A message from Mary

The City of Swords is Fortezza - loosely based on Lucca - and at the beginning of the Talian part of the story, its ruler, Prince Jacopo di Chimici, is dying. He is one the "good" de Chimici, that powerful family that tries to rule all Talia in the face of opposition from some independent city-states. For readers of the earlier books, Jacopo was a tower of strength after the wedding massacre in City of Flowers.

Laura is the new Stravagante from our world and she has a secret - one we don't learn till the end of the book. In this she is like the other Islington teenagers attending Barnsbury Comprehensive who have travelled to Talia. Each has been unhappy for a different reason and Laura's unhappiness has led her into being a self-harmer.

It was a subject I wanted to write about because it affects a terrifyingly large number of British teenagers. But within the context set up by these books it becomes just one of many plot strands. Laura travels to Fortezza, which is - ironically - the city of swords and finds herself in a swordsmith's shop. Her Talian Stravagante is Fabio,  a swordsmith, and she soon finds herself caught up in a siege, surrounded by weapons that can do more damage than a razor blade.

Laura's talisman is a paper knife in the shape of a sword but unlike most paper knives it has a wickedly sharp blade. All the Stravaganti have talismans; they are what takes them from one world to another. But there is a story behind this one, which I have told before.

With City of Swords, I had a mental image of the paper knife and searched shops and stalls in Italy trying to find something that matched up to that image, with no success. And then in spring last year, when I had started writing the book, my sister came for Easter and casually said she's brought me something that had belonged to our mother because she had her own version, just the same. They came from Spain, but when I unwrapped it, there was my talisman!

Laura's is silver rather than the sort of dull gold of the one I have but otherwise, it's exactly as I imagined it and it made me very happy to have it. I'm not superstitious but I do like to have an object about me that is linked to whatever book I am writing at the time and this gave a special impetus to Swords, which had to be handed in by the end of July - by28th in fact, as I left for a much-needed week's holiday the next day.

By then I had already passed a happy week in Lucca, refreshing my memories of the city and this time I walked the whole circuit of the complete medieval walls that encircle it. It took only an hour and a quarter - much less than my usual walks - and we also spent some time under the walls in the cavernous passages and tunnels that resurface as dungeons in the novel.

I shall miss being in Talia because it;'s a world I know so very well that I can just immerse myself in it every time there's a new book. The Italians have a good word for "goodbye." Arrivederci means "till we see each other again." That seems a good way to part. Arrivederci, Talia!