Alaya Dawn Johnson - Tor/Forge Blog



Twistory: History with a Twist

‘The past is in the past’ is a saying that, presumably at some point in the past, was said by somebody. But the past isn’t just in the past—not really. It’s also in a space outside of time, and even outside of actual space. It’s in books, and ironically, it’s not pre-written.

Novels twist the past into new stories, and we’ve got a list of great ones right here.

Kinningkinning by nisi shawl by Nisi Shawl

In her novel Everfair, Nisi Shawl imagined a new history, where technological innovations in the Congo gave a fledgling nation the resources and strength to challenge the tyrant Leopold II, a Belgian monarch and one of history’s bloodiest colonizers. In an alternate world where barkcloth airships soar through the sky, the nation of Everfair grapples with its identity in the wake of the Great War. Kinning chronicles the fight for the soul of Everfair to remain a beacon of hope and progress in the face of resistance both external and internal.

She Who Became the Sunshe who became the sun by shelley parker-chan by Shelley Parker-Chan

A reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, She Who Became the Sun follows a young girl whose brother is destined for greatness. Her brother is also dead, so in defiance of fate, she steals his identity, and his destiny. This is a story of betrayal, destiny, love, and lots and lots of betrayal. In the previous sentence, betrayal was mentioned twice. That was not a mistake. It’s the only way to properly evoke the potency of this book.

The First Bright Thingthe first bright thing by j r dawson by J. R. Dawson

Rin is a professional ringmaster who can jump through time, and her circus is a haven for the outcast and the magical. In the aftermath of World War I, times are tough, and the Circus of the Fantasticals is a welcome respite to audiences across the American midwest.But the present is not safe: There’s war in the future and Rin’s past stalks them in the form of a malevolent shadow circus.

Trouble the Saintstrouble the saints by alaya dawn johnson by Alaya Dawn Johnson

“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story…in a word: awesome.” — N.K. Jemisin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fifth Season

In the dark glamor of New York city, an assassin tries to change her fate on the cusp of World War II. She was drawn from Harlem, bringing her knives to glittering Manhattan for work. She fell in love. She gave up on everything. The ghosts of the past never leave her side.

Ten years later, they show up on her doorstep.

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval Englandthe frugal wizard's handbook for surviving medieval england by brandon sanderson by Brandon Sanderson

Hard to twist history more than dropping a cost-conscious magic-user into the medieval past.


Be Gay, Do Crime: 7 SFF Books Full of Chaotic Queer Criminals

Two things we love at Tor: Being gay. Doing crime. And who does gay crimes better than the characters of our authors? Check out this list of queerly criminal stories for your perusal pleasure. 

Check it out!

the-thousand-eyesThe Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

Eons ago, the Serpent Goddess Iriskaaval destroyed her own empire. Millenia later, our wayward heroes from The Unspoken Name must contend with her re-manifestation. Contained within this book is a multiplicity of crime, yearning, love, action, death, betrayal, and sometimes apotheosis. It’s amazing and incredible and should be read with quickness and haste.

atlas-1The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Olivie Blake’s virally sensational The Atlas Six tells the story of six ambitious magicians as they vie for induction into a secret society that safeguards all the world’s most dangerous and forbidden research and knowledge. They drink fancy drinks, create magical wormholes, pour over research, and occasionally gayly pour over each other… and then backstab!

This is a book for lovers of romance, betrayal, and intricate intrigue 😈

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka AokiLight From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

In Ryka Aoki’s brilliant debut, Light from Uncommon Stars, love is weighed against Faustian bargains. Shizuka Satomi cut a deal with a demon long ago to save herself from damnation. Now, she must convince seven violin prodigies to sell their souls for success. But! A retired starship captain and a shop that sells warm donuts give her a chance at real love. Don’t miss this defiantly joyful adventure of queer courtship and crimes. 

winters-orbitWinter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Look. Sometimes, to solve the big crimes, you need to commit a few smaller, more fun crimes. Kiem and Jainan, our two favorite space princes, need to solve a murder as they fall into mutual pining (despite being married) and that means things like hacking databases and a little bit of light breaking and entering.

ceruleanseaThe House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Linus works for Extremely Upper Management, and they have a lot of rules. One of the most important is “Do Not Form Attachments”. But that’s pretty hard when you’re soft and gay and you end up on a private island with the mysterious Arthur Parnassus and the cabal of terrifying but adorable children with supernatural powers he looks after.

becaame a sunShe Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Few people on this list frighten us as much as Zhu Chongba, the titular heroine of She Who Became the Sun. She’s willing to do an awful lot of crime to achieve greatness. Plus she did steal her brother’s identity to masquerade as a man and join the rebellion against the Khans.

book-9781250175359Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Set in gritty alt-history Harlem, the crime in Trouble the Saints is organized! Phyllis LeBlanc is a bisexual assassin, hired to keep the Manhattan underworld in line. Trouble is both a magical love story and a compelling exploration of race in America at the dawn of World War II. And there are also knives. A lot of knives.


$2.99 eBook Sale: November 2022

It might be NOvember, but just look at these hot eBook deals! You could never say NO to books like Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez or The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu!

Anyway, check out these epic deals 😎

RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi by John Scalzi

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers. Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that (1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and (3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

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Gil’s All Fright DinerGil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez by A. Lee Martinez

Duke and Earl are just passing through Rockwood county in their pick-up truck when they stop at the Diner for a quick bite to eat. They aren’t planning to stick around-until Loretta, the eatery’s owner, offers them $100 to take care of her zombie problem. Given that Duke is a werewolf and Earl’s a vampire, this looks right up their alley. But the shambling dead are just the tip of a particularly spiky iceberg. Seems someone’s out to drive Loretta from the Diner, and more than willing to raise a little Hell on Earth if that’s what it takes.

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EverfairEverfair by Nisi Shawl by Nisi Shawl

Fabian Socialists from Great Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated. Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history.

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The Beautiful OnesImage Placeholder of - 6 by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

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Invisible PlanetsInvisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu edited by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets, edited by multi award-winning writer Ken Liu–translator of the bestselling and Hugo Award-winning novel The Three Body Problem by acclaimed Chinese author Cixin Liu—is his second thought-provoking anthology of Chinese short speculative fiction. Invisible Planets is a groundbreaking anthology of Chinese short speculative fiction.

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Trouble the SaintsTrouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens. Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past, and Dev, the man she loved, but even her own dreams. Still, the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she keeps in her heart. And so Phyllis will have to make a harrowing choice, before it’s too late—is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

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Sweep of StarsPlace holder  of - 47 by Maurice Broaddus

The Muungano empire strived and struggled to form a utopia when they split away from old earth. Freeing themselves from the endless wars and oppression of their home planet in order to shape their own futures and create a far-reaching coalition of city-states that stretched from Earth and Mars to Titan. With the wisdom of their ancestors, the leadership of their elders, the power and vision of their scientists and warriors they charted a course to a better future. But the old powers could not allow them to thrive and have now set in motion new plots to destroy all that they’ve built.

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The Library of the Dead by T. L. HuchuThe Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker—and they sure do love to talk. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to those they left behind. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children—leaving them husks, empty of joy and strength. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will rock her world. Ropa will dice with death as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. And although underground Edinburgh hides a wealth of dark secrets, she also discovers an occult library, a magical mentor and some unexpected allies.

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Willful ChildWillful Child by Steven Erikson by Steven Erikson

These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’

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Ball Lightning by Cixin LiuBall Lightning by Cixin Liu

When Chen’s parents are incinerated before his eyes by a blast of ball lightning, he devotes his life to cracking the secret of this mysterious natural phenomenon. His search takes him to stormy mountaintops, an experimental military weapons lab, and an old Soviet science station. The more he learns, the more he comes to realize that ball lightning is just the tip of an entirely new frontier. While Chen’s quest for answers gives purpose to his lonely life, it also pits him against soldiers and scientists with motives of their own: a beautiful army major with an obsession with dangerous weaponry, and a physicist who has no place for ethical considerations in his single-minded pursuit of knowledge.

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Everything is Change by Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Trouble the Saints

Placeholder of  -14Everything is change and everything ends, but can old things become new again?

Check out Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of the acclaimed novel Trouble the Saints, and her essay below on publishing a novel for the first time in six years and writing about structural inequality, colorism, judicial and extra-judicial violence.

By Alaya Dawn Johnson

I wake up early these days, a few minutes after the sun. I had thought that mornings in the country would be blessedly peaceful, but honestly it’s a racket: donkeys braying, roosters crowing, dogs barking in territorial choruses, so many birds singing you feel their raw joy at the miracle of the rising sun in your bones. My insides twist every night with dreams I can hardly bring myself to remember—I was obliviously used to this before I started cultivating self-awareness, but it’s harder to bear now. There is less respite in the games of disassociation when you know what you’re playing. This is how I wake up: moving from the cacophony of my subconscious to the cacophony of a dirt road in rural Oaxaca. In between, when I am lucky, there is a momentary stillness, a place to appreciate where I am now, which is not where I have been. Hello, Alaya, I say. Today you have nothing to fear.

Mass has been canceled so the local evangelical church blasts its sermons with the dawn. Layered on top, from another set of speakers, public service announcements wish happy birthday to the Señora Lopez Merino and play Pedro Infante’s mañanitas. I roll out my yoga mat and do sun salutations to the actual rising sun, which I never saw in the city, and my dog—the first creature in my life I have cared for—noses my face as I stretch out my calves in downward dog.

This New Year’s I came to this same town, which I did not dream of living in, and drank mezcal and watched the stars and the moon and ate creamy apple salad. 2020 is my big year, I thought, and imagined how it would be: a big pre-pub book tour, with major events all over the US. A release party in New York City with all my friends and some big-name writers. I’d move back to NYC for the month of June, somehow find the money to pay for it. At last my new novel would come out, my first in six years, and with it an end to the necessary but sharp exile from my colleagues and industry in the US. I dreamed of attending conventions again and seeing old friends. I dreamed, let me be frank, of having more than a few thousand dollars in the bank.

The timeline shifted, the world changed. My visions of my career and life had to change as well. I feel very lucky that I have developed the flexibility to move with these changes, to imagine and create a new life on the fly: a new town, a new dog, scandalous mornings before the heat sets in. I miss my friends in the US. They populate the nightmares I remember: throwing a huge riot of a party and then realizing, after everyone has arrived, that we can’t be together right now, that we’re killing one another by just hanging out and enjoying one another’s company in enclosed spaces. I run around the party frantically, screaming at friends to leave. They give me disdainful looks and ignore me. My subconscious is saying: You wish you could see them again, but you know you can’t.

I don’t know how this book is going to do out in this strange new world we live in. In some ways, a novel about structural inequality, colorism, judicial and extra-judicial violence, the sacrifices we make to survive the oppressive systems of white patriarchy, is unexpectedly reflective of our national moment. But I haven’t been in the headspace to read novels since April and I know I’m not alone. Who will want to read about such heavy subjects when every glance through social or traditional media sears us with brutality? Is there catharsis at the end of my novel? I like to think so. It was so hard to write, I guess, and I’m so proud of what I finally managed to do. I reached my own catharsis when I finally understood how to fix the very last ten pages, a simple revision that required seven years of build-up to execute. One hour and it was done, Phyllis and Dev and Tamara’s story ended the way it needed to, and I cried. What were those tears? Sadness? Relief? Benediction? Or an understanding that everything ends?

At my uncle’s funeral a few years ago—he was a baptist preacher, so you can imagine the four-hour service, packed from altar to back doors, fanning ourselves with the programs—my other uncle performed a song: “Everything Is Change.” I think about that a lot. Everything is change. John Lewis fought his whole life for voting rights, and today the Voting Rights Act is gutted and elections with systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters are used to “elect” officials who will commit to continuing our disenfranchisement. Slavery never ended, it just moved to our prison system—an exception quite carefully included in the 13th amendment and duly exploited by the great-grandchildren of our founding slavers and their descendants. I remember when Obama was elected a number of Black representatives were also elected that same year. And to mark the historical accomplishment of these representatives, the headlines proclaimed, “first African-American representative elected since 1868!” It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what world we would live in if the great promise of reconstruction had not been so brutally and violently repressed. People keep bringing up the specter of a new civil war, but I wonder: do we have the chance of living through a new, sustained reconstruction? Everything is change, which means that everything ends, but also that old things can become new again. We don’t have hands like in my novel, but never forget, we do have power. Our ability to acknowledge reality but imagine a new kind of life and then fight for it—that’s still some juju.

We will fight and even the fight will change. Nothing will ever be all right. I am learning to make a small, local kind of peace with that. I can wake up a little after the sun, listen to the birds and Pedro Infante, untwist my insides bit by bit. My first novel in six years is coming out today; I have to feed the dog. She waits for me every day, patiently, with an absolute faith in the morning.

Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of Trouble the Saints, on sale in paperback now.

Buy Trouble the Saints in Paperback

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Reading the Paperback of Trouble the Saints? Jazz It Up With This Playlist!

Have you read Trouble the Saints, the dazzling adventure from Alaya Dawn Johnson? Get ready for a jazz-age throwback playlist from the author herself, and don’t forget to check out the paperback, on sale now!

“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story…in a word: awesome.” —N. K. Jemisin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fifth Season

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past, and Dev, the man she loved, but even her own dreams.

Still, the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she keeps in her heart. And so Phyllis will have to make a harrowing choice, before it’s too late—is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling exposure of racial fault lines—and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

video soruce


Excerpt: Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

amazons bns booksamillions ibooks2 58 indiebounds

Poster Placeholder of - 88“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story…in a word: awesome.” —N.K. Jemisin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fifth Season

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past, and Dev, the man she loved, but even her own dreams.

Still, the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she keeps in her heart. And so Phyllis will have to make a harrowing choice, before it’s too late—is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling exposure of racial fault lines—and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

Please enjoy this excerpt of Trouble the Saints, available in paperback 8/10/2021.


After two more cigarettes and some burnt coffee from the percolator that an old lover had left behind and I always meant to replace, I called Gloria.

“I thought I could take Sonny and Ida to the park for a few hours. Give you a break. Is Tom around?” Tom didn’t like me, though he tolerated me for Gloria’s sake.

“There’s a new ship down at the yards so I’ve hardly seen him for the last week. You all right, honey?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Cut. I just haven’t seen my favorite niece and nephew in ages.”

“And your favorite sister?”

I smiled and unspooled the phone cord from my fingers. “You betcha.”

“Well, if you got nothing better to do, you know those kids would love to see you.”

So I put on my yellow day-dress, the one that looked all right but wouldn’t give my old neighbors cause to think I’d got uppity from my years downtown, and headed out.

Outside, I checked for Red Man, but I didn’t see him. My apartment building was in the middle of East 63rd Street—not an office block—and this late in the morning I could see everyone on the sidewalk and the street easy and clear. Not yet, I thought, relieved, and headed to Lexington. I sat down at the counter of my local milk bar to eat four thick slices of challah still warm from the ovens in back, soft with butter. Late nights, they kept the borscht on the stove and I liked to eat it, thick and beet-red, with a heel of stale challah in those still hours before sunrise, when my hands smelled like French-milled soap and hard water; like lavender and someone else’s blood.

There were a few soldier boys on the A train, already in uniform, duffels on the seats and bodies in energetic motion, pacing the car and swinging from straps when the wheels struck up sparks against blind curves. They were black, young and handsome. Called up, I guessed, in Roosevelt’s peacetime draft, though they didn’t seem unhappy about the prospect of killing themselves on the other side of the world. One of them smiled shyly at me just before the City College station and asked if I’d like to get a drink with him and his friends before they got their deployment orders.

“We’re only here for a week, ma’am,” he said. “My friends and I are up for a swell time.”

He had fine, even teeth with a little gap between the front two that reminded me of my brother Roger, dead almost fifteen years.

I wondered how I looked to him, reading alone on that car, that he would invite me to share one of his last nights before heading to war.

“Where you gonna go?” I asked, wishing for a useless moment that I were young enough to have a good time with them, because then I’d be young enough to have never met Victor.

“Minton’s,” he said, quick. “And there’s this place my buddy Jerry knows, some mobbed-up joint, with a bird name, down in the Village . . . Jerry, what’s that club called, the one with the snake dance?”

“Pelican,” his buddy said, swinging over to me on the straps, all ease and good looks and unconsidered strength. “Ain’t segregated, and they got the best bebop in the city after Minton’s according to my uncle Joe, who plays tenor sax at the Savoy, so he oughta know. But this here cat, you know, he hears ‘snake dance,’ and all he can see is titties—uh, sorry.”

“Jesus, Jerry,” my admirer muttered, and elbowed his friend hard in the ribs.

The third recruit poked his head between the two of them and smiled. “Hello, miss,” he said. “What these two fools trying to say is, we’d be real happy to see you at the Pelican if you’d like to find us there.”

“What’d you sweet boys want with an old lady like me?” I said.

“Old lady!” Jerry crowed, and the peacemaker kissed my hand while my first admirer just shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t mind you for my old lady.” It was silly, and I was a fool to get my head turned by half of what they said, but I wasn’t on this train with a knife in my bag because I was wise, or good, or did what was best for me. So I told those fellas I might just see them at the Pelican that night and waved goodbye when they got off.

I was still smiling when I got to Gloria’s, and she froze with her hand on the knob. The fissures radiating from her downturned mouth traced a map that I remembered from our mother’s face, and probably for the same reasons. Gloria, the golden eldest, had never given our mother the grief that poor Roger and I had. I wondered if Gloria even recognized the ghost that stared back from her mirror, late nights.

“Phyllis,” she said, with heavy meaning.

“I can’t be happy?”

She rubbed her neck. “Depends on what you’re happy about.”

“Nothing bad, Glory. For heaven’s sake. You gonna let me in or should I go back home?”

To Gloria—and Dev—my seven months would be a drop of virtue in an ocean of sin, but I’d already started to feel the quiver of something different, something old but newly growing. I felt it in my hands when I held my knives, those old hurting things, which gave one kind of power and stole another away. I waited for the day the two of them would see the change in me too, but in their eyes I was still the same old girl, Victor’s aging knife.

“Come in, baby,” Gloria said, and embraced me. We couldn’t save Roger, but Gloria had saved me a dozen times over. Not enough for her peace of mind, I knew that, but enough for me to feel the debt, which was love, for the rest of my life.

Sonny and Ida were in the kitchen, Sonny running scales on his clarinet and Ida practicing a dance I was afraid might be a jitterbug. She stopped as soon as she saw me and ran straight into my open arms.

“Aunt Pea!” she said, “Mommy told us you’d take us to see the bear!”

“Bear?” I said to Gloria, over Ida’s shoulder.

Gloria shrugged. “The Central Park Zoo. I told them you might not have the time—”

“Definitely the bear,” I said, and put Ida down. “And the merrygo-round and ice cream, too.”

This roused Sonny from his meditation of escalating flats and we all headed down the stairs and onto the street, which shimmered with the sticky heat of late July. Mrs. Montgomery was sitting on the stoop, playing gin with her sister, Miss Reynolds—who always insisted on being called “Miss” no matter how many gray hairs she pushed under that church hat on Sundays, because she never married, and she wasn’t ever gonna be anyone’s missus. They tutted when they saw me and carried on for a while about how long it had been since I’d shown my face around these parts.

“But you’re looking good, child,” pronounced Mrs. Montgomery, after I had duly begged their pardon for forgetting to visit. “That downtown life still treating you all right?”

I fiddled with the hem of my skirt. I knew what they were asking. Ida kept quiet around her elders—Gloria wouldn’t have anyone calling her children ill-mannered—but she was squeezing my hand to say that she wanted to go already and didn’t care about what these aunties were going on about. Sonny, though, Sonny’s chin twitched and he held the rest of him very still.

“Oh, it’s all right, Mrs. Montgomery. Enough to live on,” I said, as though she’d just been asking about money.

“Well, at least you come back sometimes. I remember when you were just a girl, collecting all the numbers for the building—when I hit that time I remember you came running to tell me before anyone else had seen the mutuels! That boy we have now, he’s little Ronnie’s kid, Ronnie from Holiness—”

At this, Miss Reynolds interjected in a sotto voce that the whole block could hear, “He’s become Mohammedan now, Lord knows what we’re coming to—”

Mrs. Montgomery, who had lived with her sister all their lives, just kept going: “The kid’s all right, but he isn’t as fast as you were, Phyllis. Takes his good time at Walker’s bar before he bothers to come around here for the payouts.”

“You ran numbers, Aunt Pea?” Sonny said, suddenly.

The sisters stopped talking, and glanced up at the building.

Gloria Green Perkins, dedicated missionary at Abyssinian Baptist, didn’t approve of playing policy any more than she approved of the rest of her younger sister’s extralegal exploits.

“Not really, Sonny,” I said, “I just collected for the building.”

“Well,” said Miss Reynolds, after a silence that bagged like the waistline of an old dress, “the rents up here are higher than ever and the jobs scarcer than hen’s teeth. I can’t blame you for getting out, since you can. But at least you haven’t forgotten us, Phyllis.”

I blew out a laugh. “It’s never a good idea to forget where you came from, and I never could besides.”

I said my goodbyes and headed out before the sisters could incriminate me with any more reminiscences. I’d done more than collect numbers back then, and they both knew it. Back when she ruled Sugar Hill, Stephanie St. Clair, Madame Queen of Policy, had offered a lot of opportunities to a young Harlem girl willing to bend the law and pin it with a knife.

Ronnie’s boy ran past us as we waited at the bus stop; he was just a few years older than Sonny, but he’d found himself a suit for that skinny frame and a good wool cap so he looked more than halfgrown, sharp pleats and padded shoulders around a tender middle. He was flushed and grinning, and I figured that someone on his rounds had hit and he was putting in extra for his ten percent. I remembered days like that: even when the hit was for five dollars, it felt good to think you’d had your part in their bit of luck. And your own. The ones like the Reynolds sisters, who knew I had the hands and believed in them besides, always wanted me to touch their slips before I passed them to the bank.

While we waited I pulled the lighter from my pocket and did a few of the tricks that Ida loved: whipping it through my fingers, tossing it in the air, and balancing its thin edge on the bony ridge in the back of my neck. Ida clapped.

“I wish you could teach me how to do that, Aunt Pea,” she said.

Sonny, twelve to Ida’s ten and older than the world, put his hands in his pockets. “Daddy says you shouldn’t.”

“And why shouldn’t she?”

He puckered his lips at his sister and said, hesitating on the first syllable, “’Cause it’s unnatural and devil’s work.”

Ida stamped her foot. “Sonny! Thomas Perkins, take that back!”

My hand froze with the lighter between my pinky and middle finger, precariously balanced, and without the slightest chance of falling. I contemplated Sonny, still a head shorter than me but with a look in his eyes like his father’s. Would the day come when Sonny treated me with as much formal wariness as Tom Perkins? I forced my fingers to move again, slid the lighter smoothly down the back of my hand, and let it drop into my bag.

“I’d think it’s a slow day if the devil has time to bother with my little tricks,” I said. “Ain’t you ever seen a juggler before, Sonny?”

Sonny shook his head slowly; the solemn, considerate boy I’d always known, now torn between his father and his aunt. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew who would win that battle, and who should. So I would steal the time I had, dance with his childhood affection with all the skill in my uncanny hands, until age and time and disillusion took him from me.

The bus came, and I handed the nickels to Sonny and Ida so they could drop them in the box themselves. We sat on the bench in back, where we had the better view of the city as we lumbered down Amsterdam Avenue.

Ida wouldn’t leave well enough alone. “Is it unnatural that you’re good at the clarinet, Sonny, huh, now is it? Is it unnatural what Art Tatum does on the piano?” I loved her for defending me, but I wished she would stop.

“Daddy says it’s different. Aunt Phyllis has something extra. Some juju. ”

“You sound like a fool, Sonny,” Ida said.

“You’re the fool! Daddy says it’s dangerous to have that juju, ’cause other folks want it and they’ll kill for it. They’ll take her hands. I bet that’s what happened to Uncle Roger.”

I was so surprised that I could only stare. Ida started to cry.

“Is someone gonna take your hands, Aunt Pea?”

I pulled her onto my lap. “No, honey, no. Sonny’s just wrong, that’s all.”

Sonny sulked and stared out the window. I’d had no idea he knew the first thing about Roger, though I should have guessed. Family secrets have a way of getting out. And stealing hands—rumors like that had circulated my whole life, but mostly nothing came of it. There weren’t a lot of us and most didn’t broadcast what we were. Even if it was possible to steal our power by taking our hands, it wasn’t easy.

But a decade ago a man named Trent Sullivan had tried, and bringing him to justice had nearly destroyed me.

Tom Senior and Sonny were right about one thing: it was no blessing when the hands paid their visit. My father had long gone by the time my dream came down; Mommy had to deal with me and Roger on her own. Dad had the wandering itch, as Mommy liked to say, and unlike her, he was light enough to pass when the urge struck him. It struck him one too many times, until she divorced him and told his disapproving Sugar Hill family she wouldn’t wait around for him, or anyone, anymore. How they smacked their lips when our dreams came down! They spread it up and down that our saints’ hands were Mommy’s punishment for getting above her station.

When Sonny turned ten, Gloria started sleeping badly, waiting for him to wake up with a dream for the numbers, an ache in his hands and an overnight talent for something that before had been merely ordinary. After his twelfth birthday she’d started to relax. But now she had Ida to watch, and wonder, and protect, if it came to that, from Tom Senior’s attempts to pray the devil out of her.

I kept Sonny and Ida close to me at the park. Gloria was just a shade too dark to come here without the police following close behind and making nasty comments. Sonny and Ida were dark enough, but they were children, and I had a better chance of getting them in and out before they realized why their mother never came to the park with them. Though Sonny probably did already. He was too smart to enjoy the ignorance of childhood, which I grieved while I loved him for it. I dreaded the day he would see me for what I was.

We walked slowly through the bird pavilion and then the bear den. I’d thought we might enjoy ourselves, that Sonny would forget that sticky issue of my talent and Ida would gawk at the sea lions and the grizzly bears, but maybe there was never any chance.

A pair of white boys, no older than sixteen, watched us from beside the bear den. They clearly thought a lot of themselves in their high-waisted oxford pants and low-slung bowler hats. The sandy blond one even kept his hand near a bulge in his left pocket, his fingers twitching like a nervous dog on a leash. Sonny noticed them, but when he looked at me with worry creasing the skin between his brows, I smiled faintly and shook my head. He relaxed—I could still give him that. Ida noted none of this exchange. The grizzlies squatting in existential boredom by their cerulean concrete lake had captured all of her wide-eyed attention. I looked back at the white boys, whose twin gazes still followed us like blue jays through exhaust. The sandy-haired one flexed his hand. His companion spat, generously.

“What’s the world coming to,” Blondie said, in a voice that had broken last week and still bled from the wound, “when we can get a family of black devils strolling Central Park just like they was decent?”

Ida’s shoulders stiffened. Sonny’s hands clenched. “Stay with your sister,” I told him.

Blondie and his brother here probably imagined themselves big hustlers. I doubted they’d have even made soldiers for Dutch Schultz, let alone Russian Vic. That had to be a BB gun in his pocket. Still, almost anything could kill, so long as you aimed it right. I loosened the two-inch knife strapped to my left wrist, let it peek out below the cuff of my summer blazer. Then, before any fuzz could see and ask questions—as bad for my people as dime-store gangsters, New York’s whitest—I bent down, picked up a likely rock, and threw it at the bulge in his pocket. A pop like a firecracker went off against his hip—a BB gun, lucky for him, but at that distance would still hurt
like the devil. The dark-haired one stared at me, slack-jawed, while the other cursed and hopped on one leg. I wondered, with a vague sort of pricking in my fingertips, if using my hands to hurt was much better, morally speaking, than using them to kill. Should we have just walked away?

“Ida, Sonny,” I said loudly, “let’s get ice cream. I don’t see nothing much of interest around here.”

They didn’t object. The grizzlies had lost their fascination.

“You’re the best, Aunt Pea,” Ida said, smiling again over a pistachio ice cream as green as summer grass. “You sure showed those boys. I wish I could bring you to school with me just once.”

Sonny looked at her sharply. “God didn’t create us to raise one above the other with unnatural gifts.”

Sonny’s voice, his father’s words. If I’d wanted to argue with Tom Senior, I’d have gone to Gloria’s for dinner. I sighed and took Ida’s hand.

“Don’t pick fights, Sonny, for your sister’s sake if not for mine.”

We were silent on the bus ride back uptown. Plenty of time for me to think about what Sonny had said. I remembered old Widow Baker on the second floor, who had a knack though she didn’t have the hands: she’d died last year at the age of ninety-three after hitting the numbers an astonishing seventeen times—though she always played for pennies, so the payout was never much. Once, while I waited for her to finish reading the cards and fill out her last slip, she said something to me that never left: Your hands are like the numbers, aren’t they, Miss Green? A little luck the Lord gives us to let us get on top, just for a bit, even though they got all the power.

Now I considered the kind of creature I had made of myself with the Lord’s luck, in the service of what I’d always considered to be the greater good. An angel, they called me. Some kind of holy beast.

Copyright © 2020 by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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Our Favorite Historical SFF Retellings

History is written by the victors; or in this case, re-written to explore what could have been. From a young assassin who uses knives to instil fear in her targets, to a young woman who steals her older brother’s destiny of greatness, travel to a reimagined history with these fantastical stories.

Image Place holder  of - 7She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

In this reimagining tale about the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the second daughter of a family of starving peasants is told her fate will amount to nothingness, while her older brother, Zhu Chongba, will achieve greatness. However, when their father is killed, and Zhu dies from despair, the daughter decides to take on her brother’s identity to steal his fate.

Poster Placeholder of - 74Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

When a young woman from Harlem is hired as an assassin, she uses knives to scare the most dangerous of citizens. Ten years later, and at the beginning of World War II, the assassin, Phyllis LeBlanc, has given up on her past – including the man she loved, Dev. But her past hasn’t given up on her, and soon Phyllis has to make a choice – but is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

Placeholder of  -61The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

In the glittering 1920s of this reinvented tale from The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker is Asian, queer, and a magician. Jordan has grown up in the most elite circles of society – she has money, education, and invites to all the hottest parties. But as a Vietnamese adoptee, she is also treated as exotic by those around her, and the most important doors remain closed to her. But the world of lost ghosts, elemental mysteries, dazzling illusions, and infernal pacts is calling to her.

Place holder  of - 69The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A huge meteorite crashed to earth in 1952 and took out most of the East Coast. Soon a looming climate crisis that could make the earth inhospitable for humans forces humanity to expedite their efforts to colonize space. As a WASP pilot and mathematician, Elma York is given a chance to live on the moon. But Elma’s drive to be an astronaut is so strong that not even the International Aerospace Coalition can keep her from exploring space.

Image Placeholder of - 35Lent by Jo Walton

In fifteenth century Florence, young Girolamo can see demons and cast them out on his own will. And not only that, but Girolamo seems to have the charisma and charm to make friends out of noblemen, convince Charles VIII of France to not invade Florence and instead protect, and to make any crowd he preaches to swoon. Soon, people begin to feel threatened by his power, such as the Pope who is bent on preventing him from controlling Florence. But Girolamo is just getting started.


Get a Taste of Coffee with Forge

Since we’ve all been at home much more this past year, we decided to give you an insider scoop on the lives of our Forge authors through our Instagram story series, Coffee with Forge!

In case you didn’t get the chance to tune in, we’re recapping our favorite moments from each author’s take over!

Follow us on Instagram to see more Coffee with Forge next year, and click on the screenshots below to watch each author’s take over from this year.

Heather Webber made us cookies…

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…while Hank Phillipi Ryan showed off her Emmy’s and gave us the scoop on going undercover as an investigative reporter!

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We met Matt Goldman’s very helpful and cute assistants, Clara and Maisie…

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…and Rachel Howzell Hall showed us her step by step writing process!

Nathan Makaryk brought along on his busy day, showed us his favorite snack (it’s whiskey), and showed us his beautiful rendition of the Lionhearts cover.

Alex Gilly joined us from Australia, showed us his beautiful office space, and shared some helpful apps for writers!

Rita Woods channeled all of us by pouring her morning bowl of coffee. We’ve all been there!

We had a special visitor from Tor Books join us: Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Trouble the Saints! She showed us her favorite morning cookie, and introduced us to her dog Kisaantom!

Finally, Shelley Noble showed us her many desks, and showed us her color-coded storyboard!


And that’s all, folks! To watch all the past Coffee with Forge takeovers, head to our Instagram profile (@ForgeReads)!


Chaos and Cosmos: Bookish Horoscopes!

We’ve been giving our Chaos and Cosmos authors a run for their money with all these delightfully chaotic questions, but today we’ve given them their most daunting task yet…WRITING HOROSCOPES! From meeting handsome strangers to fleeing vengeful pigs, check out what our authors predicted here.

Write a horoscope based on your book

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Kate Elliott, author of Unconquerable Sun

Today you will face an obstacle and an opening. Keep your temper in check. Charge right in.

May Robinette Kowal, author of The Relentless Moon

Today watch out for accidents. You will find yourself in close quarters, far from loved ones. Trust your friends to be there for you.

Ryan Van Loan, author of The Sin in the Steel

Remember that harissa-rubbed pork shoulder you enjoyed? Today, the porcine will have their revenge.

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Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Trouble the Saints

Someone has committed a great wrong against you and your people. It’s your choice: fight alone, or fight together. The truth, and the power, is in your hands.

Jenn Lyons, author of The Memory of Souls

Change is in the air, and you know what they say: adapt or die! It’s a tough world out there, and it’s not always easy to see the dragons in your path until they fly right into you. With Kimeron in retrograde, be careful of family gatherings, as it’s going to be especially easy to say the wrong thing to a loved one. You may find such reunions to be a little disagreeable, even cut-throat. Remember not to take what people say at face value — everyone had their own motives.

Most of all, be prepared to make sacrifices to get what you want.

Kit Rocha, author of Deal with the Devil

Today, a tall, handsome stranger will ask you to team up. You can’t trust him. Do it anyway.

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Andrea Hairston, author of Master of Poisons

Today everything will be upside down and inside out, unpredictable, dangerous. If you work together with folks you love and folks you can’t stand, you might make it to tomorrow.

Christopher Paolini, author of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Today you will encounter adventure, tentacles, and cosmic wonder. Today dreams and nightmares will find unity.

S. A. Hunt, author of I Come With Knives

Don’t feed the wildlife today. Embrace your nature and let your impulsive side take over for a little while. Don’t attend any dinner parties your neighbors might be throwing. A new challenge will present itself in the form of a Mesopotamian death-goddess.

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S. L. Huang, author of Burning Roses

You’re going to have to decide whether you can kill your friend’s son today. Also, it turns out gods and monsters exist, and you might be the monster.

Stay tuned for even more Chaos and Cosmos!

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Meet Our Books Cosmos: Air Signs

Ready to meet more of the shining stars of our Chaos and Cosmos campaign?! We’re swooning over our incredible Air signs today: Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow, Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and I Come With Knives by S. A. Hunt.

Why are they Air signs? We have no idea, ask publicity team members and astrology wizards Laura Eztkorn, Giselle Gonzalez, and Anna Merz.


“Gemini are adaptable, impulsive, and outgoing, but also nosey and sometimes unreliable.

Sounds like Masha Maximow. Except maybe the outgoing part…”

Image Place holder  of - 79Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow

Most days, Masha Maximow was sure she’d chosen the winning side. In her day job as a counterterrorism wizard for a transnational cybersecurity firm, she made the hacks that allowed repressive regimes to spy on dissidents, and manipulate their every move. Masha sometimes used her mad skills to help those same troublemakers evade detection, if their cause was just. But when it hits close to home, and the hacks and exploits she’s devised are directed at her friends and family, Masha realizes she has to choose.

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“Libras are always on a quest for knowledge, but can be unreliable, cold, and tactless. They’re always chasing after adventures and are vastly independent!…Sounds like our favorite assassin from Trouble the Saints!”

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Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

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“Aquarius signs tend to hold onto grudges (useful in a witchhunter!) and are often intelligent and unpredictable (also a useful trait in a witchhunter!)”

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I Come With Knives by S. A. Hunt

Robin plots to confront the Lazenbury coven and destroy them once and for all. Meanwhile, a dangerous serial killer only known as The Serpent is abducting and killing Blackfield residents. An elusive order of magicians known as the Dogs of Odysseus also show up with Robin in their sights. Robin must handle these new threats on top of the menace from the Lazenbury coven, but a secret about Robin’s past may throw all of her plans into jeopardy.

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