Disney is unveiling a first-of-its-kind new fairy-tale series. Here's your exclusive preview at how things are kicking off.

By David Canfield
April 13, 2020 at 02:00 PM EDT
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We could all use a little magic nowadays, and fortunately, Disney's The Mirror is promising to offer that in spades.

The upcoming quartet from publisher Disney Hyperion, announced earlier this month, centers on an intricate family curse and will move through generations and across continents from book to book. Each is set to be written by a different YA star, with Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), J. C. Cervantes (The Storm Runner), and L.L. McKinney (A Blade So Black) slated to pen future installments. But Book One is in the hands of Julie C. Dao — and we've got your exclusive first look.

Dao (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns), who has some experience with new takes on Disney classics — her debut offered an original spin on Snow White's Evil Queen legend — will publish the first novel in the series, Broken Wish, this fall. It follows the story of 16-year-old Elva, a witch who must hide her strange powers and visions. But when Elva accidentally witnesses a devastating vision of the future, she decides she has to do everything she can to prevent it.

The book will set the stage for what's to come, with the books to follow taking the action to 1920s New Orleans, 1960s San Francisco, and early 2000s New York City.

EW can reveal the cover and debut the first excerpt of Broken Wish. It's the latest in what's been a slow, enticing unraveling. In late February, the four authors began cryptically showcasing images of a large, ornate mirror on social media. (See Dao's mirror image below.) Per digital marketing manager Andrew Sansone, "The object had come from the publisher with instructions to photograph it and ship the cursed object along to the next author." With their participation in The Mirror now revealed, expect more teases on their Instagram accounts to come.

Credit: Sasha Alsberg

"I've been a Disney kid my whole life, and getting to write Broken Wish for Disney felt like coming full circle!" Dao tells EW. "I hope readers will love kind, courageous Elva and prickly, warm-hearted Mathilda as much as I do."

She adds of the cover, which you can see below: "My jaw dropped the first time I saw this spectacular cover. I love everything about it: the dreamy Sleeping Beauty-like vibe, the dark forest, the red slippers, and the blink-and-you'll-miss-it details like the cottage and the woman's face. I'm so excited to share this cover with the world, and I'm looking forward to sharing the book in October!"

See that and the full excerpt below. Broken Wish publishes Oct. 6 and is available for pre-order.

Excerpt from Broken Wish, by Julie C. Dao

“I hate to say this, but that’s not how fish work.” Rayner crossed his arms in an uncanny imitation of their father as he looked down at his siblings. Elva and Cay were sitting at the big oak table in the parlor, stitching one of Elva’s skirts. “What on earth would they do with wings?”

“Fly, of course,” Cay said, as though it were utterly obvious.

“Fish swim.” Rayner leveled a look at him that would have made Papa proud. Even when he wasn’t trying to emulate him, Rayner was a perfect fourteen-year-old copy of Oskar Heinrich, right down to the blue eyes and the beginnings of a beard. “Birds fly. That’s how nature works.”

“Well, we’re not trying to show how nature works. We’re imagining, like Mama says,” Cay said, as he went on embroidering his fish’s elaborate wings. They were jagged at the ends like a bat’s, and Elva smiled, knowing he had been inspired by the natural history book he had just devoured. If there was anything eleven-year-old Cay liked better than trying new things, it was reading all of the volumes in Mama’s library.

“Imagining,” Rayner muttered. Neither he nor Papa had ever understood Cay, who took up any hobby from sewing to baking to riding with equal alacrity, and had once caught a terrible cold sleeping outdoors to study field mice. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be sewing. That’s for g—”

“Shouldn’t you be helping Papa?” Elva snapped, looking up from the fish she herself was embroidering with violet thread. “If Cay wants to help me sew my skirt, that’s his business.” Cay grinned at her. Rayner shrugged helplessly at the pair of them but left without further argument.

Elva smoothed out the folds of the skirt. “This is turning out nicely! I think I might wear it to Freida’s birthday supper next week.” Along with Elva and Mama, Freida Bauer was one of the few people who  supported Cay’s interest in embroidery. The last time she had come to their house, she had helped him stitch a fantastical purple horse with duck feet instead of hooves.

“I like Freida. She’s nice to me. Is that the Blue Mermaid you’re sewing?” Cay asked knowingly. He was the only one Elva dared to confide in about her visions. He knew how hard it had always been for her to resist looking at them whenever she did things like bathe, drink water, or help Mama with the washing. But unlike their parents, he found her ability interesting instead of frightening.

“Yes. I can’t stop thinking about how close Willem came to finding out about me,” Elva said, sighing. “I should have been more careful, but the vision appeared so suddenly.”

“He didn’t find out, though,” Cay reassured her, putting the finishing touches on his fish and moving on to a unicorn. “And he believed you when you said it was a dream. Willem’s all right.” He paused, then looked up at her. “Except didn’t he tell you the woman in the North Woods was kidnapping those children?”

“He was just repeating gossip.” Elva frowned. “It’s so easy for people to spread rumors. Just because that woman lives alone, everyone makes up stories about her. And children have gone missing in the woods for years and years; there’s always someone different to blame.”

Two years ago, a young woman had been driven out of Hanau after a pair of missing twins turned up at her cottage. She had been accused of kidnapping, and no matter how much the twins argued in her defense, no one had believed them. She had been forced to leave forever. Before that, it had been a mother and daughter, skillful healers whom the town had turned against because they had saved too many lives, thereby sparking accusations of witchcraft.

Elva shuddered at the thought of Hanau finding out about her visions. For more than a decade, she had lived with the shameful secret of being strange and different. She glanced up to see Cay’s keen blue eyes on her. “Now that you’ve finished reading that natural history book, what will you study next?” she asked brightly, deciding it was high time for a change of subject.

“Fairy tales,” Cay said at once. “I want to study where they came from. The Grimms had a theory that some magical objects actually do exist, and I want to hunt for one.”

“Which one? A spinning wheel? Seven-league boots?”

“No. A wishing well.”

Elva laughed at how typical it was of Cay to be fascinated by anything related to water—ironic, considering how hard she tried to avoid water herself. He had a knack for finding hidden streams and forgotten creeks; he had even discovered an old sinkhole once that the town council had marked upon the official map of Hanau. Mama called him her lucky charm and often joked that if there was ever a drought, she would simply set him loose.

“I’m sure if a wishing well exists, you’ll be the one to find it,” Elva told him.

Cay grinned, then looked down at his spool of red thread. “This isn’t the right shade for my unicorn’s mane. It’s too orange. Do you think Mama has anything darker, like ruby?”

“Let’s go see.” Elva led the way to the sunny nook where their mother stored keepsakes and sewing supplies, including bolts of fabric, ribbons, yarn, and other odds and ends.

Cay climbed the short ladder and reached for the basket on the top shelf, which contained Mama’s needles and threads. In his enthusiasm, he knocked some books onto the floor.

“Be careful!” Elva urged him.

“Oh, look, there was something behind those books,” he said, not listening to her at all. He pulled out a little wooden box painted with autumn leaves. When he opened the lid, they saw bundles of yellowed letters tied together with frost-blue ribbon.

“Cay, don’t!” Elva scolded, as her brother eagerly pulled the first letter from the bundle. “What if they’re love letters or something?”

“They’re signed Mathilda. Who’s Mathilda?” he asked, still not listening to her. Ever the voracious reader, he had already begun skimming the first paragraph. “Oh, she’s a neighbor who lived next door to Mama and Papa. Little cottage ...what cottage is she talking about?” Elva’s curiosity was aroused at once. Mama had always been reluctant to talk about their early days in Hanau. “It’s the first home they bought before we were born,” she explained. “Across the bridge on the far side of town. They had me there but moved a year later.” Against her own judgment, she slipped the second letter out of the bundle. “Here’s something about Honey!”

Honey was an old goat that had been with them for as long as Elva could remember. When she died a few years ago, Cay had held an elaborate funeral that he insisted the whole family attend. “What does it say about her?” he asked eagerly, taking the note Elva gave him. “Oh, I think this lady Mathilda was the one who named Honey.”

“She made sweaters for Mama and Papa once,” Elva said, glancing over the other letters. “And Mama made sourdough bread for her in return. They were friends.”

“Here’s one where she tells Mama she’d be a good mother.” Cay nodded his approval. “She was right. And it looks like she liked the goat cheese Mama gave her.”

“I wonder why Mama never talks about her. Maybe she moved away.” Elva scanned the dates as they moved through the bundle of letters. “They started writing to each other in 1847, the year before I was born. When is the last one dated?”

He located the letter at the bottom of the pile. “The beginning of 1848,” he said, and as he scanned the message, his face grew serious.

“It looks like they stopped being friends. She writes that . . . that Mama wasn’t the person she thought she was.”

“Why? What happened?” Elva asked, stunned.

“She says something about magic in here. I think Mathilda did magic,” Cay said, looking troubled. He passed her the letter and there was no denying that he was right, after Elva read the neat script several times. “Papa didn’t like her, which explains why we’ve never heard of her. He doesn’t even like it when people talk about that woman in the North Woods.”

Elva froze. “Their old cottage wasn’t far from the North Woods. What if that woman is Mathilda? If they were friends once, that would explain why Mama was upset about the notices.”

Cay looked doubtful. “I don’t know if Mama would associate with a witch. You know how Papa gets. . . . But maybe they didn’t know about her at first.” He paused, his eyes widening. “If that woman is Mathilda, do you think she could help me with my fairy tale research?”

“Cay,” Elva groaned.

“What?” he asked defensively. “She lives in the North Woods, and there are all kinds of strange stories about that place. We could ask her about the family curse, too.”

They had long found it strange that their mother was so superstitious about the number three, given how practical she was otherwise. But every time something good happened to their family, she believed it would be followed by another stroke of good luck and then something awful. And more often than not, it did. Even Papa couldn’t explain why the pattern had happened over and over through the years, and they had all taken to calling it the family curse. Last year, Mama had barely slept after Rayner found a lost pregnant ewe that belonged to no one, and Papa had sold his famous apples for more money than he ever had before. “Two good things. Something bad is coming next,” she had said, making them all nervous, and then she had broken her wrist slipping in the rain.

“I’m not sure even witches can do anything about bad luck,” Elva said absentmindedly, flipping through the letters. Her mother had sounded so young, hopeful, and trusting, and Mathilda kind and caring. What had happened between the two of them to end it all, and on such bad terms, as Mathilda’s final message seemed to imply?

They heard a door close somewhere in the house, and it suddenly struck Elva that Mama might not have wanted them to know about Mathilda. Quickly, she and Cay stuffed the letters back into the wooden box and replaced it on the shelf behind the books. No sooner had they taken their spots at the table again than Agnes Heinrich swept into the room.

“Come outside,” their mother said merrily, her cheeks rosy. “It’s an incredible sight.”

“What is, Mama?” Elva asked, but their mother only chuckled and led them out to the front of the house. A group of men stood talking and laughing with Papa and Rayner, and Elva spotted Herr Bauer and a few of his farmhands. Willem was standing beside a big red wheelbarrow covered with a cloth, looking as happy and excited as any of them.

“Oh, good, everyone’s here,” Herr Bauer said, smiling at Elva and Cay. “Come and see our good fortune. Or should I say, Willem’s good fortune!”

Elva’s stomach lurched at the sight of Willem’s shirt, which was soaked with water. She already knew what she would see as Willem swept the cloth off with a dramatic flourish: a beautiful fish so large that its head and tail dangled over either side of the wheelbarrow. Its scales glimmered cerulean and sea-foam green and lilac. All it needed to be a storybook mermaid was the face of a beautiful woman and long turquoise hair twisted with pearls. Willem’s eyes met Elva’s with joyful disbelief, but she shook her head, pleading with him not to say anything about the “dream” in front of everyone. To her relief, he seemed to understand.

“The Blue Mermaid!” Cay cried, glancing at Elva.

Papa patted his shoulder. “Willem caught it this afternoon. Isn’t it glorious?”

“It shimmers so,” Mama said. “I thought it was only a legend.”

“You and the rest of Hanau, my dear lady,” Herr Bauer said brightly. “We joked about it for years but never believed it would actually be caught. And by Willem, the lucky rascal!”

Elva met Willem’s eyes again, and as the men said good-bye and turned to go back to their work, he mouthed, Walk with me. “May I go with them as far as the gate? I want to study the fish a bit more,” Elva said. Her parents agreed and soon she found herself walking beside Willem and the wheelbarrow, wondering what to say.

She kept her eyes trained on her shoes. “I’m happy for you. Imagine catching the Blue Mermaid. . . .”

“It happened just as you dreamed. Do all of your dreams have the habit of coming true?”

“It was a coincidence,” she said quietly, but Willem stopped in his tracks.

“Then why did you look at me with so much fear just now? You shook your head so I wouldn’t say anything in front of the others. If it had been a coincidence, we would have laughed about it.” A long silence passed. “I think you knew for sure I would catch the Blue Mermaid.”

To Elva’s horror, her eyes filled with tears. Her heart beat a frantic rhythm. Here it was, the moment she would lose Willem forever. No one as wonderful as he was would ever associate with someone like her, a girl with a terrible secret. She waited for him to say as much, to bid her good-bye.

“Please don’t cry,” he said, his face now etched with distress. “I swear I haven’t told anyone. Though I must admit I don’t know many people who can predict things before they happen.”

Elva bit her lip. Telling him the truth would be a relief, a way to share a part of herself. And she felt sure he would keep it a secret, even if he didn’t like her anymore because of it. But doing so would mean betraying her family and breaking her vow to Mama.

She looked up at him, expecting to see fear or judgment on his face, and yet there was only curiosity. “You must think I’m mad,” she whispered.

“No. Not one bit. Please . . . tell me.”

The kindness in his eyes broke through her resolve. She sighed, hugging her arms close to her, despite the warm spring air. “Ever since I was little, I’ve seen things before they happened,” she said softly. “Always in water—my uncle breaking a leg, Papa’s goats escaping, my brother finding an injured rabbit. But as I grew up, I did my best to make the visions stop. I didn’t want anyone to be afraid of me, so I tried not to look. The night of the Easter party, I was careless. I glanced at the river before remembering what might happen if I did.”

“And it’s all come true? Everything you’ve seen?”

She nodded, holding her breath.

“Elva, that’s amazing,” Willem declared. “You saw that I was going to catch the Blue Mermaid, and I did. Imagine if Herr Bauer knew I was always destined to be the one to do it!”

“No!” Elva cried. “No one can know about this. I’ve kept this secret for so long, and I promised Mama and Papa I wouldn’t tell anyone. They’re worried I’ll be called a witch.”

“I’d like to see people try,” he said hotly. “What you have is a gift, and it does no harm.”

She blinked at him. “You think so?”

“Of course! Ever since the Easter party, I’ve been borrowing Herr Bauer’s fishing rods and sitting out on the river. I never imagined catching the Blue Mermaid before, but I thought I might as well give it a try. You encouraged me, don’t you see? You’re my good luck.”

Elva could have kissed him right then and there, though they were still within view of the others. She settled for taking his hands in hers, and the warmth in his eyes was almost as good as a kiss. “And you really don’t mind that I’m . . . odd?” she asked.

“You are not odd.” Willem squeezed her hands. “You’re beautiful and strong and kind. I like everything about you, Elva Heinrich, and it’s going to take a lot more than that to scare me off. And today, I feel like almost the luckiest man in Hanau.”

“Almost?”

“I have a roof over my head and an employer I like, and I have just caught the rarest fish in the history of this town. There is only one more thing I would ask to be truly happy.” Willem ducked his head, his cheeks pink. “I’ll need to speak to your father about it, of course . . .”

Elva’s stomach gave another lurch, but this time it was a pleasant, swooping feeling.

“I know you’re only sixteen,” he said quickly.

“Turning seventeen in November,” she pointed out, and he laughed.

“And I need time, maybe two or three years, to earn money. I want

to build a cottage with a dog lying by the fire and curtains at the windows. How would you like that, my dear one?”

Elva’s cheeks flamed as he looked shyly at her. She kept her eyes down, too overwhelmed with joy to speak. She felt like spinning in giddy circles right where she stood.

“Don’t answer me now,” Willem said gently. “Just think about it. I won’t ask your papa until I have enough savings to take proper care of you.” He bent his head close to hers but seemed to remember that they weren’t alone and cleared his throat, taking a step away. “I should get back. Herr Bauer wants me to show off the fish to all of the neighboring farms.”

“I’ll think about what you said,” Elva told him, and he beamed. He kept his eyes on her as he walked away, turning back several times to wave good-bye. When he was just a speck in the distance, Elva placed her hands on her burning face and laughed. Willem knew her secret, and not only did he still care, but he also wanted to marry her! He wanted her to share her life with him. He loved her for exactly who she was, and he would wait patiently for years to have her. Elva pictured sitting with him by the fire at night, in their own home, talking together the way she loved to see Mama and Papa do on cold winter evenings.

Willem might have caught the Blue Mermaid, but she was the lucky one.

She twirled as she entered her house and heard Papa’s affectionate laugh. He looked so kind that Elva came close to kiss his whiskered cheek. There was something sweet and almost sad about the way he looked at her.

“Come in here for a moment,” he said. “Mama and I would like to talk to you.”

“What is it?” she asked, but he simply led her into the parlor where Mama sat studying the skirt Elva and Cay had embroidered. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, darling,” Mama reassured her. “We only wanted to tell you how proud we are of you. You’re everything we hoped you would be, and more. I suppose I still thought of you as my little girl up until the night of the Easter dance. We looked up and suddenly you were a woman.”

They gazed at her fondly, and Elva felt a rush of love for them both.

“You and Willem Roth make a handsome couple,” Papa said, clearing his throat. “Bauer says he’s a nice, hard-working boy, and his parents were good people, though penniless. They died of consumption, one after the other. As you can tell,” he added sheepishly, “I’ve taken the liberty of finding out more about him.”

Elva’s cheeks heated. “Why, Papa?”

“We’ve noticed for a while now that Willem has taken a special liking to you. I despised him for it at first,” Papa said, and Mama swatted him on the shoulder. “But your mother encouraged me to get to know him better, and I’m glad I did. I don’t think anyone will ever be worthy of you, my Elva, but Willem comes close. He hasn’t spoken to me formally yet, though he has hinted, and seeing you together just now . . . well, I’d be happy to see you wed him when the time comes,” he added gruffly, and tears sprang to Elva’s eyes once more.

“Do you know what this means?” Mama asked, looking wide-eyed at Papa. “Three wonderful things have happened. Your mare gave birth to twins, the weather has been perfect for our corn and berries, and soon our Elva will be betrothed.”

“Can this be?” Papa teased. “Has the pattern been broken at last?”

“I think it must. It has been more than seventeen years, so perhaps.. .”

“More than seventeen years?” Elva repeated, the old letters springing to mind. “Since what, Mama?”

But her mother shook her head. “Never you mind, love. I am happy for you and Willem. But remember what Papa said: we’ll be glad to see you marry him when the time comes,” she added significantly. “You are only sixteen and must not think of marrying for at least two years.”

“Yes, I know, Mama.”

“And Willem will need to work for a few more years before he can afford a home.”

“We know that,” Elva said, some of her joy giving way to exasperation. So much for thinking of her as a woman; in the span of a few breaths, her mother had shown that she still thought of Elva as a careless child. “We’re both happy to wait for two or three more years.”

“And as for your . . . issue with water.” Mama hesitated, and Papa froze, looking shocked that she had brought up the subject. “You’ve done well to hide it all these years, and I would normally advise complete honesty with one’s husband, but I don’t think you need to tell Willem about it. It will have no bearing on your marriage.”

Elva bit the inside of her cheek, wondering what they would say if she told them that Willem already knew and didn’t care. He would be her husband, wouldn’t he? And it would be her life to share with him alone, just as it was her secret to reveal or keep.

“Go on the way you always have,” Mama instructed her. “Willem doesn’t need to know.”

“Well then!” Papa said hastily. “I’m glad that’s been settled. Now, moving on to the matter of where they will live, I’m happy to give them some land. I’ve chosen the perfect spot.”

“Oskar, you don’t mean that area in the south fields?” Mama asked, surprised. “Didn’t we agree that it’s too hilly to build a house? And it’s so bare. Elva likes trees.”

“Elva will like this plot,” Papa assured her. “Besides, Willem can always plant some trees. I have seedlings in mind for him already, and the type of lumber for the new cottage, too.”

Elva sat listening to them discuss her future as though she wasn’t even there, as if they could plan every detail of her life . . . and hide the ones they did not approve of. She had thought of her ability as something shameful because it scared them, but now she realized it was as Willem said: her visions did no harm to anyone. In fact, they were helpful and had even encouraged him to try catching the Blue Mermaid. What if, all this time, she could have been using her powers to quell her family’s bad luck?

Perhaps it was time she made her own decisions.

Perhaps it was time to use her ability instead of pretending she didn’t have it. Mama and Papa wouldn’t have to know, and she might even see a glimpse of her future with Willem. Her breath caught at the thought of looking straight into her basin instead of closing her eyes. But it was long past time to access the power she had been given.

And now, Elva thought, I will decide to do it for myself.

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