The Bliss Wars, book 1
For Talia, death is only the beginning of survival…
When a tragic accident cuts my lonely life short, instead of heaven or hell, I’m stolen away to a terrifying city of warring shifter clans—the Nimali and the Fai. The Nimali mistake me for their missing princess. Her father, the dragon king, is identical to my own. But in this world, he dotes on me with the love and affection I always craved. And in a land with no tolerance for outsiders, feigning amnesia and impersonating shifter royalty may be the only way to survive.
For Ryin, falling in love is the worst kind of betrayal…
As a Fai warrior in captivity, I'm forced to serve my enemy even as I plot their destruction. The lost princess returned much changed, now the heat between us crackles irresistibly. While helping her heal using my magical talents, I begin to question what I thought I knew about the Nimali. She remains as forbidden as ever, but she also might be the key to freedom for me and my people.
Caught between two enemy factions balancing on the knife-blade of annihilation, our lies are the only thing keeping us alive, but they just might be our undoing.
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Narrated by Caroline Sorunke & Nathan Lang
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The first time I die, my life doesn’t flash before my eyes in a rush of images. All I see is a single moment from the past: me, sitting on a hospital bed, my feet a long way from reaching the ground. I had on the pink sneakers I’d begged Mom for, but the pristine white toes were splattered with blood. Adults spoke around me in loud voices. One of the ladies had a tone so high pitched and sharp that it reminded me of the screaming. I sang a song in my head, to drown out her voice.
A cast in the same pink as my sneakers weighed down my right arm. I picked at the edge of it, at the gauzy white bit, trying to unravel a thread. The cuts over the rest of me were slowly turning into scars, the bruises becoming mottled and gray. I was obsessed with scars back then—how they were made of the same stuff as regular skin, but transformed. How some animals don’t scar at all—they can completely regenerate, regrowing skin and organs as good as new. In my mind, scars were tougher and stronger, a protective shell covering a vulnerable interior. But Mom told me that they were just a part of life. Scars meant you’d seen some things, been through some things, and you were different now. Forever changed. My new scars were inside and out.
I was remembering my mom—how she looked when she laughed—when a pair of loafers stepped into my field of vision. I tilted my head up to find a man, tawny-skinned with dark, hazel eyes. A short, neat afro topped his head, cropped with laser-like precision. His mustache was similarly well-groomed. He looked down at me, and something about his face was familiar.
“Talia,” he said, his voice like bitter chocolate.
I looked up at him and he looked down at me, and the corners of his mustache drooped with his frown. I looked up with hope and he looked back with an expression I was destined to see often on him. Eventually, I came to understand it as dismay.
“Who are you?” I asked, curious but not afraid.
“I’m your father.”
The image fades, but the rest of the day rushes back to me in a swirl of memories. My father leading me from the hospital and into his maroon sedan the day I met him. The back seat already taken up with two brand new, never used car seats. Me squeezing in between them and fumbling around for the seat belt with my good arm while he started the engine. The drive seemed like it took days, but in reality it was only a few hours. I tried to scrape the blood off my shoe using the edge of the front seat. It didn’t come off.
My eyes open slowly, overwhelmed by the brightness of the light surrounding me. I lick my lips and wince at the soreness in my throat. Nearby, someone hums. A woman wanders into my field of vision, smiling and grandmotherly in pink scrubs.
“Where am I?” I croak out.
“Shock Trauma,” she says, holding a plastic cup of water with a straw for me to sip. “A car hit you while you were crossing the street, honey. You flatlined, but they brought you back.” She smells of cinnamon and cloves. The water soothes my aching throat. “You’ll be sore for a while from the intubation. But you’re breathing on your own now, so that’s a good sign.”
Another hospital. I shiver. Another car accident, though this time I’m not trapped inside a metal coffin for hours with the echoes of screaming rattling around in my head.
While I can’t really move any of my body, nothing hurts. I must be on the good drugs. “My father?” I ask, unable to keep the hope from soaking my voice.
The nurse’s lips turn down; discomfort enters her eyes. “No visitors so far. But someone sent you flowers.”
She points to a glass wall. I slowly turn my head to find an enormous bouquet on the other side, its vibrant blooms already wilting. “They’re not allowed inside the ICU rooms.” Her tone is apologetic.
I close my eyes again for a moment—or an hour, or a day—wondering how many times I will cheat death. When I wake again, it’s to chaos.
My body looks far away but magnified, like I’m viewing it through a telescope. People in scrubs buzz around the bed speaking curtly to one another. It’s not like on television. No one yells “Stat!” Someone does mention the word embolism, followed by a string of curses.
Eventually, a single, low tone beeps and the vision fades to darkness. I’m no longer looking through a lens at anything. Rushing air passes by my skin, but I can’t see anything. It’s almost like I’m flying. I’m excited to discover what the afterlife holds. Is there a heaven? Hell? Will I be reborn as someone new and get a chance to do things over? There are so many things I wish had gone differently.
The darkness soon turns to gray, and the flying feeling turns into the sensation of falling. A free fall through overcast skies. I reach out to touch the clouds with my fingertips. My hand slips through the insubstantial mass, leaving my skin coated with moisture. With eyes burning from the speed, wind whipping at my hair and tearing it out of its braids, a bubble of fear opens up within me.
My teeth chatter, and even though I can’t see anything other than a thick, gray mist surrounding me, I don’t think this could be heaven. I’m still considering what’s happening and where I really am when I hit the ground.
The impact takes the wind out of me, but given the speed I was falling, I really should be lying shattered on the cold earth as a pulpy, bloody mess. However, I’m not even bruised. I lie staring up at the gray sky and catch my breath. Then I sit up and look around.
Wherever here is, it’s foggy: the pea soup kind where you can’t see more than a few feet in any direction. There’s dirt, an empty stretch of soil with nothing growing on it at all. Hell is looking like a strong possibility—this place is bleak and cold and lifeless.
I stand and cringe as sharp little pebbles cut into my bare feet. I’m only wearing a flimsy hospital gown. It’s snapped closed in the back so my ass isn’t hanging out, but it’s no warmer than fifty degrees here and shivers rake over my body. A blood-curdling, animalistic shriek shreds the air from not very far away and I forget the cold and discomfort.
I have no idea which direction the sound came from, so I don’t know which way to run. I crouch down, scanning around me for anything I can use as a weapon, but of course there’s nothing. Just dirt and rocks too little to be useful for more than jabbing my naked feet.
I swallow thickly as my throat starts to close. Sucking air into my lungs is getting harder and harder as panic reigns. A roar sounds, louder and closer. Was that a different creature or the same one? It reminds me of one of the bears in those endless nature documentaries my stepsister used to watch.
More animal calls ring out, growls and howls and—was that a wolf? Then a squawk like some kind of war bird. I hunker down because the sounds are coming from all around. I’m a shivering, quivering mess when a hulking form bounds out of the mist, heading straight for me.
I get a glimpse of red eyes and sharp, jagged teeth, and then I’m sprinting in the opposite direction. I was never particularly athletic and I haven’t run since high school gym class, but I guess the adrenaline pushes me forward because whatever that thing is doesn’t immediately catch me. I dimly recognize that each step is painful—I’m shredding my feet—but I keep running as the thing behind me bellows its dinosaur-like roar.
What I need is to put on a burst of speed—isn’t the human body capable of miraculous things when under duress? I think of the story of a mother lifting a car to save her child, but apparently my body didn’t get that particular memo because I’m slowing down with a painful stitch in my side, muscles failing too soon. I dig deep, but my tank is empty. I know I’m not going to get away when I actually feel hot breath on my neck. I squeeze my eyes tight—I’ve already died at least twice…is my hell going to be new and innovative ways to be killed over and over again?
Pain slices down my back as the creature roars again. I topple over, crashing to the ground and getting a face full of dirt as I’m blinded by agony. My throat is suddenly sore again and I realize it’s because I’m screaming. How long I’ve been screaming, I don’t know. The realization makes me stop. I draw a deep breath and the snarls and snaps of animals fighting reach my ears. They’re close, but I don’t turn my head to see. Something is battling the creature that took me down, and I really hope it wins. At least I’m pretty sure I hope it wins, though with the way things are going, this new thing may want to eat me, too. The theme of my life thus far—twenty-three years of going from the frying pan into the fire. Why would my afterlife be any different?
An intense wind picks up. I’m flat on my stomach without even the strength to curl up into a ball. It’s like someone flayed my back and then poured acid on the wounds. I might have started screaming again, but I’m not even sure. My eyes are closed and dizziness swamps me, spinning me around in the darkness like a top. Hair flies all over my head and bits of dirt and debris hit my searing back, kicked up by the crazy, gale-force winds and intensifying the already unbearable pain.
Another roar and then there’s heat, an explosion of heat blasting somewhere very nearby. Fire crackles and sizzles and smoke clogs my nose as something burns. Something that howls in torturous pain as it fries, its flesh turned to flame and then char. The pops and hisses and odor of burning meat are making me feel like I’m at the worst barbecue of all time. I gag and squeeze my nose closed, gasping air through my mouth.
My mind is telling me to get farther away from the fire—the instinct for self-preservation hasn’t left me. The heat kisses my skin, uncomfortably warm and far too close. But I can’t move. I can’t drag myself anywhere, not just because of the pain but because I literally can’t move. My limbs have turned to stone. I’m paralyzed—did that thing hit my spine and damage it? My eyes blink open—they still work—but my thoughts are starting to muddle into mush. The ground vibrates as heavy footsteps come toward me, walking into my limited range of vision.
They’re not shiny black loafers but scuffed, thick-soled boots. They stop an inch from my face, and I can’t turn my head to see who they belong to. I can’t even keep my eyes open one more second. But before things go dark, I do notice that they have what looks like blood splattered across the toes.
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