Nicole McLaughlin
David Canfield
January 10, 2018 at 10:00 AM EST

After spending years as an influencer and diversity advocate in the world of YA, L.L. McKinney has arrived with a debut of her own: A Blade So Black.

Mixing elements of Alice in Wonderland and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the book provides a delectable urban twist on beloved fantasy tales. We meet Alice juggling an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA in real-world Atlanta, Georgia. But when her handsome mentor is poisoned, she’s forced to venture deep into Wonderland to find the antidote.

EW has an exclusive preview of the book, including an excerpt and its official, gorgeous cover. Speaking exclusively to EW, McKinney explained how it came together, and why it was so important to look the way it does. “When I was a kid it was nigh impossible to find a black girl on a book cover in the genres I love, or on a book cover period, so being part of something like this with A Blade So Black is beyond words,” she said. “I’ll settle for abso-freaking-incredible, though — that comes close.”

“I was able to be involved the whole way through, from selecting potential models to sending in suggestions for poses and composition,” she then explained of the process. “I got on the phone with [my editor] Rhoda and my art director Natalie; we talked about the setting and items that were important to the story that could be included. Then, by the grace of God and the blessing of good friends, I went to the shoot and saw what would eventually come to be. When comps came in and I was both a mess and too hyped, you couldn’t tell me nothing. Now, presenting Alice to future readers who’ll be able to see themselves in a way I wasn’t, I’m on top of the world.”

Read on below to check out the cover and read an excerpt. A Blade So Black will be available in stores starting Sept. 25. Pre-order it here.

Imprint

Excerpt from “A Blade So Black,” by L.L. McKinney

Curiouser

Alice couldn’t cry. She couldn’t scream. All she could do was run.

Her boots slapped the vinyl floor. Light flickered in the red leather. Someone shouted her name. Maybe her mother. Maybe a nurse. A hurricane of rushing blood and her thrashing heart wailed in her ears.

Out. She had to get out.

A feeling like a hammer beating at the inside of her skull made everything fuzzy. She didn’t see the white man in the middle of the hall until she was on top of him, but she couldn’t stop. It was like hitting a wall. Then they both hit the ground. The smell of bleach and disinfectant coated her throat.

She fought to untangle herself from him.

“Dammit, kid, hold on a second!”

“Alice!” Mom’s voice chased her past the lobby and through the sliding doors.

Get. Out.

Bright red letters danced in the puddles peppering the concrete.

EMERGENCY

Grady towered over her, casting a shadow across the night.

Warm water misted her skin and hung in the air, a rain that wasn’t really committed to falling.

She raced into the street. A car swerved to avoid her, horn blaring and headlights flashing.

“You crazy?” the driver hollered at her back.

Alice had no idea where she was going. She just ran. Past parking garages and a couple of shops. Squat, beige buildings lined the street. The GSU campus. She kept going.

He was okay.

And ran.

All day, he was fine. Why did he do this?

And ran.

Why did he leave me?

Her lungs kicked at her rib cage, strangled by the hollow feeling clawing at her chest. Her legs pumped until the burn in her stomach rolled to her feet. When they refused to carry her any farther she dropped to the ground. Water soaked her gloves. Dirt stained the white fabric. Uneven asphalt dug into her knees, scraping them as she crawled the last few feet to sink against a wall.

Tears and snot ran down her face. “Daddy.” But he was gone. Dead.

“Poor child,” someone nearby whispered, the words dragging across their tongue in a growl. “So alone. So afraid.”

Panting around hiccups, Alice shook her head, her face in her hands. “Go away.”

“Oh, I can’t just leave you. Not when your fear is so . . . inviting.”

Alice lifted her head, blinking away tears to search the emptiness around her. She was in an alley, god knows where. Her tears made it hard to see. Snot and the stink of something sour made it hard to breathe.

“I can take it away.” The darkness shifted with movement deeper in the alley, coming toward her. “Let me help you.”

A dog stepped into what little light reached her. Huge paws ended with long, wicked claws that clacked against the ground. Alice’s eyes widened at the size of it. Black skin, no fur, rippled as it moved. Illuminated eyes blinked at her; one pair, then two, and three. Lips curled in a flash of teeth the size of her fingers.

The trembling in Alice’s gut rippled through the rest of her.

She screamed.

It lunged. Teeth snapped shut inches shy of her face. Drool that smelled like rotten meat splashed across her chest and cheek. She scrambled backward, trying to call for help, the words choked in a wail. The roughness of the brick at her back caught her clothes and scraped her skin. She was trapped.

Instead of lunging, the creature collapsed and flailed, ripping at the ground. “Traitor!” it shrieked.

“Yeah, yeah.”

The air quivered, steeped in shadows that seemed to recoil as a white boy stepped into view. He gripped the end of something sticking out of the monster’s back.

A sword, Alice realized. The thunder of her heartbeat against her skull sharpened.

What little light that managed to thread the gloom hovered along the length of the blade, as if afraid or unable to touch it.

“You will suffer! You will all suffer!” Pinned to the ground, the monster thrashed. Yellow blood slid against the blade, coating the onyx metal, dripping onto the ground beneath it.

“What’s that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of. . .” The boy pulled the sword free and drove it in again with a slurch.

Alice jerked. So did the monster. Then it fell still. The glow in its eyes slowly faded.

Stepping over the body, the boy wiped his sword clean then slid it into a sheath over his shoulder. As the hilt clicked into place, light poured in from the street, saturating the alley. She hadn’t even noticed gone out.

Confused, Alice blinked against the stinging bright, trying to focus on what and who was in front of her. Dark jeans, boots, and purple T-shirt with the words We’re All Mad Here scrawled across the front, he looked like a regular dude. With a weapon strapped to his back.

She didn’t realize she was staring until the beast’s body jolted with a loud pop, startling her. Its leathery skin bubbled and folded, shrinking in. A smell like old milk and mold filled the air. She gagged, her stomach roiling.

Oh my god. There was really a dead monster. She was going to be sick.

Unfolding his lithe frame from a crouch, the boy turned to go, though paused as if noticing her for the first time. Blinking, he shifted to the left, then to the right as Alice watched. “You see me?” He had an accent. Sounded English.

It took a second for Alice to realize he was speaking to her. She nodded, her eyes darting between him and the dissolving creature. It was nearly gone. “Curiouser.” He tilted his head to the side and took a step forward.

Alice jerked back, fear cold in her limbs.

“Whoa.” He lifted both hands and went still. “I just wanna make sure you’re okay.” He took another, slower step. When Alice didn’t move—she wasn’t sure she could—he took a couple more, then knelt in front of her. Light from the street slid across his moss green hair and spilled into gray eyes looking her over from beneath a furrowed brow. “Anything hurt?” he asked.

Alice stared. She couldn’t manage words. Her thoughts tumbled over themselves as her mind tried to make sense of . . . she wasn’t even sure. Talking dog-monsters, some dude with a sword, he killed—what the hell just happened? She couldn’t breathe. When she tried, sour air stuck in her throat. Her stomach quivered.

“Hey. It’s okay.” His quiet voice managed to fill the alley. The gray in his eyes shifted, colors catching and dancing like a kaleidoscope in the dark.

Chest heaving, Alice shook her head. Blond strands from her wig clung to her face. Her thighs stung where she’d crawled across the ground. The pounding in her head worsened, made it hard to think. She had to get up. She had to go. Dad was waiting to take her to the con. Only he wasn’t. He was gone. Tears blurred her vision.

“Can you walk?”

“Wh-who—” She couldn’t get the rest of the words out. They weren’t even words anymore, just small sounds of shock on the edge of more sobs. No. She gripped her mouth with both hands, her fingers digging into her cheeks. Stop it. Stop. It. The ache in her jaw spread to her throat and slithered behind her eyes as she fought back tears, bottling them up to throw them away. She wouldn’t break down like this. Not out here. Not in front of. . .whoever this was. Hiccupping around slow breaths, she fixed the boy with a stare and pushed the question free. “Who are you?”

“Oh good. I thought you might pass out on me.” He pressed a hand to his chest, “I’m Addison Hatta.” He offered her the other. Bands of silver gleamed on each of his fingers. “Can I help you?”

She watched those fingers for a long moment. When he wiggled them her eyes shot to his face, then the hilt of the sword peeking over his shoulder.

A freaking sword.

This is too much.

She took his hand.

Addison stood, drawing her up as well. Her legs shook but held, though she braced her free hand against the wall. Dirty water and God knows what else stained her gloves and her sailor fuku. Her costume was ruined. She’d worked so hard on it.

But that didn’t matter anymore.

Swallowing thickly, she forced words over the sand in her throat. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcommme.” He drew out the last syllable, trailing off with a lift of his eyebrows.

“A-Alice.”

“You’re welcome, Alice.” A smile stretched his face, and the colors of his pupil shifted again, brighter now.

She pointed, nearly poking him in one. “Your eyes—they changed!”

“Yeah.” He rubbed at the back of his head. “That happens when I come to this side … of town.”

“This side—where are you from?”

“Not anywhere near here.”

The burbling body nearby gave a loud crack. It was nearly gone, the ground stained black beneath it.

She aimed her finger at that mess. “What was that? Where did it come from?” The questions leaped free on their own, her brain latching to something, anything, else to process while it tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Shifting to the side a few steps, she eyed Addison and his sword once more.

“The same place me?”

“And where the hell is that?” If he danced around her questions one more time. . .

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Addison chewed at his lower lip, watching the body before looking to Alice. He pursed his lips, nodding to himself. “But I think I will.”

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