Check out an exclusive excerpt from Lana Popovic’s debut novel, Wicked Like a Wildfire, which will be released on August 15.
About ‘Wicked Like a Wildfire’
Seventeen-year-old twins Iris and Malina each have a marvelous magical gift. All the women in their family are born with a gleam—a unique way of manipulating beauty through magic. Iris sees flowers as fractals and turns her kaleidoscope visions into glasswork, Malina translates the moods of the people around her into music, and their mother Jasmina bakes scenery into mouth-watering delicacies in her confectionery in Old Town Cattaro, Montenegro. The girls are eager to find a connection with their cold, distant mother, who’s more concerned that they suppress their magical talents—and their emotions—than find love and happiness.
But when their mother is brutally beaten and left for dead, the sisters, in their determination to find her attacker, discover why their mother has spent their young lives holding them back from living fully. There’s an ancient curse that haunts their line — a wicked bargain that masquerades as a blessing, and binds the twins’ fates — and hearts — to a force larger than life.
‘Wicked Like a Wildfire’ excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter One
My sister and I were born all tangled up together, both tiny enough that our unruly descent just narrowly missed killing our mother. I liked to think there would have been a fair bit of screaming on Mama’s part in the ruckus that followed, but that’s just my wicked fancy. Maybe she was stoic and flawless as ever, Snow White giving birth under glass. Either way, tending to her, no one spared the time to note which of us had arrived first. And so although we weren’t identical, by sheer bloody technicality we were always the same age, neither a minute older nor younger than each other.
Mama kept us in a single cradle, one that Čiča Jovan had carved for her from cherrywood before we were born. It was a whimsical thing fit for changeling children, wrought with mermaids trapped in ivy, open seashells with tiny apples growing in them instead of salty flesh. Sometimes I wondered if I’d have liked my own cradle as much as I would have liked having my own room once we were older. But Malina still liked to fall asleep by matching her breathing to mine, rubbing her feet together like a grasshopper.
The only real bedtime story Mama ever told us traced back to those early days, when we were both so little the tops of our skulls hadn’t yet hardened into something that could withstand the world. The mother I knew might have been tempted by that fragility, the urge to press her thumbs into such yielding clay. To see what marks she could make.
She must have been so different, then.
Instead, when we were old enough for our pale eyes to focus, she brought an assortment of offerings on a milky sea-glass platter. From it, she plucked tiny slivers of fruit and brushed them over our lips, one by one. Apple, mango, strawberry, papaya, prickly pear, some so exotic she could only have gotten them from the cruise ships that docked in the bay, rather than the open-air market outside the Old Town walls. Each was at its peak, the perfect moment of ripeness before turning. Then she passed violet petals beneath our noses, followed by jasmine, orchid, and peony; small lumps of ambergris; splinters of oud wood and sandalwood and myrrh.
Waiting to see which would bring forth the gleam, the magic that ran through our blood.
For me, it was the hibiscus flower, the petal red and fleshy as our mother trailed it over the tip of my nose, before she let me gum it to release its tart flavor. For Malina, it was a gleaming, perfect cherry, which Mama crushed into a paste that she let my sister suck from her ring finger.
It was bad luck to name a daughter after the thing that that first sparked the gleam, Mama said. So I was Iris, for a flower that wasn’t hibiscus, and my sister was Malina, for a raspberry. They were placeholder names that didn’t pin down our true nature, so nothing would ever be able to summon us. No demon or vila would ever reel us in by our real names.
Even caught up in the story, Mama could never quite explain what the gleam looked like once she found it. Maybe our cloudy baby eyes cleared, like a sky swept by a driving wind. Maybe our tiny hands clenched fistfuls of air, seeking the tools that we’d use to capture the gleam once we were older. She never said.
Listening to her tell it, I could have sworn that she’d loved the needy little creatures Malina and I had been. Even if the whole thing was just a story—who rubs flowers and fruit and whale vomit on babies, anyway? What if one of us had been allergic?—it was still beautifully spun. There was love in its very fabric.
Then again, all that was seventeen years ago. These days, had someone asked me if our mother loved us, any “yes” would have caught in my throat like a fish bone. And had someone asked me if I loved my mother, I thought I knew what I would say.
But then she died without dying, and I didn’t know anything at all.
That whole week felt like a gathering storm. It was only the end of May, but already so stifling that just the effort of breathing made you mutinous. Malina and I worked split shifts at Café Tadić since school had let out for the summer, and that Tuesday I’d drawn the early straw, which I usually preferred. On my way out at six a.m., I’d see the sunrise over the mountains that Cattaro huddled against, the sky glowing like a forge before the craggy peaks above us lit with the first slice of the sun.
It reminded me of what my world had once looked like, brilliant and blazing and alive from every angle, back when I could make almost anything bloom.
But the sky was still a barely blushing dark as I trailed the side of our tiny house just before five, wincing as the courtyard pebbles dug into my soles. I’d taken my flip-flops off to minimize crunching in the predawn hush. Mama would already be at the café—she’d been asleep long before I snuck out the night before—but Mrs. Petrović next door was a nasty, busybody hag who could have been a KGB spy in another life, or possibly this one. Ratting me out to Mama made her downright gleeful, pointless as it was. Mama knew perfectly well she couldn’t keep me inside when I wanted out. I only bothered with the skulking to avoid the fights— “What kind of mother do you make me look like, sneaking out like a thief in the night?”—and even that was mostly for Malina. She couldn’t stand the sound of our mother’s rage battering against mine.
I was still bobbing along on some mixture of high and tipsy as I hauled myself onto our window ledge and swung my legs over, the contentment lingering round and compact in my belly like a sun-warmed egg. That wouldn’t last. Soon, it would crack into a slimy nausea, just in time for my arrival at the café.
A faint rumble of triumph echoed through me. Along with most everything else that I did, Jasmina the Peerless hated it when I came to work hungover. And this morning I wouldn’t even have time to wash the alcohol fumes from my skin and hair. A small—and smelly—victory, but I’d learned to take them as they came.
Malina was still sound asleep as I gingerly dropped both feet onto our splintered hardwood floor, toe to heel, bending over to deposit my flip-flops beside them. My stomach lurched; maybe that rumble hadn’t been all triumph. I leaned my butt back against the sill, breathing deeply to settle my insides. We kept our window flung wide open in the summer, and the slight breeze stirred the multicolored Japanese parasols fanned out across our ceiling, stripped of their handles and overlapping one another.
This was one of my projects from years ago, before I graduated to proper glassblowing under Čiča Jovan’s watchful eye. When my gleam began to wane, Mama had presented me with a consolation prize, an article about American artist Dale Chihuly’s largest installation: the Fiori di Como, a garden of glass flowers blossoming on the ceiling of the grandest hotel in Las Vegas. Its steel armature alone weighed ten thousand pounds; it had to, to support the forty thousand pounds of glass that clung to it. It was the biggest glass sculpture in the world.
This morning, the sight of the paper petals gave me a flutter of unease. Passed out on Nevena’s couch last night, I’d dreamed of flowers, fields of black roses that glistened wet beneath a sky hovering on the brink of storm. Each time I woke it had been gasping and sweaty, heart stuttering in my chest until the alcohol and weed dragged me back down. I hardly ever remembered my dreams, but I could still nearly smell those dark roses, taste the slippery dew on the petals as I tore them off their stems and placed them on my tongue.
Excerpted from Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic courtesy of Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
About the author
Lana Popović was born in Serbia and spent her childhood summers surrounded by the seaside and mountain magic of Montenegro. She lived in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania before moving to the United States, where she now calls Boston home—subsisting largely on cake, eyeliner, and aerial yoga. She’d happily spend most of her waking hours hanging out in silks, and may be upside down right now.
Lana studied psychology and literature at Yale University, and law at Boston University. She’s also a graduate of the Emerson College Publishing and Writing program and works as a literary agent with Chalberg & Sussman, specializing in Young Adult lit. She represents New York Times bestselling author Brittany Cavallaro, Emily Henry, Leah Thomas, Rebecca Podos, Danielle Mages Amato, Amelinda Berube, Sara Taylor Woods, and a number of other YA and adult authors.