HMH Books for Young Readers
David Canfield
October 25, 2017 AT 10:00 AM EDT

One of the most anticipated YA debuts of 2018, Brightly Burning is a gothic, romantic mystery with hints of Jane Eyre, Marissa Meyer, and Kiera Cass.

The novel, written by Alexa Donne, centers on 17-year-old Stella Ainsley, who lives on a floundering spaceship called the Stalwart. When she’s hired as a governess aboard the mysterious Rochester (does the name ring a bell?), which is captained by the moody, handsome Hugo Fairfax, Stella quickly keys into the secrets and shadows of the ship. She investigates its captain and secret cargo, coming to the conclusion that someone is trying to kill Hugo, whether he’s willing to admit it or not — and the more she discovers, the more questions she has about Hugo’s role in a greater conspiracy that threatens the safety of the already precarious fleet.

The book is due for a May 1 release and should leave fans of its genre swooning. EW can offer an exclusive sneak peak, in the form of an official cover reveal and an excerpt of the first chapter.

Read on below, and visit Donne’s website to learn more about the self-described Ravenclaw author.

HMH Books for Young Readers

Excerpt from ‘Brightly Burning,’ by Alexa Donne

Chapter One

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

I tucked my long hair as best I could into a bun atop my head — harder than one might think with your hair floating in all directions — as I grabbed my toolkit and headed into the corridor, half bouncing, half floating with each step. Orange lights flickered on and off, rendering the hallway dimmer than usual, quite the feat, considering Ward Z was generally known as Dark Ward. A few small windows were cut in between brushed-chrome walls that hummed with the shudder of the engines, but starlight was insufficient to light the inside of a ship. Ward Z was the domicile of the Stalwart’s lowliest; why squander precious electricity on waste specialists and mechanics? Most of the ship’s light energy was diverted to the fields. The Stalwart was the single largest provider of food in the fleet. I made a note to fix the light later, nonetheless.

It was a short journey to the supply bay, my quarters being conveniently close; I moved quickly from orange flickering over dull chrome down two levels to the antiseptic white glow of the ship’s belly. The Stalwart was at least clever enough to allocate decent energy reserves to the working parts of the ship; it would do no good to repair essential systems if I couldn’t see.

“There you are,” Jatinder greeted me, wiping a sweat-slicked hand against an equally sweaty forehead. Small droplets floated up from the tips of his fingers. I could barely hear him above the grind of the engines.

“You couldn’t call Karlson?” I asked, bouncing over to the secondary systems panel. “I have to lead class in less than an hour.”

“That’s more than enough time.” Jatinder tsked. “And if it takes longer, Ancient Earth Sciences will wait. I need you and your lovely, tiny hands.”

“My hands are perfectly normal sized,” I mumbled as I set to work on the machine, which alternately whooshed and wheezed. “Did you already try hitting it?” I asked Jatinder, who grunted in the affirmative. Nevertheless, I gave the thing a good smack before resorting to more invasive techniques. But still I floated.

Jatinder attempted small talk as we worked. “You heard about any of your applications?”

“One said no. Two still pending,” I said. “It’s hard to find engineering positions, as you know.” My hand slipped noisily against a pipe.

“Oh, my God,” he said in Hindi, one of the few phrases I’d learned by this point, as he said it so much. “You must think me completely naive.”

“What?” I played dumb, though heat rose to my cheeks at being caught in my lie. Jatinder knew me too well after more than three years of working together.

“We both know you aren’t applying anywhere as an engineer. You hate the job, despite being very good at it— and not at all humble, I might add— and unless someone on another ship dies with no apprentice in place, you’re not getting an engineering transfer.” I opened my mouth to reply, but he kept going. “I had hoped you’d get over your foolish dreams of being taken on by some miracle ship to teach, but what is this? Your third round of applications?”

My cheeks burned furiously hot, from embarrassment, anger, and just a bit of despair. Jatinder was pessimistic — and pedantic — to a fault, but he wasn’t wrong. Yet I clung to hope that I might escape the fate of being stuck in the bowels of an ailing food-supply ship for the rest of my life. Or worse, being jettisoned down to Earth whenever the Stalwart inevitably failed, doomed to certain death on the frozen planet below. The last ship that had deorbited over a year ago hadn’t been heard from since. Crew probably all froze to death.

“Plenty of ships need teachers,” I offered, my voice small.

He threw me a look that dripped with pity. “Stella, you know the good private ships don’t take on governesses from the likes of the Stalwart. You’re even less likely to get off this place as a governess than you are as an engineer. Unless that family of yours wants you back, you’re stuck here.”

My family? I could hear my aunt Reed’s shrill tone in my ear as if she were standing next to me: You have caused me nothing but grief. I am happy to see the back of you. Those were her parting words to me. No, I was sure my “family” did not want me back.

I swallowed his harsh truth down like cold tea, pushing it past my throat, into my stomach, where I wouldn’t have to think of it. Squaring my shoulders, I set to fixing the gravity stabilizer with extra verve. “I hope your brother gets back soon,” I said sharply. Jatinder, barely older than I, was only temporarily in charge until Navid returned from a resource mission. I knew comparisons to his older sibling always chafed. “He said he’d try to get me a new tablet while he was away. Mine has been on the fritz.”

“I don’t know why you bother. There’s nothing to paint but gray walls and billions of stars.”

“I use my imagination. You should try it sometime.”

It took a solid forty-five minutes, but I managed to remove the extra bounce from everyone’s steps by returning the ship’s gravity settings to normal.

“See? Just in time to go teach the bright young minds of tomorrow,” Jatinder said, tossing me a soiled rag. I found a relatively clean corner and wiped my greasy hands off as best I could.

“I’ll see you next shift, Jatinder.” I rushed to get up to the school deck in less than fifteen minutes. Considering the Stalwart was several miles long and eight levels deep, that was no easy feat.

Having fixed the gravity problem at least, I moved up the decks more efficiently than I had on my way down, zipping through narrow corridors I’d practically memorized during my six years on board. Past residency wards U through Y, where officials long ago stopped caring about the colorful graffiti adorning the walls —some of which was my own. The warm orange and purples of a sunset over the city of Paris, a city I’d studied but was likely now a frozen ruin, blurred by on my left just before I hit the stairwell that would take me up, up, up.

I arrived out of breath but with a minute to spare, my adrenaline rush of joy dissolving with a fizzle as soon as I saw the look on George’s face. I knew that look. Someone had died.

“What happened?” I asked, ignoring the little flip my stomach did as George hovered close.

“Arden’s mom,” he said with a sigh. “It happened fast. Med bay couldn’t do anything for her.”

Of course they couldn’t. On the list of things that were always in short supply: water, air, spare parts, food, medical supplies. I taught Earth History, so I knew people used to live eighty, ninety, even a hundred years. Not anymore. Jatinder’s brother, Navid, was considered on the older side at the ripe age of thirty-four. George and I weren’t the only orphans on board, though we were two of the only single almost-eighteen-year-olds left. Half our class was already married.

George settled a large, warm hand over my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “See you at dinner later?”

I nodded, and George smiled just a bit, making me melt. I turned, crossing with a slight hesitation over the threshold into the room. It was a morbid location on the best of days — windowless, gray, illuminated by buzzing neon light — and when death came to call, the gloom clung to the walls, seeping through the rivets like motor grease. The kids were quiet, a wholly unnatural state of being for their age, and the pupil who ordinarily would be the happiest to see me met me with red-rimmed eyes and a quivering lower lip.

“Oh, Arden,” I said, engulfing her in a hug. She sniffled into the slick fabric of my coat, and I glanced over at my thirty-odd pupils, sitting behind their communal-style desks with eyes politely averted. Enough of them had suffered the loss of a parent or family member that no one would judge a fellow student for crying in class.

What should I say? Surely not the platitudes they’d said to me, a seven-year-old shocked numb by the passing first of a father — accidental death, on the job — followed swiftly by a grief-stricken mother, by her own hand. Something about God’s will, and how at least now there’d be two fewer mouths to feed. While a pragmatic person, I wasn’t heartless.

“You can skip today’s lesson if you want. You won’t get in trouble,” I said gently, easing my way out of her grip and toward my desk. She nodded solemnly, retreating to a shadowy corner where the recessed lighting in the ceiling didn’t quite reach.

“Good afternoon, class,” I began with a deep breath, retrieving my lesson planner from the communal drawer all the student teachers used and flipping to where our last lesson left off. “Who can tell me how a volcanic explosion can lead to an ice age?”

A hand shot up. Carter, one of my eagerest pupils, always reading ahead for the pleasure of it. Despite the melancholy, I caught more than a few kids rolling their eyes in Carter’s direction. I called on him, knowing failure to do so would send him into a tizzy.

“When a supervolcano explodes, all the dust it releases into the air blocks the sunlight,” he said. Competent enough for an eleven- year-old.

“That’s just one part of it,” I said, “but good job. And how long can an ice age last?” Carter’s hand flew up again, but this time I waited a beat longer. A boy named Jefferson took the bait.

“Ten thousand years?”

“Not the big one,” I said. “I was thinking more of how long this current one is predicted to last.” Because there was no point in making a roomful of children panic.

“Two hundred years,” a girl in the second row called out. “That’s what we’re hoping,” I said. “And when it comes time to go back down to the surface, all your farming skills will come in handy.” I toed the Stalwart’s line perfectly, following the lesson plan they’d given me to a T, even if it made my teeth ache to push out the words. I knew an ice age caused by a supervolcano explosion could last a thousand years, and two hundred was a lowball estimate. “Your assignment for today is to write a short story about your ancestors who left Earth. What do you think they thought about the supervolcano? How did they find out about the evacuation, and what was it like to leave Earth behind and live in spaceships for the first time?”

I pointedly didn’t mention all those who had been left behind. It was possible for human beings to survive an ice age; history indicated as much. But the percentage would be paltry; the casualties high. I tried not to think about all who had perished, though it was hundreds of years ago.

The students set to writing — it would be a class with a lot of downtime. I decided to seek out Arden, lest she be left too long to her own thoughts. I found her huddled in the back, crying over a potted plant.

“I don’t understand,” she sniffled, her voice hoarse.

“I know.” I crouched down to her level, laying a comforting hand on her back. “It’s not fair.”

“But I watered it and everything!” Arden gestured at the plant, which, now that I considered it, was looking a bit droopy.

“If I can’t figure out how to make it grow, I’ll never get to be a farmer, and what if they stick me with something awful, like engineering?” she let out in a string of breathless words, then snapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Stella, I didn’t think—”

“It’s okay. Engineering isn’t all that bad, but I know it’s not for everyone.” It was barely for me, but I’d take it over farming, personally. Arden, however, came from a long line of farmers — everyone on the Stalwart did — and I understood her angst. Everyone had to pull their weight on board, and working the fields was one of the more stable, fulfilling jobs.

“Did you put it under the sunlamp?” I asked. She nodded in the affirmative. “Okay, then how much did you water it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can water a plant too much, effectively drowning it,” I said gently.

Arden’s face fell. “I used my water rations to give it more. I thought it would help.”

“Oh, Arden.” I sighed. “Drinking your daily water ration is very important. You’ll get dehydrated.” Especially with all the tears she’d be expending over the coming weeks and months. “Come with me.” I directed her to the front of the room and out into the corridor, where I unzipped a stealth pocket in my skirt and handed her my half-drunk day’s rations. She greedily sucked it down, offering me her first smile of the day.

“Listen,” I began, and her reaction was immediate— she obviously did not want to talk about her mother. So I veered into safer territory. “You’re really bright, Arden, one of my best students. I’m sure you’d make a fine farmer, but it’s not so bad if you end up doing something else. What don’t you like about engineering?”

“It’s dirty,” she said, eyeing my less-than-pristine hands, then lingering on my face. Great, I must have a smudge on my face. And George didn’t say anything. Jerk. “And,” Arden continued, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “I really, really don’t like the dark.”

“It’s actually not that dark down there,” I reassured her. “But you shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, either. Think of it this way — the dark helps us to better see the stars, so it can’t be all bad. Don’t you like the stars?”

Arden nodded, glancing over at a large recessed window, through which distant stars could only just be seen. I wandered over, knowing Arden would follow, leaning so close to the thick glass that my breath fogged it up. I cupped my hands on either side of my face to block the haze of light from behind, squinting out at the myriad of heavenly bodies.

“After I lost my mum and dad, I started talking to the stars,” I said. “Someone told me that when we die, we are released out there, turned into something burning and brilliant. I don’t know if it’s true, but it brings me comfort. Maybe you can talk to the stars too. They’re excellent listeners.”

“Thanks, Stella,” Arden whispered, leaning heavily against my side. And then she turned and was gone.

The ship shuddered, and I found myself careening backwards, landing hard on my tailbone as all the lights blinked out, leaving the ship in darkness.

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