Read an Excerpt From Nevin Holness’ King of Dead Things


We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from King of Dead Things by Nevin Holness, a young adult urban fantasy novel publishing with Atheneum Books for Young Readers on April 16th.

Raising the dead is easy. Living is harder.

Eli doesn’t know who he is or who he came from. Three years ago, he was found by his now-best friends, Sunny and Max, who gave him a home in a magical sanctuary doubling as a Caribbean restaurant. What Eli does know is that he can heal a wound with just a touch and pluck magic from a soul like a petal from a flower—and there is nothing he wouldn’t do to survive and keep his new family together.

Malcolm would do anything to forget where he comes from. Desperate to escape his estranged father’s shadow and plagued with an inherited death magic he doesn’t fully understand, Malcolm has just one priority: save his mother, no matter the cost.

Malcolm and Eli’s paths collide when Eli and his friends are sent to track down the fang of the leopard god Osebo, a deadly weapon that can eat magic. In a job filled with enigmatic nine nights and Caribbean legends, the teens must face their own demons as they race through the magical underbelly of London to retrieve the fang… before an ancient and malevolent power comes back to life.


Chapter One

Eli

The soul slipped from the boy as easily as removing a sheet from a bed.

It felt a little like that, Eli thought as he took it in his hand; thin, weightless, like releasing a kite in the wind. He got a sense of the life as it passed through him. He had read before in one of Max’s old books that the magic in each soul had its own individuality; this one felt like motor grease on fingers and grass stains on knees, the smell of petrol, the hum of an engine. He was a mechanic, Eli realized belatedly. He had spent a lifetime working with his hands.

In theory, it was simple. The boy’s soul was battered and broken; Eli was just stitching the fragments back together one at a time, like patchwork. It was a complicated magic, healing; one wrong stitch and it wouldn’t stick. Plus, it took from him as much as he gave. Afterward, Eli would feel worn out, nauseous, and it usually took a few days for his own magic to return.

He didn’t have the luxury of going a few days without magic, not when he had bills to pay, so it had become habit for him to take a piece for himself in the form of payment—a single thread of magic, small enough not to be missed. Most people were oblivious to magic, even when it was right under their noses, and the ones who weren’t existed the same way as Eli, in hushed voices and behind closed doors. It was easy for Eli to go unnoticed. The only real risk of failure lay in human error, but Eli had practiced incessantly, ghosting the movements over and over with his fingers, like surgeons’ sutures into oranges.

There was an art to it. The first time he’d tried taking magic that wasn’t his, it had wrapped around his palms like razor wire, tight enough that he’d needed stitches. Since then, Eli had bled magic from a soul enough times that he knew the rhythm of it. He knew what kinds of magic to stay away from and what kinds he could upsell, which would get stuck beneath his fingernails and which would crumble and turn to ash if he held on too tightly. He had strict rules. He only took magic that had been corrupted or warped into something wicked. Magic that had soured and rotted from wrongdoing. Magic like this, that smelled like… death.

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King of Dead Things

King of Dead Things

Nevin Holness

It didn’t take long before he was finished. The soul slotted back together with a click that reminded Eli of clockwork. When he stepped back, the boy let out a deep exhale. He wore a thin golden chain around his neck, a pendant of a snake wrapped around a dagger. Eli watched it rise and fall against his chest until he was sure that he was okay. The magic was weak with fatigue and confused, probably, at having been tampered with, but it had listened to him.

“You’re getting good at that,” said a voice behind him, and Eli turned to see that he had an audience.

Sunny leant against the doorframe, a cigarette between her lips despite the very clear, capitalized sign on the wall behind her indicating that it was prohibited to smoke. At some point during the short twenty minutes since Eli had last seen her, she had gotten into a fight, because she now sported a bloody nose, a swollen eye, and a crooked grin.

“Who’d you piss off this time?” Eli asked, entirely unsurprised.

Sunny smiled. There was blood on her chin. “Why do you assume it was me doing the pissing off?”

“I’ve spent more than fifteen seconds in your vicinity,” Eli answered, and Sunny gave an unladylike snort.

They were standing in the back alley of some Camden pub, one of those nameless ones that seemed as old as it did new. The asphalt gleamed in sleek pinks and purples from last night’s rain. Across the street, a tattooed guy was fruitlessly flogging his mixtape. A few drunk people hovered outside the kebab place, and if Eli craned his neck, he could just about make out the last of the tourists leaving the Lock with dusk. It should have been unnerving, probably, that it was only the cover of the night that kept them shrouded from onlookers, but Eli had always liked busy places. There was something in the comfort of not being alone.

“That’s not our guy,” Sunny said, peering down at the unconscious boy.

“Nope,” Eli said, and it most certainly wasn’t. Eli pushed his glasses further up his nose to get a better look. Their contact was supposed to be a gray-haired seer man. Instead, they’d found a boy around the same age as them. When they’d first found him, he’d been moments away from death. He might have been mistaken for sleeping if it hadn’t been for the small, bleeding puncture at the base of his stomach, slowly oozing magic. Now, his chest rose and fell in even breaths. He would be fine when he woke up. Something would be missing, maybe. A memory. A friend’s face. A favorite song. Eli tried to avoid thinking about it too hard. He had saved a life, after all.

“Shit,” Sunny said. “Pam’s gonna be vex.”

“When isn’t she?” Eli said, and Sunny snorted in agreement. “At least we’ve got something else for her.”

The sliver of magic Eli had taken from the boy was no bigger than a ten-pence coin, probably only slightly larger than his thumbnail, but weighed heavy in the palm of his hand. Most magic Eli had encountered was tinted with color, a reflection of the soul it had come from. Eli’s own magic, for instance, had the habit of staining his fingers moss-green. This magic, however, was completely clear and white. It cut through the darkness of the alleyway like moonlight, bright enough to leave spots behind Eli’s eyelids. Eli wondered what it might feel like to use that sort of magic but quickly cast the thought aside. Thinking like that only led to trouble.

The boy most likely wouldn’t notice the magic was gone, but for Eli magic meant survival: from just this fragment, he would be able to cover at least a month’s rent, maybe a couple of weeks of credit on his Oyster card, and at least a momentary reprieve from the sinking sand of financial instability that he was constantly up to his neck in.

“We should probably get out of here, then,” said Sunny, yawning. “There are some drunk guys inside who are going to be realizing any second now that they no longer have their wallets.”

Eli rolled his eyes, but it wasn’t like he could comment. He was just as much a thief as she was.

Eli had always thought of London as two halves. There was the tedium of everyday London that most people existed in, full of commuters, coffee shops, and tourist traps. Then there was the secret side of the city, full of winding, serpentine streets and back-alley bargains. This was a London you only knew if it ran in your blood.

Pam’s West Indian Takeaway was one of those places. Far enough off Camden High Street that it was easy to miss, it was nestled between a vegan sandwich shop–cum–tattoo parlor and a record store that, as far as Eli could tell, only sold obscure Serbian jazz on vinyl.

In truth, this was the side of London that he loved. Not the sleek gray industrialism of Zone One, full of overpaid suits and twenty-something upstart gentrifiers. For Eli, this was home. Corner shops next to kebab shops next to unisex barbers. Nail shops next to chicken shops next to funeral homes. It was the outer crust. He liked that everyone here knew what it was to be on the outside.

Pam’s, in particular, was a place of in-betweens. The magic of the restaurant, like a lot of places in London, lay in the fact that it existed just outside linear time. Eli didn’t understand the technicalities of it, honestly. Sunny had attempted to explain it once, but since she had the unfortunate habit of lying compulsively for the fun of it, Eli wasn’t sure how far he could believe her.

Still, he’d figured out the basics. Pam’s was a sanctuary. If you knew the right spells and which doors to use them on, you could even enter at any time of the day, stay for as long as you liked.

For Eli, it was home. The top two floors had been converted into flats, and Eli and Sunny each rented a room from Pam for half the market price, under the condition that they spend their free time downstairs washing dishes and folding pastries. It was, objectively, a bit of a fixer-upper—there was water damage in almost every room, the smell of food permeated the walls, and it was somehow both freezing in the winters yet suffocatingly hot in the summer—but Eli had grown fond of it. It was a place that was theirs.

Max, the final piece of their trio, was behind the counter flipping through a comic book when they entered.

“Hey,” she said at their arrival, “what kind of West Indian time do you call this? I was just about to close up.” She took in Sunny’s bruised and bloody face, then turned to Eli with a resigned yet wholly unsurprised sigh. “Do I even want to know?”

Max, like Pam, was a girl of in-betweens. She was close to Sunny and Eli in age, but nobody this side of London knew more about magic. The daughter of an imam and a retired activist, Max was a healer some days, a thief the others, but a cashier on most.

“Probably not,” Sunny said, closing the door behind her and flipping the open for business sign hanging out front to soon come. “Anyway, you worry too much. Probably only, like, forty percent of the blood is mine.”

Eli tried not to roll his eyes. Sunny’s judgment about whether something was worth worrying over seemed to exist on a scale from one to a-human-being’s-death-has-transpired.

“Besides,” Sunny continued, flinging herself onto her usual stool by the counter. “You won’t be mad when you see what we’ve got.”

He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but in the short time they had known one another, this act of exchanging gifts after every job had become something of a tradition among the three of them. Of course, the big things they found, things with actual worth, Max would pass on to Pam. Magic that was owed. Debts that were overdue. It was how he and Sunny stayed afloat. Well—that, and a hellish amount of monotony; weekend retail work in between shifts at Pam’s, part-time waiting tables, freelance call center temping. Eli was just nearing the end of his teen years, yet he’d had more jobs in the first two decades of his life than most people had in whole lifetimes.

Their smaller finds, the peculiar magical tidbits that didn’t have any worth outside of their strangeness factor, those Max kept for herself. She wasn’t a collector, necessarily, but she liked deconstructing things, stripping them down and seeing what they were made of.

It was the same reason that Max had first decided to help Eli with his own business. Okay, Max had said after she’d heard his story. Well, you’re definitely a mystery. And that was all it had taken. A boy who plucked the magic from a soul like petals, who had no memory of who he was before three years ago? She had peeked once at the hollowness inside him, the crack right through his center, and decided instantly that it was something of interest to her.

In return, it had become a fun little game for Eli and Sunny while they were on their adventures: Who could bring Max back the weirdest find? Scales from a water spirit, hair of a lagahoo, cursed knives, phoenix ashes; somewhere along the road, the two of them had inadvertently become a pair of proprietary house cats, filling their jaws with feathered gifts.

It was Max who had dropped Pam’s request in their group chat a week prior, between links to personality quizzes and twelve-minute-long YouTube videos dissecting pop star feuds. Pam looking for ancient fang, she’d texted, says it nyams magic. Allegedly stolen by Anansi himself from Osebo, leopard god. Last heard whispers that it’s with some seer man looking to sell to the highest bidder. Pam says if you find, DO NOT TOUCH (obvs). (It eats magic.)

pass, Sunny had replied, sounds like some old-time bush fable. But then a week later she’d come back with the lead on a Camden pub and a simple follow-up question:

how much?

“Pam’s not going to like this,” Max said, after suffering through their lengthy explanation of how they’d searched for the seer man and instead stumbled on the boy in the alleyway, a hole pierced through his gut, half dead, and no sign of the fang.

Sunny and Eli exchanged a look. Pam sent them on a lot of errands. Some of the things they were sent to retrieve were hefty enough to keep their stomachs full for whole months. Other times it was just the matter of passing on a message. Pam never gave any indication of the significance of her requests, and Eli and Sunny never asked. This felt different.

“What’s so special about this fang?” Sunny asked. It came out, as did most of Sunny’s words, dripping with derision, but Max’s response was sincere.

“At the moment it’s just rumors. You know people like to run their mouths. But you should have seen the way Pam spoke about it. She told me she needed it. She seemed, I don’t know. Spooked.”

Truthfully, he hadn’t even known Pam was capable of fear. One time a group of guys had tried to break into their cash register and Pam had dispensed with them using only the blunt end of a broom. Another time, a kitchen fire had started out back and the whole building had been flooded with thick, blinding smoke. Pam had casually waded through the flames, wafting the smoke from her face like it was a fruit fly. She hadn’t left until everyone was safe, and only then did she leisurely amble outside, a handbag nestled in the crook of one arm and a wad of cash in the other, looking less like she was escaping a burning building and more like she was on her way to the bank.

Max gnawed at her lip, and Eli could tell that she was debating how much to reveal. “Mrs. Taylor came in the other week. She told me her son—you know the tall one, plays the clarinet?—well, he was missing.”

Excerpted from King of Dead Things, copyright © 2024 by Nevin Holness.



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