NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the critically acclaimed author of SIX CRIMSON CRANES comes a fantasy tale of two sisters—one as beautiful as the other is monstrous—who must fight to save each other when a betrothal contest gone wrong unleashes an evil that could sever their bond forever!
One sister must fall for the other to rise.
Channi was not born a monster. But when her own father offers her in sacrifice to the Demon Witch, she is forever changed. Cursed with a serpent’s face, Channi is the exact opposite of her beautiful sister, Vanna—the only person in the village who looks at Channi and doesn’t see a monster. The only person she loves and trusts.
Now seventeen, Vanna is to be married off in a vulgar contest that will enrich the coffers of the village leaders. Only Channi, who’s had to rely on her strength and cunning all these years, can defend her sister against the cruelest of the suitors. But in doing so, she becomes the target of his wrath—launching a grisly battle royale, a quest over land and sea, a romance between sworn enemies, and a choice that will strain Channi’s heart to its breaking point.
Weaving together elements of The Selection and Ember in the Ashes with classic tales like Beauty and the Beast, Helen of Troy, and Asian folklore, Elizabeth Lim is at the absolute top of her game in this thrilling yet heart-wrenching fantasy that explores the dark side of beauty and the deepest bonds of sisterhood.
An Excerpt fromHer Radiant Curse
There was no moon or moonbow when my sister was born. Contrary to the stories, she arrived late in the morning, close to noon. I remember, because the sun was in my eyes, and its glaring heat needled my skin until I bubbled with sweat.
I was very young and playing outside, poking the ants crawling up my ankles with a stick, when the sun suddenly receded--and I heard screams. Mama’s screams.
They were faint at first. Thunder had begun to rumble, swallowing the brunt of her cries. The loud cracks in the sky did not frighten me; I was already used to the island’s fickle winds and the low howls that rolled from the jungle at night. So I stayed, even as rain unfolded from the sky and the chickens ran for cover. The dirt under my toes became mud, and the warm, humid air chilled. The ants drowned as the water climbed up my ankles.
Adah had told me not to come inside until I was called, but the rain was getting harder. It came down in sheets, soaking my shirt and sandals and drumming against my skull. It hurt.
Kicking off my sandals, I clambered up the wooden stairs to our house and ran inside to the kitchen. I shook my hair free of rain and tried to warm myself by the fire, but only a few embers remained.
“Adah?” I called, shivering. “Mama?”
My stomach growled. Up beside the cooking pot was a plate of cakes Mama had steamed for me yesterday. They’d made her hands smell like coconut and her nails shine, sticky with syrup.
“Channi’s cakes are ready!” she would always call when they were done. “Don’t eat too much at once, or the sugar flies will come sweeping into your belly for dinner.”
She didn’t call for me today.
I stood on my tiptoes and stretched my arms high, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the plate.
“Mama!” I cried. “Can I have cake?”
Mama had stopped screaming, but I heard her breathing hard in the other room. Our house was very small then, with only a curtain separating the kitchen from Mama and Adah’s bedroom.
I stood on my side of the curtain. Its coarse muslin chafed my nose as I breathed against it, trying to see what was happening on the other side.
Three shadows. Mama, Adah, and an old woman--the midwife.
“You’ve another daughter,” the midwife was telling my parents. “Channi has a baby sister.”
Forgetting Adah’s warning and my hunger, I ducked under the curtain and crawled toward my parents’ bed.
There Mama lay, propped up on a pillow. She looked like a fish, all translucent and pale, her lips parted but not moving. I barely recognized her.
Adah was hovering over her, and the restless look on his face soured quickly as Mama locked her fists around the edges of the bed--as if she were about to start screaming again.
Instead, she let out a gasp, and a gush of red swelled through the blankets.
“She’s bleeding!” Adah cried to the midwife. “Do something!”
The midwife lifted the blankets and went to work. I’d never seen so much blood before, and especially not at once. Not knowing it was my mother’s life flowing out of her, it almost looked beautiful. Vibrant and bright, like a field of ruby hibiscuses.
But Mama’s face, twisted in pain, kept me quiet.
Something was wrong.
I stood rooted to my corner, unseen. I wanted to hold Mama’s hands. To see if they still smelled like coconuts and if the sugar syrup had seeped into the lines of her palms like always--and tasted sweet when I kissed her skin. But all I smelled was salt and iron: blood.
“Mama,” I breathed, stepping forward.
Adah grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the bed. “Who let you in here? Get out.”
“It’s all right,” said Mama weakly. She turned her head to face me. “Come, Channi. Come meet your sister.”
I didn’t want to meet my sister. I wanted to talk to Mama. I reached to squeeze her fingers, wan and blue, but the midwife intercepted me and thrust my sister into my face.
Most newborns are ugly, but not my sister. Her black hair was long enough to touch her shoulders; it was smoother than glass, and softer than a young bird’s feathers. Her complexion was gold and bronze at the same time, with a kiss of pink on her plump, glowing cheeks and smiling lips.
Yet most enchanting of all was the light that emanated from her, brightest around her chest, as if a sliver of the sun were lodged inside her tiny heart.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” the midwife whispered. “Hundreds of babies I’ve delivered--you included, Channi. Out of them all, only your sister laughed when she came into this world. Look at her smile. I tell you, kings and queens will bow down to that smile one day.” She touched my sister’s chest, her palm covering that strange glow inside her. “And this heart! Never have I ever seen a heart like this. She’s been graced by the gods.”
“Vanna,” Mama whispered. Pride rippled in her voice. “We’ll call her Vanna.”
I reached for my sister’s tiny hand. She was warm, and I could feel her little heart pitter-patter against my finger. For someone who’d been in the world only a few minutes, she smelled sweet, like mung beans and honey. All I wanted to do was hold her close and press my nose against her soft cheeks.
“Enough,” said Adah sharply. “Channi, go back outside. Now.”
“But, Adah,” I said, feeling small, “the rain.”
“Let her stay,” Mama said, biting back another scream. Clearly, the pain was returning. “Let her. I don’t have long.”
I didn’t understand what Mama meant then, or why Adah wiped his eyes with his arm. He folded onto his knees beside the bed and muttered prayer after prayer to the gods, promising to be a better husband if only Mama would live. The midwife tried to comfort him, but he jerked away.
Shadows fell over his face. “Give me the baby.”
His look frightened me more than Mama’s screams. I’d never felt much for my father; he was always working in the rice paddies while Mama took care of me. But he’d never been cruel. He loved my mother, and I thought he loved me too. This was the first time I’d heard him speak so sharply, with an edge that bit.
The midwife noticed too. “Khuan, let’s not be rash. I’ll take care of your wife. You go to the temple and pray.”
My father would not listen. He seized my sister, and alarm flared in Mama’s tired eyes.
“Khuan!” she rasped. “Stop.”
Against Adah’s wide, hulking frame, Vanna looked no bigger than a mouse. But my sister must have cast the same spell over my father that she had cast over me, for once he cradled her in his arms, she began to glow, brighter than before.
It was like magic, the way Adah softened. He stroked her hair, black as obsidian. He kissed her cheeks, pink like her lily-bud lips. He stared in awe at her skin, which shone gold like the sun.
Then his shoulders fell, and he gave her back to the midwife. “Feed her.”
Mama wheezed with relief. “Come, Channi. Mama will hold you.”
Before I could go to her, Adah snatched me up, hooking a strong arm around my waist. He threw me over his shoulder, so hard that I gasped instead of screamed.
In three long strides, we were out of the house, and quickly the midwife’s shouts faded behind us, consumed by the rain and thunder. He ran through the thick of the jungle.
I kicked and shouted, “Adah! Stop!”
Fear spiked in my heart. I did not know where he was taking me, and Mama wasn’t coming after us. The rain had grown stronger, and it battered my face with such force I thought I might drown from it. I beat at Adah’s back with my small fists, but this only irritated him. His grip tightened as he continued running.
In the jungle the rain weakened. All I could see were flashes of green and brown. I’d never been in the forests before, and for a moment I forgot to be afraid. Instead, I gazed in wonder at the trees with toothlike leaves, flowers large enough to swallow me whole, and vines that looked like snakes hanging from the sky. Gnats buzzed, mosquitoes bit Adah’s neck, and mud splashed under his sandals.
Suddenly, Adah fell back in surprise, almost crushing me. A magnificent red serpent hung from one of the trees, its long, forked tongue drawn out to hiss at us.
Adah propped himself up on his elbows, and I clung to his neck as the serpent bared its fangs.
“Let her go,” it said.
Adah did not seem to understand. He got up, grabbing me by the waist so tightly I let out a little gasp, and shuffled away from the creature.
The serpent followed. It did not speak again; instead, it wrapped its body around my father’s ankle.
Adah screamed and kicked his foot frantically, almost dropping me as he struggled. He grabbed a fallen branch and started beating the snake.
“Don’t hurt it!” I squealed. “Adah!”
Freed from the serpent, my father ran faster than before, pounding deeper into the jungle.
The rain had ended. Mist layered the trees, and faint gold sunlight streaked across the graying sky. I only noticed because Adah ran hard and had to stop often, his chest shaking as he breathed. His back was slippery, and my hair became drenched with his sweat and odor. At some point, I craned my neck up for fresh air.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
The chill in Adah’s voice startled me, and I fell silent.
At last we came to a valley with a great clove tree at its center, ringed by flat white rocks. Elsewhere in the jungle, trees wrestled for space, their branches snarling against one another for a mere brush of the sun’s nurturing light. But this crooked tree was alone. Not even gnats or dragonflies or mosquitoes dared to encroach here. As soon as we approached, they flittered away from Adah’s skin, done with him.
Adah set me down on the largest rock. Rain and sweat glistened in his beard.
“Stay here,” he said.
“Are you coming back?”
“I will come for you in the morning.”
He would not look at me as he said this.
“Adah. . . .” I began to cry. “Don’t go!”
At the sound of my full name, I made a whimper and crouched obediently.
The rock’s face was cool and dry, shaded by the tree’s canopy. As Adah turned back the way we’d come, I gathered my knees to my chest. In the distance I saw a family of monkeys climbing a tree. One of them had a baby on her hip, and I thought of Mama on that bed, screaming. Mama had never allowed me to enter the jungle before. Why was I here now?
He’d left. The bushes still rustled, betraying his proximity, but no matter how I howled “Adah! Adah!” he did not come back for me. I was alone.
Well, not completely alone.
Birds chirped unseen in the trees. Centipedes and other mites skittered across the dirt around the clearing. Then the serpent--the same one that had attacked Adah earlier--appeared.
I backed away from it fearfully as it slithered across the rock. Its eyes glittered like emeralds, and its bright red scales were stark against the watery sunlight.
“Come with me,” said the snake.
I flinched, but not because the idea of a talking snake surprised me. I’d heard enough about magic and demons not to be frightened by such creatures. What made me hesitate was that this snake had tried to bite Adah. I couldn’t trust him.
“Follow me,” the snake said. “Angma is coming.”
Though I was very young, a chill swept down my spine when I heard that name. Mama had told me about Angma, always in the same cautionary tone she used to warn me when Adah was in a foul mood.
“Long ago,” she’d begin, “Angma was a human witch whose daughter was stolen from her. In her rage, she was transformed into a fearsome demon, wandering the earth in search of her daughter. She devoured babies to maintain her immortality and strength, and sometimes, when a child was offered freely, she would grant a favor in return.”
Such as saving my mother’s life--or so Adah must have hoped.
I was too young to understand what “sacrifice” meant. I didn’t know why I should be afraid of Angma. So I ignored the snake’s warning.
“Adah said for me to stay here,” I said stubbornly.
“Suit yourself,” hissed the snake. He paused. “Just don’t look into her eyes.”
He slid off the rock and disappeared.
It wasn’t long before a shadow cloaked the clove tree, and all the music of the jungle--the twittering birds, chirping insects, and rustling monkeys--was silenced.
I looked around me. A shadow darted from behind one of the bushes.
“Adah?” I called out again.
I climbed off the rock, digging my toes into the moist dirt. Tiny pebbles pricked my feet. If only I hadn’t kicked off my sandals at home!
A beast purred behind me, and I whirled around. A tiger!
She moved languidly, knowing I was trapped. Even if I tried to run, she would catch up in fewer than five paces. Her powerful legs were longer than my entire body, and her fur was copper, like the statues at the Temple of Dawn, streaked with bolts of black.
There was something odd about this tiger. I had never seen one in real life before, but I had seen the sculptures in the village, the paintings and scrolls hanging in the temple. I had seen the pelts that hunters brought back to the village to sell, and they looked nothing like this tiger’s.
It wasn’t just that the tiger breathed smoke from her nostrils, or that she had sharp ivory tusks like an elephant and a sheath of ancient white hair that cascaded down her striped back. It was the glow of her fur, both dark and radiant at the same time, like shadows burning under moonlight. It made me feel cold.
“So,” rasped the tiger. Her voice was low and guttural. It reverberated against the dirt beneath me and nearly made me jump. “Your father has left you to me.”
Shadows swelled from wherever the tiger moved, enveloping me as she drew close. She smelled strong, though I could not recognize the scent. It was not of the trees or flowers or anything I had experienced before. A spice, maybe.