US Cover Reveal and Excerpt for Amy McCulloch’s The Oathbreaker’s Shadow

Two completely different looks. One book.

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow came out in June 2013 in the UK and Canada, but is finally getting its US debut in Feburary 2015 from Flux Books! To give this edition its own unique spin, my publisher has chosen to do something a bit different for my cover. Whereas the UK and Canada went for a character-led cover, with Raim—my protagonist—looking ready for action on the front, the US have gone with something more iconic and more appealing to the crossover market.

The Oathbreakers Shadow Amy McCulloch

I absolutely love the searing desert feeling of the cover, with the sandstone border etched with swords. The flaming knot is oh-so-appropriate and there’s the hint of the shadow creeping across the desert.

My US editor and I went back and forth with images, looking at inspiration in the market like Graceling and Sabriel and The Ropemaker. We knew we wanted to get across the non-Western setting of the novel, and the idea of fire and heat. I think all those elements are present, so the Flux art department did well!

For comparison, here is the UK/Canadian cover (available from Random House):

The Oathbreakers Shadow UK cover Amy McCulloch

From the catalog copy for The Oathbreaker’s Shadow:

Fifteen-year-old Raim lives in a world where you tie a knot for every promise that you make. Break that promise and you are scarred for life, and cast out into the desert.

Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one knows where it came from or which promise of his it symbolizes, and he barely thinks about it at all—not since becoming the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to his best friend—and future king—Khareh, the string bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred now as an oathbreaker, Raim has two options: run or die.

Read an excerpt below!

 

 

Chapter One

Raim sat in the crook of an old, cracked tree, one leg dangling in the breeze, his head leaning back against the trunk. Long, needle-like leaves shaded him from the oppressive heat and hid him from the view of his grandfather, in case he was looking to assign him yet another chore. He just wanted a moment for himself. From his vantage point he could see his clan’s settlement of yurts, the dome-like tents that made up his home, and watched as smoke lifted lazily out of the circular holes in the centre of the roofs.

A rustling at the base of the tree distracted him. He looked down and spied two of the younger clan boys, Lousha and Nem, huddled around a small parcel wrapped in white paper.

‘Do you swear you’ll guard this for me?’ Nem whispered to Lousha, while keeping one chubby brown hand on the goods.

‘Yes!’ said Lousha.

‘Cross your heart?’

‘Yup.’

‘Suffer like a traitor in Lazar?’

The other boy shuddered, but nodded.

‘Will you make a knot for it?’

‘A knot?’ There was a moment’s hesitation as Lousha chewed on his lower lip. ‘Fine, let’s do it.’

They scrabbled around for something to tie with. Lousha ripped a loose thread from his tunic while Nem plucked a long dark hair from his head. Then, with solemn determination etched on their faces, they folded one thread on top of the other and held them in a loose loop.

‘Do you promise me you’ll guard this until I return, and will you seal your vow with this knot?’ said Nem.

‘I promise, and I seal it with this knot,’ said Lousha, and then they both pulled until the two threads became one. Nem nodded before jumping up and disappearing into the village of yurts beyond.

A corner of the paper lifted in the breeze, and a hint of sticky sweet honey aroma wafted into the air. Honey cake. A Darhanian delicacy, it was baked only for special occasions, like this afternoon’s ceremonies. The scent tantalized Raim’s nostrils, as if he could taste the pastry already, sense the flakes crumbling and melting in the heat of his mouth—and he knew the boy below was feeling the same temptation. Lousha waited until he was sure his friend had gone. Then he inched forward for a closer sniff, putting his nose right down next to the ground and taking a deep breath in. One finger, and then another hesitantly stretched in the pastry’s direction.

Don’t do it, thought Raim. Almost as if he had spoken the words aloud, something seemed to hold the boy back. He stared down at the tatty piece of knotted hair and thread in his hand. He bit his lip. Raim bit his lip too, and dropped to a lower branch, sending showers of needles down to the ground.

Lousha snatched the parcel and held it protectively to his chest and craned his neck to look around, brow furrowed in suspicion. Look up, Raim silently pleaded. If Lousha knew he had an observer he wouldn’t be so quick to break his promise. But with the cake now in his grasp, so tantalizingly close to his mouth . . . the boy flicked the thread as far as he could. Then he ripped the paper off as fast as his little fingers could manage and stuffed the cake into his mouth.

Raim sighed and began counting inside his head: One, two . . .

The discarded knot began to fizzle. A flame sparked to life, then quickly dissolved into a puff of black smoke.

. . . three.

Before the first of the honey cake crumbs had dissolved on his tongue, the smoke blew back over the boy’s hand and seared a bright red mark into his palm.

The boy screamed in pain and clamped his hand into a fist. Then, he screamed in fear as the smoke refused to leave him alone. He tried to beat the smoke away with his hands but it wouldn’t budge. He got up and started running in circles from it, but the smoke followed him like a swarm of angry bees.

The noise attracted the attention of the nearest yurts’ residents. A small crowd gathered round, laughing at the sight. Unable to help himself, Raim started laughing too. The boys were still at an age when a scar from a broken promise meant nothing except for an hour’s nuisance.

Lousha spotted his grandmother in the crowd and tried to run to her, wishing to hide from the shadow by ducking behind the long folds of the woman’s dress. But she backed away from him, unable to let him near, her nose wrinkled in disgust. She let her voice be heard though, as she herded the boy back to their yurt with her angry shouts.

‘What’s going on here?’ A familiar voice carried over the laughter of the crowd. It was Khareh, Raim’s best friend—and the heir to the Khanate.

‘Your pardon, Prince Khareh.’ The boy’s grandmother bowed low. ‘My grandson here has broken a vow and must be punished.’

An amused smile played on Khareh’s face. ‘Is that so? Come here, little boy.’ Lousha took a few sheepish steps forward. ‘Who did you make this vow to?’

‘To Nem.’

‘And where is Nem?’

The boy shrugged.

‘Nem?’ said Khareh, louder. ‘Are you here, Nem?’

The crowd parted, and the other little boy appeared. Tears streaked down his face. ‘Lousha ate my cake! He promised he wouldn’t!’

‘Lousha, are you sorry for what you have done?’

He nodded.

‘And Nem, can you forgive him?’

‘No!’

At that, the shadow swirled more violently around Lousha and he let out a cry of distress. The smile still didn’t leave Khareh’s face. ‘I suppose you really wanted that cake, hmm?’

Nem nodded.

‘But I’m afraid you can’t let your friend endure that torture any longer. A cake is just a cake, and someday your vows will be worth more than that.’

Nem scowled a little, but as Khareh’s smile slipped from his face, even the little boy understood the danger. He looked over at Lousha. ‘I forgive you.’

At that, Lousha’s shadow swirled into the air, and his scar faded to nothing. Lousha’s grandmother ran up to Khareh, dragging Lousha with her, and fell to her knees. ‘Thank you, Prince. You are most magnanimous.’

Raim could barely suppress a laugh. Khareh could hardly lecture on forgiveness. Just a few years ago, that little boy would’ve been Raim. He and Khareh used to constantly push each other to see who could endure the most scar torture. Khareh would force Raim to promise to score a goal during a game of gutball and they would tie the knotted piece of string around his neck. If the other team saw the knot, they would hound him, doing whatever they could to prevent him from scoring. If he failed, if he ‘broke’ his promise, then the curse would descend upon him. He would scream in pain as the scar appeared and a dark shadow would haunt him, just as had happened to Lousha. For an hour or so he would be a repulsive figure, unable to make contact with anyone. Then, once the curse had subsided enough for his grandfather, Loni, to take him home, he would be scolded, and punished hard—first for accepting such a useless promise, and then again for breaking it. Khareh would also be punished for forcing a promise upon him and making him endure the torture that followed—but Khareh would never forgive. But then the elders would stop scolding and smile a little to themselves, for they knew it was important for young children to test the consequences of their actions, so that they knew what to do when they were ready to make real promises.

It wouldn’t be until they reached the Honour Age—sixteen—that a true promise could be made. And a true promise had serious consequences. Breaking a knotted promise meant excommunication to the desert to live in Lazar, with the community of exiled oathbreakers known as the Chauk.

There was no escaping this fate. If it was just a scar you could hide it, as Raim had watched Lousha do, clenching his palm tight. But it was the shadow that you could not escape. It was the shadow that others saw, judged and sentenced the oathbreaker to exile. It was the shadow that followed you all the way to Lazar and made sure you stayed there. Just the thought of it made Raim shudder.

The tree shook violently, sending a shower of sharp needles onto Raim’s head, and he grabbed hold of the trunk to stop himself from falling. He spun around to see a familiar set of mischievous dark eyes clamber up on the branch beside him. Khareh was wearing an ornate black tunic with a high collar, richly embroidered with gold silk dragons in mid-dance. It was probably worth more than most villagers’ entire possessions, but Khareh didn’t care if he ripped it climbing up trees. Khareh was the Prince of Darhan. He was allowed not only to own expensive things, but to ruin them as well. ‘I’ve been searching every tree in the camp to find you,’ he said.

‘It’s called a hiding place for a reason. Plus, there’s a good view from up here. Especially of that little show—what was that about?’

Khareh shrugged. ‘Can’t have a shadow hanging about today, can we? It would be bad luck. Come on, I’ve got something to show you. You’ve got a few more hours before your brother’s sacrifice, right?’

‘One hour,’ said Raim, unable to hide the massive grin on his face as Khareh referred to his brother’s wedding as a sacrifice. He tried to stay serious. ‘And I can’t be late. My grandfather will kill me.’

‘Oh, old Loni won’t mind. That’s plenty of time,’ said Khareh, with the small half-smile and glint in his eyes that meant he had no concern for Raim’s schedule.

There was no way Raim wouldn’t go with Khareh, however, and Khareh knew it.

With a shrug, Khareh leaped off the branch and Raim followed awkwardly, landing with a thump on the dusty ground. Even he wasn’t dressed for tree climbing today.

They were high up in the Northlands, in a tiny village where the plains of Darhan met the Amarapura mountain range. The only time any of the tribes came to the village was if one of their members was marrying into the Baril, the scholars of Darhan. To Raim and Khareh, being Baril was to live a life of interminable boredom. It was the only class that did not prepare in any way for warfare, despite danger lurking at almost all of Darhan’s borders—and sometimes within.

As the brother of the Baril entrant, Raim was not only forced to sit through the entire hours-long ceremony, but also to do so wearing the most elaborate (and most uncomfortable) formal clothes he owned. His indigo tunic was as stiff as unboiled rice and reached down to the top of his ankles. It closed across his body, fastening with three clasps at the neck—too close to his face in the sweltering heat—three on his shoulder and three more under his right armpit. A wide belt, dyed in the deep green of the Moloti tribe, wrapped around his waist. He wished he could wear his normal clothes, loose-fitting trousers and a waist-length tunic made from wool instead of the heavy, poor-quality silk. Unlike Khareh, though, Raim had to take care of his clothing. Any caked-in mud meant an hour of scrubbing for Raim later; every tear meant pricking his fingers with his awkward, fumbling sewing. Not his idea of a fun evening in the yurt.

Worst of all were the shoes. Instead of his normal well-worn, fur-lined, thick-soled boots, he was in delicate slippers with pointed toes that curled backwards. On the tip of the curl was a ball that jingled when he walked. By the time they had clambered over a rocky ridge to reach the edge of the glade, the annoying golden bells were crammed deep into his tunic pocket.

They broke into a run, feeling the short mountain grass crunch under their heels. They passed by a herd of goats, their bleating urging them on. Then Khareh stopped. ‘Wait here,’ he said, as he ran on a bit further. He was standing over what looked like a stick beaten into the ground.

‘Ready?’ Khareh yelled. Then he appeared to pull something with all his might. ‘Get down, now!’ Raim fell to the ground and put his hands over his turban, just in time to feel the wind slice overhead. He flipped around and sat up, watching the object as it veered towards the goats, scattering them. It made a sharp U-turn in the air and came straight back at Raim.

‘Vows alive!’ He scrambled to his feet and rushed towards Khareh. By the time he reached his friend, the object had lost steam and skipped onto the ground, snipping the blades of grass. It was large and round, with tiny spikes that were sawed down almost to the edge.

‘What in Sola was that?’ Raim spluttered, catching his breath.

‘Oh, I stole the disc from one of the workshops back in Kharein. Don’t worry; they were going to throw it away anyway. But this,’ Khareh gestured to the pole in the ground, his eyes sparkling, ‘is my newest invention. Marvel, Raimanan, marvel!’

Khareh was the only person who called Raim by his full name, and only when he was feeling particularly proud of himself. Raim hated it, but was so used to hearing it from Khareh’s mouth that he barely cringed. He only suffered Khareh’s use of the name because, even though he was his best friend, he also had the power—as Crown Prince—to order Raim about as he pleased. Thankfully he didn’t abuse it too often.

Khareh was Crown Prince despite not being the son of the current leader, Batar-Khan. But when the Seer-Queen had not produced an heir after the first five years of marriage, a prince had to be chosen. The council of Darhanian warlords had convened and chosen Khareh, the son of the Khan’s brother, as the official heir. So now, whatever Khareh wanted to do, he did, no matter what the consequences. Raim admired Khareh’s independence, but didn’t covet it. Khareh was always experimenting, innovating, testing the boundaries of what he could get away with and questioning the rules if he was told they couldn’t be broken. He had big dreams about how to improve Darhan, to make it a real force to be reckoned with.

Raim recognized the pole—it was identical to the ones used to build the frame of a yurt. He wondered whose yurt was tilted after Khareh had sawed off this piece. When Khareh was inventing, nothing could stop him. Once he had even cut up the Seer-Queen’s prized headscarf in order to get material of the perfect tensile strength for his goat parachute—‘in case bandits attack and we have to drop the goats off a mountain,’ he’d said. That was the other thing about Khareh’s inventions. They rarely made any sense to Raim.

Khareh picked the disc up off the ground and placed it delicately on top of his contraption. In his hand he held a long, thin metal rod, which had little grooves on it all down the side.

‘Not quite enough nicks,’ Khareh said. ‘Do you have your knife on you?’

‘Here you go,’ Raim lifted the hem of his trouser leg and pulled out a small dagger from the strap around his calf. The blade was pitch-black, matte, and made from ochir, a translucent metal that seared black during the forging process. Owning one marked him as an apprentice of the Yun, Darhan’s elite guard, the sworn protectors of the land and all of its inhabitants. When he received his acceptance, he would be given his own sword, one made especially for the Yun. They had perfected a method of preserving ochir’s translucent quality and it resulted in a sword that was harder and clearer than diamonds. It was near indestructible. When wielded properly, it dazzled the eyes of opponents, confusing them with tricks of the light. Battles between the Yun of Darhan and their enemies were magnificent to behold, the near-invisible blades striking against ordinary metal.

But before he could even hope to be accepted, he had to pass one final test: a duel against a fellow Yun apprentice. He was to face Lars, the second son of one of the eight noble Darhan warlords—and one of the most fearsome young warriors in Darhan.

Khareh took the blade and scratched more notches into his metal stick. When finished, he threaded the stick through the eye cut into the hollowed-out wood and pulled back with all his strength. For a second, the disc jumped and hovered above the invention as if surprised to be mobile. Then, it spun off hastily over the field. This time, it didn’t come back.

Khareh looked delighted. ‘Don’t have to be a sage to make things fly!’ He flipped the blade back to Raim.

‘No, you’d have to exist first. Sages are legend, make-believe.’

‘Gods, your ignorance is really annoying sometimes. Don’t the Yun teach their students anything? Anyone who says sages don’t exist is a fool. I’ve read about them. There were magicians in the past who could command whole armies with their power, who could self-heal and levitate things, like swords—they could even make themselves fly!’

‘Sounds to me like you’re the fool, for believing in that goat’s dung.’

‘It’s not goat’s dung. Anyway, I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about it. I hear the real sages are south. In Aqben.’

‘Let them rot there, then. Aqben houses only devils,’ Raim said, repeating the typical adage used whenever the South was mentioned.

Khareh raised an eyebrow, and shrugged. ‘So, you’re not worried about the whole first-chance-to-fight-to-be-Yun thing, are you?’ he asked, changing the subject.

Raim bit his lip. ‘If it was an ordinary fight, I wouldn’t be. But this is it. I heard one of the other villagers saying they’d crossed with Lars’ tribe not a month ago. His father was saying he’s really bulked up this year, as big as an ox. And that he’s going to have a Yun for a son, soon.’

Khareh grimaced. ‘What would the warlord know about his son anyway? He’s probably not seen him since we last did. Lars has been off training with his mentor.’

It was Raim’s turn to grimace this time. ‘While I’ve been stuck here herding goats.’ Then he shrugged. ‘But it’s not like I could leave Dharma and my grandfather alone to go off to train, especially with Tarik wrapped up with his studies. And I’m lucky that my mentor has been here, so I have had plenty of practice.’

‘True. Besides, that’s not the real issue, is it? Isn’t this Lars’ third and final try? It’s not you who should be worried, it’s him. With you as his opponent, it looks like we might be watching heads roll this tournament after all!’

‘No, it’s his second try. It’s Jendo’s final one though.’ Raim frowned. Every Yun apprentice knew that if you didn’t pass the third try, your life was forfeit. It was why he couldn’t joke about it as Khareh did. It could be his reality in another two years, should he fail all three bouts.

Khareh seemed to read his mind, and shrugged. ‘You’re the best fighter the Yun has trained in generations and you know it. Well,’ he broke into a maniacal grin. ‘Except they never had me, of course.’

‘Is that a challenge?’ Raim’s eyes darted around and spied a metal pole Khareh had discarded while making his invention. He grabbed it and spun it around in his hands. Khareh was partially right. As a prince, Khareh couldn’t join the Yun, since he needed to study and be trained in his royal duties. But he had studied sword fighting for as long as Raim, and he was the only sparring partner—other than Raim’s own Yun mentor, Mhara—who always gave him a good run. And Mhara was Batar-Khan’s official Protector, and chief of all the Yun.

Lars was older. No one really expected a Yun apprentice to win their first attempt—after all, Lars had a whole year of growth and experience on Raim. But still, he felt confident. His training had settled into his muscles like knots tying everything into its rightful place, joining all the movements together. If he couldn’t trust his body’s promise to execute the moves his mind asked it to, then what could he trust?

There was a dangerous twinkle in Khareh’s eye, and he snatched up another pole, ready to scuffle. Khareh taunted Raim about his weaker left side. For the most part, Khareh was the aggressor, pushing Raim backwards with quick, strong strokes. Raim remained on the defensive, absorbing his opponent’s blows. He tried to focus on anticipating Khareh’s next move, on his footwork or his sword strokes, but still he couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to fight with a real Yun blade.Soon I will be a great warrior, leading the Yun as the Khan’s Protector. I’ll lead the army that will finally unite all the tribes of Darhan and then maybe I’ll . . .

He blinked. Khareh swung at his pole with all his might and it popped out of Raim’s hand and fell to the ground with a thud. For a second Raim stood in shock, his hands splayed palm out in front of him and his legs bent like a frog. Mhara called this the ‘moving mountain’ position. Winning now was as impossible as shifting a mountain with your bare hands.

The low, clear sound of a bone horn sounded out over the field and snapped Raim back to life.

‘Gods, the wedding!’

Khareh spun the pole in his hand and speared it into the earth. ‘Saved by the horn,’ he said with a grin. He turned serious when he saw the devastation on Raim’s face. ‘Just keep your focus. You will win. You have to.’

 

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