Kate Chenli’s debut YA novel arrives in October, and I don’t think anyone would mind if you judged this book on its cover, because the cover is absolutely stunning. A Bright Heart is inspired by wuxia storytelling tropes and takes us on a journey of revenge, reincarnation, and court intrigue.
After Mingshin is betrayed by the man she loves—the man she made king—she prays that the gods give her a chance to avenge herself. When she wakes up two years before she’s murdered, she vows that her former lover will never be king, and she will never fall in love. Mingshin must then navigate the strange changes in her new life, including a new contender for the throne, a new threat to her kingdom, and a vipers’ nest at court. And hopefully she’ll avoid being murdered in this life too.
Take a look at this incredibly beautiful cover for Kate Chenli’s A Bright Heart, illustrated by Sija Hong. An interview with the author and an exclusive two-chapter excerpt are below.
Linda Codega, io9: What drew you to writing fantasy in the first place?
Kate Chenli: I was a fantasy reader before I was a fantasy writer. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of magic. As a child, I often dreamed of possessing magic (who didn’t?). When I read fantasy, I enjoy getting lost in the rich imaginary worlds where the characters become alive.
I wanted to create such fantastic worlds myself. Writing allowed me to expand on ancient legends and mythology that I’ve always loved. Moreover, I wanted to create lifelike characters, especially strong women who inspire young girls.
io9: What are some of the tropes of Chinese literature that have inspired A Bright Heart?
Chenli: For one, the chance at a second life and the opportunity to be sent back in time to right past wrongs and protect those you love. Who wouldn’t want to relive an experience like that? And a chance at finding true love along the way is also exciting.
Princes competing for a throne is another common trope in Chinese fantasy (many inspired by the real event that happened during Emperor Kangxi’s reign in the Qing dynasty.) The complexity of power dynamics and the entanglements of court intrigue have always interested me.
io9: What does reincarnation in fantasy trope say about human nature?
Chenli: I think, deep down, most humans want a second chance to correct our past mistakes, to redeem ourselves. Given a chance, we all hope to become a better, stronger version of ourselves.
io9: Which character are you most excited for your readers to meet?
Chenli: First of all, Mingshin. She’s smart, cool-headed, and extremely protective of her family. She is a no-nonsense force when it comes to dealing with her enemies. She has a clear goal in life and pursues that goal relentlessly and fearlessly while seeking justice in a challenging world that is biased against women. I want my readers to enjoy her journey of growing into a stronger, more confident version of herself.
I’m also excited for my readers to meet Prince Jieh. He’s arrogant but truthful; he’s a tough warrior but very protective of the people he cares about. He and Mingshin make a fabulous team because he respects Mingshin’s intelligence and steadfastly stands by her.
And of course, Princess Yunle. I had great fun writing about her friendship with Mingshin. I feel that female friendship in fantasy genre still has a lot of space to grow!
My scream echoes off the moldy walls of the dungeon.
The interrogator leans in, his breath foul. “I ask you one last time. Do you confess to the treason committed against the crown?”
I barely lift my head from the cold, damp stone floor. A bolt of pain shoots through me, and the room spins. Still, I lock my gaze on the interrogator, willing myself not to waver. My throat feels lacerated with sand, but I manage to rasp one last “No.”
I spit at him. My spittle of blood smears across his thin lips.
He backhands me so hard my head snaps to the side and my ears ring. He wipes the blood away with a sleeve, then snarls. “You’ll get what you deserve, filthy traitor.”
He turns and gestures to the jailers standing watch. The two burly men stride over and yank me to my bare feet. My broken ribs give a vicious jab, and I nearly faint.
They drag me out of the interrogation chamber, their mocking laugh pealing distortedly. The instant we are through the door, a blast of frosty air slams into me. The wind slices at my bare flesh like an icy scythe—the ferocious whippings have plastered the shredded remains of what once passed for clothes onto my broken skin. I shiver uncontrollably.
It’s snowing, and a carriage with a single driver awaits in the courtyard. Through the swirling white mass, I glimpse the tall, imposing prison walls looming in the distance.
As soon as the jailers dump me onto the hard floor of the carriage, it starts moving. I curl into myself. Where is the driver taking me? The execution block?
The image of Royal Lady Bai’s lifeless body hanging from a rafter in her cell pops into my head. “We’re all going to die,” she said just yesterday. “The Royal Ladies, the princes, and you. Ren has accused us all of treason.” She stared at me with feverish eyes, all her dignity gone. “His edict declared that we conspired together.”
No! She was wrong. Ren couldn’t possibly believe I had anything to do with the attempt on his life. He always said he trusted me above everyone else.
But why did he allow the guards to arrest me without even giving me a chance to defend myself? It’s been three days. Why hasn’t he come to see me? Does he know what I’ve been through?
The anger that has been brewing inside me swells into a storm. Why haven’t you rescued me, Ren? How could you let them treat me like this after your vows of love? Could the fears that have plagued me for these last few months be true? That you’ve been using my mind and money to help you attain the crown?
I suck in a sharp, stinging breath as my chest seems to split open. No, it’s too dangerous a thought, too horrible. I mustn’t lose hope. That’s all I have now.
The carriage jerks to a halt. A quick exchange of words outside, then we are moving again. When the carriage stops once more, I hear a thud, followed by footfalls. Moments later, the driver appears and pulls me out. An agonized groan escapes my parched lips.
The ruffian drops me in the snow, turns, and walks away.
“Wait.” I shudder. “Why did you . . . bring me here?”
But he only hurries away faster. Without a word or a backward glance, he jumps onto the front seat and drives off.
Am I to freeze to death? I swallow a rising flood of panic and look around. Colossal buildings of wooden pillars, red crossbeams, and yellow-glazed roof tiles are connected by twisting cobblestone paths, with evergreens and courtyards interspersed between.
I’ve been brought to the royal palace.
I crawl to the lowest step of a flight of tall, wide stairs. At the top stands the Grand Throne Room, where Ren holds court daily.
I hear crunching on snow. I turn to see two palace guards approach me. Like the jailers, they hoist me between themselves and haul me up the stairs. Even the relentless cold isn’t enough to numb my agony as my lesions scrape against the icy stone.
The men abandon me at the top, then disappear the way they came.
I jolt at the sight of someone standing before the Grand Throne Room with its shining marble walls. His back to me, he wears a robe heavily stitched with five-clawed golden dragons—the sacred creature only a monarch can wear.
Ren. The love of my life. The man I helped become King of Dazhou. He’s finally here.
Ren extends his arms fully and tilts his head back, as if flying high above and savoring the feeling that the entire kingdom lies beneath his feet. He maintains that posture for a few moments before turning around and walking toward me.
He’s as handsome as ever, with golden-brown eyes, lush ebony hair, and the sort of profile loved by sculptors and painters. But gone is the warm, gentle smile he has always shone on me, and in its place is a ruthless mask.
My heart, which has been lifted by a sudden flutter of hope, sinks, wings broken.
I stretch my mangled hand, to touch this man who once promised to collect the stars for me. “Water . . . please.”
He eases away. “The assassin confessed that you and my brothers commissioned his service.” Each word is as sharp as a knife. I can’t believe they come from Ren, but they do.
“I didn’t. I blocked his sword . . . with my body . . . when he ran at you. You saw it.” Every muscle spasms as I struggle to point to the wound where the assassin’s blade pierced my shoulder. But none of the pain compares to what I feel inside.
“And we were to marry,” I plead. “Why would I have you murdered?”
“Did you honestly think I’d marry a merchant’s daughter? Once all the traitors are put down, I’ll wed Aylin and crown her as my Queen. She’s a regal noblewoman fit for the position. In fact, she’s the one I’ve always wanted.”
It’s as though Ren had reached into my chest and wrenched out my beating heart. I suck in a breath to hold back tears. “You used me, you bastard.” Such simple words, but they take all my strength to utter. “Did you ever love me?”
“For two years, I had to stare at your plain, mooning face while saying pathetic words of love, putting on a show of passion. It sickened me.”
Inside, my world crumbles to dust. I suspected that Ren harbored more than friendly feelings for Aylin, but I always attributed this to my insecurity and petty jealousy for my beautiful highborn cousin.
“Aylin loves me,” I say with vehemence. “She wouldn’t do this to me.” My cousin tended me as I lay in my sickbed after the assassin’s attack. She didn’t defend my innocence when the palace guards came to arrest me, but she must have been too frightened.
Ren scoffs. “Her wedding gown is being made as we speak.”
Her wedding gown. I close my eyes, imagining bright-red fabric the color of my blood.
“You forced her into an agreement of marriage,” I spit out.
“Believe it all you want, but you won’t live to see the wedding. After all, you are a traitor to the throne.”
I feel as if the ground were splitting and shifting beneath me. He wants me dead. Why? Although he doesn’t love me, he could just make me one of the many Royal Ladies in his harem, then put me aside, leaving me to wither away in humiliation and isolation.
A hot rush of rage rises, blazing through my anguish. “You staged your own assassination, then framed me and your brothers. All I’ve ever done is love and help you. Why do you hate me so much?”
“They say without your riches and strategies, I’d never have become King,” Ren hisses with quietly controlled anger. “They shall be punished for their insolence. My brothers thought they were better, smarter. But I stand here while they await death.”
Royal Lady Bai’s last words echo in my head. We have all been fooled by that charlatan. Even his late father. He maintained his merciful reputation so well that everyone believed he was harmless, but look where it landed us.
A masterful charlatan Ren is. No wonder there are no guards posted here—so he can taunt me without witnesses.
I bite on my lip until I taste blood. How I wish I hadn’t been so desperate for love, for a family after Mother’s passing, that I held on to him despite my suspicions about his true feelings for me.
In despair, my hand reaches for the stone pendant hanging around my neck. Father’s family heirloom I’ve worn since childhood, given to me for his belief in my worth. It’s of no value to anyone but me, so the jailers didn’t rob me of it.
I’ve never prayed before. But as I clutch the pendant to draw strength from it, I send a fervent prayer to all the gods, to any divine power out there, that I be given a chance to do it all over again, to right all the wrongs inflicted by Ren.
“You’re a monster,” I growl, my voice seething with every drop of hatred that boils within. When he merely shrugs, my hatred flares white-hot, prompting me to goad him, “Royal Lady Bai told me Prince Jieh escaped.”
Ren’s smugness is gone in an instant. He grabs my chin and squeezes so hard I groan. His features contort. “I’ll capture Jieh and crush him like I’m crushing you. I am the true King. He is dirt and no more.”
For a moment it seems Ren is about to strangle me, but he smiles, releasing me. “You know I hate that scum more than anything. You said that on purpose, didn’t you?” His smile grows more sinister. “As payback, allow me to divulge a little secret, wench. Your mother’s drowning was not an accident, as your uncle made you believe. He had your cousin Bo kill her after she refused to hand over your father’s business.”
What’s he saying? I shake all over. “No. No. You’re lying.” I’ve never liked Uncle Yi’s insidious character, but he’s not capable of murdering family. When Ren laughs in disdain, I realize he’s finally telling the truth.
A wail rips from my throat. I don’t know where I find the energy, but I leap up and throw myself at Ren. He jumps back, but not quickly enough. My fingernails dig bloody grooves into his cheeks. Too bad I don’t gouge out his eyes.
He roars and slams a fist into my chest. I fly backward, my ribs cracking. No, no, by my ancestors. I cannot die yet. Please!
I tumble to the bottom of the stairs, landing near the feet of someone standing there. As I’m lying on my back, I see my cousin, the gorgeous Aylin, in an equally stunning white fox fur coat—ah, I know that coat. She looks at me as if I’m some diseased vermin.
With a final burst of will, I cry out, “Heaven above! Grant me another chance and I’ll do anything to make it right.”
Colorful light shoots up all around me, glowing as brightly as the sun. A wave of power washes over me and ripples out, far, far away.
So grand, so mighty, so—
A complete, endless darkness pulls me under.
I bolt upright, screaming.
What happened? Where am I?
My scream cuts short.
For a moment, I linger in a void, mind and body.
Is this death?
Everything in me snaps into focus.
What does death look like?
My ragged breaths rasp in my ears as I scan my surroundings.
I’m sitting in a canopy bed covered in smooth, clean sheets and embroidered feather quilts. There’s a large dresser, a wardrobe, a vanity desk, and an adjoining room for bathing. Coal smolders in a brazier a few feet from the end of the bed. Calligraphy scrolls and ink paintings of mountains, forests, and flowers hang on paneled walls that gleam with the dark mystery of well-polished mahogany. A gold-spined book, still open, lies on a nightstand.
A tremor wracks me from head to toe as my mind finally catches up with my eyes. This is the bedroom I lived in for two years before my death.
How did I end up here in the afterlife?
I look myself over and stretch my limbs. All my wounds and injuries are gone. Is this what happens to a spirit after it passes over? I press a palm to my breast and feel the rhythmic beating beneath my fingers. Does a specter even have a heart?
The title of the open book is scrawled in black ink: History of the Continent. It’s one of my favorite topics, and—
The wooden door swings open. A girl dashes in, shouting, “Are you all right, Miss?”
“Mai?” I gasp as I recognize the girl with a round face and doe eyes.
Mai had been my handmaiden until Aylin caught her stealing—an offense often punished by having the thief’s hand chopped off.
Guilt slashes through me. I trusted Aylin’s word instead of my maid’s plea of innocence. Despite my shame, I begged Aylin not to have Mai maimed. The last time I saw her, my uncle’s steward was selling her to a servant trader.
Have Mai and I been reunited in this afterlife?
I open my mouth to apologize to her, but then she moves farther into the room with a lively bounce in her step. “Did you have a nightmare, Miss?” She turns and bows. “Mistress,” she says, yielding her way.
A familiar figure hurries into view. All the air rushes out of me, and I clutch at my chest. Heaven above, what would I not have given to see her again?
For one infinite, glorious moment, I gape at Mother, blood thundering in my ears.
She stops next to me and caresses my cheeks with both hands, her brows furrowed. “I heard you scream. Are you all right, Shin’ar?”
At the name of endearment only used by my parents, a loud weeping sound escapes my lips. I throw my arms around Mother’s waist, my tears flowing.
“Shin’ar, what happened? You are scaring me.”
“I miss you, Ma,” I say, my voice muffled by heaving sobs.
She smooths a hand down my back. “Silly girl. You just saw me last night.”
But that’s not true. I lost her half a year ago. I’ve never forgotten how I fell to my knees next to her bloated body, just fished out of the dark waters of a pond. She was so still, so cold as I held her swollen face. I wept and wept, until I passed out from grief and exhaustion.
Mother feels solid and warm now. Her touch is gentle and caring. Still hugging her—I don’t want to ever let go—I lift my head. She looks radiant, beautiful, and hale.
We must have been sent to Paradise in the afterlife. But why are Mother and Mai acting like they still live in the past? I glance at the book again. I spent every night reading it over the first few months after Mother and I moved into Uncle Yi’s home. How did it follow me into death?
Glancing at the mirror on the vanity desk, I catch a glimpse of myself. My ordinary face shows baby fat, the way I looked when I was a little younger.
The moments right before my death flash through my mind.
I prayed, begging for another life, a chance to do it all over again. In response, there was a burst of dazzling light; its power radiated throughout.
My pulse quickens as a strange, impossible idea occurs to me. “What day and year is it, Ma?”
She frowns, but replies, “It’s Year 105, Month of Er, Day twentyone, of the Jin dynasty.” She looks me over again.
Year 105. My heart is pounding so fast I feel giddy. Did the gods really answer my prayers and turn my life back two years? Month of Er, Day twenty-one. Exactly two weeks after we arrived at Jingshi, the capital. Only a month ago, Mother and I celebrated my sixteenth birthday, the day marking my rite of passage into adulthood.
“How are you feeling, Shin’ar?” Mother touches my forehead.
“Should I summon a doctor?”
“No, I’m fine.” Given how perceptive Mother is, though, she won’t drop it if I don’t give her a reasonable explanation for my strange behaviors earlier. “I dreamed of Baba. We were together as a family. It was so real I wished it were a different day and he were still with us. That’s foolish . . . but I miss him, Ma.” As soon as I say the words, I hear how true they ring. If only time had gone further back to when both my parents were alive.
Mother sighs. “I miss him, too.”
We stay in each other’s arms, sharing a quiet moment of mourning and tenderness.
I don’t want to sadden Mother, so I release our embrace and smile at her. “We still have each other, Ma. I love you. I’ll make you very, very happy.”
“I love you, too, Shin’ar. And you’ve already made me very, very happy.” She pokes gently at my chest, a familiar, comforting gesture that holds special significance for me: Mingshin, my name, means a bright heart.
Tears prick my eyes. Quickly I turn away. Only then do I notice the young woman standing next to Mai. It’s Ning, Mother’s loyal handmaiden, who “accidently” drowned along with her. After Ren’s confession, I’m sure he and my cousin Bo murdered Ning as well.
But I won’t lose any of you again. Definitely not to those monsters. A surge of torrid hatred sears through me to seethe in my core. I lower my head so no one sees my burning face or the veins pulsing in my neck.
Ren, Uncle Yi, Aylin, Bo. I’ll bring the storm of vengeance upon you all. Feel its force as it sweeps down and destroys anyone who obstructs its path.
“Time to get up, my girl,” Mother says. “I’ll see you in a little
while.” She pats my cheek and departs.
Mai leaves to fill the washbasin. Standing before a full-length mirror, I strip off my sleeping gown. As I straighten, I startle at the reflection of my sixteen-year-old self.
Did the gods grant me a second chance at life? Now that I’ve had time to consider what I’m experiencing, doubts grow.
Legend has it that the gods left this human world ages ago and no longer concern themselves with human affairs—the main reason I’d never prayed to them for help before the twilight of my last moments. Why would they intervene on behalf of me, a girl without social standing and of no importance to anyone but my family?
My breath hitches as a notion strikes. If this miracle is not the product of gods, could it be magic?
I shake my head at the foolishness of my imagination. Only the people in Nan’Yü are capable of magic. Besides, I cannot fathom any kind of magic mighty enough to turn back time.
And that curtain of light humming with power in my last memory . . . did I actually see it, or was it a vision as I hovered on the verge of death? But its power felt so real, almost tangible.
I sigh. I must solve this mystery, but answers won’t come easy.
I lift my five-colored pendant up to my eyes. In moments of despair, Father’s gift gave me strength. It’s a plain thing, but I cherish it more than all the gemstones in the world.
Father entrusted his family heirloom to me when I was only three years old. “You’re worth this treasure, Shin’ar,” he said. “Guard it well. One day, I’ll tell you its history.”
I stood taller and raised my chin, grinning up at him. Since then, I’ve never taken the pendant off except when I bathe.
But Father didn’t get the chance to share its history with me before we lost him to illness.
I strangle a sob. I miss you, Baba. Rest in peace; I promise you I’ll protect Ma with all I have.
When Mai returns, I wash my face and hands in the basin, then dry them with a fresh towel. She helps me into an emerald wool gown patterned with silver embroidery, and wraps a silk band around my waist. The early spring morning is still chilly, so she drapes a lilac velvet robe across my small frame.
At my request, Mai makes several thin braids and weaves them into a simple bun. I pick out a gold hairpin dangling with a few pearl beads for her to thread into my hair.
As I walk down the hall to the living room with Mai in tow, Ning approaches me with a smile. “Miss Aylin is here—”
Boom. A roar explodes in my head. Blood rushes to my face, and everything around me swirls in a swarm of reddish shapes. All I can see is Aylin standing over my broken body, her expression filled with loathing.
How dare she appear again in my life after her ultimate betrayal? How dare she?
I’m startled out of my trance by urgent whispering. I turn, my vision still misted over with scarlet. But through it I detect Ning’s worried face.
With a jolt, I catch myself. How many times did she call me before I heard her?
“Are you all right, Miss?” she asks with concern. Beside her, Mai is as taut as a bowstring.
The red mist dissipates. I nod weakly and lean on a wall, closing my eyes for a second. This is my new life. My death is still in the future, and Aylin’s deceitfulness hasn’t been revealed to me yet. How could she have fooled me so completely? For two years, she assured me I was loved like a sister. For two years, she acted like a trusted family member.
I want to storm into the room and tear the fake mask off Aylin’s face. I want to shout about her betrayal for the whole world to hear. I want to strike her for harming Mai.
But my enemies must believe I still regard them as friends.
I inhale a long breath and stuff my rage and hatred back into the darkest part of my soul. Then, I paste a big smile on my face.
Two can play this game.
Excerpt from A Bright Heart by Kate Chenli reprinted by permission of Union Square and Co.
A Bright Heart by Kate Chenli will be released on October 17. You can preorder a copy here.
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