The night my sister was born, the stars died and were reborn in her eyes….
So begins Sisters of Shadow and Light, Sara B. Larson’s captivating novel following two sisters in a magical realm. The bestselling Young Adult author of the Defy trilogy and the Dark Breaks the Dawn duology kicks off another enchanting series with her upcoming book, which Tor Teen will release on November 5th.
Intrigued? Here’s the description from the publisher:
Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the Citadel of the Paladins, an abandoned fortress where legendary, magical warriors once lived before disappearing from the world—including their Paladin father the night Inara was born.
On that same night, a massive, magical hedge grew and imprisoned them within the citadel. Inara inherited their father’s Paladin power; her eyes glow blue and she is able to make plants grow at unbelievable rates, but she has been trapped in her own mind because of a “roar” that drowns everything else out—leaving Zuhra virtually alone with their emotionally broken human mother.
For 15 years they have lived, trapped in the citadel, with little contact with the outside world…until the day a stranger passes through the hedge, and everything changes.
We’re excited to reveal the cover below, which was designed and illustrated by Jim Tierney.
You’ll have to wait until November to read Sisters of Shadow and Light, but you can check out an exclusive excerpt today! The excerpt below details Inara’s stunning birth, revealing the ramifications for her family years later.
Love what you read? You can pre-order Larson’s novel here.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
The night my sister was born, the stars died and were reborn in her eyes.
Mother refused to talk about it—the one night she wished to forget, but never could. When she did say anything, she recalled how the heat had been unbearable, rising from the sun-baked earth, sweltering in the way only a midsummer’s night could. Windows had been flung open in futile hopes of cooling off the citadel that was our home, but instead only admitted an achingly dry breeze, like the hot breath of a Scylla that inhaled smoke and exhaled fire. Mother’s labor came fast—too fast. Lucky, or providence, that Mahsami made it in time.
They’d tried to shoo me away, but I was only three years old and tenacious and soon they were too absorbed in the impending birth to be concerned with me. Perhaps I would have been better to go.
My first memories were from that night.
One was of my mother, lying on that bed that had always dwarfed her, hair as dark as raven’s wings limp against her head, face wan and lips the bloodless gray of a corpse, while Mahsami bent over her straining belly. Mahsami—or Sami as I called her—once told me that some women cried, wailed, even screamed in labor, but not my mother. She remained silent.
Mother never spoke of what came next, but Sami did. Once. After a particularly tense supper, when it was just me and her left in the kitchen to clean up the day’s mess, I’d dared broach the subject and she’d been too tired or too upset to deflect my curiosity as she normally would.
Something was wrong from the start, she’d told me that night, firelight flickering across her lined face, her voice a soft hum over the clink of the dishes I continued to wash, fearing she would stop if I did. It was as though your mother’s body wished to be rid of the baby, but your sister had no wish to be born.
Her birth was a battle that was swift and brutal and nearly took my mother’s life, Mahsami had confessed. A strange bitterness had coated my tongue, as if I could taste her residual shame. She’d felt personally responsible for the near tragedy. But, through whatever skill she possessed, and by the blessing of the Great God, when the moon reached the pinnacle of its arc, spilling milky light over the citadel, Sami pulled my sister from my mother’s womb.
That was my second memory. Sami, sweaty, blood-splattered, but triumphant, holding aloft a baby that was more ashen than alive with the same hair as me—as dark as damp earth—plastered to her skull, her skin wrinkled and wet. And completely, chillingly silent. As silent as my mother.
Mahsami told me how she’d placed the baby on Mother’s belly and rubbed her back, patting and crooning, encouraging her to cry, and fill her lungs with life-sustaining air. When none of it seemed to work, the midwife lifted my sister up and slapped her across the rump. She cried at last, her eyes opening for the first time.
And that’s when my mother screamed.
We were in the citadel, so we didn’t see the night sky, didn’t witness the pulse of darkness that obliterated all light—including the stars—at the moment my sister cried and turned her burning eyes on my mother for the first time.
But Sami heard about it later.
Sami had been in such a talkative mood, I’d summoned my courage once more to ask the question that had haunted me more than the others. Where was he?
No one knows and there’s no use wondering. He’s gone, Zuhra, she’d replied bitingly, hard with old anger that wasn’t necessarily aimed at me, the gates to her memories slamming shut at my cursed inquisitiveness, and that’s all you need to know about him.
That was my third and last memory from that night. My mother staring at the baby in Mahsami’s arms—refusing to take her—and asking, Where is he? Where’s Adelric?
That name had burned its way into my memory somehow, the way my sister’s eyes had burned fear into my mother’s heart. A name that was banished from our home, as it only engendered loathing and bitterness. I tried to be loyal to my mother, I tried to cling to her hate and make it my own. But there were times, on rare afternoons spent wandering the empty citadel when my mother was occupied and wouldn’t catch me, when I stared up at the ancient statues and the molded hangings and carved ceilings of the Paladin—the beings who had once lived in our world, whose abandoned home we inhabited—and I couldn’t help but wonder.
Wonder what had happened to him—why he’d left us at all, but especially that night. Wonder why the hedge that had been shorter than the iron fence surrounding our home suddenly grew taller than three men standing atop one another overnight, so that we awoke to a wall of green surrounding the citadel where we lived, blocking the iron gate, isolating us from everyone but each other.
And, of course, wonder how my mother had ever fallen in love with him in the first place and followed him here. For Adelric, the name I was forbidden to remember but couldn’t forget, was a Paladin. Like the statues I stood beside and imagined were real, like the carvings in the ceiling above me that I tipped my head back to stare at with my plain hazel irises, trying to envision a father with eyes like jewels that glowed with power, riding his gryphon. I knew he was one of them, even though Mother never admitted it, never acknowledged what Inara’s uniqueness could never let any of us forget.
Inara—Ray of Light. My sister who had the power of the Paladin in her veins—and her eyes. When it became obvious that my father wasn’t coming back, my mother grudgingly named my sister—a hopeful name for a child that seemed to only ever bring shadows to my mother’s face—and finally took her to her breast.
I was the only one who looked into Inara’s face and smiled. Mother said it was because I had been too young to understand and that I grew up accustomed to her. But Mother was the one who didn’t understand, who paled when Inara looked at her, whose gaze dropped when her daughter’s burning eyes met hers. I knew Inara was different, I knew her eyes marked her.
But she was my sister, and I loved her.
And there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her. No matter what.
Sunshine filtered through the gauzy curtains, as soft and warm as melted butter, its glow smoothing over the tattered edges of the well-worn but carefully tended furniture that my mother and I were perched on. The “morning room” was one of the few in the enormous deserted citadel that was free of dust—that looked how I’d always imagined a normal home might look. A bit shabby, perhaps, but at least it was clean and bright, unlike so many of the other rooms I’d managed to sneak into. Those were dark and shadowed and cold, the hidden past of this place buried under a thick coating of grime and disuse. But here, where Mother insisted we spend the majority of our lives, muted daylight reflected back at me from the gleaming wooden surface of the table next to our chairs.
I dutifully plunged my needle through the dingy-white fabric—push, pull, tighten, repeat; a garden of flowers blooming across my lap, coaxed into existence by my fingers and the thread—but my mind was outside. My heart fluttered beneath the trappings of propriety my mother insisted upon—the fitted dress, the demurely coifed hair, all of it—as the wings of the birds I could hear trilling in the real gardens below fluttered, carrying them upon the eddies and whirls of wind. They caught that wind and rode it up into the clouds. The birds could escape this place, but not so for the rest of us.
“Focus, Zuhra,” Mother murmured, catching the direction of my gaze and the stillness of my hands.
With a suppressed sigh, I turned back to my needlepoint. Though I believed myself fairly skilled at the task, the results of my efforts were still lacking, since we had only whatever cloth and thread Mother and Sami had hoarded throughout the years for my “work” that wasn’t needed for other more pressing uses. The Paladin who had once lived there must have left in a hurry, since so many of their belongings remained. But that was long ago . . . and not even their superior (according to Sami) fabrics could withstand time forever. So many wasted hours spent trapped in that one small room, bent over useless decorative pieces, already yellowed and aged before I ever began creating them, for a dowry that would never be used, for a wedding that would certainly never transpire. I wasn’t certain I ever wished to marry, but even if I did, how Mother figured that would be possible so long as we were trapped in the citadel was beyond me.
“May I please go outside? Just for a bit. With Inara.” I didn’t raise my eyes to hers, too afraid she’d see how desperately I wished to be gone from this room and her piercing gaze. Her eyes scorched me far more deeply than Inara’s ever did.
“Finish that piece and then you may.”
My frustration was hot in my throat, strangling me as surely as this endless, pointless existence steadily choked the life out of us all. “Why? Why must I finish first? What is the point of any of this?”
Mother stiffened; I saw her spine straighten in my peripheral vision. She was a small woman, shorter than both me and Inara, but her tiny frame housed a fiery spirit I knew better than to provoke. She reminded me of an Ixtacl, the little rakasa—the Paladin name for “monster”—that lured prey in with its large brown eyes and whiskered face, and then ripped them into shreds with the bone-cuttingly-sharp claws hidden beneath the soft fur of its paws. I knew better than to mention the comparison to Mother, or even Sami. She would have been furious at me for reading about the monsters that had once plagued our land but had now fallen into legend and myth. I did mention it to Inara once. She’d paled and begun muttering in the way she did when she was agitated, making me immediately regret it. I kept my observations to myself after that.
But I couldn’t help but think of the Ixtacl again as Mother’s own hands grew still, waiting for me to acknowledge her waiting glare.
Here come the claws . . .
I finally looked up, our identical hazel eyes meeting and holding. I was practically her spitting image, save for the gray streaks in her hair, and my olive skin that must have been gifted by my father. Mother was moon-pale, a stark contrast to her inky eyelashes and star-streaked night sky hair, whereas I merely had to spend an hour or two outside before my skin began to brown. Like a chicken being roasted by the fire, she’d scolded me as a child, scrubbing my skin with valuable lemons to try and bleach the sun from it. She never bothered with Inara’s skin, perhaps because she knew my sister would merely brown right up again from all the time she spent in her gardens. Or more likely, because she preferred to spend as little time with her younger daughter as possible.
If Inara noticed or minded, she was unable to tell us. But I did.
“She is alone out there all the time. I only want to be with her, help her,” I began before Mother could, “just while the sun is up. I can work on this tonight, after supper.” I held up the needlepoint, nearly two-thirds finished, as evidence—as a promise. “Maybe she could even join us.”
“You know better than to suggest such a thing. We can’t afford another accident like the last time,” Mother snapped. Despite myself, my gaze flicked to the singed edges of our curtains.
“She didn’t mean to—”
“She never does,” Mother returned. A hint of garnet flushed her cheeks. “You are the only one that has any hope of leaving this place. You must be prepared for that opportunity when it comes.”
“By sewing decorations for a home I will never be mistress of—because it doesn’t exist?” I barely kept my voice from rising, but had no such luck with the boiling unrest within me. It surged through my veins, infiltrating my muscles like Netvor venom—another type of rakasa I’d read about it in that same forbidden book. Supposedly the strongest Paladin had pierced themselves with it in very small doses for a burst of speed and strength in battle. “No man is ever going to come waltzing through the hedge, seeking my hand in marriage, Mother. The hedge won’t allow it, first of all. And second, you know as well as I do that no man would ever wish to try!”
“You don’t know that. Perhaps a young man from the village—”
“The villagers either hate us or are terrified of us.”
“Not of you. They’re scared of her!”
“Why don’t you say her name? Why don’t you ever say any of their names?”
Mother deliberately lowered her darning, her already stiff spine lengthening until she sat arrow-straight, poised to strike. Normally I would have backed off immediately, afraid of incurring her wrath. But something had been building inside me all week alongside the heat wave that transformed the citadel from an abandoned fortress to an oven that baked unrest instead of bread.
I pressed, “They’re scared of Inara, who wouldn’t hurt a spider. You’re even scared of her. Her own mother.”
“That is enough.” Mother’s voice was sharp enough to cleave stone, perhaps even the immovable hedge, but I barreled on, words and grievances I’d swallowed and buried for months, years, rising up and tumbling out, lifted on the surge of my discontent the way the birds had been lifted by the updrafts of wind in the courtyard.
“You treat her as if it’s her fault that her father is a Paladin—that she reminds you of him!”
Mother lips whitened. “What did you say?”
Now that the words were spoken, that careful dam I’d built within cracked, spilling all my harbored thoughts out. “You act like it’s a huge secret, but we live in their citadel. I’ve walked these empty halls with their statues and their tapestries watching me, mocking me and my ignorance, every day of my life. Inara is more Paladin than she is human and we all know it!”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Did his eyes glow the way hers do?” I continued right on over her, despite the warning bells clanging dimly beneath the crash of blood tumbling through my body. “Did she inherit that from Adelric?”
The name reverberated as though I’d punched the air out of the room. My mother’s mouth opened then shut again, shocked beyond words and sounds. But rather than the explosion I expected, that I had grown accustomed to from her, the flash of rage dissolved into something worse, something darker. In the space of one blink to the next her fury shattered and she crumpled in on herself, her fingers clenching her own needlepoint into a mangled mess. The exhilaration of my own daring ebbed out of me, leaving me shaken and empty.
“Go,” she said at last, stony and quiet, to her lap.
“Mother,” I tried haltingly, already sickened at what I’d done. She was implacable and distant and exacting, but she was still my mother. I stood and reached toward her, but she flinched away.
“You wanted to go to Inara, so go.” It was a half-whispered hiss of a command.
The door opened and I glanced over to see Mahsami walking in with a tray of sliced vegetables and some sort of broth steaming in a pot. Other than a random goat or chicken, she was the only living being that the hedge had allowed to pass through its dangerous grasp—and only on occasion, when things were dire. She could have escaped. But shortly after Inara’s birth, she’d chosen to move into the citadel—temporarily, she’d claimed, to help care for the baby.
She hadn’t left us yet.
Her shoulders were now sloped with age and her fawn hair had lightened to white in recent years, but her gaze was sharp as ever when she glanced back and forth between the two of us.
“I brought some refreshments,” she offered, hefting the tray as evidence.
“Zuhra was just leaving.”
Sami’s eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t comment as I stared at my mother, willing her to look up to see the apology on my face. Instead, she punctiliously unclenched her fingers and smoothed out the fabric of the stockings she’d been darning, acting as though nothing had happened. But I didn’t miss the crimson stain on the gray material she quickly tried to cover up, from where she’d punctured herself with the needle.
“Yes, I was,” I finally agreed, turning away, my blood like sludge in my veins. “I’ll be in the garden with Inara.”
I’d gotten what I’d wanted, but my victory somehow felt like a defeat.
Used with Permission from Tor Teen, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. Copyright© 2019 Sara B. Larson.