In her debut novel, Empress of a Thousand Skies, Rhoda Belleza transports readers into the wondrous story of a princess on the hunt for justice and a fugitive on a mission for absolution. Rhee, the Crown Princess, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty, and she's on a quest to avenge her dying lineage. Aly is a war refugee who's risen above his humble origins to find fame and success, yet he finds himself framed for the thwarted assassination of the princess. The two characters couldn't be more different, but their stories intertwine in mesmerizing ways in this space opera about vengeance, duty, forgiveness, and legacy.
As you can probably determine from the blurb, Empress of a Thousand Skies certainly doesn't shy from tough topics: Aly is a refugee wrongfully accused of a crime, and Rhee is in danger of losing her land. Both have much at stake and much to lose, and both are looked down upon by outsiders. "Both of them are not favored by the media because of the way they look," Belleza tells Bustle.
If a story about refugees and race relations sounds familiar, that's because Empress of a Thousand Skies certainly draws parallels to modern-day political and cultural issues. "[Space opera] has been tackling themes of war, oppression, and sexism since before the term was coined," Belleza says. "But it does feel like we're at some sort of real-life breaking point. Reading current events is heartbreaking and infuriating, and I guess I'm as guilty as any other writer of being influenced by the current political context."
Belleza is a longtime reader of sci-fi, fantasy, and space-opera. She says she's long been a fan of Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, N.K. Jemisin, Neal Stephenson, and Philip K. Dick, but she also reads more modern young adult works by Pierce Brown, Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman, Erin Bow, and Marissa Meyer. But Belleza didn't just turn to books for inspiration for Empress; she also found much to appreciate in the TV shows from her childhood. "I was really into '80s action movies when I was little, and I wanted to evoke that kind of movement and badassery," Belleza says. "I just thought we could try it with kids of color as heroes instead."
Empress of a Thousand Skies won't be available until early next year, but Bustle is proud to exclusive reveal the cover for this powerful #ownvoices novel. Take a look:
"I think it's beautiful," Belleza says of the cover. "I petted my computer screen the first time I saw it. There's something beautiful and lonely about it — the Empress's silhouette superimposed on the moon, up there in the vast darkness and eternal silence. It has a still-life quality, you know? At so many points in the book, these kids feel totally and utterly alone, yet everyone thinks they know them. Their faces are consumed by the media, and plastered all over their version of the internet. But it's wrong. Nobody knows them. They don't even know themselves."
Empress of a Thousand Skies will be available on Feb. 7, 2017, from Razorbill.