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A lush, dazzlingly original young adult fantasy about an epic clash of witches, gods, and demons.Elysium, Oklahoma, is a town like any other. Respectable. God-fearing. Praying for an end to the Dust Bowl. Until the day the people of Elysium are chosen by two sisters: Life and Death. And the Sisters like to gamble against each other with things like time, and space, and human lives. Elysium is to become the gameboard in a ruthless competition between the goddesses. The Dust Soldiers will return in ten years’ time, and if the people of Elysium have not proved themselves worthy, all will be slain.
Nearly ten years later, seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkinson is called upon to lead Elysium as it prepares for the end of the game. But then an outsider named Asa arrives at Elysium’s gates with nothing more than a sharp smile and a bag of magic tricks, and they trigger a terrible accident that gets both Sal and Asa exiled into the brutal Desert of Dust and Steel. There Sal and Asa stumble upon a gang of girls headed by another exile: a young witch everyone in Elysium believes to be dead. As the apocalypse looms, they must do more than simply tip the scales in Elysium’s favor—only by reinventing the rules can they beat Life and Death at their own game in this exciting fantasy debut.
They say that there was a big bang when the world began. When a whole lot of nothing exploded into everything. Some say that it was the one true god speaking, commanding the light and the water and the earth to all be. The end, from what I’ve read, doesn’t seem too different. The sun will go supernova. Loud and violent. Or maybe, they say, it will be trumpets blown by angels made out of wings and eyes and wheels. Roars of beasts and leviathans. But that’s all a lie. First of all, there isn’t only one god. There are two Sisters—Life and Death—and their Mother, who presides over everything else. And the Sisters like to gamble against each other with things like time and space and human lives. And when our world ended and their Game began, it was silent and smothering as the grave.
I was six years old.
On April 14, 1935: Black Sunday, the dust rolled over the whole Oklahoma Panhandle, black and boiling, a thousand feet high, filling the sky and our eyes and our mouths and our lungs. Darkness. Suffocation. But what I remembered most was the silence, as though some divine power was watching us, holding its breath, waiting for our first moves. We had no way of knowing then that They were.
We crept out of our shelters, those of us who had found shelter, and what we saw terrified us. Our fields were gone, our farms were gone, and in their places was nothing but desert, gray dunes stretching over miles immeasurable. A still, waterless sea with only our town standing in the center. The dunes broke into ridges, canyons, cliffs we had never seen before, and among them lay the pieces of what had been. Cars lay covered; headstones were buried; cattle and horses lay dead, their lungs and stomachs filled with mud; and strange new creatures watched us from behind the dunes.
Some of us went out into it, to go to Boise City and see if they’d weathered the storm all right. But what we found was that there was no Boise City. No Dalhart, no Kenton or Felt or Texhoma. No sign even of the XIT Ranch that had spanned miles and miles in its own right. They were all simply gone, without the slightest trace that they’d ever been. And if you kept walking, even in the straightest of lines, somehow, you’d find yourself back where you started again. This world wasn’t right; it wasn’t natural. Now creatures like fire coyotes and carnivorous hordes of locusts roamed the desert, along with some things too terrible to even think of. And when we turned on our radios to listen for President Roosevelt’s assurance that everything would be all right, we couldn’t even hear static.
But it was only at sunset, when Death had her first say, that we realized how bleak our situation truly was. At first, we had thought it was a black roller, a dust storm rolling in from the north. But as we braced ourselves in the wreckage, the black dust stopped at the edge of town and went no farther. Then we saw what it was: soldiers, one hundred of them, all made entirely of black dust. Each of them stood eight feet high, and in the light of the full moon overhead, their shadows seemed to cut teeth into the sand. They had swords in their hands, swords made of jagged black stone, and our blood curdled in our veins as they called out for our leader.
The fathers of each family, farmers and cowboys alike, fell silent, looking at their empty, work-hardened hands. We looked to them, and for once, they had no answers. God had failed them. Hard work had failed them. Manhood had failed them. Then a woman stepped forward, an old, pale woman with tattooed hands.
“Bruja,” I heard someone whisper. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.
“I’ll speak for this city,” she said to the Dust Soldiers. “What do you want?”
Their leader opened a mouth like a well and spoke in a voice like grinding stones.
The Goddesses Life and Death have begun a Game. They have given you exactly ten years to build your city. No more, no less. During those years, you will put aside one-third of your crops for us every year. We will return at sunset on the final day to judge you. If we judge your society good and responsible, despite your difficulties, then Life has won, and your society will continue. If your society has been irresponsible, then Death has won the Game. And every man, woman, and child shall be slain.
“This is a wicked Game to impose upon us,” the old woman said. “Haven’t we suffered through enough already?”
But the Dust Soldiers did not—or could not—answer, and in the end, the old woman had no choice but to agree to the terms of the Game we had been entered into.
“Who… who are you?” a man whispered when the Dust Soldiers had gone.
“I am Mother Morevna,” she said. “And if you listen to me, we’ll get out of this mess just fine. But we will have to do things exactly as I say.”
There was a murmuring among the crowd, then a nodding of heads. And then an acknowledgment: We had found ourselves a new leader.
That night, we gathered at the center of town and listened as Mother Morevna told us about the world we would make. Because, she said, we’d been given a chance to create a world that could be truly wonderful, truly prosperous. She said that we must band together—no matter our sex or color—or we would perish. She told us that we must build wells and irrigation systems, shelter, fields, and, most importantly, walls to keep ourselves safe from the desert creatures. We had to reinvent ourselves. And we did.
Cars proved useful once again: to be taken apart and used for scrap. And the old Case tractors… well, they had been the cause of a lot of our problems in the first place, hadn’t they? They were the first things we used for the walls. Next had come possessions. Last had come the bodies of the fallen, and between dust storms, the walls rose around us, keeping us safe.
Until I, Sal Wilkerson, brought an end to everything.
My nose was broken, it was pretty clear. It was reddish-black and bruised, and twisted off to one side, and when I touched it, pain lit up my whole face. As I sat up on my perch on the top of the west wall, I tried to lessen the pain by counting the names carved into the walls below me. Behind each one of those names was a body, adding its height to our walls. Joanna Schutter, Gregory Farrell, Ludie Mae Fuller, Andrew Jackson LaGrange, Noemi Álvarez…
In cultivation class, Trixie Holland had accidentally hit me in the face with the backward stroke of her shovel, then made such a big show of being sorry that my classmates ended up consoling her. I tried, again, to breathe through my broken nose and felt a surge of anger as a big wad of blood slid down into the back of my throat. I hacked for a minute and spat it over the wall, into the desert, then wiped my nose again and wrote Trixie Holland is a bitch in blood on the mud brick beside me. Juvenile, sure, but it helped, if only just for a moment. Then I felt bad about it and wiped it away.
The walls were my sanctuary when Trixie and her girls tried to follow me after school—which was getting more and more frequent these days. They’d hide behind houses, under windmills, in storm cellars. Then there’d be a “Hey, Sal!” and the running would begin. Sometimes they caught me and harassed me, tore my things. Sometimes I lost them. It didn’t help that Trixie’s was the reluctant family I was supposed to be staying with this season. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But that only works if the village wants her. And after everything that had happened, Elysium, Oklahoma, did not want me.
Oh, they’d been fine with me at first. Back when I was Sal Wilkerson, the poor little girl whose mother had died. But then I saw the rain, and that changed everything. Rain. I saw it on the horizon, coming toward Elysium in sheets, in curtains. Heavy rain. Miraculous rain, coming to end this Dust Bowl and save us all. I had seen it in the sky, felt it on my skin, believed it in my bones. And being a nine-year-old, I had told everyone. I went from orphan to Child Prophet, lifted on shoulders, gathered around, and petted and celebrated. “When will the rain come, Sallie?” everyone had asked. “Soon!” I’d told them. “The rain will come and everything will be all right!”
But the rain didn’t come. And as the townspeople waited, I felt the tide turn against me. From Sal Wilkerson, the Prophet, I became Sal Wilkerson, the Liar. Sal Wilkerson, the Crazy Girl. Sal Wilkerson, the Girl Who Cried Rain. And instead of families wanting to take me in every season, they had to be forced to, bribed with more rations or work exemptions.
When the sun set and everyone went into their houses, I climbed down. I took my bucket out of its place under the toolshed at the base of the wall and started on my weekly journey. My dust mask thudded against my chest and my bucket against my thighs as I slinked quietly along the wall, toward the Dowsing Well. It was too dark to manage without touching the walls, and I felt the names go by under my fingertips. Susannah Halper, Lennie Rodríguez, John Rowe, all buried in the walls, plastered in with their faces turned out to the desert beyond.
I left the wall and slipped between the legs of the tower, moving quickly through the path I had made for myself, through the narrow spaces between the bare-plank houses. No one was outside except for Mr. Jameson, so I relaxed. Even though he was head of the guard, Mother Morevna’s second-in-command, he always looked the other way when he saw me go by.
Mr. Jameson had been the one to oversee the building of the walls. He’d been the leader of the group that went out into the desert and had seen how everything had changed. He’d been one of the three men who’d made it back alive. He was strong and quiet and tough as an old boot, and I liked him. He of all people could commiserate, when his wife and son were back in Texas, somewhere outside the tiny, temporary world he’d been stuck in. If they were still alive. If a world even existed beyond the desert anymore.
He knew how I hated being shifted from family to family, about the lean-to I’d built against the northern wall to sleep under when one family had been particularly bad. He’d even put in a motion to let me live with him once. And when his motion was rejected on account of him being “too high on the food chain to be compromised,” he’d spent his nights revamping an old chicken house for me to live in. It wasn’t the same as a house, of course, but it was surprisingly good—better than staying with Trixie, at any rate—and I was grateful to him. It had wallpaper—the same kind anyone else had, anyway: newspapers and flour sacks. It had a lock and windows and a floor made of plank wood. It had a dresser salvaged from who knew where, and even a bed made of feed sacks and feathers, and it only smelled a little like chickens anymore. It wasn’t much, but it was mine. And at least there I was alone because I wanted to be, not because I had to be.
“Why did you do this for me?” I’d asked him.
“My daughter is about your age” was all he’d said. I liked that he always said “is,” not “was.”
Now his hooded eyes flickered to my nose. “That girl been after you again?”
I thought about it for a second, trying to decide if it was more cowardly to say yes or no, then shook my head.
“Stepped on a rake,” I lied.
“You sure it wasn’t a shovel?” he said, his eyes serious under his old, sweat-stained Stetson.
“No, sir,” I said finally. I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t a tattletale.
He squinted at me, then gave me a nod and spat tobacco into an old peach can.
“Get on outta here, then,” he said. “And if you have any more problems with rakes, you let me know, all right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.” And I slipped through the alley between his house and the Andersons’ and made my way toward the Square.
I heard the hammers before I saw the work lights. Already, the circle at the center of town was being set up for Mourning Night. About twenty young men were working. In the shadows of the old jail and Baptist church, they hammered and sawed. Some were hauling pieces of wood to the place where the bonfire would be, others had begun setting up the platform that Mother Morevna would stand on during the ceremony.
It was our most important holiday, a celebration of those we had lost during the year. In the evening, we would bring pictures of those who had died—and for those who hadn’t ever had their pictures made, small belongings, like combs or snuffboxes or dolls. There were entirely too many toys last year.
Dust Sickness was everyone’s greatest fear, the silent killer that crept through Elysium, taking whom it would. It was a lengthy, agonizing sickness you got from breathing in too much dust. Sometimes it could lay dormant for years, then rear its ugly head. It could take years to kill you, or months, or weeks, or days. Mother Morevna did what she could to protect us, covering the whole city in a spell that made dust storms roll right over us. We had faith in her and the magic that had saved us over and over. Still, we put on our dust masks just in case. And still, every year we wondered whose bodies would add to the height of our walls come next Mourning Night.
“Someone’s breaking curfew,” said a familiar voice. I froze.
When I turned, I saw Lucy sitting with her back against the wall, her hair in twists just visible under her vibrant kerchief. She looked at me, her face serious. She smiled as I let out the breath I’d been holding.
I tried to smile back, then held my hand to my face when my nose throbbed.
“What happened?” Lucy asked.
“Trixie has a mean aim with a shovel,” I said, and because of my nose, “mean” sounded like “bean.”
“Don’t know why you don’t punch her in the nose,” she said. “I would.”
I didn’t doubt it. Lucy and her family had been sharecroppers at the farm next to ours, and I’d seen her give a boy a busted lip when he took one of her dolls. Even now, though Lucy was widely known as not only the most fashionable Black girl in Elysium, but the most fashionable girl period, everyone knew not to mess with her. Even the boys.
We hadn’t spoken much growing up, but when the rain fiasco happened, she was the only one who had believed that I wasn’t crazy. Some people see things that others don’t, she’d said, and shrugged. I never forgot that. Or that when Trixie and her friends had been seen sneaking over toward my chicken coop, it had been Lucy who chased her away. I didn’t have many friends, but Lucy was the closest thing I’d had to one in a long time, even if it was only because of our arrangement.
“What are you doing out here anyway?” I asked her. “You know I always get the water.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I’m waiting for my supply girl.” Despite the law that stated that women should wear no makeup in order to conserve resources, Lucy had started her own underground cosmetics empire. She made subtle eye shadows and liners, mascaras, rouges. I, myself, had some of her mascara, packaged discreetly inside a corncob pipe she’d gifted me after noticing how pale my eyelashes were.
“She’s bringing me these,” said Lucy. “Of course, the Dowsing Well water will come from you.” She pulled a list out of her pocket and showed it to me.
Red clay (3)
Beetle wings (Japanese, Potato, Red)
I gave it back to her, and we watched as the workers finished what was left of their job on the platform and shuffled over to the little spread-out handkerchief on which a few water rations (old Coke bottles filled with water) waited.
“Nobody suspects anything, don’t worry,” Lucy said, watching how nervously I was holding the bucket. “Least of all from you.”
“I’m just a false prophet, after all. I couldn’t be a thief too.”
“Oh, brush that chip off your shoulder,” Lucy said. “Besides, I don’t think you can steal from an endless well.”
“There are people who would argue with you on that one,” I said.
“Well, crime or not, I’m glad you can do it, because without that water, I’d be sunk.” Lucy squinted into the darkness and crossed slim, elegant arms. “Where is this girl? I’ve been out here for thirty minutes. She’s supposed to be coming from the west.”
“I’m headed west,” I said. “You can come with me if you want.”
Lucy’s eyes darted toward the platform. The workers, satisfied for the night, wiped their brows and began to leave the clearing in twos and threes. Across the platform, the steeple of the Baptist church jutted up, taller than the windmills, and somehow whiter, its wind-battered cross stark against the sky. The round rose window—unbroken by the high winds—was dark like a closed eye. Mother Morevna was asleep.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see how you do it anyway.”
Sequestered in the shadow of the largest windmill in Elysium, inside a makeshift mud-brick igloo, almost as big as a house, was what I’d come for. The Dowsing Well: the salvation of Elysium. Mother Morevna had divined it herself, and we’d built the walls around it: the holy water that would never run dry. Once a week, I came to the Dowsing Well to trade Lucy a bucketful of water for a week’s worth of rations. That way, I wouldn’t have to see Trixie or her aunt and uncle at all if I didn’t want to.
I hugged my bucket close to me, and we sneaked over to the door.
It was locked, of course, but I pulled a hairpin out of my hair and went to work.
“Jesus,” Lucy said. “You’re a lock picker too?”
“Do you want this water or not?”
It clicked open, and Lucy and I went inside. It was dark without a lamp, so Lucy struck a match from her pocket. There on the cool ground was a circular door. I opened it and looked down into the circle of darkness. Even through my broken nose, I could smell the slightly mineral, sulfuric tang of deep well water.
I seized the nearby rope and pulley and attached my bucket. Then I lowered it down into the darkness until I felt it hit water and sink. Then I pulled up, up, up, until it emerged from the darkness, full of cool water. I heaved it into my arms, and it sloshed against my dusty skin as I handed the bucket to Lucy.
She kept watch as I covered the hatch and locked the door.
“Shoot,” Lucy said. “I left the rations back at my house.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Just bring them tomorrow.”
“It’s just toward the Square. Come with me and I’ll give them to you. Unless you’ve got something important to do.”
“Nah, I can come,” I said.
We weaved back through the houses in the strip where the east and west sides met. We passed the little brick building where Mr. Truman lived and taught piano, then the little wood house where one of the German families (“them Krauts from down Shattuck” as a boy in my class had once said) made homemade schnapps. We passed the dust mask factory, the clothing factory, and, last, the enormous, stinking chicken coop, where the chickens slept fitfully, wondering if tomorrow would be the day they became dinner. All was quiet. All was still.
Suddenly, Lucy stopped.
I followed her gaze. There in the darkness lay a squarish plank-board house. Unlike the other houses, it had not been hung with Mourning Night banners. One window was broken. Bottles and dead weed-flowers sat, dusty and undisturbed, in front of the door.
The Robertson house.
No one talked about what had happened there four years ago, but it didn’t matter. We all remembered. That was when everything had begun to go downhill. It all started when Mrs. Rosales died and left her two girls in the care of their stepfather, James Robertson. He was a nice, smiling guard who was known for things like giving up rations to families with sick children and building houses for people who had never had houses before. And even though it was a shame that the Rosales girls’ mother was dead, we couldn’t imagine a better father for them.
The girls themselves, however, were a different matter.
Both of them were older than I was, fifteen and seventeen when I had been twelve, but I remembered them. Especially Olivia, the younger of the two. After her mother died, she began acting up at school, starting fights, stealing rations. She had often been seen going to and from the church—getting a talking-to from Mr. Jameson or Mother Morevna, probably. As for the older sister, Rosalita, she was rarely seen, even in those days. What was the point of a girl that slow going to school, after all? people said.
There hadn’t been any crime at all in Elysium since the walls went up. Aside from my mother’s death, the first six years of Elysium had seemed almost dreamlike. Everyone, no matter their color or gender, had gotten along. Everyone had believed in Mother Morevna’s new, equal society, and if they hadn’t, no one had dared say anything. But then, one morning four years ago, Mr. Robertson’s corpse was found lying in the dust in the Square outside the church. He was spread-eagled, his throat slit. The words ¿Me oyes ahora? had been scrawled around him, a bloody halo.
When guards went to the Robertson house, Olivia was holding her sister’s hand in her own bloody ones, and weeping, “No te preocupes, Rosa… cálmate, aquí estoy, aquí estoy…”
And everything changed. There was a surge of ugliness. Fights sprang up between the races. There were threats, insults thrown in the streets. There was even talk of bringing back Whites Only areas, sending “Mexican” families out into the desert, and it had taken everything Mother Morevna and Mr. Jameson had to calm everyone again.
I remember hearing stories about how Olivia just sat across from Mother Morevna, silent and hard-hearted as a stone, with his blood still under her fingernails. In the end, it was decided: Olivia Rosales, the fifteen-year-old murderess, had to pay for her sins in the Desert of Dust and Steel.
I remember as they opened the doors to the desert. I remember how everyone gathered around the gate, how Rosalita cried out and drooled and had to be taken away to the hospital. I remember Olivia’s black hair flying in the wind, her dark eyes wide with fear and anger. But the doors closed behind her anyway.
Rosalita remained at the hospital for a while, as little seen and ghostly as she had always been. When she died a year later, she was buried in the northeastern wall, at night, to avoid further scandal. Her name was carved into the outside of the wall as well as the inside, so that if Olivia was still out there somewhere, she could see. Their house was boarded up, and we all went back to our lives as well as we could, working ever onward, ever toward the goal we would be measured for in April. But the tension never completely went away. Crop production went down and unrest rose, simmering beneath the surface of Elysium. Especially in these last months before the Dust Soldiers’ return, unease and blame lurked in shadows, smiles, handshakes. And that bloodstained house sat like a scar in the center of town, a constant reminder of the crime that had cracked our foundation. Even going near it made me feel sick.
“I dare you to go onto the porch,” Lucy smirked.
“No!” I said. I glanced back toward the church, still visible from the shadows.
“I’ll do it,” Lucy said.
She crept toward the house, her shoulders bent, her dark skin gleaming in the torchlight.
Just then, the rose window of the Baptist church flared into light, its great round eye opening.
“Shit!” we hissed together. Lucy leapt off the platform, and we ran off in the direction of the hospital, lugging the bucket as best we could together, water splashing against our dresses. No one chased us. No one came for us. But still, we felt Mother Morevna’s presence like breath down our necks. And, behind us, the light in the rose window dimmed again.
By the time we got to Lucy’s house, our arms and legs hurt and we’d spilled nearly half the water. But there was no helping it. Lucy took what was left into her house and brought the empty bucket back out to me.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me a stack of food and water rations. “Thanks again.”
“Lucy!” came a voice from the darkness. We turned.
Jane Cornett, a white girl a year younger than us, was standing in the dark a few houses away. She gestured to Lucy, then to her coat with its full pockets.
“There she is,” Lucy said. “I gotta go. And if Trixie gives you trouble again, let me know, all right?”
“Sure,” I said. “Night, Lucy.”
And like that, Lucy slipped into the shadows with Jane and disappeared.
I headed back across town with my empty bucket. Then I slipped behind Mr. Jameson’s house to my chicken coop. I unlocked the door and let it swing open. Inside were my few things: my scavenged dresser full of clothes and shoes, my little box of pictures and mementos, my father’s useless old radio, my bed. I crawled inside and set down my bucket, lit the kerosene lamp. On the wall just outside the window, close to the base, Mama’s name flared into light: MYRTLE WILKERSON. As always, my heart twisted in on itself when I saw it. Before I could stop myself, I remembered her as she had been the last time I saw her, thin and pale, lying on her cot in the hospital, her forehead beaded with sweat, a rag beside her covered with mud and blood.
I shook myself and went through all the motions of going to bed in the Dust Bowl. I wetted the sheets that covered the windows, secured them over the frame. I washed up in the water trough close by, changed into sleeping clothes, ate a piece of stale cornbread. Then I lay on my back, my face away from Mama’s name, trying not to think about Trixie, or Mama, or the rain that never came. And in the silence, I could have sworn I heard my radio, dead for nine years, begin to crackle.
"Pentecost's ambitious Dust Bowl-inspired dystopia pulses with dramatic scenes.... Captivating."—Publishers Weekly
"Readers who enjoy apocalypse-infused danger will enjoy this neo-Westernized dystopian world filled with the good and evil magic of witches and demons, LGBTQ romance, steampunked mechanics, and hero moments."—SLJ
"The dystopian Western setting is enticing, the girl power is undeniable, and this high-concept adventure has all the right ingredients."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers