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Cruel Illusions

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About The Book

“The perfect sinisterly magical escape…full of longing, desperation, and betrayal.” —Stephanie Garber, New York Times bestselling author of the Caraval trilogy and Once Upon a Broken Heart

Caraval meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this “beguiling” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) young adult fantasy about a girl who makes a deal with a magical secret society to enter a potentially deadly competition for the chance to avenge her mother’s death.

Ever since a vampire murdered her mother, Ava has been determined to get revenge. This all-encompassing drive has given her the fuel she needed to survive foster home after foster home.

But it’s been ten years since anyone’s seen a vampire, and Ava has lost hope that she’ll ever find one…until she stumbles across a hidden magic show where she witnesses impossible illusions. The magicians may not be the bloodsuckers she’s hunting, but Ava is convinced something supernatural is at play, so she sneaks backstage and catches them in acts they can’t explain.

But they’ve been waiting for her.

The magicians reveal they’re part of an ancient secret society with true magic, and Ava has the same power in her blood that they do. If she joins them, they promise to teach her the skills she needs to hunt vampires and avenge her mother. But there’s a catch: if she wants to keep the power they offer, she needs to prove she’s worthy of it. And to do so, she must put on the performance of her life in a sinister and dangerous competition where illusion and reality blur, and the stakes are deadly.


Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I always stop for lost-pet flyers. I can’t stand the thought of animals out on the street when they have a home and a family waiting for them. This one’s a cat, and even though the paper’s yellowed from the sun and the ink’s smeared from the rain, I memorize the gray stripes and the name: Suzy.

Maybe Suzy’s already back home.

Still, I dig a pen out of my backpack and write the number on my wrist, where I’m less likely to wash it off. I’ve found a missing pet only once, but I remember the way the little dog squirmed in my arms when we reached his door and the way his owners almost cried and then hugged me like you would a long-lost relative—they gave me twenty bucks, too.

Sometimes I wish I could post a flyer and have a kind stranger show up at my door and give me back everything I’ve ever lost.

But most lost things never come back.

My hand drifts to the four quarters I always keep in my pocket. I pull them out and fan them between my fingers, blinking them away almost as quick. I give a bow to a watching squirrel. It turns and runs into the street, dodging a car just to escape my performance.

I smile. Magic reminds me of Mom and Dad. The good memories.

The bad one creeps in too. It never leaves, and this time of year, it’s all I can think about.

Shoving my quarters out of sight, I speed the hundred yards down the sidewalk. I take the stairs to my foster house two at a time and fumble with the lock on the red door while the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” runs through my head.

The hardwood floor creaks as I enter. No matter where I go, this house speaks to me with every step. Even when I’m not moving, when I lie in bed staring at the notches in the wooden beam dividing the ceiling, it groans and whispers as it stretches its worn joints. It has too many stories to tell to stay silent. I love to listen to them, especially at night when everyone else is asleep.

I’ve been in new houses, all white and beige and clean. The silence of them eats me alive.

At least this house has one thing going for it.

“Dinner,” I yell up the stairs. I head straight for the kitchen and pull out a bowl of leftover spaghetti from the refrigerator and plop it in the microwave. I tap my fingers on the tiled countertop as I wait.

It beeps, and I set three plates out, spooning spaghetti onto them in heaps.

I’m still alone in the kitchen.

“Guys,” I yell again.

Parker and Jacob stomp down the stairs, drowning out any of the subtle creaks and groans with their chatter. They take the two seats next to each other. Figures. I end up alone on the other side, watching them.

Parker and Ava Perry. We share a last name. It should be me and him, with everyone else on the outside. Jacob’s the bio-kid of the house. He doesn’t need Parker the way I do. But I keep my feelings off my face these days. When we first got here, Parker and Jacob bonded instantly over video games and Star Wars and zombies. They acted like they’d been friends forever. Or brothers. But I noticed Parker cutting his laughs short when I was in the room and looking at me like I was a fragile thing his laughter might hurt. It did. It does. But I want this for him. I’m glad he loves it here.

I pull out two quarters. “Do you want to see a trick?” Mom did card tricks every night at the dinner table. I’d cheer, and Parker would too, but he doesn’t remember it. I wish I could give him those memories to hold on to, but this is the best I can do. Mom gave me these quarters when I was five to practice sleight of hand because my fingers were too small for playing cards, and I’ve never used anything else. I tuck one quarter between my thumb and palm, hidden from my audience. The other quarter, I press into the back of my hand. “I can pass this coin through my skin.”

Parker rolls his eyes. “I already know how you do that one, Ava.”

“I don’t,” Jacob says.

“She’s got two quarters.” Parker blows the whole thing.

I let my hidden quarter clank to the table. For a second, I keep the other one pressed into my hand. Sometimes I get the urge to push it straight through my skin, like it would just go—no trick, just real magic. I dig it in a little and nothing happens except for an angry red line when I give up.

I used to try stuff like that a lot as a kid, especially after Mom died, when I needed a little magic that wasn’t pretend. I don’t know why I still do it.

Shoving my quarters back in my pocket, I pick up my fork and press it into the table, gone soft with age, scratching in another gouge. Nobody will ever notice. This table looks like it’s been through a lot of families.

But it feels like a small rebellion and it distracts me from Parker and Jacob on the other side, laughing about some prank their friend pulled at school yesterday.

I deepen my gouge, then smooth my finger over the gash, suddenly wishing I could magic it away. But scars don’t work like that.

I drag my plate over the mark and grimace as Parker shovels lukewarm spaghetti into his mouth. He hangs his jaw open so the noodles drip down his chin and lets out a low death gurgle.

Jacob snorts, spraying flecks of milk almost to my plate.


I glare, but they’re too wrapped up in their zombie lovefest to notice.

Jacob turns serious, widening his dark brown eyes. “Dude, I would totally put you down if you got bit.”

Parker nods. “Same.” He swallows the spaghetti he’s talking around. “No hesitation.”

“I’m going to put you both down if you don’t shut up and eat,” I growl.

They laugh in the high-pitched, cracking sound of twelve-year-old boys and start debating who the best zombie-fighting badass is.

I twirl a bite of spaghetti on my fork and shove it into my mouth, chewing without tasting.

For the hundredth time, I glance at the hideous clock above the refrigerator. The hour hand settles on the faded drawing of the rooster by the number seven. Deb is late. She’s almost never late. I actually like that about her. She’s not the worst foster-whatever. I’m just supposed to get the boys dinner, and she makes sure it ends up in their mouths and not all over the floor like entrails.

“Ava, can we be done?” Parker and Jacob stare at me with wide, innocent eyes, their plates still half full. I’m sure they have a stash of cookies in their room.

“I don’t care.”

They bolt and leave me alone to clean up their mess.


Pushing back my chair with a scrape, I start stacking the dishes, then dump them in the sink.

I look at the clock again. Seven p.m. on a Friday night. Friday. I let myself smile a little. Parker and I watch The NeverEnding Story together every Friday night no matter where we are. Even if we don’t have a DVD player, we tell the story to each other. I can recite that movie scene by scene—but that’s not something I usually brag about.

My steps lighten as I hurry from the kitchen and dart up the stairs, dusting the banister with my hand as I go.

I pause outside the bedroom with the yellow hazard sign nailed to the door. Inside, the pop, pop, pop of an automatic rifle mingles with the bloodthirsty cries of young boys.

I rap on the door and silence answers.

Parker opens with raised eyebrows. He doesn’t remember what night it is.

I almost back away. Forget it. But I can’t. It’s tradition.

“It’s movie night.”

Realization crosses his face… but not excitement.

I fidget, scraping at a hangnail with my thumb.

Parker turns to Jacob, who’s smiling as he sits on the lower level of their bunk, facing the TV across the room. I wish I could see whatever look Parker gives him. Or maybe I don’t. The nothingness is already growing inside my chest, and I’m a helpless princess in a floating kingdom, waiting for a little boy to save her and give her a name.

Call my name, Parker.

On second thought, maybe it’s better if I don’t watch The NeverEnding Story one more time.

Parker turns back to me. “I kinda forgot.”

We share a last name, and still he can’t make me feel any less alone.

I shrug. No big deal. I can sit alone in my room and swap stories with this house.

“Why don’t you play with us?”

Jacob’s smile widens, inviting me as well, but it’s too wide to be sincere. He brushes a lock of hair from his forehead and glances back at the screen of frozen men with assault rifles.

Parker’s smile matches Jacob’s. They could be twins.

My brother’s hair is bitter chocolate. Mine is too, but only because I dye it. It’s naturally an almost white blond, but I got tired of people thinking we weren’t related. My brother has my mom’s round face and soft features. You can see the resemblance in the photo he keeps of her—all three of us sitting outside our trailer, the forest tight around us, my brother squirming in her thin arms, and me with my too-big dark brown eyes that mirrored hers. Parker with his deep blue eyes that matched our dad’s. Our mom died two weeks later.

Parker loves that photo, but I can’t look at it without picturing the way I found her body. And it’s already so ingrained in my mind that I don’t need the extra help.

Besides, if I want to remember our parents, I just look at Parker.

People say he’s handsome.

Parker’s staring at me with something like pity in his eyes, and I lock down whatever emotion he’s reading on my face.

“I’m good.” I back away from the door as Parker shuts me out.

The nothingness in my chest grows cavernous and hungry. The floorboards creak.

I open my bedroom door and close it behind me, leaning against the comfort of the solid wood. My room is brighter than the rest of the house. Deb painted the wood panels a soft dove gray. A purple bedspread and floral prints above the headboard give everything a light, girly feel. Silver-shaded lamps sit on white shabby-chic nightstands. It’s the kind of room meant to appeal to any foster girls passing through.

I hate it.

Deb can tell. I don’t know how. I’ve never said anything, but she offered to take me shopping for a new bedspread more my style. I said no. I don’t like gifts.

I cross the room and plop sideways on my bed.

Mom pushes into my mind again. I needed Parker tonight. I needed a distraction, but I don’t want to tell him why. I doubt he knows that this week is the anniversary of her death. She died when I was eight, just before Parker turned three. Dad died not long before I turned six, and I only have blurry memories of him that blend together. Parker doesn’t have any memories of them at all.

I focus on Dad anyway. It’s weird that the safer parent to think about is the one who died in a mugging gone bad, but I was so little that I don’t really remember that moment. I only remember the before and the after. Before, I would stand on the side of a small stage at a little club or community theater, holding the hand of a babysitter while I stared open-mouthed at Mom and Dad on the stage making rabbits and birds and cats appear from top hats or from behind sparkling curtains. Dad wore a red vest made of sequins over a billowy white shirt. Mom wore red silk over a rounded stomach that held Parker. She always wore fresh red roses in her hair. I don’t really remember anything else about Dad besides those nights on the side of a stage.

After, we had a trailer, and we moved around even more, and Mom was a little bit different, like a fancy dress missing the sequins it once had. She didn’t talk about Dad very much.

I learned more about my dad from his Wikipedia page than I ever learned from my mom. Joseph Perry wasn’t a magician with a household name, but he was well respected for his teleportation illusions. Some people speculate that he was on the verge of being one of the greats when he disappeared from center stage and became known for doing small pop-up shows with a mysterious woman—my mom. It perhaps made him more famous because he became elusive. And then he died. I’ve read all kinds of theories that he disappeared because he was running from someone he owed money to or another magician whose trick he stole, and that his death wasn’t random at all. I’ve been down every odd rabbit hole and theory, but all I know for sure is what Mom told me: he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Dad couldn’t actually make himself disappear.

Mom’s death was different. I know what happened to her. I found her. I saw the wounds.

I’m about to let myself dwell on it when the door opens downstairs. Deb’s home. If I’m lucky, Deb will go to bed without checking on me.

I’m never lucky.

She knocks on my bedroom door but doesn’t wait for me to answer. She knows I won’t.

“Ava?” My name in her mouth is always a question that she doesn’t know how to ask and I can’t answer.

She smiles as she slides through the door, still wearing her scrubs and practical white sneakers. Her brown hair is piled back with a clip that went out of style ten years ago. Her eyes dart around the room before settling on me, out of place, in the center.

“I bought you some things.”

I notice, with horror, the bags from department stores dangling from her forearm.

“You didn’t have to do that.” I mean this on two levels: (1) Foster-whatevers get money to feed and clothe us, but that doesn’t mean they actually have to buy us shit; (2) Deb wears a nauseating amount of pink. Her scrubs right now boast pink kittens. Pink kittens. I don’t want anything in that bag. It probably has sequins.

“I wanted to.” Deb’s smile stretches like a worn-out sweater. She smiles too much, and I don’t trust it.

She ignores the fact that I’m looking at her like a monster from a horror film and walks toward the bed. Her bags rustle together, creating the creepy soundtrack of impending doom. I scoot over as she drops them on the bed, and they all crinkle together in the big crescendo that lets you know the main character is not going to live much longer. I try not to flinch. I hope she’ll just leave the stuff and go, so I can slide the bags under the bed without looking, but she rifles through them.

She takes out a pair of dark-wash jeans, loose and baggy. I only wear them that way or tight and stretchy enough to feel like skin—both work for running in a pinch. She glances at my face and takes my silence as confirmation that they’re okay.

She pulls out a red T-shirt, plain and V-necked with a small pocket on the breast. I try not to let my face show any surprise at it not being pink. She sets it aside and takes out another pair of jeans, a green racer-back tank, a blue plaid button-up, a gray hoodie with thumb holes in the sleeves, and finally, a black tank top printed with tiny vines of red roses. It’s the only piece of black in the pile, and it’s marred with flowers. None of it is pink though, and I might actually wear some of it even if my wardrobe is usually composed of black at multiple stages of fading.

Deb fusses with the pile, clearly stalling, waiting for me to speak.

I almost say thank you and accept the clothes. It’s perhaps a small enough gift I can accept without any strings.

She clears her throat first. “Maybe we can get rid of some of your old stuff.”

I stiffen. Any words of thanks freeze in my mouth. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

Her eyes drift to my frayed T-shirt. The stitching along the hem is gone and the material curls on the edges. The picture of palm trees in the sun on the chest is cracked and splintered. You can just make out EAGLES above it and HOTEL CALIFORNIA below. A few more washes and it’ll be unrecognizable. My jeans have a hole in the knee. I say it adds character.

“I just thought—”

“They weren’t good enough.”

“No.” She looks at the door, probably wishing she hadn’t come in here at all. “No. I just thought that starting college in the fall would be easier on you with some new clothes.”

“I don’t care what anyone thinks of me.” Including you.

And I don’t really want to think about the fall. I’m signed up for basic classes at the community college, but even that feels like something you do when you have an end goal. I don’t really have a plan. I’ve spent so much time looking back, I forgot to look forward. At what point in my life was I supposed to let go of the past and do that? I feel like I missed it, and nobody was there to help me find it.

Anger boils over into the nothingness that filled me only moments before. It feels good to be full of something, no matter what it is.

Deb stands up from the bed. I half expect her to take the clothes back as she leaves. She doesn’t. She just pauses at the door with one hand resting on her waist, covering a kitten chasing a ball of yarn. “You can wear what you want. I just wanted to do something nice for you.”

I’m sure the words are supposed to make me cringe with guilt. They don’t. When you’re a foster kid, people expect you to be grateful for the smallest things, like getting to go out to McDonald’s for some nuggets that taste like they were made from cardboard chickens—the kind of things that other kids don’t think about, much less say thank you for, when it’s their real parents who are paying for it. I stopped being grateful for shit a long time ago.

Deb stands by the door for a minute, but I’m not looking at her anymore. I stare in the full-length mirror of my closet without seeing my reflection. I wait until my door clicks shut and then brush the clothes and bags off my bed and fall backward.

Deb’s footsteps move down the hall. She opens the door to the boys’ room, and their laughter weaves together like magic—like family.

And I want to be a part of that. I do. Deb’s house is the best place we’ve been by far, but it’s not fair to Mom. I can’t let myself be part of this until I can really put her to rest—until someone pays for what happened to her.

I consider curling up in my annoyingly lavender bed and distracting myself by watching Criss Angel pull a quarter from his bleeding arm for the millionth time: a personal favorite. But I crave the familiarity of the night air on my skin—one of the only constant things in my life. It always calms me down.

I grab my beanie and my backpack, checking to make sure my crude wooden stake is still tucked away at the bottom. I always check. When your mom was killed by a vampire, how can you not?

About The Author

Photograph by Margie Fuston

Margie Fuston grew up in the woods of California where she made up fantasy worlds that always involved unicorns. In college, she earned undergraduate degrees in business and literature and a master’s in creative writing. Now she’s back in the woods and spends all her time wrangling a herd of cats and helping her nephews hunt ghosts, pond monsters, and mermaids.

Why We Love It

Cruel Illusions is deliciously dark. I was immediately swept up into the sinister world of The Society of True Magicians and found myself questioning what was real and what was illusion alongside Ava. The competition is dangerous, grim, and a little macabre, yet I dare you to tear your eyes away for even a second.”

—Sarah M., Senior Editor, Cruel Illusions

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (November 1, 2022)
  • Length: 512 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665902106
  • Ages: 14 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

A girl is determined to join a troupe of vampire-hunting magicians and avenge her mother’s death. Ava Perry, 18, and Parker, her younger brother, have been in the foster system since their magician parents were killed. Their dad died so long ago that Ava barely remembers him. Ava never shared with Parker that a vampire was responsible for their mother’s death a decade earlier or that she has been training for years to kill one herself. Her mom always said magic wasn’t actually real, but when Ava learns this was a lie to protect her, she wants to know everything. A troupe of magicians reveal that they use their magic to hunt vampires, and they invite Ava to join them. However, to become immortal like them, she has to prove herself in a competition against other apprentices. As the competition gets underway, she realizes there is something more sinister at play, and the truths she held fast to may not be so true after all. This lush, stand-alone paranormal fantasy blends several beloved tropes into a fresh, enchanting tale. There’s a delicious love triangle, gory blood magic, fierce rivalries, and found family. It’s a bit slow to start as the worldbuilding is unveiled, but then the action accelerates and the romance heats up. The twisty reveals will keep readers captivated. Main characters are White; there is some racial diversity and a queer couple in Ava’s troupe. Sure to dazzle those in the mood for something sensuous and sinister. (Paranormal. 14-18)

– Kirkus Reviews, 09/15/2022

The perfect sinisterly magical escape. Cruel Illusions has everything I love in a paranormal: vampires, macabre magic, and a romance to die for, full of longing, desperation, and betrayal.

– Stephanie Garber, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Caraval trilogy and ONCE UPON A BROKEN HEART

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