A Conspiracy of Stars just appeared on bookshelves in January, but Olivia A. Cole's new book, An Anatomy of Beasts, is already well on its way to a bookstore near you. Bustle has the exclusive on both the cover and the first chapter of An Anatomy of Beasts below. Keep scrolling to find out more about the next installment of Cole's new YA series.
A Conspiracy of Stars introduced readers to Octavia: a young woman whose lifelong dream is to become a scientist studying Faloiv, the planet humanity has occupied for 40 years. When restrictions preventing students from entering the jungle are lifted, she and her friends, Rondo and Alma, venture inside, but what they find contradicts everything they know about their people. Octavia witnesses the assault and kidnapping of a Faloii — one of the planet's indigenous population — by human agents. With Rondo and Alma's help, Octavia begins to investigate what the Council — the humans' governing body — actually plans to do with Faloiv and its people.
Obviously, since A Conspiracy of Stars has only been out for a few months, I won't spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say that An Anatomy of Beasts opens with Octavia in an alliance with the Faloii. Check out the cover for Olivia A. Cole's new book below, and read the first chapter of An Anatomy of Beasts: It's not available for pre-order yet, but you can pick up A Conspiracy of Stars right now.
Three mammals whose names I don’t know move slowly over my grandmother’s still body. I watch for her pulse, my eyes tight and dry from lack of sleep, the desire to listen for her steady heartbeat the only thing keeping me awake. The mammals appear faceless — I’d thought they were thick blue insects at first. They travel up my grandmother’s plump brown arms like furred larva, so slowly their motion is barely noticeable. It was Rasimbukar who had picked one up for me when she stopped in the infirmary to check on us: she’d curled her hand gently around one of the animals and lifted it from my grandmother’s skin. Under its fuzzed body were several pairs of legs and a small rodent-like face with a mouth like a proboscis.
“It will help,” Rasimbukar had told me when they’d first laid the creatures upon my grandmother. “She will wake when they are finished.”
Now I wait for the creatures to complete whatever task it is they must do to help my grandmother rise. It’s my fault she’s like this. I’d walked down the hill between Rasimbukar and her father, weaving through the dizzying city they call their home, a city whose name I still don’t know. The smells and sounds of the lives around me had forced open the tunnel in my mind, pulsing louder and brighter until I felt blinded by it. When I’d arrived at the place where my grandmother lives — a low round building the color of the sky — her face in front of me had seemed more like a memory, and the man standing just behind her in the doorway had the eyes and mouth I’d seen only in old photographs — my grandfather. It was too much. The loss of my mother, the strangeness of this new place, it welled up inside me like a blue roar and, as my grandmother opened her arms to me, I couldn’t speak or move. I could only look at her familiar features and think My mother is dead. And there in the tunnel, my grandmother heard me; everything inside me spilling out of my mind like a hurricane, crashing into hers untethered.
Her face underwent a series of ripples. The smile, wavering, then the flickering frown, vibrating outward into shock, disbelief. Then blank. Blank open space in her features as her eyes rolled and her body careened toward the ground. Rasimbukar’s sturdy arms had caught her, the tunnel in my mind flaring an orange burst of concern as she silently called for Adombukar to help. It had all been a blur, my grandfather stepping out of the photograph in my ’wam to my side, steering my shoulder with a warm, slender hand. Now we’re here, my grandfather asleep in the corner, crumpled into a strange chair that resembles a leaf, me curled on the floor beside my grandmother, my tailbone numb and tingling from being still so long, searching her motionless face for remnants of my mother. I find them in every crevice, and my heart throbs like it’s been crushed on a slide beneath a microscope.
The room is cool, but I’ve scanned it many times in the last countless hours and have found no evidence of vents like the ones that cooled our ’wams in N’Terra. N’Terra. It hardly seems like a real place now. My life there suddenly feels like fiction, a lengthy dream that my mother’s death interrupted. I squeeze my eyes shut at the memory of her disappearing under the savage mass of vasana, but the darkness only makes me see her more vividly; without my grandmother’s face before me, all I hear is the strangled cry from my father’s throat as he realized — too late — what was happening.
Something stirs behind me and I turn abruptly, finding Rasimbukar materializing at the edge of the dim room. It’s as if a blanket had been hanging in front of her and is rapidly disappearing stitch by stitch. Those imagined stitches are in fact exceptionally thin vines, plant fibers that snake aside in either direction, glistening a little like fine thread. It’s only a matter of seconds until Rasimbukar stands there unobscured and then enters the room.
Octavia, she says silently. My mind mellows at the feeling of her voice coursing through it. I wonder if she intends to be comforting or if it is merely a natural effect of her presence. We had hoped you would be sleeping.
I glance at my grandfather, still asleep. He’s turned slightly sideways in the leaflike chair and I notice that it seems to have curled around him to hold him in place.
I can’t sleep, I tell her, not wanting to wake him. I’ve spent some time staring at him as well. But although I’ve spent my life knowing his face from a photo, he’s a stranger to me. He’d spoken not one word when I’d arrived here, even as my grandmother was transported to this infirmary. We’d shared each other’s presence like two breathing stones until he eventually slept.
Your grandmother will be all right. I regret not meeting with her first before I brought you to her. It was a mistake. Mine.
I feel the shape of her words there in my mind but there’s something else there too, a deep violet color of sympathy. It’s wrapped around and between her words. She is sad for me: sad for all my loss. The idea that she is apologizing to me after everything the people of N’Terra have done to her and her planet makes me feel sick. Almost without meaning to, I snap the tunnel closed, shutting her out of my head.
“It’s okay,” I say out loud, whispering. My grandmother’s face doesn’t twitch.
“Let me take you outside,” Rasimbukar says in her smooth wooden voice.
I say nothing, but when she moves back toward the entrance of the room, the vines already slithering sideways to make way, I follow.
Outside, the heat makes my breath slow. In the dim, healing room I’d almost forgotten where I was; even with the bright lights of the Zoo, I’d almost imagined I was back in the labs, my grandmother tranquilized on an exam table. The sun makes it easier to shake off the shudder that rises from my skin at the thought of what had happened in the labs. The heat slides into me like many golden hands, relaxing my muscles. I breathe deeply.
“Better?” Rasimbukar asks. She says it out loud. I briefly wonder if I’ve hurt her feelings by closing the tunnel, but when I look at her, the spots on her forehead are wide and well spaced, a look of frankness.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Good. I would like for you to see someone.”
I look around as we walk. When I’d first entered the city with her at dawn — had that been this morning? I’ve lost track of time. Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe the day before — I had been blinded by many emotions. N’Terra and all its shadows behind me, and this new place ahead. Rasimbukar and Adombukar had propelled me forward through the throngs of curious Faloii who had paused on their various paths to gaze at me. Their energy had pulsed from every direction, the lines of connection between my head and theirs illuminated and vibrating with questions just on the other end. I couldn’t bear to look at any of them, the knowledge of what was happening in N’Terra weighing me down to subterranean levels. I’d closed the tunnel and followed Rasimbukar with my eyes on the ground. Now I take in the city.
It’s as breathtaking now as it was when I first gazed down on it with Rasimbukar on the hill. So different from N’Terra, with its white walls and lineless ceilings. If this place reminds me of anything, it’s of the communal dome in the Mammalian Compound, where our homes were decorated with flags and cloths before Dr. Albatur began to have them replaced with the hollow banners bearing the Council’s seal. Bright colors are everywhere here: domed roofs of red and yellow, some with twisting peaks of complicated craftsmanship. The buildings are tall and short, small and massive. A tree that would require hundreds of arms to encircle is rooted solidly a little ways away, a circular structure built right alongside it, almost into it.
I realize, suddenly, that the circular structure, a pale purple building, appears to be pulsing. I squeeze my eyes shut and look again, thinking my exit from the dim infirmary has made me dizzy. But it’s no trick of the light: the walls are billowing softly, like a field of grass all rippling and bending to the same current of wind. I reach out and catch Rasimbukar’s arm.
“Do — do you see that?” I ask, still not trusting my eyes. “That building . . .”
Rasimbukar pauses on the path. Her spots gather in concentration and then loosen again as she observes.
“Its walls are moving, yes,” she says neutrally. “It is growing.”
I’m still touching her arm, the feeling of her skin not quite like skin, and take my hand away quickly, embarrassed that it surprises me.
“We cannot expect it to remain unchanged,” she says, showing her teeth in what I believe to be a smile. “It is happy, however. It will not change much.”
She turns away and continues down the path, and I have to trot after her. As we pass among more structures and trees so massive I can’t see the tops, I realize I should be asking more questions. But my mind feels dull, as if my curiosity has lost a wing and flaps lamely. My mother is dead. My father is a person I don’t recognize. Rondo . . . Alma . . . both far away. The last time I’d seen them, Rondo was bleeding on the ground, Alma on the roof of a ’wam holding a buzzgun. Do they think I abandoned them? Are they imprisoned? Are they dead? I picture the vasana climbing the walls of Alma’s vantage point, those mad eyes rolling as the dirixi teeth slashed. . . .
I find Rasimbukar in my mind and am surprised: the tunnel is open for her but I hadn’t opened it, at least not purposely.
You must not let grief consume you. It will weaken you. You did not allow me in your thoughts, but I am here. Do you understand?
I suddenly feel as if I’m going to cry, a tide of water that has met a narrow part of the riverbed, my throat. It strains against the dam, and it’s as if everything in my heart will burst out of me. My fists are clenched tightly, as if gripping the dam itself. Something soft brushes against my knuckle and my eyes snap open.
It’s the gwabi, who I immediately recognize as the same one from the Zoo that had accompanied Rasimbukar and me through the jungle.
Hello, I tell her silently, and am greeted by a comforting yellow reply. Somewhere in the other colors and shapes that she sends me, I understand that she knows my mother is dead. She’s sorry for me, and perceives me as a baby, a motherless cub. I can’t tell her that I feel like an old woman, so I just look into her eyes, comforted by her presence.
She lost her parent too, Rasimbukar says musingly, as if she isn’t quite sure why the gwabi is still hanging around either.
I notice that my fingers are thrumming where the fur of the gwabi’s shoulder still makes contact. I rub my fingertips together, a feeling almost like static remaining. I know, without knowing how, that the gwabi is young, but reaching the age when she will reproduce. She will not seek a mate, but will instead create the cells necessary to do so alone. I never learned this in the Greenhouse, but somehow I know. If I were in the Greenhouse, I might lean over to whisper to Alma excitedly, send Rondo a note on my slate. Their absence looms large inside me, but is still dwarfed by whatever this presence I feel is: almost like the voice of Faloiv whispers in my ear, explaining how things work.
“I feel . . . ,” I say out loud, searching for the words. “How?”
Is it so hard to understand? Rasimbukar says, and gestures for me to follow her down a narrow path into the trees, deeper into the city. You are listening. The Artery is more than communication. It is the network that connects everything on Faloiv.
The gwabi stays with us for a while, loping at my side as we wind along the edge of a wide stream. The trees thicken, and so do the buildings, although it’s sometimes hard to tell the two apart. In N’Terra, it was impossible not to differentiate between what occurred naturally on Faloiv and what we had built: everything in our compounds was smooth edges and white material, some gleaned from the wrecked Vagantur and some created from the plentiful clay found on the planet. Looking around now — all the structures seemingly interlaced with trees and stone — I don’t see the white clay anywhere. Do the Faloii build their homes as we do, or is it another process entirely? I have many questions, but the only one that comes to my lips isn’t about the city.
“Will my grandmother actually be okay?” I say. The gwabi had woven back into the trees at some point and Rasimbukar and I walk alone.
“Yes,” says Rasimbukar. She turns to look at me now, her eyes unblinking. She addresses me out loud and not in the tunnel, and I’m grateful: sometimes when she’s looking at me and in my mind simultaneously, it’s a little too intense, like staring into the sun. “Your grandmother has experienced a trauma. The ahugwo will repair her.”
“Ahugwo. The blue mammals?”
“We never learned about them in N’Terra.”
“There are many things N’Terra does not know.” She makes a slight gesture with her shoulders, an almost shrug. I wonder if she learned it from my grandparents.
Or other humans. Suddenly my brain fires: with everything that has happened, the things I, Alma, and Rondo had been investigating have been pushed to the side. They arise now in my head, all the pieces reconnecting. I stop walking.
“My grandfather is alive,” I say dumbly, the truth of it still fresh and almost unpronounceable.
Rasimbukar blinks now, slowly, as if she’s wondering if I need the ahugwo too.
Excerpted from the book AN ANATOMY OF BEASTS by Olivia A. Cole. Copyright © 2019 by Olivia A. Cole. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books.