The daughter of a star and a mortal, Sheetal is used to keeping secrets…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Star Daughter, the young adult fantasy debut from Shveta Thakrar—available August 11th with HarperTeen.
The daughter of a star and a mortal, Sheetal is used to keeping secrets. Pretending to be “normal.” But when an accidental flare of her starfire puts her human father in the hospital, Sheetal needs a full star’s help to heal him. A star like her mother, who returned to the sky long ago.
Sheetal’s quest to save her father will take her to a celestial court of shining wonders and dark shadows, where she must take the stage as her family’s champion in a competition to decide the next ruling house of the heavens—and win, or risk never returning to Earth at all.
My mother is a star.
I am half—half of the earth, half of the heavens.
Cut me, and I might bleed silver. My skin is a rich brown, the exact shade of my human father’s skin, but my hair is long and thick and frosted like the moon. In my chest burns a fiery core that beats in time with the music of the spheres, their song deep and layered with dreams.
My mother is a star, one of many bright jewels who sing praises in the skies, who view us from on high. She chose to come down and make a life on Earth, but it wasn’t long before she yearned to go home. Nothing could truly hold her here—not my father’s proposal of marriage, not my birth into the world, not even our nightly dances together in the yard after devouring the dinner my father had cooked, when we’d flee the sink full of dishes to spin and turn, washed in the light of her family above. Our family.
She watches me now from her old throne, one more twinkle in the constellation Pushya, a figure as distant as the characters in the bedtime stories she once loved to tell me. In the evening, I see her clearly, laughing with her companions, radiant. Sometimes I catch rare glimpses of her during the day, when the sky is blue and everything is warm and golden, and it’s almost like having her with me again. Some nights, while the world slumbers, I raise my head to the coal-dark heavens and dream I can even speak to her.
Yet I can’t touch her anymore, can’t go with her to the park, can’t have her take me shopping or hug me or scold me or just be in the same room with me.
My mother is a star, so I can’t do any of those things. Not while she’s in the sky, and I’m down here.
It always felt like a betrayal, but there was something I didn’t see, because I’d been looking at all the wrong parts, all the shadows between the stars.
I didn’t yet know how to find our light.
—from Sheetal’s journal
Sometimes keeping secrets was the hardest thing in the world.
Sheetal Mistry decided to make a break for it. Right past the mirrored walls that reflected one another until the swanky banquet hall expanded into infinity—a horribly overcrowded infinity made of noisy kids, successful uncles and aunties, and gossiping grandparents. Everyone watching, everyone talking and laughing.
She waded into the mob. All around her, gorgeous clothes shimmered in rich colors, ornate gold-and-gemstone jewelry glittered and gleamed, and a rainbow of syllables arced through the room. Without trying, she made out Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and English—the heart of New Jersey’s desi community, all under one huge roof.
Her cousin’s birthday party should have been beautiful, like a glamorous scene from a faerie novel. Instead, it was all too loud, too much. Maybe she could hide in the corridor. Minal would just have to forgive her for vanishing.
She’d taken exactly two steps toward the exit when the Bragging Brigade, a group of the most annoying aunties and uncles ever, descended like hawks on their quarry. “Hi, Sheetal,” said an engineer uncle who started every conversation with the exact same question. “How are your classes? Did you hear my Vaibhav got early admittance to Harvard?”
“And Bijal is a National Merit Scholar!” an oncologist auntie announced. “That will look so good on her college applications.”
Sheetal faked a grin. “That’s great.” Summer vacation had just started, so she didn’t have any classes, and anyway, this was all old news. Oh, why hadn’t she kept running?
The other uncle smiled at her. “Your studies are going well? Still planning on a physics major like your papa?”
Actually, clown college is looking better every day, Sheetal almost shot back. She nodded inanely instead.
“What about your extracurriculars?” Oncologist Auntie cut in. “Now that you’re a junior, have you thought about volunteering at the clinic like Bijal? You need to be well rounded these days.”
“Sorry, Auntie, I was on my way to the bathroom,” Sheetal mumbled. She could feel their judgment clinging to her as she slipped past, sticky as a spiderweb.
The kids they compared her to weren’t any better than their show-off parents. Vaibhav and Bijal had everything Sheetal didn’t, and they knew it. Even now, they held court with their followers at the other end of the banquet hall, snubbing her every time she walked by. They’d written her off years ago after Radhikafoi had caught her in the pool at a community party and dragged her away in front of everyone—chlorine and her hair dye didn’t mix, as her auntie had pointedly reminded her later—and she’d overheard them making fun of her more than once for being shy and boring.
Sheetal wasn’t shy. She definitely wasn’t boring. Of course, she could never show them the truth.
A soft, silvery melody pealed in her ears, stopping her where she stood. She shivered, the seductive tones caressing her spine and making her palms tingle. Her blood heated as something kindled at her core. If light had a voice, this would be it.
She already knew no one else could hear it, and not just because of the strident bass of the Bollywood hits pulsing through the restaurant like an erratic heartbeat. This was meant for her ears alone.
At each note, her skin prickled in recognition.
She forgot the party, forgot the annoying guests, forgot everything but a yearning to step outside and greet the late June night sky, to twirl under the endless open expanse of the stars. She would drink it all down in huge, thirsty gulps while their music washed over her and echoed within. . . .
Ring-clad brown fingers snapped in front of her face, followed by a crunchy samosa.
Just like that, the vision evaporated, and Sheetal was back in the banquet hall. Her mouth watered at the scent of the samosa, all spice and fried dough, but the rest of her still ached for the lost starsong.
“There you are.” Minal looked amused beneath winged liner and blue-green eye shadow the same shade as her heavily beaded satin salwar kameez. “Your auntie just asked me if I’m signing up for that PSAT course with you. Does no one understand school let out two days ago?”
“I heard it.” Sheetal reached for the numinous feeling, for the way her veins had lit up, but it was gone. “The song. You know.” She gestured to the ceiling and the open doors at the back of the hall.
It took Minal a second, but then she frowned. “That song? Are you sure?”
“I don’t know.” Sheetal took the samosa and bit into it. “I mean, I think so.”
“How long has it been?”
Trying to remember, Sheetal munched on the spicy potato-and-pea filling. “Good question. Not since last summer?” The sidereal melody had never been so loud before. If anything, she’d always had to focus to hear its strains.
It already felt unreal, like the wisps of dreams left behind upon waking.
She couldn’t blame herself for imagining it, because honestly, who wouldn’t want a distraction from Radhikafoi’s family parties? As always, Dad’s sister had invited everyone she knew. Her neighbors. The stylist who threaded her eyebrows. Even the mailman, like he was ever going to show up. Family, of course, had no choice but to stay the whole time.
Sheetal wiped her oily fingers with a napkin. “Yeah, it probably wasn’t anything.”
“Admit it,” Minal said lightly, “the only song you really care about is Dev’s.”
“Maybe.” Sheetal laughed. Just thinking about Dev still made her all go mushy inside, like a toasted marshmallow.
“You’re doing that dorky smile thing again,” Minal said. She made a face. “How are you two not sick of each other yet?”
The bass-packed music abruptly shut off, and Radhikafoi’s voice boomed from the speakers. A microphone squealed, making everyone jump. “And now for your listening pleasure, a live number from Edison’s own Kishore Kumar, Dev Merai!”
Dev Merai, who was, for lack of a better word, really, really hot, with his longish hair and model’s cheekbones. Dev Merai, who’d only moved from Toronto at the beginning of sophomore year but always had one girlfriend or another—until the Tuesday in March he’d offered Sheetal a cordial cherry and asked if she read any webcomics, because he’d just finished a really good one.
She knew people like Bijal and Vaibhav wondered what he saw in her. But as Dev winked at her from the stage, she couldn’t care less.
He grinned at the crowd, then stepped close to the mike and launched into a Hindi song from a classic movie. It was a little unnerving how much he really did sound like Kishore Kumar, one of the old-time icons of Bollywood music. His voice was rich and melancholy, perfect for romantic lyrics about despondent poets and doomed lovers.
Sheetal closed her eyes and let herself slip into the song. Gods, his voice. It serenaded her, enfolding her until she started to melt like warm chocolate.
She fought to keep her expression neutral, in case Dad was watching—“Dikri, no boys until you’re thirty-five!” Or, gods forbid, Radhikafoi—“Beta, I need to check his astrological chart and his family background and . . .”
Dev sailed into the refrain.
It felt like starlight. . . .
No, that was the astral melody trilling in her ears again, beckoning her toward other wishes, other worlds.
Sheetal’s grin wilted. So much for having imagined it. The starsong was back.
It was hard keeping secrets when yours was much bigger than anyone else’s, with their latest crush or the test they’d cheated on or the party they’d sneaked out to or the weed they’d furtively smoked in the park. When your secret was as vast as the constellation you couldn’t help but stare at every night before you went to sleep.
Especially, Sheetal thought bitterly, her eyes open now as the distant strains of starsong grew louder, when that secret was you.
No one in the entire hall said a word, only listened to Dev, enrapt. Even Minal looked impressed. They were probably all pretending he was singing right to them, that his gaze sweeping the crowd saw something special in them everyone else had missed. His eyes were almost dark enough to be black, and if Sheetal hadn’t been trying so hard to ignore the starsong, she might have thought silly things about falling into them. Maybe even about kisses and stealing some.
But the starry melody remained, an undeniable undertone, and her thumb smarted where she’d ripped at the cuticle.
She had to get outside. Had to find out what was going on.
Even before Dev’s last note had died away, the party exploded into applause and cheers and calls for an encore. He shook his head and hopped off the stage, right into an adoring swarm of aunties and uncles.
Sheetal scanned the crowd. No sign of Radhikafoi or Dad. If she kept her head down, she might actually make it out of here without anyone stopping her.
Spice-laden aromas drifted toward them. “Oh, good, food time!” Minal said. “Come on.”
“But—” Sheetal began, just a second too late. A bangle-covered arm had grabbed hers and was towing her toward the buffet, where waiters had finished uncapping the steaming dishes. Even Dev’s admirers were abandoning him to get in line.
As Dev jogged up, Minal asked him, “So how much did you hate that? Having to sing on command like a trained parrot?”
He shrugged. “I’m used to it. You know how showing us off is basically the desi parent Olympics.” His voice turned falsetto with an Indian accent as he rolled his eyes, grinning at Sheetal. “‘Oh, my son, he will be the next superstar!’ Embarrassing, but what you are going to do?”
But Sheetal didn’t know. No one had ever shown her off. And with the astral song competing with the buzz of a hundred overlapping conversations and the thunk, thunk, thunk of the Bollywood bass, not to mention the thudding of her own heart, she couldn’t focus. The walls felt like they were getting smaller and smaller, or maybe it was her throat; the playful words she might have said got trapped there on the way up.
She widened her eyes in a way she hoped screamed for help. But Minal was too busy loading her plate with what had to be at least half the buffet to notice. Not knowing what else to do, Sheetal started filling her own plate.
“You really are good,” Minal told Dev, carrying her mountain of food to a nearby table. She grinned wickedly. “I thought you were just boasting.”
Sheetal sat down, too, staring at her meal of fluffy naan, vegetable biryani, aloo mattar, creamy dal makhani, and raita. She could still go chase down the starsong, but now, with Dev watching, all Radhikafoi’s old prohibitions strapped her to her chair as securely as a seat belt. Always blend into the background. Never let anyone suspect what you are.
“You even have your own fan club,” she teased instead.
Dev dropped down next to her, his smile crooked. Sheetal’s stomach turned a series of cartwheels, and every part of her was incredibly aware of his knee pressing against hers. “Some fan club—I can’t even compete with the food.” He found her hand under the table, driving all other thoughts out of her head. “I bet they would have stayed if you’d gone up there.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, hoping he didn’t notice how sweaty her palm was. She never should have told him she sang. “You, though—we should put you on one of those so you think you can sing shows where everybody sucks except for, like, five people, and even then, three of them are just okay.”
Great. Now she was babbling.
“Okay, enough.” Minal leaned forward on her elbows. “Save all that mutual admiration stuff for when I’m not around to barf everywhere. On to much more important things—like the great couch quest! Which, by the way, I’m going to win.”
“You just love funding my comic habit, don’t you?” asked Dev. “Out with it, Sheetal. What’d she say this time?” He shot Minal a sidelong glance. “I’ve got my eye on the new Kibuishi comic, you know.”
“That’s funny,” said Minal, all glittering makeup and arch attitude, “since you’re going to be buying it for me.”
Normally Sheetal would be giggling with them. Some people collected stamps or dolls, even cars. Radhikafoi collected couches. Well, sort of. She’d buy one, decide she hated it after a few days, and return it. And then she’d buy a new one. It was so predictable, Dev and Minal had started laying bets on the reason why three months ago.
But Sheetal still heard the high, sweet melody in her ears, airy as an enchantment, beckoning, beckoning.
“Well?” Minal pressed. “It’s too burgundy, isn’t it? The last one was too blue, so it has to be.”
Dev’s phone buzzed, and he pulled away to type a reply, leaving Sheetal’s knee cold. Lonely. And without something right here on Earth to hold on to. Stupid phones.
She poked him in the shoulder. “Don’t tell me you want to forfeit.”
He smiled an apology. “Sorry, my cousin wanted to know how the song went.”
Minal struck her plate with a spoon, making it ring. “Can we try focusing, people? Preferably before I get old and gray?”
Sheetal took her time scooping up a bite of aloo mattar and chewing the peas and highlighter-yellow potatoes into paste. “The real question is, would my foi would be flattered or horrified to learn she has such devoted followers? The kind that place bets on her?”
Minal and Dev turned identical glares her way.
“Quit stalling, Sheetu.” Minal nudged her. “I want to get some rasmalai before everyone eats it all.”
“Bad news, Minu,” Sheetal said with mock regret. “Radhikafoi thought the color was fine. This week’s impending return is because, and I quote, ‘The leather gave me a headache with all its squeaking.’ Guess you’ll just have to enjoy your rasmalai with a nice dollop of disappointment.”
Dev pumped his fist, then held out his hand for Minal’s money. She practically flung it into his palm. “I’ll think of you while I read,” he offered, grinning hugely.
The starry music sounded again, a command where before it had been an invitation. Dev’s laugh fell away; Radhikafoi’s warnings about staying off the radar faded. No matter how weird it looked, Sheetal had to answer. “Speaking of dessert,” she blurted, “I should find Dad. I’ll be back.”
Dev nodded, obviously confused. Before Minal could say anything, Sheetal bolted.
Keeping close to the walls, she followed the insistent strains of song to the exit. What was happening? The music had come and gone over the years, but it had never demanded her attention like this, adamant as an unfed cat, and definitely not when she was in public.
“Sheetal!” a familiar voice called, one that made Sheetal freeze. “There you are, beta. I was just thanking your papa for bringing the cake.” Radhikafoi hastened down the hallway, a category-three cyclone in a hot pink sari. “It looks—”
She broke off in midsentence, her eyes widening.
Before Sheetal could dodge, stubby fingers closed around her chin and yanked it down. She wanted to die. If Vaibhav or Bijal happened to be watching, they’d probably tell everyone she had lice.
Her auntie clucked her disapproval. “Dikri,” she whispered in Gujarati, “your roots—” Without pausing, she switched to English, as if that would somehow keep anyone who might walk by from understanding. “Your roots are showing.”
“What?” Sheetal wrenched away even as her pulse sped up. Not possible. She’d just dyed her roots. Radhikafoi was being paranoid. She had to be.
“This is no laughing matter!” Her auntie grabbed the dupatta from around Sheetal’s neck and tried to put it on her head instead. “If someone were to see—”
Sheetal barely evaded her. “Radhikafoi, people are staring.”
“Fine!” her auntie snapped, draping the dupatta back over Sheetal’s shoulders. “But you need to get your condition under control as soon as you get home. We have Maneesh’s engagement party this weekend!”
Sheetal nodded, two thoughts hammering through her mind. Had the dye really not taken? And had anyone else seen?
Oh, gods, had Dev seen?
He kept talking about wanting to hear her sing and writing a song for her. He was way too close to her secret as it was.
The secret that made her blood thrum in time with the heavens.
Maybe she should tie on the dupatta like a headscarf, even if it made her look like a village girl. If anyone saw—if they suspected . . .
This was why, as her auntie always reminded her, she couldn’t let herself be noticed at school, why she could never give anyone a reason to look too closely, why she would always have to hide.
Even though part of her wanted to let it all show.
Another guest came up to Radhikafoi, and Sheetal seized the chance to duck into the restroom across the hall. She met her panicked reflection in the mirror and stared. And stared some more.
It was impossible. She’d dyed her hair a deep, durable, normal black three nights ago. And yet tonight, right at her scalp, were the beginnings of roots.
Shimmering, sparkling, defiantly silver roots.
The fear she’d shoved down welled back up.
What was she going to do if the dye didn’t work anymore? White hair was one thing; some people turned to bleach to get that look. But shimmering silver? Not so much. Nobody’s hair glowed.
It was as if her hair was resisting being disguised.
The silver voices swept over Sheetal again, stilling her thoughts. Her heart leaped in response.
Like an invocation, the melody resounded within her, eerie and ethereal. Only a ceiling, at most a roof, separated her from her birthright. All she had to do was step outside, the music promised, and it would be hers. Her fingers grasped for phantom instruments, primed to dance over newly tuned strings.
Her voice bubbled up in her throat, so close to cresting over her lips.
Someone opened the restroom door. “Sheetal?” Minal called.
The sound of her name spoken over a flushing toilet, unwelcome as ice water, broke the spell, a brutal reminder of where Sheetal was and the roomful of people just outside. She clamped her mouth shut.
“You never came back,” Minal pointed out. Her eyes narrowed. “It’s the song again, isn’t it?”
Instead of answering, Sheetal hugged her. “I’m fine. Thanks for checking on me.”
The final chords of the silvery song lingered on her tongue like a layer of frost, and she rushed to swallow them. They would have to wait. As much as it hurt, she would have to wait.
She pressed her hands to her face, shutting everything out for the span of a couple breaths. Then she rearranged her part to bury her pale roots, doused the light flickering at her core, and stepped out into the hallway, ready to play at being ordinary again. Just as normal and human as Radhikafoi and Dad and the whole world expected her to be.
Radhikafoi never talked about her sister-in-law, as though silence could scrub the memory from Sheetal’s heart and, more importantly, from her DNA. Her distasteful “condition.” As though what her auntie refused to accept didn’t exist.
But no matter how hard Sheetal tried to hide it, no matter how much Radhikafoi wanted to deny it, she would always be half a star.
Excerpted from Star Daughter, copyright © 2020 by Shveta Thakrar