Margaret Owen Breaks Down Painted Devils, Vanja’s Journey, and What to Expect From Her Trilogy’s Final Chapter

Books Features Margaret Owen
Margaret Owen Breaks Down Painted Devils, Vanja’s Journey, and What to Expect From Her Trilogy’s Final Chapter

It’s possible that Margaret Owen is one of the most underrated authors in the world of YA fantasy today. Personally speaking, I’ve been obsessed with her books since her debut The Merciful Crow dropped in 2019, and her writing is consistently full of the best things about this genre: Complex, messy characters; unique influences from the world of folklore and mythology; propulsive, and unexpected stories grounded firmly in the emotional journies of the unconventional heroines at their centers. 

Painted Devils is the second installment in Owen’s Little Thieves trilogy, the story of a scrappy jewel thief and con artist adopted by the gods Fortune and Death who is struggling to figure out where she belongs. The story includes everything from an accidental cult and fake gods to big-picture questions about the nature of family, and how to navigate the physical and emotional intimacies that come along with falling in love. 

Irreverent, entertaining, and surprisingly thoughtful about the ways our most satisfying relationships are those that ultimately help us grow into our best selves, it’s a series that’s full of surprises, and one that people should make time to discover this summer.

We got the chance to chat with Owen herself about her Little Thieves sequel, Vanja’s feelings of inadequacy, the folklore that inspired some of her story, and lots more.


Paste Magazine: I feel like I say the same thing every time I talk to you about your work, but I loved everything about Painted Devils, and reading it was a complete delight. Tell us a little bit about how this story came into being—did you know going into Little Thieves that it would have a sequel and what were you most trying to accomplish with this next installment of Vanja’s journey?

Margaret Owen: Thank you so much! I approached Little Thieves as a standalone, but at about the two-thirds mark of the first draft, I knew I could write dozens of books about these characters—and that Vanja had issues the first book could only start to address. I pitched more books to my editor at the time, and I’m so glad she was able to get my publisher to agree to a trilogy!

With this installment, we dive deeper into Vanja’s backstory and why she is the way she is; we get into the reality of how hard it is to put your trust in someone new when time and time again, people you’ve trusted have abandoned you. I also wanted to surgically deconstruct the construct of virginity, and illustrate how it’s been weaponized against adolescents at large, but particularly queer youth, and especially asexual-spectrum kids. Time will tell if I pulled it off!

Paste: Talk to me about where we find Vanja in this book. Her behavior at the beginning of the story—her decision not to go to and meet Emeric—has huge consequences for her and their relationship, but could also in many ways be read as a step backward for her character. How did we (and she, really) get from the end of Little Thieves to the start of Painted Devils?

Owen: Vanja’s always been a bit of a two steps forward, one step back character, and it’s because the wounds she has are not ones that can be healed in one step. Being romanced doesn’t heal her insecurity, it transmutes it from “I am not worthy of love” to “I will inevitably be abandoned.” 

In the beginning of Painted Devils, she’s starting to see the edges of the sinkhole, as it were; she doesn’t feel like she has much to offer, and that means she can’t be Emeric’s equal in their relationship. I think a lot of her choices in Painted Devils can be traced to how we see her act when she’s afraid she’s becoming a burden.

Paste: Vanja’s feelings of doubt and inadequacy, particularly when she’s so obviously and demonstrably accomplished, really speak to me and I think are probably so relatable for a large part of your audience. What do you most want readers to take away from where Vanja is in this story and her emotional growth through it?

Owen: Healing is messy and profoundly nonlinear. Sometimes everything can go right, sometimes people can do everything right, and it still doesn’t work out. It’s not an excuse to hurt people, but it’s always okay to ask for space and time.   

Paste: One of the best parts about this story is that it doesn’t have a love triangle — like It’s not a question of whether Emeric and Vanja are going to be together but how they navigate what being in a relationship looks like, from negotiating boundaries to learning to trust someone with the most vulnerable potentially painful parts of yourselves. Tell me about their bond, and why you thought it was important to take their relationship slowly.

Owen: Their relationship is the way it is because the attraction and the emotional connection are extremely complementary. That sounds perhaps a little clinical, but what I mean by that is, both of them secretly like being challenged and one-upped, and that back-and-forth friction is at the heart of their attraction to each other. However, that friction is dependent on mutual trust and respect; they say you have to really love something to roast it properly, and that love is also what separates a roast from a below-the-belt hit.

I think it feels like their physical relationship progresses slower than it actually does because the two leads are smart, competent, and marginally emotionally intelligent, so they read older than they are—but at the end of the day, they’re still two teens in their first serious relationship, which unfolds over the course of a month. I also suspect a factor is that the typical physical romance beats are: 1) First kiss, 2) More kissing, 3) Steamy makeouts potentially verging on foreplay, culminating in 4) Penetrative sex. I think adults tend to minimize how intimidating that leap from 3 to 4 can be when you’re doing it the first time. It was important for me to put on the page that you can be in a relationship, you can be deeply attracted to someone, and that doesn’t automatically mean you’re ready for any and every kind of sex.

Paste: The lore and world-building in this universe is so great — I’m obsessed with Brunne and the Hunt, and the real Red Maid of the River, and the Briar Hag, who all seem to have such interiority and stories of their own. Tell me about where the ideas for these women came from.

Owen: So this time, we’re in a region loosely drawn from an area in central Germany called the Harz, home of the Brocken mountain, which is part of the lore around Walpurgisnacht, a May Day festival. 

There is just so much regional folklore there, I feel like I just scratched the surface. Brunne, Boderad, the Red Maid of the River, they’re all drawn from real fairytales from the Harz, while the Briar Hag is based on the Bush Grandmother, a more widely-known spirit. That foundation certainly helped me flesh them out as characters, but Brunne and the Red Maid are two strands of the braid Vanja completes for a reason—their stories are rooted in questions of consent, agency, and breaking cycles.

Paste: Other than Vanja and Emeric, whose story did you enjoy writing the most in this book (even if it’s just a small character.)

Owen: Brunne, hands down! Everything about her is big—her personality, her ego, her biceps, her sense of humor, her hair—because she had to be the kind of Low God that would kidnap someone specifically so they could write poems about how great she is.

Paste: I have to tell you, I really missed Gisele in this book (and her friendship with Vanja, though I get why the focal relationship here is really her and Emeric and should be). How is she doing back in Bóern? (Ragne makes her sound really happy!) 

Owen: She’s doing great, but she’s got a lot on her shoulders—after all, she’s a teen who just got handed the governance of a province right after going low contact with her parents. We’re going to see some of what she’s been up to in Book 3!

Paste: I did not realize we were in for a Book Three until the very last couple of pages, but I assume you must have known going into this that this wasn’t the end of Vanja’s story. What can we expect in the third book? Any good hints you can drop for us? 

Owen: Oh yes, I never would have left things like I did unless I had a contract in hand for Book Three! I think the biggest surprise for folks will be that, barring any editorial changes, sixteen months will have passed in-universe between the end of Painted Devils and the start of this book.

I don’t know how much of the plot I can give away, so let’s just say it kicks off when someone starts assassinating members of the seven royal families… and leaving Vanja’s red penny calling card on the bodies.

Paste: I don’t know how many readers are aware that the wood-block style illustrations in this book (and its predecessor) are actually your work! Tell us about why you wanted to include them and how they connect to the book’s larger story. 

Owen: I illustrated Little Thieves in a style meant to evoke old Victorian-era engraving illustrations from fairytale books, but I wanted Painted Devils to feel like a collection of rustic folktales, a little more primal. 

Linocuts, which are a more modern medium but the same method as woodcuts, was a great way to channel that. Each one accompanies a memory of Vanja’s that relates to her current situation in the plot, and in each memory, she’s younger than the last, spanning from ages seventeen all the way down to four. The style of each illustration gets more simplified and childish to match the memory, which was a fun way to further convey how young Vanja is as a narrator.

Paste: I always ask everyone this because I love to know what people who are writers like to read themselves — what’s in your TBR pile right now? What have you read lately that’s great?

Owen: Oh goodness, my TBR pile is more like a load-bearing TBR column at this point! I’ve been on a reading pause while drafting Book 3 since my brain likes to helpfully recycle prose I like into my own writing, which has led to some deeply mortifying moments. But at the top of the pile, I’ve got Jamison Shea’s I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me, and Kamilah Cole’s So Let Them Burn, both of which I am so excited to jam into my eyeballs.

Painted Devils is available now wherever books are sold.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin