An Ember in the Ashes meets Three Dark Crowns in this lush debut fantasy novel about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join a secret group of warriors that ride phoenixes into battle.
I had a sister, once…
In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.
I promised her the throne would not come between us.
Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.
But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.
Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.
Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.
Crown of Feathers is an epic fantasy about love’s incredible power to save—or to destroy. Interspersed throughout is the story of Avalkyra Ashfire, the last Rider queen, who would rather see her empire burn than fall into her sister’s hands.
Crown of Feathers I had a sister once. If I had known then what I know now, I might have chosen not to love her. But is love ever truly a choice? - CHAPTER 1 - VERONYKA VERONYKA GATHERED THE BONES of the dead.
Joints of venison blackened and burned on the spit, and racks of ribs stewed so long that they were dry and brittle as driftwood. She dug through rotten lettuce and potato peelings for tiny, sharp-as-daggers fish bones and the hollow, delicate bones of birds.
The small owl perched on her shoulder hooted softly in distaste at her most recent discovery. Veronyka shushed him gently, piling the bird bones inside her basket with the rest and standing.
It was late evening, the cool night air threatening frost. The village streets were empty and quiet, with no one to notice the solitary girl digging through their garbage heaps. The clouds above glowed iron gray, obscuring the full moon and making it almost impossible to see in the darkness. That was why she’d called the owl to be her guide. His eyes were precise in the black of night, and with a nudge to her mind, he showed Veronyka the way over rocks and boulders and under low-hanging branches. In her haste, she tripped and stumbled anyway; Val had told her to hurry, and she knew better than to keep her sister waiting.
Excitement and anticipation crackled in her veins, tinged with no small amount of fear—would tonight finally be the night?
Veronyka’s breath created clouds in front of her face as she made her way back to the cabin she and Val shared. It was small and had been deserted when they’d found it, the bright blue paint peeling on its front door and the shutters broken, probably used during the warmer months for hunting and then abandoned during the rainy winter season. The weather was getting drier and hotter with each passing day, so they wouldn’t be able to stay much longer. Another home, come and gone.
As the cabin came into view, Veronyka’s insides contracted. The thick column of smoke that had been billowing from the chimney when she left was nothing more than a thin stream of ghostly wisps. They were running out of time.
She ran the last few steps, the flimsy wooden door thwacking against the stone wall as she pushed her way into the single room. All was darkness, save for the orange flicker of the glowing embers. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, the taste of ash bitter on her tongue.
Val stood in front of the round hearth in the middle of the cabin, turning at the sound of Veronyka’s entrance. She wore an impatient, agitated expression as she snatched the basket from Veronyka’s grip and stared in at its contents.
She snorted in disapproval. “If that’s the best you can do . . . ,” she said, tossing it carelessly aside, half the bones spilling onto the packed earthen floor.
“You said to hurry,” Veronyka objected, looking around Val to see that the fire burned hot and low beneath a pile of new kindling. These weren’t the boiled or spit-blackened bones of animals, though. These were large white bones.
Val followed her line of sight and answered the unasked question. “And still you took too long, so I went looking on my own.”
A shudder ran down Veronyka’s spine despite the heat.
She tugged at the heavy wool cloak that was wrapped around her shoulders, and her owl guide, whom she’d completely forgotten about, ruffled his feathers.
The movement drew her sister’s attention. Veronyka froze, her muscles tingling as she awaited her sister’s reaction. Would she fly off the handle, like she often did, or would she let the animal’s presence slide?
The owl twitched nervously, shifting from foot to foot under Val’s gaze. Veronyka tried to soothe him, but her own anxiety was rippling across the surface of her skin. A moment later his clawed feet dug into Veronyka’s shoulder, and he glided soundlessly out the still-open door.
Veronyka shut it behind him, taking her time before she faced her sister, dreading the argument that was sure to come. They were both animages—able to understand and communicate with animals—but they had very different views on what that meant. Val believed animals should be treated and used as tools. Compelled, controlled, dominated.
Veronyka, on the other hand, felt kinship with animals, not superiority over them.
“Loving them is weakness,” Val warned, her back to Veronyka as she crouched before the hearth. She added some of the smaller bones from Veronyka’s basket to the growing flames, piling them carefully around the sides of two smooth gray eggs, blackened and streaked with soot. They sat amid the glowing hot embers in a bed of bone and ash, tongues of fire licking up their sides.
Though Veronyka couldn’t see Val’s face, she could imagine the fervor in her eyes. Veronyka expelled a slow, somewhat exasperated breath. They’d had this conversation before.
“The Riders didn’t treat their mounts like pets to be cuddled and fawned over, Veronyka. They were warriors, phoenixaeres, and their bond wasn’t love. It was duty. Honor.”
Phoenixaeres. Even with Val’s scolding, excitement blazed in Veronyka’s heart whenever her sister spoke about Phoenix Riders—animages who’d bonded with phoenixes. The literal translation of the ancient Pyraean word was “phoenix masters,” something Val often reminded her of. Only ani-mages could become Riders, because only through their magic could they hatch, communicate with, and ride the legendary creatures.
It was all Veronyka had ever wanted. To be a Phoenix Rider like the warrior queens of old.
She wanted to soar through the sky on phoenix-back, to be fierce and brave like Lyra the Defender or Avalkyra Ashfire, the Feather-Crowned Queen.
But it had been more than sixteen years since the last Phoenix Riders had graced the Golden Empire’s skies. Most had died in the Blood War, when Avalkyra and her sister, Pheronia, were pitted against each other in a battle for the empire’s throne. The rest had been labeled traitors for turning against the empire and were hunted down and executed afterward. Practicing animal magic without registering and paying heavy taxes had been made illegal, and animages like Veronyka and Val had to live in secrecy and squalor, hiding their abilities, in constant fear of being captured and forced into servitude.
During their glory days, the Phoenix Riders were guardians above all else, and for Veronyka, even the idea of them had been a shining beacon of hope when she was growing up. Her grandmother had always promised that one day the Phoenix Riders would return. One day it would be safe to be an animage again. And when her grandmother had died, Veronyka had vowed to become one herself. She wanted to be the light in the darkness for other poor, lonely animages living in hiding. She wanted the strength and the means to fight and protect others like her and Val. The strength she hadn’t had to protect her grandmother.
Maybe the Phoenix Riders as a military order were gone, but you needed only two things if you wanted to be a phoenixaeris: animal magic and a phoenix.
Veronyka moved around Val to kneel next to the hearth. The phoenix eggs nestled there were roughly the size of her cupped hands, and their color and texture were so similar to that of natural stones that they could easily be overlooked. It was a defense mechanism, Val had said, so that phoenixes could lay their eggs in secret and leave them unguarded for years until they—or an animage—came to hatch them. The Riders often concealed eggs as well, placing secret caches inside statues and sacred spaces, but many had been destroyed by the empire during the war.
Veronyka and Val had been searching for phoenix eggs for years—in every run-down temple, abandoned Rider outpost, and forgotten building they could find. They’d traded meals for information, sold stolen goods for wagon rides, and made other transactions Val wouldn’t let her see. After their grandmother had died, Val had been determined to get them out of Aura Nova, the capital of the empire, and into Pyra—but it hadn’t been easy. Travel outside the empire after the war had been closely monitored, as many of Avalkyra Ashfire’s allies had tried to get into Pyra to avoid persecution. In the years since, with the threat of bondage or poverty under the magetax, many animages had tried to do the same. Pyra had once been a province of the empire, but it had declared its autonomy under Avalkyra Ashfire’s leadership. With the death of its Feather-Crowned Queen, it had become a lawless, somewhat dangerous place—but it was still safer for animages than the empire.
Without proper identification, Veronyka and Val hadn’t been able to cross the border. Plus, they were animages—if their magic had been discovered, they would have been put into bondage. So they’d been forced to travel within the empire, Val leading, Veronyka following. They’d slept in ditches, on rooftops, in the pouring rain and the sweltering heat. Val would disappear—sometimes for days—then return with blood on her shirt and a coin purse in her hands.
Those had been hard times, but they’d finally bribed their way onto a merchant caravan and been smuggled into Pyra, their parents’ homeland. Veronyka had been certain that, finally, their luck would change. And after several long months, it had.
Val had found two perfect phoenix eggs hidden in a crumbling temple deep in the wilderness of Pyra. One for each of them.
Just thinking about that day brought a prickle of tears to Veronyka’s eyes, a surge of emotion that she fought to keep in check. Whenever Val caught sight of Veronyka’s euphoric smile at the prospect of what they were doing, she’d meet it with cold, hard truths: Sometimes eggs didn’t hatch. Sometimes the phoenix inside chose not to bond or died during the incubation process.
Even now, Val didn’t smile or take joy in the sight of the eggs in the hearth. Their incubation was as somber as a funeral pyre.
A bone snapped in the hearth, and a cloud of ash rose up. Veronyka held her breath so she wouldn’t inhale the dead, drawing a circle on her forehead.
“Stop that,” Val snapped, seeing Veronyka’s hand and swatting it aside. Her beautiful face was a severe mask, her warm brown skin painted with black shadows and swathes of red and orange from the firelight. “Axura’s Eye should not be called for some silly superstition. That’s for peasants and fishermen, not you.”
Val was never much for religion, but Axura was the god most sacred to Pyraeans—and Phoenix Riders—so she usually let Veronyka say prayers or give thanks. Still, she hated the small superstitions, turning up her nose and pretending she and Veronyka were somehow above the local villagers and working-class people they’d lived among all their lives. They hadn’t had a proper home since they were children, and even that was a hovel in the Narrows, the poorest district of Aura Nova. Right now they were squatting on the floor of another person’s cottage. Who were they, if not peasants?
“Have you eaten?” Veronyka asked, changing the subject. Val wore that fanatical look on her face again, and heavy bags sat under her eyes. Val was only seventeen, but in her exhaustion she appeared much older. Quietly Veronyka moved away from the fire to dig through their box of food stores, which were getting dangerously low.
“I had some of the salt fish,” Val answered, her voice taking on the familiar distant tenor that came over her after too much time fire gazing.
“Val, we ran out of the fish two days ago.”
She shrugged, a jerking twitch of the shoulder, and Veronyka sighed. Val hadn’t eaten since she’d found the eggs. For all her intelligence and cunning, she often lost track of the mundane activities that made up daily life. Veronyka was the one who cooked their meals and mended their clothes, who worried about sleep and nutrition and a clean home. Val’s mind was always elsewhere—on people and places long gone, or on distant dreams and future possibilities.
As she continued to search through their stores, Veronyka unearthed an almost-empty sack of rice. They’d have to find something worth trading in the village the next day, or they’d go hungry.
“You know we won’t,” Val said, speaking into the flames.
Immediately realizing her mistake, Veronyka closed her eyes. She’d been projecting her thoughts and concerns into the open air, where anyone—where Val—could snatch them up. While their shared ability to speak into the minds of animals was fairly common—one in ten people, Val said, though it was higher in Pyra—their ability to speak into human minds was as rare as a phoenix egg. Shadowmages, they were called, and for two sisters to have the gift was even rarer. Unlike animal magic, shadow magic wasn’t hereditary, and as far as Veronyka knew, most people thought it was a myth. It existed only in old stories and epic poems, a magical ability belonging to ancient Pyraean queens and long-dead heroes.
While they had to be careful with their animal magic since it had been outlawed in the empire, they had to be extra cautious when it came to shadow magic. People in Pyra would often let animages be, but if anyone were to catch Veronyka and Val using shadow magic, they would almost certainly be turned in. For every legend of a powerful Phoenix Rider queen with an uncanny ability to tell truths from lies, there was also a cautionary tale about a dark witch who corrupted souls and controlled minds. It was mostly nonsense, Veronyka suspected, but people often rejected and distrusted things they didn’t understand. She and Val were safest if they kept their shadow magic to themselves.
Of course, that didn’t stop Val from using it on Veronyka whenever she pleased.
Guard your mind, Val said, speaking the words inside Veronyka’s head rather than out loud. Like speaking to animals, shadow magic could be used to communicate, or it could be used to influence a person’s will: to order and command. Val often used the latter to get them food or clothes or shelter, but she only ever turned shadow magic on Veronyka to communicate. As far as Veronyka knew. Still, she could see Val was tempted sometimes, when Veronyka disobeyed and refused to listen, and she could understand the danger of such a powerful ability.
“I’m making dinner,” Veronyka announced, drawing her thoughts and feelings inward and putting up mental walls to surround and protect them, just like Val had taught her. She was usually better at keeping her mind guarded, but they’d been tending the fire for two days, and in her exhaustion, her emotions were raw and close to the surface. Cooking some food would help distract her from the alternating surges of fluttering anticipation and aching dread that were in constant flux inside her. The closer they got to the moment of hatching, the more terrified she became that it would go wrong, that it would all be for nothing.
Everything rested upon those two round rocks in the fire.
Veronyka lifted their heavy clay pot and hoisted it over to the edge of the hearth, the bag of rice tucked under her arm. “We’ve still got some onions and dried meat to make broth, and . . . Val?”
Veronyka caught the scent of singed fabric. Val crouched so near the flames that the hem of her tunic was smoking, but she was still as a statue, oblivious to the heat, a steady stream of tears making tracks down her soot-smeared cheeks.
Veronyka’s heart constricted, and she looked into the flames, expecting to see cause for concern. Instead the nearest egg twitched and rattled. Veronyka held her breath. The gentle sound of hollow scraping punctuated the hiss and pop of the flames.
A font of purest, powerful hope welled up inside her chest.
She looked back at Val, asking the question—begging for the affirmation.
Val nodded, her answer barely louder than a whisper. “It’s time.”
Nicki Pau Preto is a graphic designer and YA author living just outside Toronto, Canada. Her favorite stories have always been the ones that take her somewhere new, with characters she can love and worlds she can get lost in. Like all starving artists, she considers bargain shopping a competitive sport and Froot Loops a suitable meal replacement.
"Set in a world of warrior queens and their fierce phoenixes, Nicki Pau Preto's CROWN OF FEATHERS is absolutely unforgettable. It draws you in with the first flaming feather and doesn't let go. Fans of magical creatures, get in line, because I haven't loved a phoenix this much since Dumbledore's Fawkes. This is an instant favorite."
– Kendare Blake, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Three Dark Crowns series
"A fierce and incendiary tale of warrior women, sisterhood, and the choices that define us, all set in a soaring new world that readers will fall in love with. I couldn’t put it down."
– Lisa Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author of the Last Magician series
"A beautifully told story about justice, sisterhood, and warrior women. This richly woven world had me turning pages well into the night. Nicki Pau Preto is one to watch!"
– Shea Ernshaw, New York Times bestselling author of THE WICKED DEEP
"The unique and imaginative world of the Phoenix Riders had my rapt attention from the first sentence. Nicki Pau Preto is a bright new talent, and I can't wait to read more!"
– Morgan Rhodes, New York Times Bestselling author of the Falling Kingdoms series
Crown of Feathers is a feast of magic, action, and romance. An immersive, deeply satisfying fantasy that will stay with you long after the story is finished. Nicki Pau Preto is an author to watch!
– From Elly Blake, New York Times Bestselling author of FROSTBLOOD
Queen Nefyra was the first in a long line of Rider Queens, women who walked through fire and emerged to ride the great phoenixes. Hundreds of years later, with Riders called rebels and phoenixes almost never seen, Veronyka has only one dream: to become a Rider. Her sister Val had once wanted the same thing, but a great betrayal has split the siblings apart. Veronyka seeks out the hidden Riders, dressing as a boy named Nyk to infiltrate their training program. Meanwhile, Val lurks in the shadows, and her return could ruin everything as the two mage sisters relive the great war that left their world divided. Also included in this story are enslaved Sev and apprentice Rider Tristan, who are both connected to the legendary phoenixes in strange ways. Interspersed between alternating chapters are pieces of scripture about Nefyra and the history of phoenix riders. This is a new twist on fantasy favorites, and Pau Preto’s first novel is as ambitious as it is lyrical. — Stacey Comfort
– Booklist, Nov 1, 2018
Gr 7 Up–Phoenix Riders are the warriors and heroes who defend their kingdom with the help of phoenixes. When a war between two sisters rips their kingdom apart, the Riders are hunted and phoenix eggs become scarce. Veronyka dreams of being a Phoenix Rider and even begins to bond with a newly hatched phoenix until her sister, in an attempt to control Veronyka, kills the legendary bird. Disguised as a boy named Nyk, Veronyka leaves her home and joins the remaining Riders, caring for animals and helping the local commander’s handsome son Tristan train with his phoenix for battle. Just as Veronyka feels like she’s made a place for herself, her sister appears and things get complicated in the web of lies surrounding them. In the midst of this sticky situation, the army finds the Riders and marches to destroy their stronghold. The novel begins a little slowly as world-building develops, but it soon becomes an action-packed adventure that will leave fans of epic fantasies eager to find out more. The ending is the perfect setup for a sequel. VERDICT Recommended for fantasy shelves.–Terri Lent, Patrick Henry High School, Ashland, VA
– School Library Journal, December 2018
Veronyka has always dreamed of becoming one of the fierce Phoenix Riders—warriors who once defended the Golden Empire but have since been banned. Desperate to join the now all-male Riders, she breaks away from the control of her manipulative sister, Val, and disguises herself as a boy to join the secret group outside the fringes of the empire. There she finds allies in the Commander’s son, Tristan, and later Sev, an empire soldier on the other side, and all three viewpoints are interlaced with bits of history, mythology, and phoenix biology that breathe life into the tale. The characters are well developed and the cast is unusually strong on representation, with broad racial diversity (Veronyka’s brown skin is prominently noted) and a same-sex romance (plus the possibility that Tristan is attracted to Veronyka in her male guise). The novel reflects its phoenix motif in the theme of rebirth that symbolically impacts each of the characters as they remake themselves into stronger people. The well-paced plot is chock-full of shocking revelations, betrayals, and moments of empowerment in the face of adversity that give this novel an epic scope and set up the beginning of a promising book series. A glossary and timeline help readers keep track of the intricate world building.
– BCCB, January 2019
"Crown of Feathers is epic in the truest sense...it's the perfect series kickoff."