifice that were imparted on her, directly informed Violet.
“I learned for myself what kinds of things I would sacrifice for future success,” says Chen, who grew up the daughter of immigrant parents in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles. “Because of that I think I was attracted to characters like that. The witches that lived in the woods … people who actually use their hands to work, make stuff and build stuff.”
What’s more, Chen says that the multimillion dollar YA fiction industry has evolved a lot over the last decade, making room for characters that don’t fit into the tidy, heroic boxes the genre is known for. She says when she was growing up, she couldn’t stand it when she was reading a book and there would be a cold, cynical character, but then that character would ultimately reveal themselves to be a hero all along. For Chen, she really wanted her protagonist to at least be perceived as something of an antiheroine, and yet the reader would root for her anyway.
“I think what I’m trying to do differently is that often these characters, who are for children or young adults, the characters have to be some kind of good role model,” Chen explains. “There’s an expectation that they have to be brave or have people’s best interests at heart, when honestly I feel like, at least for me, I was my worst self when I was a teenager.”
There is a bit of romance in the book, with a slow-burn attraction between Violet and the prince of the kingdom. Still, readers shouldn’t go in expecting meet-cutes and romcom-style banter. Ironically, Chen says some of the biggest influences on the world she built in the book are actually the Disney versions of fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but only because she sees “Violet” as a “response” and a rejoinder to the happily-ever-after clichés that kids often grow up with.
“It’s an upside-down fairy tale romance in that way,” Chen says. “One of the things that the book overturns is that commercialization of romance and especially fairy tale romance, because that’s what’s sold to people.”
In fact, she sees the novel as more of a modern narrative, albeit one that takes place in a fantastical kingdom with magic and strange creatures.
“I tell people it’s a contemporary story, but with a fairy tale façade over it,” Chen says. “Fantasy as a genre has specific things that people are expecting — heavy world building like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones.’ But mine is a modern story that just happens to be dressed in a fairy tale way.”
And so while it took four years to write “Violet Made of Thorns,” Chen is feeling great about her future as a writer. She’s already at work on the sequel and says she has a ton of new ideas for future fantasy books.
“I think of all these separate things and I write them down, and at some point during the process, it slowly comes together,” Chen says. “I do have all these separate things but eventually I’ll figure out how to slap them all together.”
She laughs and keeps it humble.
“Of course there will be revisions and it will take many, many tries before I really figure it out.”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26
Where: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans St. No. 107, Midway District
Admission: Free
Online: mystgalaxy.com
Combs is a freelance writer.
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