A girl and a god, alone in communion…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson, out from Scholastic Press on June 6.
A girl and a god, alone in communion…
In the winding underground tunnels of the Library, the great peacekeeper of the three systems, a heinous secret lies buried—and Freida is the only one who can uncover it. As the daughter of a Library god, Freida has spent her whole life exploring the Library’s ever-changing tunnels and communing with the gods. Her unparalleled access makes her unique—and dangerous.
When Freida meets Joshua, a Tierran boy desperate to save his people, and Nergüi, a disciple from a persecuted religious minority, Freida is compelled to help them. But in order to do so, she will have to venture deeper into the Library than she has ever known. There she will discover the atrocities of the past, the truth of her origins, and the impossibility of her future.
With the world at the brink of war, Freida embarks on a journey to fulfill her destiny, one that pits her against an ancient war god. Her mission is straightforward: Destroy the god before he can rain hellfire upon thousands of innocent lives—if he doesn’t destroy her first.
I was born in the Library.
Nadi found me in the tunnels, where the collected knowledge of humanity burrows underground like an anthill led by an aging queen. I was a screaming newborn with clay-dark skin shrunk and wrinkled around fresh-set bones. Ze didn’t realize right then what I was—maybe ze felt a tickle in zir ear, the ghost of an echo of a memory—but ze saw me from the first as human. It took me years, growing up in the Library, to realize that ze was the only one who would.
Iemaja is the common name for the eighth god, the one you don’t remember, Nameren. Nadi was walking Iemaja’s tunnels that night because ze had been elected Head Librarian the day before. Quinn had very nearly edged zir out with his campaign to aggressively interpret the Treaty’s Freedom nodes, but in the end Nadi’s vision of expansive peace had won, and ze had undertaken the required vigil, communing with each of the Library’s four material gods in turn—Iemaja, the youngest; Mahue’e, the angriest; Tenehet, the wisest; and Old Coyote, the bloodiest. They had each accepted zir, and so there ze was, one of the most powerful people in the three systems, as lonely as a god. Ze had gone to Iemaja because in communion she had shown Nadi a single image over and over: a young Awilu woman by a river, skirt muddy with green silt, clams in a basket over her arm. Only when ze looked more closely did ze realize they weren’t clams; they were shards of Nyad blue.
Nyad is another of Iemaja’s avatars. Your own avatars tend to express themselves by inspiring people to violence, I know, but the Library is different. Our gods’ avatars inhabit the earth. They have burrowed their own spaces into the rock, and their crystals have turned every shade of the visible spectrum, so that we know which incarnation of the god holds us by the light in their walls. The night of my birth, or of my creation, or of my discovery, my Nadi had been walking Nyad’s tunnels and wondering about Iemaja’s strange, silent message. And then ze heard me. A squall, thin as a cotton thread, snaking around a curve in the crystal.
“And that, Iemaja?” Nadi asked. Ze tried to dip into communion, but Nyad skittered away and ze didn’t want to force it. Ze followed the voice. “It sounded human,” ze would always say, telling me this story. “You hear all kinds of things in the tunnels, but they are so rarely human. I knew this was what she had meant for me to find.”
“To find me?” I would always ask.
“To find my truest daughter.”
I was in a room filled with millennia-old textiles, mostly Awilu: rugs knotted into intricate fractals, golden spider-silk kaftans, scalp nets jointed with blood-colored amber. I was squashed against a simple mantle, something woven on a backstrap loom from henequen fiber in red and blue threads, maybe even Tierran. Nadi had never seen this trove before; it wasn’t registered. But the Library is like that—it likes to keep back some of its treasures.
There was I, this screaming thing with Awilu skin and throwback genes that would change zir life. I became Nadi’s child in that moment, before ze even touched me and I quieted. I am lucky it was Nadi who became Head Librarian. Quinn might have claimed me, but only to dissect me. No one would have been able to stop him.
In a hundred thousand ways, I should not exist. But I exist, and so I think. That’s from a great Tierran philosopher—I forget zir name.
I exist, and so I love. And so I am loved. Nadi named me Freida. Freida of the Library.
When I die, they will say of me, “But remember how she loved!”
Nadi taught me in threes. Ze taught me about love, which was trust and vulnerability and truth. It was sprouting and blooming and withering. It was catching up and holding on and letting go. “That’s a cube, Freida,” ze told me, “which is a three of threes, and we use it to hold that which is most sacred.” Ze had other triplets, too. There was one for the library, which dated from its founding:
It’s flat, but you can’t fall off;
it’s peace, but it was built from blood;
it’s divine, but wholly material.
“We are peace, Freida,” ze said one night when I was six. We were sitting in zir garden, and ze had drunk two glasses of that dark, tarry wine ze called indigo. I snuggled against zir side and watched a caterpillar with a dozen purple eyes on its back eat a leaf in my lap.
“Why are we peace?” I asked.
“Because when the universe would have drowned in blood, we built the Library to save it. You and me, Freida, we of the Library preserve peace. We are the ballast against the Nameren.”
That was the first time that I heard your name, O first and thirstiest god, but I did not truly think it had anything to do with me. An ache did not grab me be tween my shoulders; a warm hand did not close over the nape of my neck. Only Nadi’s hand—steady and strong and, as far as I knew, old as the gods—tightened on my elbow. I hummed as I fed the caterpillar the last of its leaf.
I suppose I can see why ze didn’t tell me then. I suppose I can see why each year as I became more myself it grew harder for zir to explain how my fate would intertwine with yours. I suppose I can understand, Nameren, but it is hard to forgive.
I was seven years old when I realized I was beautiful. An Awilu inner-branch elder offered the Library an entire collection of priceless Formative-era paintings in exchange for the rights to me. Ze could because, legally, I’ve never been a person. I have always been considered a part of the Library.
Nadi explained this to me very calmly. Ze explained that I would have different rights in the Awilu system. There, I would be human—but I would also be a very special type of property.
I asked what kind of property I would be.
Ze said I would be a work of art.
“Why would I be a work of art?”
And ze said, I will never forget, “You are beautiful in a way that makes those who look upon you lose their true north.”
There are many ways to be human. There are many ways to be beautiful. Still, I am beautiful enough in a specific way to be a thing. A dangerous thing.
Our material gods might be your children and grandchildren, Nameren, but they are very different from you. They are wide and they are deep, and I spent my childhood crawling through their entrails. It was through them that I began to understand what I was, long before I had the words. I spent my adolescence swallowing crystals and learning forbidden communion. Only Cube Librarians and higher were allowed to commune with material gods, and all but the Head did so with heavy restrictions. But gods are conscious entities, for all that you move at timescales at the raw edge of even augmented human understanding. Right now, the way that I forced you to wake for me, to move at a more human rhythm, to imagine? I learned that from Iemaja. She was my first teacher.
Iemaja’s temple is the most beautiful of the Library. Tourists buy tickets years in advance for the eclipse services; even the daily mass regularly fills the balcony. From the atrium branch her twelve main arteries, her main avatars. These twelve avatars are stable, but she has many more—hundreds, perhaps thousands—that no librarian has ever been able to count.
Four high spires guard the cenote at the center of her temple. Its deep black surface ripples and pulses with colored light streaming through the aged crystal walls. The light hangs in the rafters and catches in our clothing—refulgent, sharp, like earth offering itself to the sky. It always smells of copal, even when there are no librarians there to burn the white cones of resin. Around two hundred years ago, the ceiling peeled back like the skin around a wound, and in just sixteen days the area above the cenote had vanished. Sculptures dissolved like salt in hot water. And now, once every month when the full blue fish moon and the full pink thorn moon cross paths in the sky, their dual light shines unencumbered through the hole in the roof. We burn copal and myrrh and pray through the silence.
Sometimes I imagine that I can see the walls expanding and contracting. Sometimes I am sure that I can see Iemaja breathe. Sometimes I am sure that at the bottom of that long black pool lies her heart, and that it aches as much as mine.
Iemaja birthed me, or helped to make me, or found and cared for me as best she could, and she gave me Nadi, my parent. And I am like Iemaja, because she is beautiful, because she loves too much, because she is loved too much, for all the wrong reasons.
I had always been aware of my affinity with Iemaja. But I didn’t understand it until I was thirteen. I had my first kiss with a high-wetware Martian-Lunar who was visiting his uncle for “diplomatic training.” His name was Samlin and his uncle was Quinn. I must have fallen in love; at least, I can’t think of any other explanation for how I tolerated Quinn’s behavior over that breathless rainy season of the tears. He would congratulate Samlin for having a fine eye for beauty and knowing when he’d made a good catch. To me he said nothing at all, but his eyes would linger with mortifying precision on my breasts and hips and thighs. My body had changed so much in the previous six months that it hardly felt like my own. I tried to hide it behind stiff tunics of unaffiliated ivory and blue. But I think Quinn took my neutral colors as further proof of my inadequacy—or vulnerability.
Samlin convinced me to nanodrop with him. “It’ll be fun,” he told me. “You’ll get a taste of what it’s like to live with your whole brain on fire for once.”
“That doesn’t sound too pleasant,” I said, attempting a joke, but he just patted my shoulders and said, “You’ll want a wetware operation yourself after this.”
Quinn gave us the pills we were too young to order ourselves. Standing there in his front room, which was twice the size of Nadi’s quarters, two thoughts came to me clearly: You disgust him and He wants to eat you.
Samlin was short for a Martian and slender for a Lunar, with deep-set eyes whose color I could never quite catch; they were always flashing with mods, which my inadequate wetware rendered as simple strobing lights. He carried himself with the contained self-assurance of a demigod from the old Awilu sagas, and I suppose he was as beautiful as one, though he lacked their depth and their hard choices. He kissed me as soon as we dropped into the designer gamespace that he had paid a small fortune to port into nanodrop accessibility.
“Don’t you love it?” he asked. His hand on my shoulder was as real as life. I had entered into illicit communion with the gods more than a dozen times before, but being here with him made me feel oddly small.
“It’s wild,” I said after a beat. He frowned.
“You’re unhappy,” he said, pointing. When I looked down, I saw that my hands had turned blue.
It turned out that my subconscious imprinted my every emotion on the virtual space like a child’s fingerprints on glass. Whenever he kissed me, my heart became a marble rattling around my rib cage.
He squeezed my shoulders. “Has anyone told you how sweet you are? Your in‐drop affect is amazing for—”
Then he stopped himself. I glowed with embarrassment. His gaze—blue eyes, I could see them at last—blanketed me.
He sat me in a barber’s chair, part of the architecture of the gamespace. The leather wrapped itself around my hips, held me down. He stood over me and tilted my face to the ceiling.
“Just relax,” he told me.
“I want to go home,” I told him.
“You are home. Your body isn’t even here now.”
His hands above me, so large. He had his own in‐drop affect, it turned out. I couldn’t move. But could I? I didn’t move—didn’t I want to?
His hands did what they wanted with me. Touched me with sharp scissoring thrusts. It hurt. The chair swallowed me like a wet mouth.
I don’t remember the rest. Perhaps it didn’t matter, perhaps it didn’t count. It wasn’t my real body. It wasn’t real.
But it felt real.
Excerpted from The Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Copyright © 2023 by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Published by Scholastic Press.