Start Reading Now From This Fantasy About Queer Love, Dark Magic, And A Rebel Uprising
When Girls of Paper and Fire, the first book in her YA fantasy trilogy, was released in 2018, Natasha Ngan became a name to watch in the genre. Fans were immediately drawn to the lush fantasy about Lei, a young woman swept into a king's dark and dangerous world. Now, Ngan is back with the second book in her series, Girls of Storm and Shadow, to be released Nov. 5, 2019. Bustle has the stunning cover reveal and an exclusive excerpt from the book below!
For those in need of a refresher, Girls of Paper and Fire follows Lei, a member of the lowest and most oppressed caste in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father — that is, until guards suddenly arrive to take Lei to the palace, where she and eight other girls are forced to learn the skills and charm that befit a king's consort. While there, Lei falls in love with another of the girls, and her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara.
Girls of Storm and Shadow picks up soon after the events of the first book. Lei is now hailed as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn't the end of the plan, and now Lei and her warrior love, Wren, must travel the kingdom to gain support from the rebel clans. But there is a bounty on Lei's head, and an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic.
Take a look at the stunning new cover below, and keep reading for the entire first chapter of the Girls of Shadow and Storm:
From the night we escape the palace, what was at first a light scattering of flakes builds into a snowstorm.
It takes less than twenty-four hours for the first layer to settle. Just over a day until it builds into a thick blanket of glittering white. One more day and the snow has covered everything, a carpet of muffling powder that stings your eyes in the daylight and casts eerie shapes at night from the shadows. After two weeks, it’s as though we’ve lived in this frosted world forever.
I trudge through the deep drifts beyond the temple, my boots breaking the pack with heavy crunches. Every inch of my body is numbed with cold. I flex my stiff fingertips in my gloves. Melting shucks of ice keep sluicing over the tops of my borrowed leather boots no matter how tightly I lace them. But at least my hands and feet have some sort of protection from the elements. My face battles directly with the elements — and this a war it is losing.
Wind stings my exposed cheeks as I peer through the whirling flakes, trying to see where the leopard demons have gone. We’ve been trudging through the mountains for almost an hour now. The steep forested hills are packed with snow, each leaf-stripped tree wreathed in ice. The morning is eerily silent: just rustling snow crystals and boot-crunch and my own heavy breathing.
“How you doing back there, little Princess?”
I sigh. Not quite so silent.
“My name,” I shout back, “as I’ve told you a million times, Bo, is Lei.”
My voice is whipped away by the wind. Ice flakes dance around my nose, land cold, wet kisses on my raw cheeks.
Bo’s voice sounds again, this time clearer. The siblings must be just a few yards ahead.
My breath billows around me as I hurry to catch up. Their tall forms materialize through the snow-blurred wind, as long-limbed and willowy as the trunks of the trees around them, and almost human in appearance. As I get closer, their demon details reveal themselves: snubbed leopard ears; athletic feline haunches; long tails flicking from side to side, sheathed in the same beige-black spotted fur. Green eyes glint from dark-rimmed lids. Their round faces are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance.
"As I get closer, their demon details reveal themselves: snubbed leopard ears; athletic feline haunches; long tails flicking from side to side, sheathed in the same beige-black spotted fur."
One of the two sets of eyes is soft and kind. Nitta.
The other pair — her brother Bo’s — dances with amusement.
Nitta rushes to me with a relieved cry, brushing the wet straggles of hair back from my brow. “Thank Samsi! We were scared for a moment we’d lost you. I’m sorry, we’re going too fast for you. We were trying to go slowly, but ⎯”
“Any slower, and we’d be traveling back in time,” Bo quips. “You Papers,” he adds with an impatient cluck, scratching the underside of his chin.
Nitta shoots him a frown. “Bo.”
“What? Anybody born without built-in weather protection is a missed opportunity, I say.”
“Maybe we should turn back.” Snowflakes dust Nitta’s spotted fur, and she brushes a hand over her brow absentmindedly, looking worried. “We haven’t found anything yet, and you look frozen half to death, Lei. Maybe Merrin was right. This was a bad idea.”
Bo rests a hand on his bony hip. “You’re going to trust Feathers now? Come on, Sis, what does that bird-brain know?”
“You’ll defy his orders just to annoy him.”
“Why else do you think I agreed to let Lei come along on our little hunting trip?” The leopard-boy grins. “No offense, little one,” he tells me, “but it wasn’t exactly for your expert tracking skills.”
“A lot of good your tracking skills are doing us,” I retort. “Found anything yet, hmm?”
While Bo cocks his head in amusement, I straighten, jutting my chin. I’m still half the height of the leopard siblings, but it makes me feel stronger all the same. “I asked you to let me come today because I’m sick of hiding away in that temple,” I say. “It’s been over two weeks now, and if I have to spend another day listening to Hiro’s endless chanting and the rest of you sparring or talking war tactics while refusing to let me do anything, my brain will burst.” I reshuffle my scarf, bunch my gloved hands into fists. “Now, can we please go catch something good to eat? I’m sick of roasted taro for every meal.”
Nitta hesitates, but Bo throws up his hands. “You know what? Princess is right. If I have to eat one more piece of taro I’m going to become a taro.” With a dramatic huff, he throws himself onto his back. Snowflakes rain down around him. “Look,” he croaks in mock-horror. “It’s already starting. I am one with the taro. And it feels…taro-ble.” He flounces back up, his heavy coat covered in ice, and beams his wide, snaggle-toothed smile. “Get it? Taro-ble?”
“Oh, little bro,” Nitta sighs. “Your jokes are just so taro-iffic.”
All three of us laugh at this, the sound breaking the eerie quiet of the snow-wreathed forest — until another sound cuts us off.
The snap of wood to our left.
We whip around, my heart jumping to my throat, only to see a pack of snow that had been balanced on a banyan’s crooked branches crash to the floor in a heavy flumpf.
Nitta and Bo straighten from the defensive stances they’d instinctively adopted.
Bo snorts, releasing hold of the knife at his belt. “Scared of snow, big sis? Afraid it’ll turn your pretty hair wet and scraggly?”
Nitta’s eyes narrow. “Don’t think I didn’t see you react exactly the same way.” But there’s a touch of something cautious as she turns around, lifting her nose to test the air. Dull winter light glints off the hoops and studs marking her ears. They twitch, listening. “Come on, there’s something this way. And Lei, stay close this time.”
We continue into the swirling white. It’s all I can do to keep up with the siblings, their lithe Moon caste bodies slinking easily between columns of ice-wreathed trees. While Nitta and Bo break the layers of snow cleanly, stepping lightly with neat lifts of their lean leopard haunches, I slog clumsily through the thick drifts. The snowpack is as deep as my knees. Hidden tree roots tangle with my boots. Each inhale of frigid air cuts my throat, but despite the chill, sweat beads inside my coat and under the fur scarf wrapped around my neck and chin.
"Each inhale of frigid air cuts my throat, but despite the chill, sweat beads inside my coat and under the fur scarf wrapped around my neck and chin."
Though I’m soon aching, breath heavy with exhaustion, the demons don’t let up their pace. We stop only to take quick swigs of the water flask at Nitta’s waist or to check for signs of the animal she and Bo are tracking, the siblings dipping their heads together to discuss its markings in low voices.
After one hour of focused trekking, Bo breaks the silence. “We’re closing in,” he announces, half-hidden by the sheets of driving white where he’s walking a couple of feet ahead.
Nitta lifts her nose higher. “You’re right. I’ve got something too. Sharp, musky…what do you think it could be?”
“Your B.O.?” her brother suggests.
Nitta rolls her eyes. “See these?” she asks, pointing to a nearby tree.
Bo and I move closer. Two deep grooves are etched into its bark, just below my head height. They look freshly made: only a light dusting of snow covers them.
Bo traces his fingers along the marks. “Could be a large mountain goat.”
“Wait,” I say, backing up to take in the tree’s low, twisting branches. “This is a mango tree. A mango tree,” I repeat, awed. “Does it usually snow here? We can’t be that high up in the mountains if there are banyans and fruit trees.”
Neither of them shares my surprise.
“The Sickness has caused all sorts of weird climate changes,” Nitta says with a shrug, then turns back to her brother. “That would be one big goat. I’m thinking more along the lines of yak.”
He scrunches his nose. “Ugh, I hope not. Yak meat is gross.”
“Do you want taro for dinner again?”
“Better than yak butt.”
Nitta peers ahead into the glittering drifts, her rounded ears twitching. Like her nose and eyebrows, they are peppered with studs and hoops of different sizes, and dim wintry light catches on them as she looks left and right. “This way,” she says, starting forward.
Bo winks at me. “Ready to play your part in the hunt, Princess?”
“What part is that?”
“Bait,” he replies with a grin.
I glower as he stalks off. It takes a few moments for a retort to come to me. I crunch through the snow, ready to deliver it—when movement to the left snags my attention.
I freeze. My heart beats loud in the hush of the ice-limned forest.
The still, empty forest.
Under my scarf, gooseflesh plucks at my skin. “Are you — are you sure there’s only one animal around?” I call ahead.
Nitta and Bo both spin around, silencing me with identical green-eyed glares.
“We need to be quiet —” Nitta starts.
"Under my scarf, gooseflesh plucks at my skin. 'Are you — are you sure there’s only one animal around?' I call ahead."
There’s the sound of snow crunching ahead. She whips back around, lowering into a defensive stance. Bo points into the swirls. Smoothly, he loosens his knife as Nitta swings her bow from her shoulder. She holds it out in front of her with her left hand, her right drawing an arrow from the quiver strapped to her back. She tucks the feather-tailed arrow in place. In one swift movement, she draws her right arm back to extend the bowstring and rests the tip of the arrow on her left knuckles. The lean muscles under her cotton shirt tighten as she aims into the iced air.
She doesn’t loose her arrow. Not yet.
Ears pricked, face focused, she moves between the trees. Bo crouches slightly as he follows, gaze locked ahead, fingers clamped around his throwing knife.
I hurry after them. Unease slinks down my veins as we move through the wintry slopes. A few times I think I catch movement — not ahead where the siblings are advancing, but at the corners of my vision. The shadowy shape of something large and…not human. But when I look, there’s nothing there. Only thick swirls of glittering flakes. Wind-chill and billowing breaths and deep, blizzard-muffled silence.
"The shadowy shape of something large and…not human. But when I look, there’s nothing there. Only thick swirls of glittering flakes."
Nitta and Bo are moving faster now. Though I do my best to follow them, the gap between us begins to widen. I fumble at my waist for my knife with clumsy glove-clad hands. It’s a short, plain blade; one of the others’ spares. Ahead, Nitta turns abruptly, leading us up a steep incline, the glimmer of a frozen waterfall to our right. My breath comes out in thick clouds as I try to keep up — and then my toes catch on a rocky outcrop beneath the drifts.
With a yelp, I fall face-first into the snow. Clumps of ice latch to my skin; melt trickles down the sides of my scarf. Grimacing, I push myself to my knees, shaking the snow from my face and hair, when I sense movement behind me.
A voice — light as a feather, yet deep, deep as gods’ bones and earthshakes — whispers on the wind.
I’ve found you.
Something cold trickles down my spine that has nothing to do with the snow and the ice. In an instant, his face comes to my mind.
Grooved horns, etched with gold, tips as sharp as knife-points.
A slim, handsome face, bovine features melded immaculately with human form.
A smug, satisfied smile.
And those eyes — irises such a clean, arctic blue I can recall the feel of them piercing me even now. Over two weeks on from that night, the very moment I drove a blade deep into his throat and cut the life free from him.
I’ve found you.
"A voice — light as a feather, yet deep, deep as gods’ bones and earthshakes — whispers on the wind. I’ve found you."
Crouched in the snow, I swirl around with my knife brandished in trembling fingers, heart thumping against my ribcage. But the forest is empty. The trees stand tall, silent sentinels, armored thickly in frost.
Blood rushes in my ears. I look around, shivers still rippling up my arms and the back of my neck from the voice — the voice, which I clearly imagined.
When I get to my feet to carry on after Nitta and Bo, there’s no sign of them. I’m alone.
Then my breath hitches.
Because maybe I’m not. Though I couldn’t have heard the King’s words— of course I couldn’t, only those in the Heavenly Kingdom can hear them now — the movement I’ve been sensing and the feeling that someone’s watching us could be because we are being followed. Not by the King, but by one of his soldiers or elite guards.
That’s why the others haven’t let me out of the temple all this time. We know it’s only a matter of time until they find us, if they haven’t done so already. It’s been more than two weeks since the attack on the palace the night of the Moon Ball. Plenty of time for them to have tracked us down, even to our remote location here in the northern mountains. Plenty of time to wait outside the temple, where we’ve hidden ourselves with protective magic. To wait until we leave to our next location — or until I get stupid and reckless enough to disobey my orders to stay hidden.
"Though I couldn’t have heard the King’s words... the movement I’ve been sensing and the feeling that someone’s watching us could be because we are being followed."
Which is exactly what I’ve done today.
An alarm screams in my head, at the same moment more movement —real, this time, paired with the sound of crunching snow and panting breaths — comes from ahead, higher up the slope.
“Lei!” Nitta’s yell cuts through the blizzard, pitched in panic. “Run!”
Just as a hulking shape loosens a bone-shattering roar and leaps right across my path.