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Girls of Storm and Shadow
By Natasha Ngan
Read by Allison Hiroto
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Meanwhile, a plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy, or will she succumb to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her bond with Wren, and their very lives?
The explosive Girls of Paper and Fire was named:
- A 10-week New York Times bestseller
- #1 on the Indie Kids Next List
- B&N’s Most Anticipated LGBTQAP Books of 2018
- Buzzfeed’s Books You Need to Pick Up This Fall
- Goodread’s Ultimate Fall YA Reading List
- Shondaland’s Fantasy Novels You Need to Read
- Bookriot’s Must Read Asian Releases
- Bookish’s Most Anticipated YA SFF List
Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and self-harm, and references to sexual abuse and trauma recovery.
At night, the heavenly rulers dreamed of colors, and into the day those colors bled onto the earth, raining down onto the paper people and blessing them with the gifts of the gods. But in their fear, some of the paper people hid from the rain and so were left untouched. And some basked in the storm, and so were blessed above all others with the strength and wisdom of the heavens.
—The Ikharan Mae Scripts
Paper caste—Fully human, unadorned with any animal-demon features, and incapable of demon abilities such as flight.
Steel caste—Humans endowed with partial animal-demon qualities, both in physicality and abilities.
Moon caste—Fully demon, with whole animal-demon features such as horns, wings, or fur on a humanoid form, and complete demon capabilities.
—the Demon King’s postwar Treaty on the Castes
DEEP IN THE DARK HEART OF the royal palace, the King was hiding.
He’d been there for weeks, eschewing all visitors save for the shamans who worked on his injuries and his two closest confidants to nurse wounds both of the body and of the ego. He would never have admitted this was what he was doing, of course. And if anyone were to dare even suggest he was struggling, he’d swiftly have them executed. None of it was painful. None of it was too much for the great Demon King of Ikhara to handle.
Yet like most lies people tell themselves, it came apart in the shadow and quiet of the night. The King, however much he expressed otherwise, was shaken. His wounds had penetrated deeper than flesh and bone. They had burrowed, insidiously, down each vein and cell and pore, until he could feel the fear echoing alongside every beat of his heart. And this fear took a shape. A name.
He refused to speak it out loud, but his body betrayed him. It whispered her name to him in the rhythm of his pulse. Showed him her face when he was asleep: blood-splattered porcelain skin; furled lips; wild eyes, those bright golden eyes honed with so much rage it pierced right to his soul, right down to places within him he thought he’d long since stamped out of life.
When it got too much—when her name and face would mock him so that he felt he couldn’t breathe and the walls of his rooms were closing in—the King called for a girl.
None of those girls, of course. Those girls he had yet to properly deal with.
Though he would.
But another girl. A pretty Steel caste lynx-form from the Night Houses with softly furred hips perhaps, or a young Paper slave fresh from a raid. He didn’t care. They would bring him a girl, and he would ruin her, just to prove he could. To feel once again that he was all-powerful. One human girl would not get the better of him—even if the constant sting and ache of his scars reminded him how close she had come.
Each day, royal shamans came to heal the injuries to the King’s throat and face. Naja had done well. The shamans had arrived just in time after the girl’s attack to save much of his vocal cords, though it hurt to speak and his voice was hoarser than before: rough, a guttural grunt. His right eye however was beyond repair. The socket had been a mess of severed nerves and pulpy flesh, too damaged even to fit a glass eye. In the weeks since the attack, it had grown a little less horrifying under the magic of the shamans. While it would be many months more until the rest of his face was back to normal, even shamans couldn’t bring back life from the dead, and his missing right eye would forever be a reminder of that night.
The King recalled one of his generals, also a bull-form, who’d once come to him about using the royal shamans to remove an ugly slash across half his face. “Battle scars are a badge of honor, General Yu,” he’d told the soldier. “They are marks of power. To rid oneself of them would be to show weakness. Wear your scars with pride.”
Wear your scars with pride.
What godsdamned crap. He always knew it, of course, but some part of him had believed in the sentiment once.
Not anymore. The King knew now exactly what scars were: reminders of your own failings. And so were those who dealt them.
The girl was still out there. But the King had faith. Naja had not failed him yet. She would find her, just as she promised she would, along with the traitor Ketai Hanno’s daughter, and she would bring both of them back to the palace for him.
Because this was something else the King had learned about scars—they were a brilliant furnace of hate. And if rage like this could give a weak human girl the power to attack him… well. They would see what it could do to a Demon King with a ferocious hunger for revenge.
FROM THE NIGHT WE ESCAPE THE palace, what was at first a light scattering of flakes grows 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 strange 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 snowpack with heavy crunches. The cold has numbed my entire body. 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 weather. My face battles directly with the elements—and this is a war it is losing.
Wind stings my exposed cheeks as I peer through the dancing flakes, trying to see where the leopard demons have gone. We’ve been trekking through the mountains for almost an hour now. The steep forested hills are packed with snow, each leaf-stripped tree encased in ice. The afternoon 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.”
No sooner are the words out of my mouth than they are 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 haunches, long tails flicking from side to side, sheathed in the same beige-black spotted fur that covers the rest of their bodies. Green eyes glint from dark-rimmed lids. Their round faces are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance.
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. Sorry, Lei, we’re moving too fast. 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 as he regards me down the length of his flat, feline nose.
Nitta shoots him a frown. “Bo.”
“What? Anybody born without built-in weather protection is missing out, 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 Lei looks frozen half to death. 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 Merrin’s orders just to annoy him,” Nitta retorts.
“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 point out. “Found anything yet, hmm?”
While Bo cocks his head in amusement, I straighten, squaring my shoulders. I’m still barely 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. It’s been more than two weeks now. 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 tosses 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, blinking up at us from a distinctly Bo-shaped hole in the snow. “It’s already starting. I am one with the taro. And it feels… taro-ble.” He flounces back up, 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-draped forest, until a loud crack to our left cuts us off. We whip around, my heart lurching into my throat, only to see a pack of snow that had been balanced on a banyan’s branches crash to the floor with 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 slice his way. “Don’t think I didn’t see your reaction.” But there’s a touch of something cautious as she turns around, lifting her nose to test the air. Her ears twitch, listening. Then she starts forward. “Come on,” she says. “Something’s definitely out there. 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 carve the layers of snow cleanly with each neat lift 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. Every drag of frigid air cuts my throat, but despite the chill, sweat beads inside my coat and under the fur scarf wrapped around my neck.
The demons don’t let up their pace. We stop only to take 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 cants her nose higher. “You’re right. I’ve got something, too. Sharp, musky… what do you think it could be?”
“Your delightful natural scent?” 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 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, forehead wrinkled. “That would be one big goat. I’m thinking more along the lines of yak.”
“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 brother’s, her ears are peppered with studs and hoops in a variety of tarnished silvers and golds, and dim wintry light winks off them as she looks left and right. “This way,” she says, already moving.
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 stomp through the snow, ready to deliver it—when a movement to my 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.
There’s the sound of snow crunching. She whips back around, lowering into a defensive stance. Bo points into the swirls. Smoothly, he loosens his knife while Nitta swings her bow from her shoulder. She holds it out in front of her with her left hand, her right plucking an arrow from the quiver strapped to her back. In one swift movement, she fits the feather-tailed arrow in place and draws her right arm back to extend the bowstring, resting the tip of the arrow on her left knuckles. Lean muscles flex under her cotton shirt as she aims into the iced air, but Nitta doesn’t loose her arrow.
Ears pricked, face focused, she slinks on between the trees. Bo crouches slightly as he moves after her, fingers clamped around his throwing knife.
I fumble at my waist for my own knife with clumsy glove-clad hands. It’s a short, plain blade—one of the others’ spares. Gripping it tightly, I follow the siblings, doing my best to keep to the path they create with their precise steps. My skin prickles with unease. A few times I think I catch movement—not ahead where Nitta and Bo are advancing up the wintry slope, 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.
Nitta and Bo move faster now. Though I do my best to follow them, the gap between us begins to widen. 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—uncurls on the wind.
I’ve found you.
Something cold trickles down my spine that has nothing to do with the snow. 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, clear arctic blue I can recall the feel of them piercing me even now. More than 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.
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 in frost.
Blood rushes in my ears. I look once more in all directions, shivers still rippling up my arms and the back of my neck. The voice had seemed so real. So close.
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, the feeling that someone’s watching us could be because we are being followed. Not by the ghost of the dead King, but by one of his soldiers or elite guards.
That’s why Wren and 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 for our next location, or until I get stupid and reckless enough to disobey my orders to stay hidden.
Exactly as I’ve done today.
An alarm screeches to life in my head, at the same moment more movement—real, this time, paired with panting breaths and the crunch of breaking snow—comes from ahead, higher up the slope.
“Lei!” Nitta’s yell cuts through the blizzard, pitched in panic. “Run!”
Just as a hulking shape leaps across my path and loosens a bone-shattering roar.
TIME SEEMS TO STRETCH AS THE beast reveals itself in two long, loping bounds, springing from the columns of trees and emerging through the driving sheets of ice as if in slow motion, its large front paws—and claws—outstretched.
Black markings on sandy-white fur dusted with snow.
Powerful, muscled shoulders.
A snarling face, lips drawn back to flash curving incisors.
And eyes: crystal blue, bright as the King’s.
The animal lands a few paces in front of me, rearing down, a tail as robust as an arm flicking from side to side. Its feline ears press back. Teeth bared, it lets out a snarl that rips all the way to my core. And for a moment, I’m trapped in place, weighed down not by fear but by memories. Memories of the demon who had eyes just like this. Who snarled, too, before using his teeth and power not to tear apart my skin—but my clothes.
I’ve found you.
In a way, the King has found me—because he’s never left me. Not even death could take away the scars he left upon me, imprinted deep, the way history carves its marks into the very bedrock of a kingdom, forever to shape and influence its future.
Then the animal hisses, its eyes swiveling as it surveys the three of us with feral curiosity. And I realize three things all at once.
This isn’t the King; this isn’t even a demon. It is an animal.
The snow leopard’s wet, pink-black nose twitches. Ice-cold eyes home in on me. My heart clenches; the familiar color draws me in. Without thinking, I raise my knife and crash forward with a yell—at the same instant the leopard pounces.
An arrow whirs past, burying itself into the snowpack between us. The creature growls, swerving at the last minute, and into the space that opens up, Nitta leaps.
She tosses aside the arrow she was wielding and knocks her bow from her shoulder to brandish it lengthwise like a staff. Less than a second later, the leopard barrels into her. She thrusts the bow into its spit-flecked muzzle. The creature’s jaws clamp around it. There’s the crack of wood, but the weapon holds. The leopard shakes its head, throat rumbling. Nitta doesn’t let go, and though her hands are too close for comfort to the animal’s massive pointed teeth, she holds firm. She’s only a few years older than me, but she seems suddenly decades more mature now, taller and stronger and rippling with a warrior’s confidence.
I lurch forward, dagger lifting once more, when Bo barrels into me.
We crash into the snow. “Are you crazy?” I cry. I kick at him, but he doesn’t let go, wrestling to keep me down as icy powder flies everywhere.
Less than five feet away, the leopard growls. Deeper, louder. It pushes forward with its strong legs.
Her muscles rippling, Nitta digs her heels in, chin jutted—and growls right back.
The animal blinks. Pauses. Its ears swivel to the front, its snarling mouth softening.
Nitta growls again. No words, just a guttural sound from the pit of her belly that ripples up her chest and out of her throat with the same feral quality. It’s only an echo of the wild animal’s own snarl. Even so, the creature seems to recognize it.
It lowers the paw that was hovering mid-step. Their noses inches from each other, the two leopards face off in silence. Bo and I are still half-hidden in the snow where he tackled me, but from my low vantage point I have a full view of the snow leopard. Towering over us, it is majestic and fierce, beautiful and terrifying, its round, wide-snouted face and turquoise eyes shimmering with intelligence. Snowflakes nestle in the thick tufts of its fur coat. It pants, jaw still clamped around Nitta’s bow, heat billowing from its whiskered maw.
The creature doesn’t take its eyes off the demon girl. Could it be that it’s noticing the same resemblances between them that I am? How even though Nitta is standing on her hind legs, there is a feral power to her stance that mimics the leopard’s own? How though her limbs are willowy and long with their human influence—Moon castes are the perfect midpoint between human and animal—they share the shape of the leopard’s haunches? How her features carry the same feline cast as that of the animal whose eyes she is staring into?
Despite their differences, it seems as though the leopard recognizes all this—that Nitta is somehow kin. Because after a few more tense seconds, it opens its jaw and releases her bow. With a lick of its muzzle, the creature backs away slowly, its keen blue gaze still focused on her. Then, kicking up a flurry of snow, it turns and bounds back up the mountainside, disappearing as quickly as it arrived.
Nitta drops her bow. “Are you two all right?” she asks, rushing to help Bo off me. She’s breathless, a tremble running through her as she lifts me to my feet. She brushes clumps of ice from my coat. “Lei, are you hurt?”
“I’m—I’m fine,” I pant, doubling over to gulp lungfuls of cold air.
With a distracted nod, Nitta turns to Bo. “Did you see…?”
“The way it looked at us—”
“Do you think it knew—”
“I mean why else would it have—”
“Why did you do that?” My shrill shout cuts through their excited voices. I brace my palms against my knees, glaring up at the two of them accusingly, still catching my breath. “You had a clean shot, Nitta. I had a clean shot. It was so close. It could have killed us!”
The siblings stare back, their pale green eyes wide.
“Princess—” Bo starts.
“Lei!” I growl through gritted teeth.
“Lei.” Bending down to hold my shoulders, he brings his round face close to mine, snowflakes nestled in his spotted fur and clinging to the hoops looping his ears. “Do you know who that was?”
“Who… you mean the snow leopard?”
Bo and Nitta swap an exasperated look, though their excitement is still alive, lighting their faces with a feverish glow.
“I forgot you humans don’t have spirit animals,” Bo says. “If you were a demon, no matter what caste or form, you’d understand how amazing that meeting just then was. For some of us, it’s incredibly rare to come across our spirit animals. You have demons who see their animal kin all the time—”
“Dog-forms, bull-forms, bird-forms,” Nitta lists.
“But for those of us with rarer ling-ye,” Bo continues, “we can go our entire lives hoping for such a meeting, and never having such luck.”
“That’s what we call them,” Nitta explains. “Ling-ye. Wild souls. And for any demon, the thought of killing your own…”
They both shudder.
“But you eat meat,” I say. “From each other’s ling-ye.”
“And thank Samsi,” Bo replies. “Can you imagine a life without roasted lamb? Or ox cheeks in tamarind sauce? Or—”
“Kind of getting off topic here, Little Bro,” Nitta murmurs.
He blinks. “Oh. Right. The point is no demon would ever eat the meat of their own form. To us Moons especially, ling-ye are as revered as gods. That’s why we couldn’t let you harm the snow leopard.” He pats me on the head. “Sorry about tackling you like that. Instincts, and all that.” Then, loosening a long exhale, he turns to his sister. Their eyes are lit with the same luminous intensity. Without a word, they clasp hands and dip their foreheads together, eyes fluttering shut.
Something jealous darts through me as I watch their silent embrace. All of a sudden, I want to be back at the temple.
Back with her.
Praise for GIRLS OF STORM AND SHADOW:
"This is a worthy follow-up that will satisfy fans. A solid fantasy pick with a strong LGBTQ pairing."—Kirkus Reviews
Praise for GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE:
-B&N's Most Anticipated LGBTQAP Books of 2018-Buzzfeed's Books You Need to Pick Up This Fall-Goodread's Ultimate Fall YA Reading List-Shondaland's Fantasy Novels You Need to Read-Bookriot's Must Read Asian Releases-Bookish's Most Anticipated YA SFF List
*"Ngan's plot is tense and tight, her action sequences are elegant and adrenaline-soaked, and her story's stakes increase exponentially through the pulse-pounding conclusion. What most distinguishes this book, though, is how incisively and intoxicatingly Ngan writes about love."
—Publisher's Weekly, *starred review*
"This glittering commercial romance has real stakes, and the lavish, intriguingly conceptualized world will capture readers. Love stories between women are still disappointingly few in fantasy, and romance and action fans alike will find much to savor here."—Booklist
"Lei and Wren's romance unfolds tenderly... and their wonder at finding love in such a terrible place rings true... [All] lead[s] to a terrifically nail-biting cliffhanger, setting all the pieces in play for a combustible sequel."—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Thrust into the beauty and horror of the Hidden Palace, will this Paper Girl survive? Ideal for those seeking diverse LGBTQ fantasy stories."—Kirkus Reviews
"Girls of Paper and Fire is as lush--and brutal--as the Demon King's own court. Ngan is a stunning new talent."—Kiersten White, New York Times bestselling author of And I Darken
"This gorgeous book is everything I want in a fantasy. Beautiful, lush, lyrical with fantastic world building and an epic forbidden romance, I devoured every word and was left desperately wanting more."—Ellen Oh, author of the Prophecy series and co-founder of We Need Diverse Books
"Ngan's demonic world is sharp and compelling, and her Lei is my sort of heroine, attacking her (steep!) learning curve teeth-first."—E.K. Johnston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Story of Owen and Star Wars: Ahsoka
"Get ready to be pulled into a lush, magical world, where two concubines must hide their forbidden love if they want to survive the Demon King's treacherous court. A fiery, spellbinding read."—Julie C. Dao, author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
"With deliciously deep world-building and a cast of fierce young women fighting to take charge of their own story, Girls of Paper and Fire cuts you deep and leaves you breathless for more."—Ashley Poston, author of Heart of Iron and Geekerella
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Hachette Audio