A teenage pianist gives an exclusive sneak peek of her upcoming YA novel

From the Top performers are more than just impressive musicians—many of them are just as accomplished in their other areas of interest!

This week, we were privileged to speak with one of these multitalented individuals: 16-year-old pianist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award recipient, Coco Ma.

Coco, a Juilliard pre-college student, was recently featured on Show 338, recorded at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In her interview, Coco described her passion for literature, and revealed that she’s just finished writing a Young Adult fantasy novel!

One of Coco’s favorite parts of her From the Top experience was having the chance to speak at greater length about her book, The Blood of Shadows, on our podcast. The book is 110,000 words in length, and features cover art made by Coco herself (pictured below)! Coco shared with us that, while the idea for the book may have come to her in a dream, it features elements from the classic fairytale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

This, she pointed out, places her in a long history of storytellers who have reimagined these timeless tales in fresh ways. She was careful to emphasize, though, that The Blood of Shadows is not necessarily a full retelling of the fairytale, but that it does contain some nods to the familiar story in some of its content.

When we spoke with Coco on both the show and the podcast, she told us that she was in the process of looking for literary agents who could help her get her manuscript signed to a publishing company. Just a few weeks later, she wrote to us once again to inform us that during her show, of all people, a literary agent was right there in our live audience! She hopes that The Blood of Shadows will be hitting shelves soon!

If you were as impressed by Coco’s reading of excerpts from her book as we were, here’s your chance to get a sneak preview. Check out a synopsis, followed by an extended excerpt, of The Blood of Shadows by From the Top superstar, Coco Ma, below!


Synopsis

In a world of magic, nothing is ever as it seems. Asterin Faelenhart, the Princess of Axaria and heir to the throne, possesses extraordinary and seemingly limitless magical potential, much to the bizarre dismay of her mother, the Queen. Asterin naturally assumes that the Queen would want her successor to be as powerful as possible—who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile, something dark is brewing on the borders of Axaria. A monstrous beast has been laying waste to the villagers and their homes. Described as a shadow demon summoned from the darkest depths of the immortal realm, it is invulnerable. Dozens and dozens of soldiers are sent out… and not one ever returns.

When an answer to Asterin’s powers finally arises, the Queen of Axaria demands that the Princess prove her worthiness of the throne by delving into the forest where the demon lives. Believing that Asterin’s power may hold the key to its defeat, the Queen assigns her a single task—the task that countless, trained soldiers have unsuccessfully accomplished. To kill it.

With the help of her friends, Asterin, eager to avenge her country, sets out to face one of the greatest challenges she has ever encountered. As they hunt for the demon, they unearth a plot to kill the Princess—ordered out by the one person they should trust most. Asterin and her friends begin to wonder how much of their lives have been lies, especially when they realize that the centre of the web of deceit may very well be themselves. With no one to turn to, they will be forced to ask just how much they’re willing to sacrifice to protect the world that they have always known.

Prologue

Eternity. It was as endless and grey as the bleak sky above, broken only by the harsh, craggy teeth of the mountain peaks. Gusts of snow blasted from above as the bitter wind screamed, echoing like the furious cries of damned souls.

An ancient mountain, taller than all the rest, rose loftily in the distance. Its peak plunged upward, piercing through the blanket of ashen clouds, flurries of white spilling over its rugged crests.

One side of the rock face was peppered with a handful of tiny hollows. Each hollow led toward the same place, descending through layers and layers of rock before opening into an immense cavern with an arched ceiling and vast walls, buried deep inside the earth.

Etched into the ceiling was a carving. A word, in a language as ancient and filled with wrath as the mountain itself, long ago forgotten by mortals—abandoned. This was a gateway, an entrance to a realm of merciless darkness.

Höllenfer.

In the centre of the cavern stood a woman, her skin pink from the frigid bite of the cold. She paid no heed to the iciness in her fingers as she chanted a feverish incantation beneath her breath. Lines of cobalt light raced from her palms, tearing through the ground and sending sprays of debris into the air. Her breaths became gasps as she struggled to maintain her focus, muscles quivering from exertion.

A deep hum swelled from beneath the ground, growing in volume as the light surged upward, twisting and lacing together to create an egg-shaped cluster suspended high above her head. A mighty roar shook the cavern as the cluster exploded, revealing a black mass writhing through the air in agony, shrieking and howling with rage. She watched on in wondrous awe, wrists twirling as she shaped its flesh, pulling and pushing, melding it as she pleased.

When at last she had finished, its howls had subsided. Gleaming red eyes drilled into her very soul as the creature lumbered forward, its lithe, wiry body packed with muscle despite its slender frame. Translucent wings extended from its shoulders, stretching to the cavern arches, as large as billowing sails. The creature emitted a black aura, pulling light inward—consuming it.

Darkness incarnate.

She took a step back, not out of fear, but in admiration. It was a true masterpiece—a lethal weapon to grant her every heart’s desire and more.

“Bow to me,” she uttered, mesmerized. “I am your master, and you shall do as I say.”

“I bow to no one,” it rasped, claws clicking on the stone ground as it approached her.

“You shall do as I say,” she repeated firmly. It hissed, lunging at her with incomprehensible speed. She laughed, clear and sweet, slashing it across its face with a flick of her wrist. It screamed in pain, landing in a heap at her feet. She stalked over to it, lips curled in a cruel smile. “I am your master,” she whispered, stroking its ears. Blood dribbled from its muzzle, seeping into its silken fur. It remained silent as she leaned forward, dipping her finger into the wound. She sliced her forearm open with a small blade, mixing its blood with her own. “You are bound to me now.”

“I am bound to the earth,” it growled.

“I need you to perform a task for me,” she said, ignoring it.

“A task?” it spat, eyes glazing over in obedience even as the words left its mouth.

“A shadow. I need you to be a shadow. A shadow of death.”

 

 

The journey across the mountains took two days, and the voyage directly south across the sea from the icy wasteland to the continent of Aspea another three. They set sail in a small vessel, manned by a burly captain and a motley crew, all seemingly unfazed by the creature as the woman guided it onboard. The temperature gradually warmed as they crossed the great blue expanse, the captain expertly navigating through the treacherous waters. Leaving the boat and the crew docked in a decaying, abandoned pier on the west shores of the Northlands, they traveled on foot for one last day.

They arrived on the outskirts of the southern border well after midnight, under the cover of a moonless sky in a small village just on the fringes of the Aswiyre Forest. The village was quiet and calm, the windows shuttered, and the cobbled streets empty, void of life.

There wasn’t a soul in sight to bear witness to the woman or the beast by her side.

She led the creature into the dense grove of trees, forging deeper and deeper into the woods until they reached a pitch-black clearing. Tendrils of fog and mist crept through the stale air. The creature blended perfectly in the gloom, invisible amongst the foliage.

“Kill everything in your path,” she crooned, speaking for the first time since they had left the mountain as she turned to leave. “Carry out my bidding and satisfy your bloodlust.” The creature watched the woman fade into the fog, no more than a phantom wisp of smoke dissipating into night itself. “Be my shadow.” It felt a breeze caress its muzzle. A sudden, searing heat seeped into the mark she had made across its skin, still encrusted with blood.

A reminder—and a warning.

The woman vanished completely, her final command ringing through the clearing, yet no louder than a spine-chilling whisper.

“Be Death.”

 

Chapter One

Asterin Faelenhart ran a brush through her hair, violently untangling the stubbornest of locks with her fingers. She glowered fiercely at her reflection in the mirror. Emerald eyes stared back at her. Her scowl deepened as they flicked to the ugly purple bruise blossoming on her cheek, stark against her pale skin.

Sighing in irritation, Asterin pressed two fingers to the blemish. A tingling sensation enveloped the tender spot. She narrowed her eyes, leeching the purple away, but then hesitated, stricken as she debated whether her appearance or her pride were of more value.

Biting her split lip, she lowered her hand. Then raised it again as she imagined her mother’s wrath at seeing her daughter as battered as a street brawler for the third day in a row. The bruise disappeared without a trace a moment later, leaving the skin beneath it as flawless and smooth as porcelain.

She worked on her lip next, mending the tear before snatching the lip paint closest to the edge of the table—blood-red. How fitting.

After dusting fine powder over her face with a soft brush, she twisted her ebony hair into a tight knot, smoothing the stray strands down with a wave of her hand. She motioned toward the jeweled hairpiece sitting beside the mirror, scrutinizing her reflection as it levitated at her command and settled into her dark locks. Even in the dim light of her chambers, the bold rubies sparkled. She adjusted the tiara with care, the pointed teeth digging deep into her scalp, and ensured it was secure. The last thing she needed was for it to fall out—again.

A knock sounded, echoing through her empty chambers. She rose from her seat, the fabric of her gown rustling softly as she wrenched the door open.

“Princess Asterin,” a young man greeted. Her Royal Guardian leaned on the frame of the door, ankles crossed, his perfect mouth twisted in a smirk.

“Go away, Orion. Dinner isn’t until half-past six,” she snapped.

“Such poor manners for a princess.” He tsked, ice-chip blue eyes glinting with mischief. “Your mother wouldn’t be pleased.” She snorted at that. He raised an eyebrow at the tiara perched on her head, nostrils flaring as he fought down a snicker. Casting a glance at her cheek, and then at his knuckles, he blinked, all innocence as he remarked, “Glad to see your bruise healed so quickly. Looked quite nasty.”

She slammed the door in his stupid, handsome face.

“Oi!” he yelled.

“Go away,” Asterin exclaimed. She sucked in an exasperated breath, listening to him tap his foot outside. She rolled her eyes. Oh, how she wished to bash his pretty nose in with a flick of her wrist. Or rip all his tailored finery to shreds with a wave of her hand.

But she couldn’t, because the two of them had exactly one rule and one rule only—they would never use magic against one another. Because magic could do terrible things when provoked, even accidentally—and great gods above, she was definitely provoked.

She took another breath, forcing her pulse to slow and her mind to calm. Huffing, Asterin finally relented. A bit. “Please,” she hissed.

She yelped as the doorknob twisted in her side. She thrust her weight upon the heavy mahogany door, groaning with effort. Trembling, she snarled at the gleeful face poking at her through the crack.

“No can do, your Highness,” he replied. She allowed herself to rejoice in the small victory of hearing his voice shake—just barely—but the wobble was there nonetheless. “Your mother has requested your presence in her private chambers.”

Asterin ground her teeth. “Tell her that I’m busy,” she suggested, injecting all the venom she could muster into her tone, “and mention whose fault it is.”

“When I say requested, I’m being polite. Besides, by the time I do as you ask, Princess, you won’t be busy anymore. So,” he said, grunting as she gained on him, jaw tensing as the crack became a slit, “I suggest that you go see her immediately.” He suddenly withdrew, causing her to crash face first into the wood. Forehead throbbing and tiara knocked askew, she shouted curses at him as retreated, his laughter pealing through the halls.

Asterin hiked her silk skirts up to her knees, muttering vehement, very unprincess-like words beneath her breath as she slipped out of her chambers on silent feet, shooing off her best friend and handmaiden, Luna, and making her way up the grand staircase, the polished marble shining like glass beneath her jeweled slippers. She managed to dodge a cluster of tittering ladies, and skirted around a corner past a half-dozen guards.

When Asterin finally arrived at her mother’s door, she hesitated. What could the woman possibly want with her this time? Drawing in a deep breath, she rapped the black obsidian thrice with her knuckles. With a slight wince, she rubbed away the sting as the door opened to reveal the round face of one of the maids. The maid gestured for her to enter, hurriedly leading her to her mother’s bedchamber.

Her feet sank into the plush carpet. The heavy, teal curtains had been thrown aside and knotted back with a thick braid of gold rope, allowing the waning daylight to stream through the closed windows of the large room, bathing the creamy walls in amber. An enormous four-poster bed lay in the centre of the room, a riot of peacock feathers fanning out on the wall above the massive headboard.

Perched on the edge of the bed was a slender woman with blonde hair so light it could have been mistaken for silver, piled in an exquisite coil atop her head. She wore a dress of shimmering blue, and with every movement, the fabric seemed to ripple, like the waves of the sea on a calm day. The woman only ever wore silk. A spider and its sticky little web, Asterin sometimes thought to herself.

A tiny hourglass hung from a chain around her neck, the soot-coloured sand always running from some kind of enchantment or another. It was a strange little talisman that Asterin had never understood the significance of, but she had worn it for as long as Asterin could remember.

And of course, no one could ever miss the exquisite tiara of diamond spires upon her head, crowning her as Queen Priscilla Alessandra Montcroix-Faelenhart, ruler of the Northlands.

Asterin cleared her throat. “Mother.”

The woman glanced up, a single eyebrow raised. “Ah, there you are, Princess,” Queen Priscilla purred. “You’re late.”

Asterin plastered what she hoped could pass off as a civil smile onto her face, hiding her wariness, and curtsied low to the ground, her skirts pooling like syrup around her. “Apologies, your Majesty.”

“Come, my child,” Priscilla said, beckoning her over. “This is Dessius, one of the most esteemed Perceptors in the world.” At her declaration, Asterin nearly turned to leave. But Priscilla gave her a cautionary glare, her meaning clear. Behave.

A short, stout man with a hunched back stood by the large bay windows, hands clasped behind him. Scrawled across his forearms and neck in saffron ink were the sacred symbols marking himself as one of the scholars who dedicated their lives to detecting magical capacity and power levels. The whorls disappeared beneath his tunic sleeves and collar, no doubt covering most of his body. Multiple chains and amulets clinked around his neck, a dissonant, jarring jangle in her ears. The gaudy jewels seemed to pulse, almost as though they had heartbeats of their own.

Asterin disliked him immediately.

Her mother indicated to the Perceptor, who bowed deeply to the Princess. It was strange watching him bend over, his back already so crooked that his forehead nearly brushed the floor.

“Your Highness,” he spoke in a voice as fragile as a paper-thin sheet of ice, almost quaveringly, his Aspean heavily accented. She recognized the lilt at the end of his words.

“It is far to travel from Rakyovic,” she said. The frigid capital of Neijish was well known for its polar temperatures and harsh conditions.

“It was no trouble,” he replied, slightly bewildered at the acknowledgement, straightening—at least, as much as he could.

Asterin sighed inwardly. Of course it hadn’t been, thanks to the ridiculous sum of money he’d likely been offered for his services. She estimated a good twenty-thousand silver notes—enough to comfortably sustain a family of five for an entire year.

“Nonetheless,” she said instead, a prim smile overtaking her lips as she felt her mother’s gaze fixate on her, “thank you for your assistance.” Now leave, and don’t ever come back.

“Enough chatter,” her mother cut in, rising. Elegant, poised, dignified. A deadly snake disguised as a swan, gliding gracefully toward her prey. She, too, smiled, charming and sweet. “Shall we get down to business?”

“Of course, of course,” Dessius exclaimed, bustling over to Asterin. “Don’t you fret, your Royal Highness. I’ll have you sorted out in no time at all. Her Majesty would like that, I’m sure.”

“Indeed,” Priscilla said with an unimpressed purse of her lips.

Dessius pulled out a leather case from the folds of his grey cloak. He opened it and selected a light-coloured stick from the velvety interior. “Oak,” he proclaimed. Twirling it in his fingers, he scrutinized her, his forehead creasing into a contemplative frown before he stepped forward, lifting the wand and touching its smooth tip to her brow. “Avslørah.”

Splinters rained down on her dress.

He grimaced. “Apologies, though I expected nothing less.” Dessius pulled a second wand from the case. “Elmwood,” he informed her.

I know, she wanted to say, but her mother’s heated glare stopped her. He needn’t have told her—it was always the same routine. This order, every time, each wand material ranked by strength and durability, starting with woods and progressing to metals and then gemstones.

So she nodded along anyway, bracing herself. It splintered the moment it touched her, even without the ancient incantation, hanging limply from where it had split in half.

And so it went. Murmurs and mutters, with each wand promptly snapping or cracking or disintegrating. Poplar, hawthorn, gold, brass.

Her mother stood by, silent and observant, expression neutral, though her eyes were hard when Asterin managed to sneak a glance.

This was the eighth Perceptor that they had called upon. Eighth, because the previous seven had all failed. Perceptors were those trained to measure power through wands. And though it was possible—albeit difficult—to perform magic without one, almost everyone used them.

Dessius cleared his throat as a wand made from palladium crumpled in his grip. Any previous bravado had all but vanished.

The more powerful the wielder, the higher level their wand would be. A low level wielder couldn’t control higher level wands, and when a high level wielder tried to use a wand not powerful enough to endure their magic, it broke.

Asterin had yet to find a wand that matched her power.

So far, no one knew exactly what Asterin could do—or rather, what she couldn’t do. And with every passing month and year that Asterin’s powers remained a mystery, the Queen grew more and more desperate, each Perceptor she summoned failing to solve the puzzle that was the Heiress of Axaria.

The man looked to be on the verge of tears as he produced the second to last wand. “J-jadewand, your Highness. Level eight,” he said, grasping the wand with an almost laughable air of desperation. “Avslørah.”

The wand exploded with a loud crack.

Asterin cried out at a burst of sharp pain, warmth running down her chin.

“Oh, gods! Apologies, your Highness,” Dessius gurgled, flapping his hands. Yes, definitely on the verge of tears.

Ignoring the sting, she picked out a shard of milky green stone from her jaw and brushed her thumb along the gash, sealing it with her magic. Her mother wordlessly summoned an embroidered handkerchief from the dresser and handed it to her before tucking her amethystwand back into her sleeve. As Asterin wiped away the blood, Dessius started forward to help, but she held up a hand to stop him. He flinched and retreated, muttering apologies beneath his breath.

“Try not to impale my daughter, please,” her mother advised.

“Apologies, apologies,” Dessius whimpered.

Chunks of wood, metal, stone and precious gems littered the ground. The poor maids. Perhaps they could sneak some shiny fragments in their apron pockets and trade them in the market for a decent price.

Dessius dabbed at his glistening forehead, lifting the final wand in his now empty case. “Ruby,” he said, voice trembling slightly.

Ruby. Asterin’s breath caught. Ruby had been her father’s material. Her father, King Tristan Camden Lockridge Faelenhart. He had been one of the most powerful kings to rule for centuries.

Had been, before his death ten years ago.

Her mother inhaled sharply, her expression unreadable. Waiting.

Asterin held her breath, biting the inside of her cheek as the Perceptor slowly lifted the rubywand. He poised the tip at her forehead, ghosting her skin.

Time seemed to slow.

Avslørah,” Dessius whispered.

The rubywand shattered into a thousand fragments, like fiery red stars falling from the sky.


Listen to Coco Ma’s fiery performance on Show 338 from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute of Music here.

Listen to our podcast exclusive interview with Coco as she talks about the book and reads excerpts aloud.

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