Imagine coming from a long line of psychics blessed with the lucrative ability to predict the future — only to realise that the “Gift” has skipped a generation, and you’re out of luck. In Elijah Kinch Spector’s debut novel Kalyna the Soothsayer, the title character has to use her smarts (and a bit of outside help) to fake her way around her lack of abilities to provide for her family. But what will happen when her deception leads her into a dangerous, high-stakes situation she might not be able to trick her way out of?
Below is a description of the novel to give you a bit more context, followed by the full cover and an excerpt, both making their debut on Gizmodo today!
Every member of Kalyna’s family has the Gift: the ability to see the future. For generations, they travelled the four kingdoms of the Tetrarchia selling their services as soothsayers. Every child of their family is born with this Gift — everyone except Kalyna.
For years, Kalyna has supported her father — whose grip on reality is straining under the weight of his confused visions of the future — and her cruel grandmother on the strength of her wits, using informants and trickery to falsify prophecies for coin, and scrounge together a living for them all. But it’s getting harder every year. And poverty turns to danger when, on the strength of her reputation for prophecy, Kalyna is pressed into service by Lenz, the spymaster to the prince of Rotfelsen.
Lenz orders Kalyna to use her “Gift,” to uncover threats against Rotfelsen’s king, and holds her family hostage against her good behaviour. But Rotfelsenisch politics are devious, the king’s enemies abound, and Kalyna’s skills for investigation and deception are tested to the limit. Worse, the conspiracy she does begin to uncover points to a larger threat, not only to the King of Rotfelsen but to all four monarchs at their annual governing council — which falls on precisely the same day that Kalyna’s father has prophesied the catastrophic collapse of the whole Tetrarchia.
Kalyna is determined to protect her family and her newfound friends — and to save the Tetrarchia, too. But as she is drawn deeper into palace intrigue, she can no longer tell if her manipulations are helping prevent the Tetrarchia’s destruction — or if her lies will bring about its prophesied downfall.
Here’s the cover; the cover artist and designer is Sasha Vinogradova (@melaamory on Instagram).
And here’s the excerpt, which explores Kalyna’s motivations by revealing a bit about her backstory and current situation — both of which combined tell us a lot about why she’s chosen the risky career of a faux fortuneteller.
“You killed your mother twice over, you know,” said Grandmother.
She pinched my cheek ironically and chewed on her gnarled old pipe stem. Grandmother seemed to get more from rolling it around between her white teeth than from the scant smoke that leaked out.
I sat still in the dirt at her feet and rubbed my cheek where her thumbnail had left a deliberate indent.
“You killed her first, of course, with your birth: when you selfishly tore your way out, making your poor mother bleed so, so much.” Grandmother removed the long wooden pipe and curled her papery lips to luxuriously exhale a small amount of smoke.
I nodded slowly. I meant to show I was listening, but it looked like I agreed.
“And you killed her again two days later, when she learned, weakened and bloodless as she was, that you would never possess the Gift.”
I nodded again from where I sat, looking up at Grandmother as she noisily placed the pipe between her teeth. Her hard face, the small tattoo above her left eyebrow, peeking out from her scarf, and her thin old nostrils, full of char.
“Maybe,” I hazarded, in a squeak. “Maybe she only died from the bleeding? Maybe… maybe I only killed Mama once?”
Grandmother looked down at me, then closed her eyes as though she need see nothing else ever again.
“Finally,” Grandmother sighed, “she admits it.”
As she sat back in her red velvet chair, unmoving, I wondered if Grandmother had died. If she had savoured a last bitter happiness after I admitted the evil I’d done in this world and then, pleased with herself, expired.
Had I the Gift, I might have known better. I might have known that as I passed through the years, I would do so with Grandmother always at my back — remaining stubbornly, infuriatingly, alive and lucid.
Two of those decades later, I was twenty-seven and still sitting in the dirt at the foot of her chair, from which the velvet was all gone. Grandmother was unchanged since the day she told me I twice murdered my mother, except that her pipe was empty and unlit: she couldn’t smoke anymore, said it made her cough too much, so she spent her days chewing the cold pipe stem and spitting.
Grandmother was my father’s mother, and he and I never could understand how, in all her hateful life, she had come to genuinely love, care for, and miss her daughter-in-law, of all people. But she had. It was to Papa that Grandmother had passed the Gift, and through him that it was meant to go to me. The Gift had been in our family for generation upon generation, through thousands of years; farther back than even Loashti nobles traced their lineages, let alone poor nomads like us. The Gift cared not for gender, legitimacy, national boundaries, nor family name, and was all that delineated our family down through the ages.
At the end of autumn in that, my twenty-seventh year, our horse died. The following day, I untied the furs that had been stored neatly at the peaks of our tents. The soft remains of long-dead polecats, wolves, and marmots tumbled down against me, thick and stale, smelling like the previous winter in the kingdom of Quruscan: all cold mutton and maple and mildew. We had spent this autumn, which was now ending, on a grassy hill in the Great Field, north of the town of Gniezto, in the kingdom of Masovska.
Our goal was to keep from starving to death in the onrushing winter, just like it was every autumn. But now we were stranded with no horse, and so we served our few customers and built up meager winter supplies, which would mean nothing if we froze in our tents. I tried not to think of all the ways we could die before spring, nor of how we would ever afford a new horse. For now, I could only roll down the furs to keep out the cold winds.
These winds had cut through the Great Field all autumn, and would only worsen in winter, as I remembered from previous years we had spent there. At least when the snows came, we could winter among the tents crowding the Ruinous Temple. Perhaps it would have been better to go broke buying Papa a room in an inn, with four walls and a roof, but it was our family’s way to move. Walls are traps.
We moved to escape reprisals, you see: sometimes long before my ruses were discovered, and sometimes fleeing angry mobs. I was, after all, lacking the Gift, and therefore an inveterate liar.
The Gift is that of prophecy and soothsaying. Anyone possessing it can see the future, with limitations: the most important being that the better known a subject is to the bearer of the Gift, the less can be seen. Such a future is, to put it simply, blocked by the clarity of the present. This is why Papa and Grandmother couldn’t see my future, nor their own, nor each other’s, and why no one saw my mother’s death coming. This is also why a fortuneteller must make her living telling the futures of strangers, rather than making herself very rich by knowing whom to befriend, whom to kill, or where to open a changing bank. The moment any threads threaten to involve the soothsayer, she is less likely to see their ends.
This limitation can be stretched and twisted when the bearer of the Gift is near death. Papa almost died of sickness and starvation when he was looking after my mother in her final days, and it was in a fit of near-death, when his spirit was not so close to us, that he gained the distance to see that the Gift would never be mine. Knowing this, of course, killed my mother. Finally. Again.
These capricious workings of the Gift are another reason I prayed for Grandmother to finally die, as was her due. Perhaps on her deathbed she could tell us if there was any chance of the Gift skipping a generation, of my child not being hollow like its mother. Although, when I hit my mid twenties, she seemed to have decided that the line ended with my father; I wonder if, near death, she had foreseen this, and then clawed her way back to life to continue tormenting me.
Perhaps the Gift is in me somewhere, and instead of being broken I am simply too stupid to access it.
The Great Field
Masovska’s Great Field was not very great. It was less than a mile wide, and only a few miles long. In Quruscan’s minor steppes, for comparison, the grass could stretch in every direction until you got lost and spun in circles and felt as though you were drowning on a dry sunny day. I have heard that the major steppes drove travellers insane, and had oak-high grasses riddled with the corpses of birds in sizes never seen by polite civilisation. The birds had, supposedly, lost their minds and their way as surely as any human traveller.
The so-called Great Field, however, was just a patch of shrubs and hills, with a sad old ruin in the middle. This Ruinous Temple had been constructed long before recorded history, from that supposedly unbreakable stone of the Ancients, before it was then, somehow, torn apart. The prevailing theory was that the Ancients dared to speak the gods’ names out loud, and thus doomed themselves. Whatever its origin, from the Ruinous Temple you could see, and hear, the forests at the Field’s borders. I suppose the Field was considered “Great” because most of Masovska was forest, the kind where trees grow so tightly into one another that there’s no room for air or light, yet somehow giant boar and packs of wolves can slip between. The Great Field may well have been Masovska’s only field that was not human-made.
But, I suppose, to those who had seen no better, the Field could be Great, and in those days it bustled with commerce right up to the edge of winter. Due to an ordinance in Gniezto about A Certain Sort of Business, one could always find merchants, hucksters, prostitutes, mystics, messiahs, revolutionaries, and others who didn’t fit Masovska’s mores camping out in those shrubs and hills outside of town. The most lucrative formed a marketplace in the Ruinous Temple, which led to fistfights and sales wars, until winter chased away those who could afford to run.
We untrustworthy parties banished to the Great Field maintained cold cordiality with one another: businesslike, but never trusting. I have heard of fanciful thieves’ guilds — secret criminal societies buttressed by codes and mutual respect — that may or may not have existed outside of stories, but the trick of the Great Field was that everyone there felt themselves to be more legitimate than the rest. Surely one was dishonest, but he was not sacrilegious; while another was sacrilegious, but not foreign; and the foreigner could at least be sure that she was not unladylike; and the unladylike knew that was not some disloyal dissident; and so forth. This way of looking at one’s neighbours was not conducive to respect or professional courtesy.
When winter arrived, most residents fled to more sturdy surroundings in towns and villages, where they continued to bicker, but those who could not afford traditional lodgings, like us, would crowd uneasily beneath huge canvases, heavy with snow, in the Ruinous Temple. I had pleasant memories of this arrangement from childhood, back when new smells, new voices, and excessive cold made things exciting. Papa told stories back then, and made it an adventure, but later I saw how close we came to having our food, clothes, and furs stolen. Not that a stable community has ever been quick to shelter my family either: few care for the survival prospects of an invalid huckster, his talentless daughter, and his rancorous mother.
It lay upon me to keep Papa (and, I suppose, Grandmother) from starving in winter, and this year I was doing a terrible job. We did not have enough salted meat or kasha for half the season, and we could not even eat our poor horse. It had been yellow blight that sent the poor beast off to canter unsteadily across the sky with his twenty-legged horse god, and his meat was quite poisonous (although his hide would serve to patch up our tents). So, on the morning that I set the tent-furs, I saw a horrid bird landing on our hill, and hoped that it carried good news.
The bird was a huge, red-eyed lammergeier, with black and white streaked wings longer than I was tall, and a body the bronze of sunset. It carried a message from Ramunas, for whom a grey messenger pigeon would have been passé.
The curled parchment tied to the beast read: “GNIEZTO COURTHOUSE, TOMORROW MORNING. FOR EIGHT-TOES. — RAMUNAS.” As though such a message could have come from anyone else. For tasks like this he had bought this terrifying bird, had it trained, barely, by handler-mages, and forced me to disengage the parchment from its gnarled, angry claws. I think the thing sneered at me as it flew away.
Ramunas was an incredibly ostentatious informant, who often helped me form my false prophecies. His reach was not so far that he felt the pulse of all Masovska, but he knew much of its minor arteries near the town of Gniezto. I had met him early during this stay in the Great Field, and his information had more than once paid for itself. Whether or not I liked him, he was effective and cheap, and always seemed to know a little more than anyone else I could afford. How such a flamboyant and theatrical man learned so many secrets was still beyond me. I had told him that even a prophet needed a bit of help and context for her visions, at times — which, in my father’s day had been true — and Ramunas either believed me or did not care about my legitimacy.
What Ramunas had to tell me about a customer I knew as Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way, or why it needed to be said at the courthouse, I did not know. But a promise of decent information, even for a price, was welcome. All good news was holy, just then.
Once I was sure the flying beast was gone, I checked in on Papa and assured him that, yes, there actually had been a great bronze bird. I held his shaking, sweaty hand and kissed his red-brown brow until he went back to sleep.
Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way
When he had been able, Papa had taught me how to get by as a soothsayer on observation and generalities, which even those with the Gift must employ. I can often tell a man he will throw out his back if I see how he carries his goods, or tell a pretty young woman she has an admirer, because of course she does. One with no skill, like myself, can do decent business with finesse: telling customers what is apparent, what they want to hear, and what is deeply vague. The rest is made up through theatricality, well-placed sabotage, distraction, and research, such as that which comes by lammergeier.
Which brings us to Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way. Gustaw was the best sort of customer: a returning one. Fourteen years previous, our travels also brought us to the Great Field. Back then, Papa had still been the soothsayer, even as his health failed and his mind hiccoughed, and Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way had possessed a shorter name.
On a summer day in that year, Gustaw and his stupid friends drank at the Ruinous Temple market and stumbled about the Great Field, laughing and fighting and sweating as men in their early twenties do when they’re drunker on blazing sunlight than ale. Sallow Gniezto residents lose their minds when they are not shaded by trees. At our tents, Gustaw’s stupid friends dared him into a session with the spooky, exotic, legless soothsayer. I curtsied carefully and pivoted to usher Gustaw inside to see my father. His stupid friends leered at me and retched shredded goat meat onto the green grass.
Papa could barely do his job by the time I was thirteen. He was no longer the unflappable, endlessly confident prophet of my early years, who could recite perfect mixtures of truth and lie while bandying about on his hands faster than most men ran on their legs. No, that day, seated on his great pillow, his hands shook, knocking over candles and ruining the mystique, and he often he forgot the very real futures the Gift showed him. He did manage to blurt out that if Gustaw wasn’t careful his left foot would be injured. Gustaw laughed his way outside, where his stupid friends burned their pale skin in the sun and suggested that the legless man only wanted to put a scare in him.
Based on the name Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way, I’m sure you can guess what followed. Gustaw and his stupid friends got into a drunken altercation that night with a man who was not drunk, and who was armed. A cross-guarded sabre took off Gustaw’s big toe and the one next, along with a triangular section of his foot.
Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way came to us again eight years later, when I had taken over from my father and we once more spent a season in the Great Field. That year, I (somehow) foretold Gustaw’s yet-unborn third daughter in enough detail to be convincing.
Now, in this waning autumn when I was twenty-seven, Eight-Toed Gustaw from Down Valley Way had come to us once more. He now respected and feared the Gift, and was well-liked enough in his community that some others did too. What’s more, Gustaw possessed some sort of affection for us: perhaps as a nostalgic vision of the end of mindless youth, and the beginning of slightly less mindless adulthood. I believe he still had the same friends, but they may have become less stupid.
He paid me in copper coins for a pleasant chat laced with vagaries and wish fulfillment. It was all so simple that I got none of the thrill of a well-executed deception, until he asked if there was any money coming his way. Here I found the seeds of a greater piece of fraud, and asked him to return soon if he wanted to learn more. I did not ask him why he expected to become richer.
Instead, I asked Ramunas. And a week later, I received his lammergeier.
Excerpt from Kalyna the Soothsayer by Elijah Kinch Spector reprinted by permission. Copyright Erewhon Books.
Elijah Kinch Spector’s Kalyna the Soothsayer will be out February 15; you can pre-order a copy here.