If you follow the world of YA publishing at all, you have probably heard of Lightlark, the young adult debut from middle-grade author Alex Aster that is fairly reminiscent of the mid-2000s speculative fiction boom that gave us books like Divergent and The Hunger Games. The novel landed like a thunderclap in the publishing world, becoming an internet phenomenon (and generating no small bit of controversy) well before it ever hit shelves, thanks in large part to the author’s deft use of TikTok to engage her audience, where she solicited opinions about the book’s story and created a contest to let fans choose the novel’s cover.
Lightlark follows the story of Isla Crown, the ruler of Wildling, one of six realms fighting to break an ancient curse that is damaging their islands and harming their citizens in specific and terrible ways. Every 100 years, each kingdom must take part in the Centennial, an event where their rulers come together to try and unravel the damaging curses that are destroying their realms—all while putting their own lives at risk. Because for the curse to finally be broken, one of the rulers must die.
If for whatever reason you haven’t heard of Lightlark yet, chances are you will pretty soon. Thanks to all this pre-release buzz, the book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, #1 on the indie bestseller list, and #14 on the USA Today bestseller list. It has been acquired by Universal Pictures and will be developed as a film franchise in partnership with Temple Hill. (And this is just the first book in the series!)
We got the chance to chat with Aster herself about how Lightlark came to be, where she stands in the whole Grimshaw versus Oro debate, and the influence of BookTok on her journey as an author.
Paste Magazine: Tell me about how you came up with the idea of Lightlark. I know that getting this story has had quite a journey finding its way into the world!
Alex Aster: When I first moved to New York City, I lived directly across from an old church that had a round stained glass window at its front like an eye. I would look at it at night and imagine a fantastical world around it. The church itself actually made its way into the book!
From there, the idea for celestial-based powers developed. Then, the idea for the island that only appears once every hundred years, the curses, and the Centennial game. I poured everything I love in books into this one: fantasy, romance, mystery, and plot twists that I hope will keep the reader guessing until the very last page.
Paste: How would you describe the overall story of this book? What is its big theme/message in your mind?
Aster: Lightlark is the story of the worst possible candidate being thrown into a deadly game against the most powerful rulers in the realms. Isla Crown has secrets that could get her killed. One of the 6 rulers must die to break all their curses. She is unprepared. She is clearly the easiest to kill. And she makes bad decisions. The big message for me is that, as Isla learns throughout her journey on Lightlark, you are always more powerful than you think you are.
Paste: How would you describe Isla’s journey in this story, and how does she change over the course of it do you think?
Aster: Isla begins the story believing the hardest part of the Centennial is killing one of the six powerful rulers. Instead, she learns there are histories, lies, and secrets that make the true game much different than the one she believed she was playing. Over the course of the book, she learns that the things she thought she wanted were not necessarily the things she needed. And she learns the importance of recognizing her own strength.
Paste Magazine: I need to talk about Grimshaw because he’s a definite highlight of this story. Can you tell me a little bit about how you see this character and his relationship with Isla? (Their chemistry is smoking hot!)
Aster: Grim and Isla’s scenes together were the best to write. Their banter came very easily and felt natural. Grim is this ancient warrior who everyone treats as a villain. He himself has a line in the book where he is trying to convince Isla to stay away from him, and he says, “I am the monster.” He is essentially admitting to being just as bad as everyone thinks he is. Yet…she can’t stay away.
Their relationship is a bad idea. Being with Isla is impossible. But Grim is the type of character who would burn the world down if it meant having her. How that plays out in the story, that type of all-encompassing, selfish love, has inspired many passionate reactions from readers!
Paste: Since I asked about Grimshaw, I also need to ask about Oro as well. How do you see his role in this world and his relationship with Isla?
Oro is a cold, heartless king who has been trapped in darkness for centuries. He puts the safety of his people and the island above all else, leaving very little room for love. In fact, because in the world of Lightlark being in love means leaving your power vulnerable, he has always seen love as a weakness.
Isla represents everything he hates and fears. He believes she is a temptress, sent to the island to steal his powers. And that might be true! He and Isla are true enemies from the start. They acknowledge they both hate each other, yet they must team up to both get what they want.
Paste: Are you Team Grimshaw or Team Oro when it comes to the book’s love triangle?
Aster: In the first book, I was Team Oro. But that’s all I’ll say…!
Paste: Lightlark mixes so many of my favorite tropes from various YA fantasies. Do you have a favorite trope you like to write (or read)?
Aster: As you can probably tell in Lightlark, I love enemies to lovers. The heated proclamations of love, the angst, the forced proximity, the sword-to-throat scenes…I love everything about it, which is why it plays such a huge role in Lightlark!
Paste: If you were part of one of the realms of Lightlark, which do you think it would be and why?
Aster: I would want to be part of Moonling, because I grew up always wanting to be able to control water and ice. I would just make sure to avoid the sea during the full moon until the curses were broken, though!
Paste: The creation and release of this book is so tied to the whole idea of BookTok as a phenomenon—tell us a little about how you think that platform is changing the publishing industry and how authors use it to connect with readers?
Aster: TikTok changed my life. I posted a video pitching Lightlark to the app, and it immediately went viral. The year and a half that followed was an incredible ride to publication that included selling Lightlark in over 15 languages, selling the movie rights to Universal and the producers of Twilight, attending Comic-Con panels, being on Good Morning America the morning of book launch, and taking my followers behind-the-scenes for all of it. The app has given me and my books visibility that I never would have had otherwise.
Paste: What can you tell us about what’s next for this story? Can you share any hints about what’s to come in the Lightlark sequel?
Aster: The second book in the Lightlark series starts right where the first one left off. Isla will have to face the consequences of the aftermath of what happened in the first story. And there will be a lot more of Grim and Oro!
Paste: And, finally, my personal favorite question: What are you reading right now? (Not that my TBR pile needs to get any bigger but still!)
Aster: I’m currently re-reading Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong. It’s a spin-off of her incredible These Violent Delights duology, and it’s one of my favorite reads this year.
Lightlark is available now wherever books are sold.
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.