A Difficult Reunion Takes Place In This Excerpt From Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White

Books Features Amelie Wen Zhao
A Difficult Reunion Takes Place In This Excerpt From Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White

Amelie Wen Zhao’s Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is an immersive, magical fantasy that wrestles with thorny issues of colonialism, the rights of indigenous people, and the ethics of war, even as it spins a compelling tale of romance and rebellion. Sequel Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White arrives in January and will see the battle for the fate of the Last Kingdom come to a head—as Hin survivor Lan and magic practitioner Zen find themselves on opposite sides of the fight for the future of their homeland. 

The second and final installment in Zhao’s Song. of the Last Kingdom duology promises to take things to the next level, as Lan and Zan face off to either secure or destroy the power of the legendary Demon Gods who could tip the balance of power between their people and the occupying Elantian forces. 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story: 

The Demon Gods have risen. Skies’ End has fallen to the colonizers. And Lan and Zen have chosen sides. 

But they will not fight together.  

Though Lan inherited the power of the Silver Dragon, she understands the path she must take. She believes the Demon Gods to be the cause of war, conflict, and turmoil, and that the future of the Last Kingdom depends on their being eliminated forever. Worse, she knows that if the Elantians manage to bind one of the legendary beings, their army will be unstoppable. To save her kingdom and her people, Lan will need to find the only mythical weapon capable of destroying the Demon Gods: the Godslayer. 

Zen is sure that the only way to free the last Kingdom is to use the power of the Demon Gods.  When he bound the Black Tortoise, he paid the ultimate price: to inherit his strength, he will forfeit his body, his mind, and his soul. Yet one Demon God is not enough against the might of the colonizers.  In the ruins of the northern Mansorian lands slumbers a magical army of demon practitioners capable of facing off against the Elantians—but Zen must find the Seal to awaken them to fight by his side. 

At the center of both Lan and Zen’s journey is one city: Shaklahira, a former stronghold of the Imperial Court that vanished without a trace when the Elantians invaded. Its location is a mystery, and both are sure that it holds the answers they need, but the past it hides might be more dangerous than anything they’ve faced yet. 

The battle for the Last Kingdom rages on. But to win the war, Lan will have to decide: Can she face the boy she loves again? And when she does, can she kill him to free her people? 

Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White will be released on January 2, 2024, but we’re thrilled to be able to give you an early look at one of the sequel’s most powerful moments. 

But, first, a quick word, from Amelie Wen Zhao herself to set the scene: 

In Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White, Lan, and Zen struggle with reconciling their love and trust for each other with the ideological differences they believe their kingdom should take. I love a good enemies-to-lovers romance, and their reunion was such a satisfying scene to write!

Passion, angst, betrayal, and forced proximity, are all in this kiss-you-or-kill-you moment between our star-crossed lovers.


 A hand closed over her wrist; as she whirled, dagger raised, she was jerked behind a hanging silk that served to partially partition off this corner of the brothel. Lan stumbled, momentarily off balance. Her shoulder slammed into the wall; she righted herself, turning to drive her dagger down—

Zen froze, breathing hard, as her blade cut into the skin of his neck, a hairsbreadth from a major artery. He had pressed his palms to the walls on either side of her; at her look, he slowly lifted them in a gesture of surrender. They were so close that his páo pressed against hers, the movement brushing her knees.

She flicked a glance behind him. She understood what he was doing—mimicking what the other patrons had come to this brothel for—and only Zen could make such a gesture look gentle. Lan hated it, hated that he was still courteous and tender and patient and everything that had drawn her to him, even after what he had done.

She shifted the blade a degree, and he winced. Red dripped down his neck.

Impossibly, time had made him more beautiful, the unnatural pallor of his skin resembling cold porcelain, the dark sweep of his lashes and straight brows like brushstrokes of ink. Yet there were also cracks to the face she had known: the overly sharp cheekbones, the dark circles beneath his eyes. Something had kept him up, roughened the smooth exterior he’d always maintained.

Good, Lan thought viciously. In a low voice, she growled, “What are you doing here?”

His lips parted. “I—” he began, but then they both sensed a heavy scent of metal qì wafting in their direction. Zen paused. His eyes darkened, and for a moment, she sensed a different qì rising from him. A demonic qì.

She understood the choice they faced. The power of their Demon Gods could easily destroy every single Elantian soldier in the area. Most likely, it would also take everyone else down with them: the Hin, the foreign merchants. The innocents.

Zen swallowed, likely coming to the same conclusion. He hesitated, eyes searching her expression. Slowly, he lowered his arms as though to wrap them around her, but he never touched her: one hand hovered over her neck, the other resting just above her waist. She could feel the brush of his fingers against her páo, the hitch to his breaths as they mingled with hers.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she whispered. She wondered if he could feel the beat of her heart. The press of the pendant he’d gifted her, still resting against her chest. She should have burned that thing a long time ago. “Why are you here, Xan Temurezen?”

He flinched, almost imperceptibly, at the bite she gave to his full name. She had never called him that before. “I came to Nakkar to find answers to a question,” he replied. “Then I sensed you—the qì of your music.”

The song she’d played for the Fragrant Sandcloud Tavern’s innkeeper, she realized with a pang. He knew her qì so well that, in this big city filled with people, he had found her.

“So I came to you,” he finished.

She assessed his face. He wasn’t lying. The knowledge filled her with anger. “Why?”

His throat bobbed. “I need to find the Crimson Phoenix,” Zen admitted on an exhale. “The star map we transcribed a few weeks ago . . . I need you to confirm whether the Phoenix remains where it was then.”

Behind them, beyond the near-transparent silk that trapped them in this corner, a girl drunkenly slurred an insult at the prowling Elantian patrol; the merchant she was splayed against grunted a similarly inebriated insult. The patrol turned. His gaze met Lan’s.

Terror slicked through her veins, burning and freezing. She recalled the scene in the Haak’gong pawn shop, the summer-green eyes of that soldier who had so casually, so cruelly, spoken of having his way with her. And as the patrol approached her, Lan made a choice.

Her hand went to the back of Zen’s head, fingers threading through his hair. The other, she placed on his cheek as she pulled him toward her and kissed him in her best imitation of a passionate, drunken embrace. Zen made a surprised noise low in his throat, but he obliged.

From beneath her lashes, Lan saw the patrol’s lips curl in disgust. She knew what the Hin in here likely resembled to him: trapped, lowly animals, fueled by fear and desperation and basic instinct.

She sensed Zen’s exhale. His hands twined around her, one brushing against the nape of her neck with his fingers, the other cupping the small of her back. His eyes had fluttered shut, and he kissed her slow and soft, with yearning and in tender disbelief. There was something so vulnerable, so open, to the kiss that, for a brief moment, Lan believed it. His lips on hers were so familiar, so gentle, that she couldn’t help but fall into a not-so-distant past when she had trusted him. Loved him.

Lan closed her eyes, the shell of anger she’d built over her heart cracking open to that dream she’d once known: the one of a village in the rain, drops sluicing off terracotta roofs beyond shutters that opened to misty mountains. There had been that boy who’d cupped her chin between his hands as though he held his entire world, and he’d tasted of snow and starless nights—and hope. The boy who had held her in her loneliest moments and promised to follow her in this life and the next.

She wound her fingers tighter through his hair. An ache built in the back of her throat. He had broken his promise to her, shattered the trust she’d placed in him. With the memory of that rainy village came, inevitably, the knowledge of what had come next. Of what he had been there to do. Of his betrayal in stealing the star maps from her in order to seek out and bind the Black Tortoise.

Perhaps, after all, Zen was the most skilled liar she had ever known. Perhaps he had never loved her, merely used her. And even now, she was falling for it all over again.

Lan’s eyes flew open. The Elantians had gone.

She gripped Zen’s shoulders and spun him around, pushing him against the wall. Faster than a blink, she pressed her dagger into his chest.

Zen hissed in a breath. The cut was skin-deep, the tip of the blade caught on the bone of his rib cage. One slip of her hand, though, a shift in pressure, and she could slide it between his ribs, into the soft, open flesh of his chest, straight into his heart. And she should, for what he had done.

Zen’s eyes flicked down to the hilt of her dagger, then to her. Blood had begun to seep from the cut, winding down the length of her blade to her hand. He could have easily overpowered her, but he made no move. To anyone else watching, they were lovers leaning against the wall in an embrace.

Lan met his gaze. “So,” she said slowly, “you want me to conjure the star maps leading to the Demon Gods? Just like the last time? So that you can—oh, let me guess—use them to bind another Demon God to you and betray me all over again?” 

Cover and excerpt from DARK STAR BURNING, ASH FALLS WHITE by Amélie Wen Zhao. Text copyright © 2024 by Amélie Wen Zhao. Reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Star Burning, Ash Falls White will be released on January 2, 2024, but you can pre-order it right now. 

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

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