A Winter’s Promise could be your next YA obsession.
The upcoming novel by Christelle Dabos is the first in her award-winning Mirror Visitor quartet series, already a hit beyond the U.S. It’s finally landing stateside as Europa’s first-ever foray into YA, and with good reason: Dabos’ books provide an irresistible mix of character development, imaginative world-building, and tightly-wound suspense.
A Winter’s Promise centers on Ophelia, a girl with unique powers, specialized for her family occupation as an archivist: the ability to read and communicate with the souls of objects. What’s more, she is also a “mirror-traveler,” an ability that has been passed down to her through generations. She lives on Anima, where inhabitants can read the pasts of objects, but her idyllic existence is disrupted when she’s promised in marriage to Thorn, an influential member of a distant clan. A perilous adventure begins from there: Ophelia must leave her family and follow her fiancé to Citaceleste, the capital of a cold and icy ark called Pole. But there, her future husband seems indifferent to her and she slowly realizes that her presence on Pole is part of a much bigger plot and has far-reaching ramifications not only for her but for her entire world.
“The Mirror Visitor stands on the same shelf as Harry Potter,” Elle once wrote of this acclaimed French series. While that’s certainly a tall order, it’s a pretty strong indication that this is a series worth paying attention to. You can see the official cover for A Winter’s Promise above, as well as an exclusive excerpt below. Read on, and pre-order the book ahead of its Sept. 25 release here.
Excerpt from A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos
The ambassador’s smile broadened. A beauty spot between his eyebrows gave him a strange expression. “And there’ll be yet another this evening.”
Ophelia didn’t find his face that honest, after all. She told herself that it was high time she got back to bed.
“And there was I, telling myself that it was impossible for me not to recognize a woman’s face,” he said, calm as anything. “To whom do I have the honor, little young lady?”
Ophelia lowered her chin and stammered the first thing that came into her head:
“A servant, sir. I’m new, I . . . I’ve just come on duty.”
The man’s smile instantly vanished and his eyebrows shot up beneath the top hat. He clasped her around the shoulders and dragged her forcibly through the halls of mirrors. Ophelia was stunned. At the back of her mind, a thought that wasn’t hers was commanding her not to utter another word. Much as she hit out with arms and legs, she had no choice but to plunge back into the fetid fog of the town. There would be many cobbles and many alleys before the ambassador slowed his pace.
He pulled back Ophelia’s hood and, with a disconcerting familiarity, pensively stroked her thick brown curls. He then lifted her chin to study her at leisure in the light of a street lamp. Ophelia stared back at him. The light falling on the ambassador’s face turned his skin white as ivory and his hair pale as a moonbeam. This just made the blue of his exceptionally light eyes stand out more. And it wasn’t a beauty spot between his eyebrows, it was a tattoo.
This man was beautiful, yes, but it was a rather terrifying beauty. Despite the crown of his hat flipping open like a tin, he certainly didn’t make Ophelia want to laugh in his face.
“That little accent, that ludicrous outfit, those provincial manners,” he listed with increasing glee, “you’re Thorn’s fiancée! I knew he was pulling the wool over our eyes, that rogue! And what’s hiding behind these black goggles?” The ambassador gently slid Ophelia’s glasses down until their eyes met. She had no idea what her expression was at that moment, but the man instantly softened. “Don’t be anxious, I’ve never hurt a woman in my life. And you’re so small! It prompts an irresistible desire to protect you.”
He had said that while patting her on the head, as an adult would a lost child. Ophelia wondered whether, in fact, he wasn’t openly making fun of her.
“You’re a reckless little young lady!” he chided in an unctuous voice. “Strutting about like that, nose in the air, bang in the middle of Mirage territory. Are you already tired of life?”
These words shocked Ophelia. So Thorn’s and Berenilde’s warnings hadn’t been exaggerated. “Mirage”—was that the name of those people with the tattooed eyelids? A fitting term for illusionists. But then, she really couldn’t understand: why had these people handed over an estate to Berenilde if they so hated the Dragons and anything to do with them?
“Has the cat got your tongue?” the ambassador teased her. “Do I terrify you?”
Ophelia indicated no with her head, but uttered not a word. All she was thinking about was how she could give him the slip.
“Thorn would kill me if he knew you were with me,” he gloated. “How ironic; I’m really loving this! My dear young lady, you’re going to join me for a little stroll.”
Ophelia would have definitely turned the offer down, but the arm he wrapped around hers was overpowering.
The ambassador led her into even fouler-smelling areas, if that were possible. The bottom of her dress was getting soaked in puddles so black that they couldn’t be water.
“You arrived here recently, isn’t that so?” the ambassador asked while eyeing her hungrily and with intense curiosity. “I daresay Anima’s towns are much prettier. You’ll soon discover that over here, all the filth is hidden under a triple layer of varnish.”
He suddenly went quiet as they turned off a pavement. Once again, a thought came to Ophelia that wasn’t her own: she must put her hood back up. Unnerved, she raised her glasses towards the ambassador, and he responded with a wink. So it wasn’t a figment of her imagination—this man could superimpose his thoughts on to hers. She didn’t like the thought of that.
“We’re there,” trilled the ambassador. “Just in time!”
There had been no transition from the previous setting; it was mind-boggling. The ambassador burst out laughing when he noticed Ophelia’s expression—behind her dark glasses, her eyes were popping out of her head.
“Precisely what I was telling you, varnish over filth! There are illusions lurking almost everywhere around here. It doesn’t always make much sense, but you’ll soon get used to it.” He sighed wearily. “Masking poverty! Saving appearances—that, in some ways, is the designated role of the Mirages.”
Ophelia wondered whether it was just to be provocative that he himself wore the clothes of a tramp.
Ophelia felt as though she had completely lost control of the situation.
* * *
The door opened on to dazzling sunshine. The ambassador closed the wrought-iron gate behind him and the lift continued upwards to the higher floors. Ophelia shielded her eyes with both hands: despite her glasses’ dark lenses, she felt overwhelmed by the colors.
“Here, we can talk at our leisure,” declared the ambassador, whirling his opera hat around.
“I have nothing to say to you,” Ophelia warned him.
The ambassador’s smile stretched like elastic. His eyes looked even bluer than the sky above his head. “Well, there you astound me, little young lady! I’ve just saved you from almost certain death. You should rather start by thanking me, don’t you think?”
Thanking him for what? Bothered by the heat, Ophelia threw off her hood and unbuttoned her cloak, but the ambassador rapped her on the knuckles as he would have done to a child. “Don’t take anything off, you’ll catch cold! The sun here is as illusory as that lovely cloudless sky, those pretty poppies, and the chittering of the cicadas.”
He extended his tatty cape over Ophelia to give her some shade, and calmly started walking, hat pointing skywards. “So tell me, Thorn’s fiancée, what’s your name?”
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” she whispered, timidly. “You think I’m someone else.”
He shook his head. “Oh no, I don’t think so. I’m the ambassador, and as such, I can recognize a stranger just from their pronunciation. You’re an Artemis girl. And those,” he said, delicately taking her wrist, “I’d wager that they’re reader’s gloves.”
He’d said that without the slightest accent, to Ophelia’s ears. She had to admit that she was impressed—this man was very well informed.
“You reek of your little province,” he jeered at her. “You have neither the manners of an aristocrat, nor those of a servant. I must say, it’s charmingly exotic.” Not releasing Ophelia’s wrist, he kissed her hand, a mischievous smile playing on his lips. “My name is Archibald. Will you, Thorn’s fiancée, finally tell me yours?”
“Denise. And for your information, I’m already married to a man from my family. I’m only passing through here. As I said, you’re mistaking me for someone else.”
Archibald’s smile flickered. Suddenly inspired, Ophelia had concocted this charming lie. Since she could no longer deny that she was an Animist, she might as well pretend that she was a relation. The main thing was to prevent this man, at all costs, from establishing any personal link between her and Thorn. She already felt that she had done something irredeemably stupid, so now she mustn’t make the situation worse.
In silence, under his canopied cape, Archibald studied Ophelia’s impassive face, as though he wanted to see beyond her dark glasses. Could he hear thoughts? Just in case, Ophelia recited a childhood nursery rhyme to herself, over and over again.
“So it’s ‘Mrs.’?” asked Archibald, looking thoughtful. “And how are you related to Thorn’s fiancée?”
“She’s a close cousin. I wanted to know about where she’ll be living.”
Archibald finally let out a deep sigh. “I’ll admit to you that I’m a little disappointed. It would have been frightfully amusing to have Thorn’s betrothed at my disposal.”
“And why’s that?” she asked, frowning.
“Well, to deflower her, of course.”
Ophelia fluttered her eyelashes foolishly. It was the most unexpected declaration she’d ever received. “You intended to force yourself on my cousin in the tall grasses of this garden?”
Archibald shook his head looking exasperated, almost offended. “Do you take me for a boorish brute? Killing a man means nothing to me, but never would I raise a hand against a woman. I would have seduced her, by Jove!”
Ophelia was so staggered by the cheek of this ambassador, she couldn’t even get angry. His frankness was disconcerting.
“And what if my cousin had turned you down?” insisted Ophelia. “What would you have done then?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not too sure; such a thing has never happened to me.”
“You definitely don’t suffer from self-doubt.”
Archibald broke into a fierce smile. “Do you have the slightest notion of the man she’s destined to marry? Believe me, she would have been very susceptible to my advances. Let’s sit down here a moment,” he suggested, without allowing her time to reply. “I’m dying of thirst!”
Grabbing Ophelia by the waist, he lifted her off the ground and placed her on the edge of a well, as easily as if she weighed nothing. He tugged on the pulley chain to draw up some water.
With the sun on her face and heady with the aroma of the warm grass, Ophelia waited for the ambassador to have slaked his thirst. At least she was lucky, in this sorry misadventure, to have fallen on a chatterbox. Water was cascading down his beardless chin. The harsh daylight emphasized the perfect smoothness of his skin. He was younger than he’d appeared to her in the light of the street lamps.
Ophelia studied him with curiosity. Archibald was handsome—that was undeniable—but he didn’t quicken her pulse. No man had ever quickened her pulse. She’d once read a romantic novel lent by her sister. All those amorous outpourings had done nothing for her and the book had bored her to death. Was this abnormal? Would her body and heart be forever deaf to that call?
Archibald wiped his mouth with a handkerchief as full of holes as his hat, jacket and fingerless gloves.
“And where should I be escorting you to, proper gentleman that I am?”
Ophelia’s only response was to stare at the tips of her boots beneath her dress, stained by the puddles. “May I ask you why, sir, you were planning to seduce my cousin before her marriage?”
Archibald raised his fine profile to the light. “Stealing the virginity of a courtier’s wife, that’s a game that’s always succeeded in dispelling my boredom. But Thorn’s fiancée, my little Denise, you can’t imagine what a thrill that would be! Everyone hates the chief treasurer, and the chief treasurer hates everyone. I pity his little protégée if she were to fall into other arms than mine. I know of those who would settle their score with Thorn without scruples.”
The wink he flashed at her sent shivers down her spine. Ophelia nibbled the seam of her glove. Some people bite their nails when they’re nervous; with Ophelia, it was her gloves. “You’re not cut out for the place I’m taking you to.” Thorn’s words in the airship suddenly made total sense.
Archibald gave a little flick to his hat to make it tilt to one side. “He knows us well, the bastard,” he chuckled. “That dear Berenilde spread the rumor that his fiancée would only travel here for the marriage itself. But since you’re here,” he added with an angelic look, “I deduce that your cousin is, in reality, not that far away. Would you agree to introduce me to her?”
Ophelia thought of the workers in the warehouses a few floors down, of the hollow look in their eyes, of their weary shoulders, of the crates that they would load and unload until they dropped dead. With a few blinks she lightened her glasses until they were transparent, so that she could look Archibald straight in the eye. “Really, sir, have you nothing more useful to do? Your life must be pretty empty!”
Archibald seemed totally flummoxed. Usually so talkative, he now opened and closed his mouth without finding a reply.
“A game, you said?” Ophelia continued, sternly. “Because dishonoring a young girl and risking a diplomatic incident, that amuses you, Mr. Ambassador? You are unworthy of the responsibilities incumbent upon your office.”
Archibald was so dumbfounded that Ophelia thought his smile would be wiped from his lips for good. He stared wide-eyed at her as though seeing her differently. “It’s a long time since a woman has spoken to me so sincerely,” he finally declared, looking perplexed. “I’m not sure whether it shocks me or charms me.”
“Sincerity, you’re not short of it yourself,” murmured Ophelia while staring at a solitary poppy sprouting between two cobblestones. “My cousin will be warned of your intentions. I’ll reinforce my recommendation that she not leave Anima before it’s time for the marriage, exactly as was planned.”
It wasn’t her most inspired lie, but that was an art in which she didn’t particularly excel.
“So you, little Denise, what are you doing so far from home?” asked Archibald in a honeyed voice.
“I told you, I’m on a reconnaissance trip.” At least Ophelia didn’t have to push the playacting too far—she could hardly have been more sincere. She could look Archibald in the eye without blinking. “That tattoo on your forehead, is that the mark of your clan?”
“Indeed it is,” he said.
“Does it signify that you can enter into the minds of others and become their master?” she continued, anxiously.
Archibald burst out laughing. “Thankfully not! Life would be frightfully dull if I could read women’s hearts like an open book. Let’s say instead that it’s I who can make myself transparent to you. This tattoo,” he added, pounding his forehead, “is the guarantee of that very transparency that our society is so cruelly lacking. We always say what we think and we prefer to be silent than to lie.”
Ophelia believed him. She’d seen it for herself.
“We are not as venomous as the Mirages, or as aggressive as the Dragons,” Archibald continued, hitting his stride. “My entire family works in the diplomatic world. We act as a buffer between two destructive forces.”
At these words, they both fell quiet in thought, the cicadas’ chirring filling the silence between them.
“I really must get back now,” said Ophelia softly.
Archibald seemed to hesitate, then slapped his opera hat, which flattened and then popped up like a spring. He got down from the well and offered Ophelia a gallant hand, along with his loveliest smile.
The ambassador bowed and raised his gaping opera hat in farewell. “Goodbye, little Denise, and take care of yourself . . . Oh, a final warning!” He tapped the tattoo between his eyebrows, with a big, mocking smile. “Also tell your cousin not to spout everything and anything to those who bear this mark. It could backfire on her one day.”
The lift’s gate closed, leaving Ophelia deep in thought.
Excerpt adapted from A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle. Reprinted with permission from Europa Editions. Copyright © Gallimard Jeunesse, 2013. Translation copyright © 2018 by Europa Editions.