In this explosive fantasy debut, a provincial girl must work with an infuriatingly handsome prince to escape a nightmarish curse that forces them to relive the same night over and over.
"The time-loop fantasy you never knew you needed, where the fairytale ball is bloody and Cinderella is the Final Girl."—Gina Chen, New York Times bestselling author of Violet Made of Thorns
Seventeen-year-old Anaïs just wants tonight to end. As an outsider at the kingdom’s glittering anniversary ball, she has no desire to rub shoulders with the nation’s most eligible (and pompous) bachelors—especially not the notoriously roguish Prince Leo. But at the stroke of midnight, an explosion rips through the palace, killing everyone in its path. Including her.
The last thing Anaïs sees is fire, smoke, chaos . . . and then she wakes up in her bedroom, hours before the ball. No one else remembers the deadly attack or believes her warnings of disaster.
Not even when it happens again. And again. And again.
If she’s going to escape this nightmarish time loop, Anaïs must take control of her own fate and stop the attack before it happens. But the court's gilded surface belies a rotten core, full of restless nobles grabbing at power, discontented commoners itching for revolution, and even royals who secretly dream of taking the throne. It's up to Anaïs to untangle these knots of deadly deceptions . . . if she can survive past midnight.
An Excerpt fromMidnight Strikes
One night. You just have to survive here one more night.
Unfortunately, for a Proensan nobody in the royal court of Ivarea, that’s easier said than done.
Tonight is the crown jewel of the social season, the most important party the provinces of Ivarea have ever seen: the celebration of four centuries of the Cardona dynasty’s reign. The Anniversary Ball is the opportunity my family has been waiting for ever since our people were first conquered by the Ivareans--the reason my parents dragged me seven hundred miles across the sea and over land to the capital. If they can defy the odds and arrange my marriage into a prominent courtly house, our family will be launched to the highest tier of Ivarean elite society. To a position of respect and power that our people, the Proensans, have not had since the Cardona conquest. This is a prize more than worth the cost of my future.
Or so I’m told.
Eight weeks ago, when I was first shoved through the grand double doors of the palace for my debut, I thought that the rigors of this historically grueling season would get easier to endure with time. I used to hope that each dazzling ball, each refined tea party, each perfunctory dance, would feel a little less like a living nightmare, because each one meant that the season was coming that much closer to an end. I hoped that each moment was bringing me that much closer to home.
But it never got easier. It never will get easier in a royal court that looks down on Proensans just because we’re Proensans, regardless of our titles or lands or wealth. And now that I’ve finally made it to the Anniversary Ball, I’m not at all sure I’ll make it out intact.
Tonight, I throw myself into the centers of gravity within the grand ballroom of the Alcazar Real de Marenca as earnestly as any of the hundreds of grandes from every corner of the kingdom also in attendance. Beneath shimmering chandeliers that float across the elaborately painted ceiling, ladies in voluminous gowns clash with lovers and enemies alike from behind fluttering fans, and gentlemen bearing ceremonial swords that have been passed down through storied bloodlines for centuries shout gaily to their fellows in privilege and glory. Each and every one of them is desperate to emerge at dawn with something--or someone--they didn’t have before, but then again, so am I. So I smile at them like I’m deranged and flirt with them until I feel sick. When the dancing begins in earnest, I even manage to snag a minuet with young Don Fernando Pelaez, who is everything I’m supposed to want in a future husband: well-connected, wealthy, a real Ivarean. He smiles at me as we take our places on the dance floor, which my foolish heart takes as a good sign.
Maybe this one will be different. Maybe this one will finally put me out of my misery. Maybe this one will look at me and not find me wanting.
“You look absolutely enchanting tonight, Dona Anais.”
Fernando twirls me by the arm, and the satin skirts of my gown flare out with me. My mother designed it to match the depths of my red opal locket, with gold and garnet beading down the bodice and a blood-red brocade underskirt. Contrary to what some of the grandes who dominate the capital might assume, I’m no stranger to overwrought ensembles, but I have never hated one more than this--less because of what it looks like, and more because of what it means for my family’s future. What that future will demand of me.
“And by the saints,” Fernando adds with a quicksilver grin that matches his celestially spangled waistcoat, “you’re a surprisingly great dancer.”
My lacquered lashes flutter as we trade steps like feints in a duel. “Why is that so surprising, Don Fernando?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I didn’t think you Proensans paid attention to dance crazes here in the capital.”
I bite down a grimace. To people like Fernando, who hail from the central heartland of the Ivarean peninsula in the province of Castara, us Proensans are not real Ivareans, not even two hundred years after we were absorbed into this kingdom. People on the peninsula see us as barely domesticated country bumpkins whose inclusion in elite Ivarean society makes for an amusing trifle at best and a bewildering insult to their culture and people at worst.
“What is it you think we do, then?” I challenge my partner lightly. “Lie around our farms all day and do nothing?”
Fernando leans down toward me, silvering the very air around us. “Well, I was going to say that you are too busy lying with your livestock, but I must admit, I like your version better.”
If he wasn’t forcing me around the dance floor, I would stumble and fall. The whole of the royal court could run me over without a second glance at the girl lost in the spill of satin below their feet. But we’re still dancing, face to incredulous face, and he seems wholly unmoved.
“Let me assure you, Don Fernando. My people do not lie with animals.” I offer him a rigor mortis smile. “Like pigs.”
Fernando waits for me to break character, to invite him to laugh with me, but I stare him down and do not yield. His grin disappears. Without its warmth for cover, his expression turns imperiously, pointedly blank.
I know that look. I know it better than the freckles on my face.
“Barbarians, the lot of you.”
From each cardinal direction, the Alcazar’s four clock towers begin to strike eleven. Even they cannot drown out my pulse as it thunders in my head. Fernando takes the opportunity to let me go and melts back into the crowd as easily as if the minuet didn’t happen at all. As if none of it mattered.
Because for him, it didn’t.
Ever since I was old enough to understand my family’s position, I haven’t asked for true love or even a grand romance--the stuff of poems and ballads, the relationships that nights like these are supposed to inspire. In my more optimistic moments, I imagined finding someone who could understand the pressures I bear and possibly share their burden. Someone who wouldn’t make me long too much for Massilie, my backwater hometown on the northern coast of Proensa, once I left it behind for a life on the peninsula.
But after the season began, what kept me going was the small, wild, stupid hope that I might manage to find someone here who sees me as worthy of respect. And every night, the grandes and courtiers who my parents nudge me toward wring that hope out of my heart. I thought that after eight weeks of failure, one more wouldn’t hurt.
I was wrong. It always hurts.
Around the ballroom, the royal court rejoices in the sound of the bells. After all, the night is just beginning, and it is yet full of possibilities untold, of destinies unmet.
At least, that’s what my mother believes.
She swans over moments after Fernando abandons me, positively beaming in her dove-gray taffeta gown. “The future duke of Varillo! How wonderful, Anais. Your father and I are thrilled!” From farther along down the ballroom, where he stands on the fringes of a group of rather grave-looking Galvaise grandes, my father inclines his head vaguely in our direction. “You must make sure to dance with the Pelaez boy again before the night is out.”
She’s feeding off this chaos, and here I am, getting quietly devoured by it. “I wouldn’t start planning the wedding just yet.”
Briefly taken aback, Maman drops her smile, revealing the contours of her cheekbones. The gesture lends her a strange, almost ghostly air. “Ah.” She recovers herself with a brief shake of her head. “Well, not to worry. There’s still an entire palace of eligible young men clamoring to have you on their arms.”
If that were true, I wouldn’t still be running around like a headless chicken two months into the season in search of someone, anyone, who would have me for a wife and my family for allies at court. And even if it were true, I cannot imagine willingly giving myself to any of these puffed-up peacocks.
“Don’t look at me like that, darling. You’re positively destined for greatness.”
That can’t be good, coming from her. “What do you mean, greatness?”
“I mean, you’re going to be the triumph of the most important social season in Ivarean history! You’re going to strike a match that will leave the entire court in awe. I’d swear it on the fairies--that’s how sure I am.”
Invoking the fairies--mythological beings that legend holds once dwelled in Proensa--to help me find a fiancé feels like a new, desperate low. “Maman, don’t. You know what they’ll all think if they hear you.” Silly Proensans. Crazy Proensans.
Ever impervious to my bleating, my mother chastises me with a look. “Let them think what they will. The fairies were real--”
“--and even if they weren’t,” she continues with a note of insistent triumph, “you shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are or where you come from, Anais. The right man is out there, and he will cherish everything about you, even the magic running in your veins, for the blessing it is.”
The humid air trapped in the ballroom seems to press against my hollowed chest. “That’s not funny.”
“I didn’t mean it to be funny.”
She could have fooled me. “The blessing” is what we call the magic that runs in a small number of Proensan families. When I was a girl, my father taught me to draw power from my blood to cast spells: repairing accidentally beheaded dolls, warming my bedroom without lighting a fire, even speeding the growth of a new lavender garden. Blood magic depends on both the continuation of blessed bloodlines and the potency of a given bloodline’s magic, and between those two factors, it has withered away a little more with every passing generation.
The blessing is one marker of my heritage that can’t be taken away from me, so despite its weakness, I suppose I am grateful to have it. But all it’s really ever done is further separate me and my people from the rest of Ivarea, who see blood magic as a blasphemous practice.
Unlike us blessed Proensans, Ivarean magicians manipulate the world around them. Here on the peninsula, magic suffuses the very earth, and people born and bred here have the potential to use that power without sacrificing even a drop of blood. So really, it’s no wonder Fernando looked at me the way he did. The way they all do, in the end, whether they know about my blessing or not: with absolutely impenetrable derision.
“Maman, those men you’ve had your eye on all season, all of those powerful peninsular families--they’re never going to look twice at us. We’re just fairy-worshipping, blood-magic-wielding barbarians to them.”
For the first time since before we were admitted into the ballroom, my mother looks me in the eye. The need for discretion dawning, she herds me behind a nearby pillar. Spiny marble branches of a pomegranate shrub drip garnet fruit all the way down from the painted ceiling, offering us a bloody veil of concealment. “I know the past two months haven’t been easy on you, child. None of us were under any illusions otherwise. But we traveled here to the capital for you. For tonight. Now all you have to do is be your sweet, charming self, and your father and I will manage the rest.” Her dark brown eyes glaze over as she envisions the wonderful future, the grand destiny, I’m to build here in Marenca, the capital city. “It will all be worth it in the end, you’ll see. You’ll belong here. Just like any other Ivarean.”
Maman’s been giving me this speech in some form or other since I was a child. Hide behind topiary plinths to avoid my Castaran lessons? You can’t be an Ivarean if you can’t speak the language of the court. Complain about my dancing instructor tying an oak branch to my back to improve my posture? But don’t you want to be able to waltz like an Ivarean?
All that training, all that work, all my life to belong to a court and a kingdom that turned my people into second-class citizens in our own land.
The thing is, I don’t want greatness as Maman sees it. I don’t want a destiny I don’t already have in my hand, waiting for me seven hundred miles away. I don’t think I could bear it.
But how I live my life has never been up to me. That’s not about to change tonight.
My gloved hand wraps around my locket out of habit. Maman first entrusted the family heirloom to me when I was young. I should have hidden dried flowers or a perfumed scrap of silk inside before coming to the capital--something that would remind me of where I come from. Now the necklace is just a hollow touchstone in a world not mine.
“I just want to go back home.” To our countryside château in Massilie, surrounded by precious little other than grass, cheese, and livestock. I want to go home and let the capital and its glittering palace fade away into nothing in my memory.
My mother merely hums over the confession. “This is your time, Anais. We have to make the most of it.” She adds with a note of pointed cheerfulness, “Don’t we?”
My life has always been forfeit. A sacrifice to forces greater than I really understand. But if my future is a sacrifice that could change my family for the better, that could ensure our safety, our survival, what choice do I have but to give it?
“Of course, Maman.”
After Tristan de la Cueva, another Castaran grande’s son, suggests that I’d be more comfortable in the royal stables, I decide to give up. I don’t care that sitting out from the Anniversary Ball would really just be a pause in the inexorable trajectory of my life. My parents might force me here all over again next year, or they might let me settle for another, slightly less ambitious season in Lutesse, the capital of Galvain Province, but . . . what’s the point of worrying now?
Well and truly hopeless, I plant myself at the feet of a column in the northeastern corner and close my eyes against the chaos before me. In my mind’s eye, I trade the free-floating banners featuring the Cardona dynasty’s crowned dragon sigil for ivy draping the stately, whitewashed walls of my home. I set the hummingbirds that haunt Papa’s hyacinths loose among the enchanted limestone animals that flank the arches at either end of the palace ballroom. I shake loose the antique-gold and bone-white stones of the mosaics adorning the walls overhead to let in the temperate Proensan sunlight. I imagine miles and miles of open space instead of the gilded inland capital, where there’s not a soul to dismiss me because of my home, my beliefs, my magic, my name.