Upcoming YA fantasy adventure The Sunbearer Trials is described by the publisher as Percy Jackson meets The Hunger Games, which is, you know, kind of a bold statement to make given how popular both those franchises are. But author Aiden Thomas’s new duology appears as though it will swing for the fences in big, necessary ways, deftly mixing elements of Mexican culture and folklore with familiar YA fantasy tropes.
Every ten years, a series of trials must be held to ensure that the Sun’s light is replenished and the ruthless Obsidian Gods kept at bay. The winner of the competition will bring light to all the temples, but the loser will become a human sacrifice to power the Sun Stones that protect the people of Reino del Sol.
Effortlessly diverse and set in a robust, fully realized fantasy world bursting with necessary queer, trans, nonbinary, and Latine representation, this thrilling adventure more than proves Thomas’s range as an author. (Though if you’ve not read their Cemetery Boys or Lost in the Never Woods now would be the time, just saying!)
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
As each new decade begins, the Sun’s power must be replenished so that Sol can keep traveling along the sky and keep the evil Obsidian gods at bay. Ten semidioses between the ages of thirteen and eighteen are selected by Sol himself as the most worthy to compete in The Sunbearer Trials. The winner carries light and life to all the temples of Reino del Sol, but the loser has the greatest honor of all?they will be sacrificed to Sol, their body used to fuel the Sun Stones that will protect the people of Reino del Sol for the next ten years.
Teo, a 17-year-old Jade semidiós and the trans son of Quetzal, goddess of birds, has never worried about the Trials…or rather, he’s only worried for others. His best friend Niya?daughter of Tierra, the god of earth?is one of the strongest heroes of their generation and is much too likely to be chosen this year. He also can’t help but worry (reluctantly, and under protest) for Aurelio, a powerful Gold semidiós and Teo’s friend-turned-rival who is a shoo-in for the Trials. Teo wouldn’t mind taking Aurelio down a notch or two, but a one-in-ten chance of death is a bit too close for Teo’s taste.
But then, for the first time in over a century, Sol chooses a semidiós who isn’t a Gold. In fact, he chooses two: Xio, the 13-year-old child of Mala Suerte, god of bad luck, and…Teo. Now they must compete in five mysterious trials, against opponents who are both more powerful and better trained, for fame, glory, and their own survival.
The Sunbearer Trials won’t officially hit shelves until September, but we’re thrilled to bring you the very first excerpt from this magical adventure right now.
“Dioses and semidioses,” Luna said, her voice carrying over the crowd, which immediately hushed. A younger Sol priest stood next to her, interpreting what she said in sign language. “Diose Sol and I welcome you to Sol Temple to celebrate the end of this decade and the start of the next.” She lifted her hands to the Sol Stone, which silently churned and glowed with golden light.
Luna smiled and pressed her palms together. “This is a time to give thanks to Diose Sol for the good fortune they have brought us, and to remember all they have given so that we may live.
“Every ten years, the sun’s power must be replenished so that Sol can continue their path through the sky, keeping our world safe from the Obsidians and monsters that have been locked in their celestial bindings,” Luna explained. “Ten eligible semidioses between the ages of thirteen and eighteen are selected as the worthiest to compete in the Sunbearer Trials. The winner will be chosen by Sol as this decade’s Sunbearer and join the distinguished ranks of our past champions.”
Luna gestured to where a line of semidioses stood, all wearing golden sunburst crowns. They were all Golds, of course, and Diosa Lumbre’s glyph was the most common hanging around their necks. They ranged in age from the youngest, Brilla, who was twenty-seven, to Arnau, a semidiós of Diose Guerrero who was one hundred and forty-eight.
“Our Sunbearer will travel through Reino del Sol and refuel the Sun Stones at each city’s temple.” Luna paused long enough to let her gaze travel around the open-air observatory.
“But it is the semidiós who becomes the sacrifice who has the greatest honor of all.”
Teo shifted uneasily next to his mother. He’d heard this story enough times to know what came next. What had kept him up late at night these past weeks leading up to the Sunbearer Trials. What made him terrified of Niya being chosen to compete.
“To be sacrificed to Sol and have their body melted into the elixir that will refuel the Sun Stones, so they can continue to provide safety and protection to all of us for the next ten years.”
Diosa Luna approached the altar and stood next to the cloth-covered rectangle. In one swift movement, she unveiled what was underneath.
The sacrificial stone slab was covered in intricate engravings of the sun and webs of constellations. It rested on top of a stack of golden skulls—they all belonged to past semidioses who had died in sacrifice to keep the Sun Stones burning. After Tierra melted their bodies, he saved their skulls, plated them in gold, and engraved their names in thin script across the forehead.
Teo looked back toward the line of former Sunbearers. They did not turn to face the skulls of the dead.
“Just as we honor Sol and everything they gave, we owe our lives to the semidioses who sacrifice themselves—to remind us what they gave so that all of us may live,” Luna said. “Without this sacrifice, Reino del Sol would fall to inevitable destruction.”
Teo clenched his hands into fists, willing his knees not to shake. It sounded so noble, but Teo didn’t want his best friend to end up among the pile of skulls.
Someone had to keep the world from ending, just not Niya. “Dioses,” Luna said, looking out into the crowd. “Please present your children for Sol’s selection.”
As everyone around him started to move, Teo froze.
“Don’t worry, Pajarito,” his mom said, her soft feathers brushing his cheek as she kissed the top of his head. “You’ll be fine.”
He knew she was right, but it wasn’t his fate he was worried about. Teo’s movements were mechanical as he followed the other semidioses, forming a ring around the Sol Stone floating above their heads.
Teo desperately searched for Niya and spotted her across the way. She smiled and gave Teo a small wink.
All he could do was stand there between two other Jades—Cacti, child of the goddess of agave, and Juanita, daughter of the god of lost things—rooted to the floor. Sweat prickled his brow and ran down the middle of his back under his binder. He tried to steady his breathing, to avoid fainting right there in front of everyone.
Silence hung thick as they all waited.
Gradually, a hum filled the air and the Sol Stone grew brighter, pulsing in time with Teo’s thundering heartbeat.
A flash of light sparked to Teo’s left. A sunburst crown appeared on Ocelo’s buzzed head. A wicked grin cut their features as they basked in the honor of being the first one selected by Sol. Diose Guerrero beamed proudly, their fangs glinting.
With another flash of light, a crown appeared on Marino’s head. The water semidiós let out a breath, shoulders slumping in relief. A third flash and a crown appeared on Auristela’s head. She sucked in a gasp, nearly jumping with excitement before she seemed to remember herself and returned to standing with her arms held straight at her sides. Still, Teo saw the corners of her mouth twitch in a suppressed grin.
Besides her, Aurelio didn’t so much as flinch. His expression remained unreadable as he stared up at the Sun Stone, waiting. For a moment, Teo wondered if Aurelio was jealous of his sister, but then there was another flare of light.
A gleaming crown appeared on Aurelio’s head. His eyelids fluttered as tension released from his shoulders. Auristela latched on to her brother’s wrist, doing her best to trap her grin between her teeth.
The crowd broke out into hushed chatter. Even Teo’s lips parted in surprise. A set of siblings, let alone twins, had never been selected to compete in the trials in the same year, as far as he knew. The confused and surprised expressions around the room confirmed his suspicion. Diosa Lumbre, however, didn’t seem at all shocked. In fact, she stood motionless, almost bored.
A strange feeling that Teo couldn’t define churned in his stomach as he watched Aurelio. He hadn’t let himself think of it before tonight, but here it was, impossible to look away from: Aurelio would be competing in the Sunbearer Trials.
Teo shook his head at himself. Now was not the time to worry over Aurelio’s fate.
Teo pushed his feather circlet up out of his eyes only to realize his hands were trembling.
One by one, three more Gold semidioses were selected. When Atzi, the thirteen-year-old rain semidiosa, was chosen, Teo could hear the approving rumble of thunder from her father, Tormentoso. Next was Xochi, the semidiosa of spring, dressed in flowers. Her mother, Primavera, excitedly hugged her diosa sisters. The Estaciones, the goddesses of the seasons, were a tight-knit group of tías who absolutely fawned over Xochi. Dezi, the son of Diosa Amor, was also selected. Teo didn’t know much about him other than that he was astoundingly gorgeous. In the center of his tunic he bore his mother’s glyph—an anatomical heart on fire.
There were only three spots left.
For a moment, Teo let himself hope. Maybe Niya wouldn’t be chosen, and then they’d get to spend the next ten days together, watching the trials and getting sick on the candy he’d brought.
Not Niya. Not Niya. Not Niya.
But that hope was short-lived.
In a flash of light, a sunburst crown sparked from Niya’s head. Teo’s heart clenched.
A huge smile lit up Niya’s face, and she immediately turned to her brothers, who clapped and whooped, ignoring the customary silence. Meanwhile, Tierra’s gloved hands gripped his tie.
The back of Teo’s throat burned as he tried to swallow. He needed to not panic, not while he was standing in a room full of people. It wasn’t a guaranteed death sentence, he tried to remind himself. This was Niya. She didn’t lose anything, especially not the trials. She’d be okay, she just needed to get through it and not come in last place. She just—
A flash of light, far too close, snapped Teo from his thoughts.
This time, surprised voices erupted from the crowd. Heads swiveled.
The newly selected semidiós was only two people down from his left and it was—
A jolt shot through him.
The large crown sitting atop Xio’s curly hair made him look small compared to the Golds.
Xio? But he was a Jade.
The world beneath Teo’s feet seemed to lurch. He turned back to his mom to find her looking as shocked as he felt, her brows pinched in confusion.
Another flash. Too close. Too bright and disorienting.
Teo squinted. Across the circle, Niya stared at him, alarmed.
For some reason, he looked for Aurelio. The boy’s lips were softly parted, eyes wide and staring right at him—the most emotion Teo had seen on Aurelio’s face in years.
Over the growing noise of the crowd, Teo heard his mom gasp but he didn’t know why. He turned to look at her but there was a sudden shift of weight on his head.
He moved to push his feather circlet back into place, but when Teo reached up, his fingers touched the cold rays of a sunburst crown.
The Sunbearer Trials will be releaased on September 6, 2022 but you can preorder it now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.