The Solar System Comes Alive for a Young Student in This First Look at James Rollins’ The Starless Crown

The Solar System Comes Alive for a Young Student in This First Look at James Rollins’ The Starless Crown
Beware the moon! (Image: Tor Books)

Author James Rollins is best-known for his SIGMA Force thrillers, but he’s also an accomplished fantasy author. His new series, Moonfall, begins early next year with The Starless Crown, an epic adventure in which one of the villains is the actual moon itself. Gizmodo has the cover reveal and an excerpt to share today.

Here’s the synopsis first:

A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.

Fleeing into the unknown she is drawn into a team of outcasts: A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he’s forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home. A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother’s shadow and claims a purpose of his own. An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artefact — one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.

On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.

But with each passing moment, doom draws closer.

WHO WILL CLAIM THE STARLESS CROWN?

Image: Tor Books Image: Tor Books

ONE

The Beclouded Girl

*

A curse allesweis growes from a wyssh.

— proverb from The Book of El

1

Nyx sought to understand the stars with her fingertips.

Near blind, she had to lean far over the low table to reach to the heart of the orrery, to the warmth of the bronze sun at the heart of the complicated astronomical mechanism. She knew the kettle-sized sphere had been filled with hot coals prior to the morning’s lesson, to mimic the life-giving heat of the Father Above, who made his home there. She held her palm toward that warmth, then took great care to count outward along the slowly turning rings that marked the paths of inner planets around the Father. Her fingers stopped at the third. She rested a tip there and felt the vibrations of the gears that turned this ring, heard the tick-tick-ticking as their teacher spun the wheel on the far side of the orrery to drive their world to Nyx’s waiting hand.

“Take care, child,” she was warned.

The device was four centuries old, one of the school’s most precious artifacts. It was said to have been stolen from the courts of Azantiia by the founding High Prioress and brought to the Cloistery of Brayk. Others claimed it wasn’t stolen, but crafted by the prioress herself, using skills long lost to those who lived and taught here now.

Either way — “Better not break it, Dumblefoot,” Byrd blurted out. His comment stirred snickers from the other students who sat in a circle around the domed chamber of the astronicum.

Their teacher — Sister Reed, a young novitiate of the Cloistery — growled them all to silence.

Nyx’s cheeks heated. While her fellow students could easily observe the intricate dance of spheres around the bronze sun, she could not. To her, the world was perpetually lost in a foggy haze, where movement could be detected in shifts of shadows and objects discerned in gradations of shimmering outlines in the brightest sunlight. Even colours were muted and watery to her afflicted eyes. Worst of all, when inside, like now, her sight was smothered to darkness.

She needed to touch to understand.

She took a deep breath and steadied her fingers as the small sphere that marked their world rotated into her hand. The bronze ring to which it was pinned continued to turn with the spin of the wheeled gears. To keep her fingertips in place atop the fist-sized sphere of their world, she had to scoot around the table. By now, the bronze sun had heated one surface of the sphere to a subtle warmth, while the opposite was cold metal, forever turned from the Father.

“Can you now better appreciate how the Mother always keeps one face perpetually gazing at the Father Above?” Sister Reed asked. “A side that eternally burns under His stern-but-loving attention.”

Nyx nodded, still circling the table to match the sphere’s path around the sun.

Sister Reed addressed both her and the other students. “And at the same time, the other side of our world is forever denied the Father’s fierce gaze and remains frozen in eternal darkness, where it is said the very air is ice.”

Nyx did not bother to acknowledge the obvious, her attention fixed as the Urth completed its circuit around the sun.

“It is why we live in the Crown,” the sister continued, “the circlet of the world that lies between the scorched lands on one side of the Urth and those forever frozen on the other.”

Nyx ran her fingertip around this circumference of the sphere, passing from north to south and back again. The Crown of the Urth marked the only hospitable lands where its peoples, flora, and fauna could flourish. Not that there weren’t stories of what lay beyond the Crown, terrifying tales — many blasphemous — whispered about those dreaded lands, those frozen on one side, scorched on the other.

Sister Reed stopped turning the wheel, bringing the dance of planets to a rest. “Now that Nyx has had her turn to study the orrery, can anyone tell me why the Mother Below eternally matches her gaze with the Father Above, without ever turning her face away?”

Nyx kept her post, her fingers still on the half-warmed sphere.

Kindjal answered the teacher’s question. She quoted from the text they had been assigned to study this past week. “She and our world are forever trapped in the hardened amber of the void, unable to ever turn away.”

“Very good,” Sister Reed said warmly.

Nyx could almost feel the beam of satisfaction from Kindjal, twin sister to Byrd, both children of the highmayor of Fiskur, the largest town along the northern coast of Mýr. Though the town lay a full day’s boat ride away, the two lorded their status among the students here, proffering gifts on those who fawned over them, while ridiculing all others, often resorting to physical affronts to reinforce their humiliations.

It was perhaps for that reason more than any other that Nyx spoke up, contradicting Kindjal. “But the Urth is not trapped in amber,” she mumbled to the orrery, her fingers still on the half-heated sphere. She hated to draw attention to herself, longing to return to the obscurity of her seat near the back of the class, but she refused to deny what her fingers discovered. “It still turns in the void.”

Byrd came to his twin’s defence, scoffing loudly. “Even blindfolded, any fool could tell the Mother always faces the Father. The Urth never turns away.”

“This is indeed immutable and unchangeable,” Sister Reed concurred. “As the Father burns forever in our skies, the Mother always stares with love and gratefulness toward the majesty of Him.”

“But the Urth does turn,” Nyx insisted, her mumble firming with frustration.

Though already nearly blind, she closed her eyes and viewed the orrery from above in her mind. She pictured the path of the sphere as it rotated around the bronze sun. She remembered the tiniest ticking under her fingertips as she had followed its course. She had felt it turn in her grip as it made a full passage around the sun.

She tried to explain. “It must turn. To keep the Mother forever facing the Father, the Urth turns once fully around as it makes a complete circuit through the seasons. One slow turn every year. It’s the only way for one side of the Urth to be continually burning under the sun’s gaze.”

Kindjal scoffed. “No wonder her mother tossed her away. She’s too stupid to understand the simplest truths.”

“But she’s right,” a voice said behind them, rising from the open door to the astronicum dome.

Nyx froze, only shifting her clouded gaze toward the patch of brightness that marked the open door. A shadow darkened the threshold. She did not need sight to know who stood there, recognising the hard tones, presently undercut with a hint of amusement.

“Prioress Ghyle,” Sister Reed said. “What an honour. Please join us.”

The shadow moved away from the brightness as the head of the cloistered school entered. “It seems the youngest among you has proven that insight does not necessarily equate with the ability to see.”

“But surely — ” Sister Reed started.

“Yes, surely,” Prioress Ghyle interrupted. “It is a subtlety of astronomical knowledge that is usually reserved for those in their first years of alchymical studies. Not for a seventhyear underclass. Even then, many alchymical students have difficulty seeing what is plain before their eyes.”

A shuffle of leather on stone marked the prioress’s approach to the orrery.

Finally releasing her grip on the world, Nyx straightened and bowed her head.

“Let us test what else this young woman of only fourteen winters can discern from today’s lesson.” The prioress’s finger lifted Nyx’s chin. “Can you tell us why those in the northern Crown experience seasons — from the icy bite of winter to the warmth of summer — even when one side of the Urth forever faces the sun?”

Nyx had to swallow twice to free her tongue. “It…it is to remind us of the gift of the Father to the Mother, so we better appreciate His kindness at being allowed to live in the Crown, in the safe lands between scorching heat and icy death. He gives us a taste of hot and cold with the passage of each year.”

The prioress sighed. “Yes, very good. Just as Hieromonk Plakk has droned into you.” The finger lifted her chin higher as if to study Nyx more intently. “But what does the orrery tell you?”

Nyx stepped back. Even with her hazy sight, she was unable to withstand the weight of Ghyle’s attention any longer. She returned to the orrery and again pictured the path of the Urth around the coal-heated sun. She had felt the waxing and waning of the warmth as the sphere rotated fully around.

“The Urth’s path is not a perfect circle around the sun,” Nyx noted aloud. “More like an oval.”

“An ellipse, it is called.”

Nyx nodded and cast a quizzical look at the prioress. “Maybe when the Urth’s path is farthest from the sun, farthest from the heat, could that be our wintertime?”

“It is not a bad guess. Even some of the most esteemed alchymists might tell you the same. But they are no more correct than Hieromonk Plakk.”

“Then why?” Nyx asked, curiosity getting the better of her.

“What if I told you that when we have our dark winters here in the northern half of the Crown, that the lands to the southern enjoy a bright summer?”

“Truly?” Nyx asked. “At the same time?”

“Indeed.”

Nyx scrunched her brow at what sounded like absurdity. Still, she sensed the prioress was hinting at something with the words she had emphasised.

Dark and bright.

“Have you never wondered,” Ghyle pressed, “how in winter the Father sits lower in the sky, then higher again in the summer? Though the sun never vanishes, it makes a tiny circle in the sky over one year’s passing?”

Nyx gave a tiny shake of her head and a wave toward her eyes. There was no way she could appreciate such subtlety.

A hand touched her shoulder. “Of course, I’m sorry. But let me assure you this is true. And as such, can you guess from your study of the orrery why this might be?”

Nyx turned back to the convoluted rings of bronze on the table. She sensed she was being tested. She could almost feel the prioress’s intensity burning next to her. She took a deep breath, determined not to disappoint the head of the school. She reached out a hand to the orrery. “May I?”

“Of course.”

Nyx again took her time to centre herself on the warm sun and fumble to the third ring. Once she found the sphere affixed there, she examined its shape more closely, taking care of the tiny bead of the moon that spun on its own ring around the Urth. She particularly noted how the sphere of the Urth was pinned to the ring beneath it.

Ghyle offered a suggestion. “Sister Reed, it might help our young student if you set everything in motion again.”

After a rustling of skirts, the mechanism’s complicated gears resumed their tick-ticking and the rings started to turn again. Nyx concentrated on how the Urth slowly spun in place as it made a full pass around the sun. She struggled to understand how the southern half could be brighter, while the northern side was darker. Then understanding travelled up her fingertips. The pin around which the Urth spun was not perfectly up and down. Instead, it was set at a slight angle from the sun.

Could that be the answer?

Certainty grew.

She spoke as she continued her own path around the sun. “As the Urth turns, its axis spins at a slight angle, rather than straight up and down. Because of that, for a time, the top half of the world leans toward the sun.”

“Creating our bright northern summer,” the prioress confirmed.

“And when that happens, the bottom half is left leaning away from the sun.”

“Marking the southern Crown’s gloomy winter.”

Nyx turned to the prioress, shocked. “So, seasons are due to the Urth spinning crookedly in place, leaning one side more fully toward the sun, then away again.”

Murmurs spread among the students. Some sounded distraught; others incredulous. But at least Byrd offered no overt ridicule, not in the presence of the prioress.

Still, Nyx felt her face heating up again.

Then a hand patted her shoulder, ending with a squeeze of reassurance.

Startled by the contact, she flinched away. She hated any unexpected touch. Many a boy — even some girls — had come of late to grab at her, often cruelly, pinching what was most tender and private. She could not even accuse and point a finger. Not that she often didn’t know who it was. Especially Byrd, who always reeked of rank sweat and a sour-yeasty breath. It was a cloud that he carried about him from the stores of ale secretly sent to him by his father in Fiskur.

“I’m sorry — ” the prioress said softly, plainly noting Nyx’s reaction and unease.

Nyx tried to retreat, but one of her fingers had hooked through the Urth’s ring when she had flinched. Embarrassment turned to panic. She tried to extract her hand but twisted her finger wrong. A metallic pop sounded, which earned a gasp from Sister Reed. Free now, Nyx withdrew her hand from the orrery and clutched a fist to her chest.

Something tinged and tanged across the stone floor near her toes.

“She broke it!” Byrd blurted out, but there was no scorn, only shock.

Another hand grasped her elbow and yanked her back. Caught off guard, Nyx stumbled and tripped to her knees on the floor.

“What have you done, you clumsy girl?” Sister Reed still clutched her. “I’ll have you switched to your core for this.”

“No, you won’t,” Prioress Ghyle said. “It was an accident. One for which I’m equally at fault for startling the child. Would you have me tied to the rod and beaten, Sister Reed?”

“I would never…”

“Then neither will the child suffer. Leave her be.”

Nyx’s elbow was freed, but not before those same fingers squeezed hard, digging down to the bone. The message was clear. This matter was not over. It was a bruising promise. Sister Reed intended to exact payment for being humiliated in front of the students, in front of the prioress.

Ghyle’s robes swished as her voice lowered toward the floor. “See. It is just the Urth’s moon that has broken free.” Nyx pictured the prioress collecting the bronze marble from the floor. “It can easily be returned to its proper place and repaired.”

Nyx gained her feet, her face as hot as the sun, tears threatening.

“Sister Reed, mayhap it’s best that you end today’s lesson. I think your seventhyears have had more than enough celestial excitement for one morning.”

Nyx was already moving before Sister Reed dismissed the class to break for their midday meal. She raced her tears toward the brightness of the door. No one blocked her flight, perhaps fearing to catch her humiliation and shame. In her haste to escape, she left behind her cane — a sturdy length of polished elm — which she used to help guide her steps. Still, she refused to go back and fled out into the sunlight and shadows of a summer day.


Excerpt from The Starless Crown by James Rollins reprinted by permission. Copyright Tor Books.

James Rollins’ The Starless Crown is out January 4, 2022; you can pre-order a copy here.