Stefan Bachmann

Cinders and Sparrows

Blackbird Castle – Encyclopedia of Rooms

The art for all of these were made by my mom – who doesn’t have any sort of internet presence and refuses to be swayed elsewise – for the interactive floor plan of Blackbird Castle, the setting of Cinders and Sparrows. You can view the floorplan here but I thought I would post them in higher detail on the blog for those who would like a closer look. Enjoy!



The Room of Marble Heads – Marble Heads by the hundreds! And they talk. A lot. Mostly idle gossip about the marble heads at the other end of the room, or grandiloquent tales about their past lives. Some spit tiny marbles, so beware. Not to be trifled with, but far less dangerous than other rooms in the castle.


The Dragon Staircase“We went up a monstrously grand staircase carved from wood so dark it appeared almost black. A reddish sheen glowed in its grain, as if blood ran deep in its veins. The entire thing was built to look like a twisting dragon, the banister scaled, the spindles fashioned into claws and folded wings.” It seems–almost–to be alive.


Vestibule of Blood – A small antechamber that has been known to drip blood from a crack in the cornice on nights of the gibbous moon. No one knows why the wood bleeds, but household lore says it is because the tree from which the cornice was carved was used to hang a witch. (Wood, like stone and earth, does not forget.) The room is not dangerous per se, but it casts a melancholy mood, and to linger there  can have a disquieting effect on the mind.


The Orchid Room“The Orchid Room, then! That’s a lovely one, and the wallpaper hasn’t driven anyone mad in ages.” A sumptuous sitting room with floral wallpaper printed with great mauve orchids. Very cozy and lovely, only the orchids have been known to speak, little mouths pressing from among their foliage. Do not stay for long or the voices will goad you to do terrible things.


The Dining Room –Mrs. Cantanker, guardian of the castle, keeps this room firmly locked at all times. And yet it is not empty. Who, or what, is inside?


Servants’ Staircase to the Kitchens“The warmest part of the house, by far, and the nicest smelling.” While ghosts are present in the kitchens, they are of the quiet, unobtrusive variety, wispy things barely clinging to the mortal realm.


The Burnt Wing – The oldest section of Blackbird Castle, now little more than charred ruins. It is said it was burnt down by the owners of the castle themselves, many centuries ago, in order to dispose of a certain wicked family member they had locked in the attic. Today it is full of treacherous corners, malignant spirits, rotting floorboards . . . and perhaps some remnants of that certain family member’s evil still clinging to its blackened stones.


The Ballroom – The largest room in the castle, used for only the most special occasions and the most honored guests, both Living and Dead.


The Training Hall – Once filled with bustling Blackbirds learning to fight the Dead, now empty but for the dust and leaves that blow down through the holes in the roof.


The Blue Staircase – A mysterious flight of steps, very narrow and painted blue. It has no fixed place inside the castle, but appears from time to time to those it would like to climb it. The stairs are rumored to lead straight into the Lands of the Dead, and must never, ever be climbed.


Amsel’s Tower – A crumbling, mostly-abandoned tower in the burnt wing, now occupied by nothing but a band of mysterious little creatures known as Triggles, as well as their horde made up of all the many treasures they steal from about the castle.


The Greenhouse – Full of glorious plants, both poisonous and healing. It is haunted by a green boy and several other mild-mannered botanical ghosts, but they show themselves rarely and are no trouble at all. Dead things do not thrive amidst so much life.


The Black Sitting Room – A nursemaid was confined to this grim little room after being accused of stealing a set of silver figurines. She was found dead by the housekeeper before she could be questioned, and the room was kept locked after that, haunted by the nursemaid’s spirit. Petty theft is not usually a crime terrible enough to make a ghost return from beyond the veil, so it is suspected she committed some other crime, something far, far worse, and put herself to death to avoid discovery. The trouble is, no one knows what that other crime was, and so she remains, standing among the black upholstery, sobbing and waiting for the one person who might forgive her to return to Blackbird Castle. . .

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News and Sketches


Cinders and Sparrows has gotten several lovely reviews since I last dawdled in here, including from The Horn Book Magazine (which called it “particularly deft”) and The Southern Bookseller Review (“perfectly atmospheric and spooky”) as well as A Mighty Girl which chose it as one of its books of the year and called it “suspenseful and magical”.

Thank youuuuuu! I’m terribly pleased.



Also, the cover art by the Balbusso sisters won in the book illustration category at the 62nd Annual Illustration Competition, which thrills me. They’re such incredible artists, and every time I so much as glance at the cover on my bookshelf I’m delighted all over again.

Now, for Cinders art that will definitely nawt win any awards, but was fun  regardless, my journey to learn how to draw continues! Here are some sketches from the book that I’ve done these past few months.



A Deathborn-Beast:


A windswept Zita:


Tiny Zita and the Butcher in the land of the dead:


A villainous and float-y Magdeboor III:


My mom gave me a big set of pencils and graphite last time I was in Switzerland, so that’s what I’ve been using. I really want to learn how to work digitally, because I remember when I was 11 and first learning how to write music, the jump from handwriting to digital writing made all the difference. I’m kind of irrationally hoping the same will happen with drawing, which doesn’t make much sense, but I WILL CONTINUE TO HOPE and also maybe buy Photoshop.

Here’s a sinister Mrs. Cantanker to top things off:


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Tidbits of Cinders #6 – Mrs. Cantanker’s Midnight Snack (Deleted scene)

Mrs. Cantanker’s Midnight Snack

Deleted scene from Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann


On Tuesday, Mrs. Cantanker announced that my morning lesson would take place in the crypts, and so off we went, out of the castle and down the paths into the woods where the steps lead down into the dark. It was not so much a ‘lesson’, technically, more of a me-standing-next-to-an-open-tomb-while-listening-to-the-seven-hunded-year-old-spirit-of-a-witch-as-it-hissed-and-whispered-within. But Mrs. Cantanker was far too distracted to teach me herself. I stood with the toes of my shoes in a puddle, taking notes in my small black chapbook and trying to sort out the most interesting bits of the witch’s tales, and all the while Mrs. Cantanker sat draped over one of the neighboring sarcophagi, her great skirts trailing around her, twisting and twisting the blue ring on her finger.

What was she thinking about? I wondered, watching her out of the corner of my eye. I would have been relieved, usually, by her ignoring me, but today it disquieted me. She seemed distracted, impatient, and once or twice I could have sworn I heard her stomach growl.

Lunch was a hurried business, the afternoon was spent in the crypts as well, and by nightfall I was ready to run back to my room and never speak to anyone again, certainly nothing Dead. (I had begun to realize that the Dead had far more time than I did and were consequently terribly unfeeling about wasting it.)

I stalked up the servants’ staircase after supper, daring the Ghost of a Moonlit Owl to make so much as a single, eldritch coo. And just I was about to turn the corner that led to my room, I spotted a thread of light seeping from under Mrs. Cantanker’s door, along with the sound of a phonograph playing something scratchy and nostalgic. I stopped in my tracks, listening. The music was very beautiful, like something a great lady might sing in a sad and dingy theater to make the patrons think of happier times.

I had never looked into Mrs. Cantanker’s chambers before. I had never dared. But I had not been a housemaid for so long without having developed the powerful urge to peek through every keyhole that promised to show me something interesting, so I waited for the music to reach the blaring end of its crescendo and then crept forward and knelt, blinking against the cold metal lock.

My own bedroom had always struck me as the loveliest room anyone could possibly want, but Mrs. Cantanker’s was grander by a mile. The walls were hung with red velvet. The ceiling was a forest of gilt leaves. A fire crackled in an onyx fireplace, a sterling clock ticked on its mantle, and all the gas-lamps had been lit.

My eye traveled slowly across the room. It seemed empty at first, waiting. And then, all at once, the music stopped, the phonograph’s needle slipping from its groove, and I saw Mrs. Cantanker sitting in front of the mirror at her dressing table, rubbing thick, pinkish cream into her cheeks. All was silent now. All I could hear were the lamps, a continuous hiss, as if the walls were full of vipers.

Mrs. Cantanker’s eyes sparkled as she stared at herself. Some people’s faces grow limp and languid when they think they are alone, but she was watching herself just as keenly and mistrustfully as she tended to watch me. When she had finished with her array of salves and ointments, she leaned back, inspecting her neck and pulling at the corners of her eyes. Then, almost absentmindedly, she drew a colored candy-tin from among the perfume bottles on her dressing table and opened the lid.

A horrible scream emanated from inside. It was not very loud. In fact, it sounded as if it were coming from miles away, from across desolate hills and moors. But it was piercing and heart-rending, and it made the hairs on my arms prickle. Mrs. Cantanker did not seem alarmed by it. She dipped two fingers into the tin and plucked out a glowing ball of light, bright and silvery as a star. The screaming, I realized, was coming from the light.

Mrs. Cantanker lifted it, pinched between thumb and forefinger, turning it this way and that. When she brought it up to the mirror, I noticed that the glass did not reflect the star-like little ball, but a plump, elderly lady in a feathered hat. The lady might have been grand once, but now she looked ragged and windblown, her feathers drooping, as if she had been on a long and terrible journey. Her face was panic-stricken.

“No, ma’am, please,” she said, pressing her hands to the mirror. “Please let me go! Please–”

But Mrs. Cantanker did not seem to see the woman in the mirror. She ran her tongue over her teeth, opened her mouth very wide . . . and swallowed the light whole.

I gasped. The woman in the mirror vanished, her voice cut suddenly short. A satisfied smile spread over Mrs. Cantanker’s face, her eyes going half-lidded and a deep purr slithering out of her belly. It reminded me of Mrs. Boliver’s cats after they’d feasted on a bird, or a pie I’d left on the sill to cool.

I knew at once what had happened: Mrs. Cantanker had just eaten a soul.

My knees began to burn against the floorboards. I wanted to get up, but I also wanted to see what would happen next.  No good witch devoured lost souls to fuel their magic. I’d read enough of the books in Greta’s library to know that. I’d never been under the illusion that Mrs. Cantanker was good, but now I had seen it with my own eyes. I shifted ever so slightly, readying myself to spring up and run away. The floorboards let out an agonizing creak.

I waited, frozen, praying Mrs. Cantanker had not heard. She did not stir from her position in front of the mirror. But then her head slumped slowly back over her neck, and her eyes were open, bright and wicked, staring directly at the keyhole.

I leaped to my feet and ran back to my room, not stopping until the door was firmly locked behind me.

I hardly slept a wink that night. I lay in my bed, covers pulled up to my chin, wondering what to do. Some time later I thought I heard a soft step outside my door, the rustling of skirts as someone paused and listened, and then a sly, amused titter. I thought perhaps I’d dreamed the whole encounter, but in the morning, Mrs. Cantanker did indeed appear changed: she looked triumphant, incandescent, and as she swept hither and yon through the High Blackbird’s Study I could swear I saw a pale hand on her shoulder, and sometimes the flicker of an extra arm, long and thin as a fish bone, when she raised her own. I knew she was ready now, that whatever she’d been planning was waiting just around the corner.

Note (mild spoilers): this was a scene from an earlier draft of CINDERS that I cut because I couldn’t get it to work with the pacing. The pale hand at the end belongs to the Butcher of Beydun who Mrs. Cantanker is now bound to, too, after eating the soul and performing an incantation that Zita was not privy to.

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Tidbits of Cinders #6 – The Characters of Blackbird Castle











I hope everyone had a good Halloween! I diiiiid, though I did nothing of import, only watched a scary movie (Gretel and Hansel, the new one from 2020 with all the pretty cinematography) and ate ice cream. I’ve been doing nothing of import in general since Cinders and Sparrows came out, though I have done lots of walking and reading and baking of blackberry crumbles. I’m also working on a short story about mythological deities in Victorian London that’s breaking my brain. BUT BE THAT AS IT MAY. Cinders has been out for two weeks, and so here are some of the characters that populate it.

Our heroine and long-lost heir, Zita Brydgeborn – formerly known as Ingabeth, or Mrs. Boliver’s housemaid. She’s generally a cheery and optimistic sort, but this picture finds her practicing the Language of Clouds, which she finds highly annoying.

Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann


Bram and Minnifer – the castle’s two remaining servants after everyone else flees.

Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann


Absinthia Klarmp, or her gravestone, at least. (I think Absinthia is mentioned one time in the entire book, but her gravestone is too nice to exclude from the character list. It is, like all of these, by my mom.)


This next one I made myself, very hurriedly, but I’m determined to do it again in detail with a proper background, and a proper hand holding the key instead of a lobster pincer, and also proper spacing of the words in the dress. In the meantime, this is Ysabeau Harkleath-Cantanker St. Cloud, Zita’s somewhat mysterious guardian and teacher.


And lastly, coin and lavender in hand, and surrounded by sinister accoutrements, Magdeboor III, our dangerous, dangerous villain. (This is a picture of her hundreds of years ago when she was alive. Things are rather different now. . .)



















There are more characters – several ghosts, an enchanted beast, a crow, and a rather ineffectual lawyer named Mr. Grenouille – and hopefully I’ll have sketches of them all eventually. Also, I’ll be able to share some exciting news soooooooon! Possibly next week. Watch this space. 🙂 I hope everyone’s doing well!

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Tidbits of Cinders #5 – Book Birthdays and Thank You’s

Cinders and Sparrows


Cinders and Sparrows is out in bookstores today, which means Book Number Four is in the world, which means it’s been nine years since The Peculiar sold, which means nine years since that cold and rainy day in the Swiss alps when my agent emailed to say we had an offer and I would be a published author, which means I am now very old.

So much has happened since then: I’ve done readings from Japan to Vienna, Denmark to Detroit, events in front of thousands of people (cries in a corner), and events where no one showed up (cries in a corner). I’ve met so, so many people, most of them wonderful.


Cinders and Sparrows - finished copies
Finished copies arrived the other day and they are maybe my favorite-looking of all my books so far?


Cinders and Sparrows - title page
The arrrrrt. The hand-letterinnnng. The pink faux sheepskinnnnnnn. Ok, not the pink faux sheepskin. 


So here is my customary thank you post to the great people who allow me to write these stories. Thank you so much to my editor Virginia, who is the best, my agent Sara, who is also the best, Paul who designed a gorgeous book, the Balbusso twins for their art, Lois for her erudite copyedits and finding a timeline issue just in time so I could fix it before the manuscript was locked and the key thrown a way and ne’er another word changed. Thanks also to Mom for her read-throughs and all her lovely art pieces (more coming!), and thanks to Thomas, Rob, and Aaron from my Writers Group in Berlin who didn’t workshop this book, but who did offer tons of encouragements and community for my writing life in general.

And thanks also to youuuuuu, of course, you who are reading this, and who read my books and stories. I appreciate that so much, and I hope you enjoy this little tale of magic and spookiness and finding a home.

Happy Book Birthday, Cinders and Sparrows, fly, fly, fly!

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CINDERS & SPARROWS Virtual Event – In Conversation with Christopher Paolini


Christopher Paolini will be joining me for the book launch of Cinders and Sparrows on Tuesday, October 13th, 2020, 6PM Central Time! His new book, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, just hit bookstores, and I’m reading it now, and it’s great. I’ve been a fan since I was nine, so reading a new Paolini book is very nostalgic somehow. I remember my best friend and I spending hours on the phone discussing our theories about the Inheritance Cycle. We went to see the Eragon movie in theaters TWICE. Fans, I tell you. Anyway, this will be fun, and I very much look forward to chatting with you all about books!

The event will be hosted by Crowdcast and Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago. If you, like me, are not well-versed in virtual events, it’s super easy to join. Just add your email address and you’re signed up. (Also, I did the conversion and apparently the event is at 1AM European time, so not ideal for folks not in the US. But if any of my European friends like staying up late anyway, joinnnnnn usssss. 🙂 Pre-register here!

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Tidbits of Cinders #4 – Trailings and Book Launches

Cinders and Sparrows - Triggle

Mushroom strutting purposefully.

So, I spent quarantine in emotional turmoil in my pajamas, figuring out iMovie, and I made a book trailer for Cinders and Sparrows! It took me 84 years, and HarperCollins made their own video, which is much snazzier and more professional, but I MADE THIS FROM SCRATCH, and it was kind of a joy, so I hope you like it.

Here it is!


On October 13th, 6PM Central Time, I’ll be doing a launch event for Cinders and Sparrows, hosted by the lovely people at the Chicago-based Barbara’s Bookstore. It’s online, so you can be anywhere in the world to join, and registering for the event will give you 10% off on purchasing the book. Hopefully I’ll see some familiar faces there, because book events are scary and online book events are even scarier.

I remember doing one with a school in Brazil where I and an alarmingly vast auditorium of middle-schoolers who did not particularly speak English tried to entertain each other for an hour, while the internet cut in and out and teachers ran frantically to and fro across the stage and actual hurricane raged outside. Good times. But now with the pandemic, online events seem to be sleek and fine-tuned, so yayyyy, I’m excited to celebrate the book launch with real people, even if we’re all in different countries.


Cinders and Sparrows - Greenhouse Ghost


Good news:


Cinders and Sparrows - Audiobook



More soon! 🙂

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Tidbits of Cinders #3 – The Castle Arrives


So, a few weeks ago, I teased a project I was working on involving the floorplans of Blackbird Castle, and now it’s herrrrre! Click on the button above! Wander Blackbird Castle’s haunted halls! Poke your head into its secret chambers! Lose your head to a carnivorous piece of furniture! Come back headless and let me tell you about the process, because making this was a JOURNEY.

At first this project was just going to be a printable encyclopedia like the faerie encyclopedia of The Peculiar, but then I thought of doing a floorplan, because as we’ve established, I love floorplans, and then I thought maybe the floorplan should be interactive and clickable, and then I thought maybe I should become an alpine penguin herder because it would be easier than trying to learn programming language, and then I took a deep breath and realized I could enlist the help of others, and so I closed all my tabs on penguin herding, and got to work.

I found one person to make the digital art. I found another person to program everything. I found my mom and asked her to do spot art for 22 rooms, as well as the beautiful frame featuring five very important elements from Cinders and Sparrows, all of which she kindly agreed to do. And then I spent hours and hours compositing, learning how to photoshop, figuring out why cropping an image can make it blurry, writing the music, writing the descriptions of the rooms, ETCETERA. It took a lot longer than I’d thought, but I’m very proud of the results.

Here are a bunch of pictures of the process.


Initial sketches of spot art for Mom. ‘Discarded glove (creepy)’ is my favorite brief.


Mom’s initial interpretation of the spot art. Mom likes things cute and nice, and in Mom’s opinion, being a ghost is no excuse not to be cute and nice. We had to talk this one out.






The final product lookin’ all marvelous.


‘Sluicing rays of light,’ though. Very important. Also, is parquet spelled correctly? I’m never entirely sure.


Talking Marble Heads in the making.


An early draft of the buttons, before I decided they wouldn’t pop enough and would make the whole thing look a bit tew monochromatic.






And there you have it! I hope you enjoy clicking around, and I just want to say thanks again to Mom for all the great artwork (there’s more coming, ahhh! Character sketches, etc.), and also to the programmer, who was a breeze to work with.

Good news:



And that’s that! Only a little over a month until the book is out, ack. I’m excited.

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Tidbits of Cinders #2 – Paris + Good News

I have various bits of lovely news, but first: I’m in Paris, in the former of townhouse of a former 19th-century sugar baron. (I say ‘former’, because he’s presumably not a sugar baron anymore and he presumably is a skeleton, or a jar of ashes, or a pan-dimensional being. Though I suppose he could still be a sugar baron, immortal yet decayed, pulling the strings of his sugar empire from beyond the grave. Or better yet, from within the grave, in the velvet-hung crypts of his Montparnasse mausoleum. That would be cool.)

Anyway, here are some Paris pictures, even though they have not much to do with anything, but Paris pictures are always nice.

Said ghostly sugar baron’s house.


My favorite painting I saw on this trip, and also my favorite picture I took. Thank you, Color-Coordinated Museum-Goer for standing just so.






Seats that allow you to better ignore the people around you are 100% my sort of seats.


Good book news: Cinders and Sparrows is a Junior Library Guild Selection!

Further good news: Cinders and Sparrows is also an Indie Next List Pick for Fall 2020!

Even more good news: I got my first blurb for this book from the very kind Soman Chainani, who is a New York Times Bestselling author, and very popular, and who liked it, which pleases me greatly.



Weeeee, thank you so much, Soman, and thank you also to the booksellers who voted for Cinders, and to Junior Library Guild, who has selected several of my books over the years, and to whom I’m incredibly grateful. I’m really glad people are liking Zita’s adventures so far.

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Tidbits of Cinders #1 – Exploring Blackbird Castle


It’s raining, I’m holed up in my lil’ brick house in the Dutch-lands, and it’s time to bloooog. Instead of Tidbits and Interestings, which is where I talk about unrelated things that delight me, I’m going to do a blog-series called Tidbits of Cinders in run-up to the release of Cinders and Sparrows in October. I’ll be sharing music, artwork, news, reviews, deleted scenes, flattery, calumny, and various other bits and bobs, including a project!

During revisions, one of my editor’s notes was that Blackbird Castle felt like ‘a moving banquet’ (which is a nice way of saying ‘it’s unclear’) and that I should make a floorplan. So I sketched out a rough one, and then said to myself, “Weeeeee, what if other people could see this floorplan and explore the castle the way Zita does, and visit the Vestibule of Blood and see where exactly the Orchid Room is in relation to the Tiny Queen’s Throne Room?” to which I answered, “Yes, what then, Stefan?” to which I also answered, “I don’t know, but I shall do it.”


And then my mom, who is excellent at these sorts of things, made it look like something one would actually want to look at. (Thanks, Mom!)

I won’t show you what it will look like when it’s up, but it will be snazzy. You’ll be able to click on rooms and view little anecdotes about various hauntings, and see spot-art of spooky phenomena, and get glimpses into Zita’s adventures.

Fun fact: I used to be obsessed with floor-plans as a kid. I wanted to be an architect, and I remember filling entire notepads with floor-plans of imaginary castles and mansions, most of them impossibly large and impractical.

2nd fun fact: When I realized being an architect hardly ever entailed designing impossibly large and impractical mansions and mostly entailed fitting boring concrete blocks into oddly shaped plots of land, I stopped wanting to be an architect.

3rd fun fact: All of my books contain at least one bizarre and labyrinthine house. In The Peculiar it was Nonsuch House, the home of Mr. Lickerish, the faery politican. In The Whatnot it was Piscaltine’s house, with its painted, ever-shifting stage walls and pulleys. In A Drop of Night it was . . . everything. The whole setting. And in Cinders and Sparrows it’s Blackbird Castle.

I blame The Secret Garden for this (When Mrs. Medlock said, ‘The house has over a hundred rooms. .  .” I felt that) and maybe also Beatrix Potter’s kitten stories, where the kittens wander this enormous farmhouse full of cupboards and staircases, before one of them becomes bored, climbs a chimney, and is almost turned into a roly-poly pudding by rats. (If you haven’t read The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, you should. Read it to yourself. Read it to your kids. Read it to your cats. It will teach them never to climb chimneys, give them a healthy fear of rats, and also illuminate the very important differences between a British pudding and an American one.)

4th fun fact: though we’ve only made floorplans of the first and second floors of Blackbird Castle so far, I’m guessing the castle has about five floors and 150 actual rooms, as well as countless antechambers, vestibules, corridors, cellars, dungeons, and attics, most of which are odd or haunted in some way. The game is going to have descriptions of about twenty of those rooms. Maybe more will come later.


Don’t do it. *wags finger*

Anywho. Someone who is very clever with the language of code is going to make it interactive, and hopefully it’ll be up in a month or two, closer to the book’s release. Huge thanks to my mom for all the lovely artwork.

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