Read an Excerpt From Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star

A reincarnated trinity of souls navigates the entanglements of tradition and progress, sister and stranger, and love and hate…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, available from Harper Voyager. Byrne spins a multigenerational saga spanning two thousand years, from the collapse of the ancient Maya to a far-future utopia on the brink of civil war.

The Actual Star takes readers on a journey over two millennia and six continents —telling three powerful tales a thousand years apart, all of them converging in the same cave in the Belizean jungle.

Braided together are the stories of a pair of teenage twins who ascend the throne of a Maya kingdom; a young American woman on a trip of self-discovery in Belize; and two dangerous charismatics vying for the leadership of a new religion and racing toward a confrontation that will determine the fate of the few humans left on Earth after massive climate change.

In each era, a reincarnated trinity of souls navigates the entanglements of tradition and progress, sister and stranger, and love and hate—until all of their age-old questions about the nature of existence converge deep underground, where only in complete darkness can they truly see.




3 Batz’ 14 Pop, Long Count


9 December, 1012

Ket fell backward in her trance, away from her own slumped body, and hit a clump of soil at an awkward angle, against her neck; the clump crumbled and gave way, her heels vaulted over her head, and she somersaulted through the earth. She scraped for a hold but couldn’t find any, only more soil that burst in her hand. She couldn’t scream because she couldn’t get her breath. The light was fading, covered up by collapsing earth, and a big whip spider was leaping from clump to clump in her wake, following her progress with a bright yellow eye. Every time her body rolled to a stop, the soil strained and burst, and she was tumbling backward again. She stopped trying to find handholds. She drew in her limbs and let herself fall.

She hit open space. She opened her eyes.

She was falling into a red city in a green valley.

She alighted in the main plaza, marked by a perfect grid of ceiba trees. It was twilight here.

She recognized the city as her own. There were her brother Ajul and sister Ixul, her mother and father, and their ancestors before them, all the way back to the Hero Twins, dim tall figures whose faces were obscured. They were all standing in the grid, aligned with the trees, and drawing their hands across their chests and pointing to the sky, but the motion was halting and inexact, as if they were trying to remember it. They wore masks, as if playing roles in an entertainment: the farmer, the priest, the dwarf, the scribe, the merchant, the warrior, the daykeeper, the lackey, the refugee, the king.

The plaza cracked open and she fell through.

The whip spider leapt after her, the hunt afoot again.

She hadn’t wanted to leave that place. She’d wanted to watch the dance and maybe try it herself. But she had no control over anything. This earth wasn’t soft soil, it was hard and broken rocks, stabbing her in the back as she tumbled. She drew in her arms and legs again, miserable. She shouldn’t have let blood so young. She wasn’t ready for this.

She hit open space. She opened her eyes.

She was falling into a red city on a green hilltop. Again, she alighted on the plaza in twilight.

It was still her city, but now it sat on an acropolis so high above the earth that she could see the mountains moving in the mists below, like herds of deer. In this plaza, the stars were nearer and brighter, and the trees were lower and fatter, shedding blood-red leaves in a circle around each trunk. A grey road began at the edge of the plaza and departed into an eternity that lapped the edges of the acropolis. Ixul and Ajul were standing at either side of the road like sentinels, rigid, holding matching spears.

She started toward them, wanting to be with them. A black jaguar appeared on the road.

Ket froze.

But the twins didn’t seem to notice the jaguar. Instead, they leveled their spears at each other, as if to attack.

Ket took a step forward.

They began to circle each other.

Stop, she tried to yell, but her voice got stuck in her throat. She started to run toward them, but then the jaguar charged her and scooped her up like a little doll so that she flipped head over heels to land on its back, and as the plaza collapsed and the jaguar leapt down, she saw the twins shoot up into the sky like a pair of hawks.

She held tight to the jaguar’s neck. She couldn’t see anything in the dark. But judging by the lurches and jolts, the jaguar was leaping from ledge to ledge, deeper into the earth. Then she heard the sound of rushing water. The jaguar slid into a channel that twisted and dropped and gathered speed. Spray splashed her face. Was she in the underworld now? Or still in her own city, in the Tzoynas beneath her Tzoyna; or in the city that had existed before any Tzoyna, far older, before the humans, with no name, when there was only stone and stars?

There was a moment of sickening free fall, and then a powerful splash.

Ket held on tight to the jaguar’s neck, gripping her own wrist.

They began to swim downward. The water was warm, and Ket found she could breathe.

A glow appeared below them. The light was the same color as the light on the plaza—pink-orange, shimmering like the lip of a seashell. She began to be able to see. She made out the jaguar’s huge paws sweeping, one and then the other, as if it were crawling down the column of water. The water tasted like cacao. She relaxed. She felt that even though she was not in control, she was safe. She wanted to remember all these things: the ancestors, the red leaves, the green mountain, the grey road, the cacao water. She wanted to hold on to them and understand their meanings.

She was amazed to realize that, in one hand, she still held her obsidian blade. How had she not dropped it, so many years ago, with her brother on the ball court? How had it survived all this tumbling and sliding and swimming? She held it up to the seed of light that was growing beneath her, and as if delighted to see itself in a mirror, the blade began to turn so fast that its four spokes blurred into a circle that began to glow, and now she could see that this blade was not just shaped like a star, but was a real star, an actual star, which both signified all things and was itself all things.


Excerpted from The Actual Star, copyright 2021 by Monica Byrne.


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