Happy Wednesday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for PAHUA AND THE SOUL STEALER by Lori M. Lee! I’m so excited because today I have an excerpt of the book to share with you! This book is truly amazing and I’m so excited to for you to find out more about it, PLUS enter for a chance to win a print copy!
Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee
Published on September 7, 2021 by Rick Riordan Presents
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Multiverse, Retellings
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Pahua Moua has a bit of a reputation for being a weirdo. A lonely eleven-year-old Hmong girl with the unique ability to see spirits, she spends her summer days babysitting her little brother and playing with her best friend, a cat spirit no one else can see.
One day Pahua accidentally untethers an angry spirit from the haunted bridge in her neighborhood--whoops. When her brother suddenly falls sick and can't be awoken, Pahua fears that the bridge spirit has stolen his soul. She returns to the scene of the crime with her aunt's old shaman tools, hoping to confront the spirit and demand her brother's return. Instead, she summons a demon.
Thankfully, a warrior shaman with a bit of an attitude problem shows up at the last minute and saves her butt. With the help of this guide, Pahua will have to find her way through the spirit worlds and rescue her brother's soul before it's too late. Little does she know she'll have her own discoveries to make along the way. . . .
My Best Friend Is a Cat Spirit
The day my life changed began like most mornings—with a judgmental cat spirit.
That T-shirt makes you look like an eggplant, Miv said. Despite being a tiny black kitten, he had a lot of opinions. He sat on my dresser, his round eyes watching me get ready for summer school.
Most people would agree that having a talking cat spirit for a best friend is pretty strange. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen spirits. Not in a creepy way (although sometimes in a creepy way—more on that later), but in a normal Hey, spirits exist, and also, can I borrow some peanut butter? kind of way. Well, except for the part where no one else can see them but me.
I told my mom about Miv when I was five. She couldn’t see him, so she assumed I’d made him up. She’d humored me, patting me on the head and then saying to the seemingly empty space beside me, “Aren’t you a pretty kitty?”
Miv had glared at her from his spot on the kitchen counter. If she even thinks about getting you a real cat, I’ll make sure all her rice goes bad.
Today, I ignored Miv’s criticism, as usual. I smoothed down the hem of my shirt. Yeah, it was the color of eggplant, but I liked it. Then I fished out my favorite purple hair clip from the Star Wars tin beside my bed and secured it at my right temple, just above my ear. “Remember what I told you yesterday morning?”
Ramen gives you indigestion? Miv said as he jumped onto my rumpled bed, leaving a ghostly trail of smoke in his wake.
“No.” For the record, I did not say that.
Pokémon scares you?
Or that. I threw a sock at him.
Stop watching you sleep?
I paused in the middle of wadding up another sock. “Do you watch me sleep?”
His yellow eyes glowed faintly. Let that question haunt you for the rest of the day.
“No need. You already haunt me.” Actually, Miv wasn’t like human spirits, who are tethered to a specific place or thing. He came and went whenever he wanted.
I tossed the wadded sock into the disaster zone that was my closet. “I told you that I don’t take fashion advice from cat spirits.”
The look he gave me held a level of disdain only possible in cats. Clearly.
I rolled my eyes and then spotted the time on my alarm clock. If I didn’t hurry, I would be late for school. My mom made my brother and me take classes every summer because she liked keeping us busy instead of having us “sitting around all day” or whatever. Also, it was free.
With a jolt of panic, I rushed from my bedroom and then nearly ran into my mom coming out of the kitchen. She held two shallow saucers of uncooked rice in each hand.
“Whoa! Careful, Pahua,” she warned me. She lifted the saucers over her head as I ducked beneath her arms. She was dressed in jeans and the blue smock she wore at her factory job. Her long black hair was tied back into a tight ponytail.
“Sorry, Mom.” I grabbed a granola bar from the kitchen cabinet. A third saucer of rice sat on the counter. I moved it to the back of the stove.
Good morning, squeaked a voice. A spirit shaped like a plump little man climbed out of the nearest electric burner. Dab Qhov Txos, or the spirit of the stove, had red hair that moved like a candle flame and a full beard that flickered and sparked when he talked. He sprawled onto the offering of rice, the hard grains browning from the heat of his beard.
In the dining room, which was just a corner where my mom kept a square table, sat my brother, Matt. He was slurping down a bowl of cornflakes, his mussed black hair in need of a comb. He was small for a seven-year-old, with too-big dark-brown eyes.
“Eat fast,” I called over the narrow counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room. Then to Mom: “Still on for tonight?”
“Sorry, honey. Something came up.” She went over to the rubber floor mat where we set our shoes and placed an offering of rice for Dab Txhiaj Meej, the spirit of the front door. The last offering went on the family altar for Dab Xwm Kab.
These three guardian house spirits watched over our apartment. I guess that technically made them apartment spirits, not house spirits, but that didn’t sound as cool.
“Like a shaman thing?” I asked. Shamans, like my aunt, are spiritual leaders in the Hmong community. Growing up with a shaman for a sister helped my mom pick up enough knowledge to be able to perform minor rituals, like house blessings or simple divinations, for people in need.
But we lived far away from other Hmong families, which meant a long commute—and ditched plans for us—when she did. Tonight was supposed to be our first Friday movie night of the summer, even though it was nearly July already. I plastered on a smile before my mom could see my disappointment, though. It wasn’t her fault she had to cancel.
Miv padded into the kitchen and jumped onto the stove beside me. He circled the saucer of rice grains and the rotund little stove spirit. What do you think of her shirt? the cat asked with a glance in my direction. Reminds you of an eggplant, right?
Wear black and red, the stove spirit suggested in his crackly voice. Like embers and ashes, in real, wood-burning stoves, back when meals were a sacred time. I miss the smell of scorched bones.
This was why I didn’t seek out the spirits’ opinions on my wardrobe choices. I’d rather look like a vegetable than a burned skeleton.
“I have to help a family consult their ancestors about buying a farm,” my mom said.
“Do dead relatives give good business advice?” I asked.
She smiled, but her tone was chiding. “Don’t joke. The spirits will be offended.”
Whatever would we do then? Miv said, watching the stove spirit roll around in the rice some more.
I almost laughed, but my mom was right. All spirits, even good ones like house spirits, have dual natures. They protect your home and bring good luck, but they can just as easily turn on you if they feel they aren’t being properly honored. Harsh, right?
My mom lit a stick of incense and placed it across the rice offering on the altar. Hidden between two sheets of shiny joss paper, the small altar spirit stirred. Mom didn’t notice. She couldn’t sense or see spirits. She just interpreted their messages through tools like bells or horns.
Real shamans can communicate with spirits through rituals and trances, but I wasn’t sure how it worked. The only shaman I knew was my Aunt Kalia, who my mom didn’t get along with. The last time I’d seen her was two years ago during Christmas lunch, and she hadn’t given any indication that she’d noticed Miv pretending to drown in the gravy bowl.
“I’ll be home late. Love you both.” Mom grabbed her lunch box from the table, pausing just long enough to kiss Matt on the temple.
I think he tried to say “Bye, Mom,” but when he opened his mouth, chewed-up cereal dropped into his bowl. Little brothers can be so disgusting.
She blew out the door just as Matt leaped from his chair and announced, “Done!”
After shoving the last of the granola bar into my mouth, I was already slipping on my sandals by the front door. A hissing sound came from one of my mom’s sneakers. A second later, the door spirit slithered out. She was a small green snake with black markings around her eyes that made her look like she wore tiny glasses.
You look sssplendid in purple, she said.
I flashed a triumphant smile at Miv, who only turned his head, nose tipped in the air as he disappeared out the door ahead of us.
Outside our apartment building, hedges that had once been square and were now Swamp Thing blobs lined the sidewalk. The neighborhood was mostly other drab brown-brick apartments with yellowing lawns and trees strung with old Christmas lights. The school sat a few blocks down the road, past an open field that led into the woods at the edge of town.
My mom had moved us here three years ago. After my dad left us, a whole parade of gossiping aunties kept showing up to ask too-personal questions and bully her about being a single mother. I always got sent to my room, but that didn’t stop me from overhearing things that made me wish I could breathe fire or turn them all into frogs.
Matt and I hadn’t gone far from our apartment when a half-dozen mushroom spirits emerged from beneath the hedges. They were each about the size of my fist, with stubby limbs and oversize mushroom cap-heads that made them look like mini Funko Pops. Miv flicked his tail and trotted faster, but I waved as the little spirits darted alongside us.
Matt couldn’t see them, but he was used to me waving at empty air. He chalked it up to my imagination. Usually, he played along. He was only four when we moved, so he didn’t know that, even within the Hmong community, being able to see spirits—or just talking to seemingly no one—was still considered freaky, unless you were a shaman. In fact, from what I’ve been able to gather, seeing and interacting with all kinds of spirits the way I could isn’t typical even for shamans.
“The troops have arrived,” I said to Matt, gesturing to the invisible mushroom spirits. “Are you ready to return to the war front?”
He grinned. “Yes, sir! Ready, set, march!” He began pumping his short arms and legs a little too enthusiastically so that instead of marching, he looked more like a climbing monkey.
I followed him, pretending I was a general leading my brave mushroom soldiers into battle. We were heading into the warzone that was a classroom crammed with hostile, stir-crazy sixth-graders.
Fun fact #1 about me: I like to pretend to be something more exciting than an eleven-year-old who spends all her time babysitting her little brother and talking to invisible spirits. Some would say I’m too old for imaginary games. But some people also like olives, so folks can be just plain wrong.
“Can I pick the movie tonight?” Matt asked. “Since it’ll be just us?” He didn’t sound disappointed, probably because he was used to it.
The reminder that Mom was skipping out on movie night, though, made my nose wrinkle. When Matt caught my eye, I quickly smiled and nodded. “Anything but Spirited Away.”
“Aw, but I love that movie.”
“I do, too, but it scares you! You always cry!”
“That’s what makes it cool!” Matt laughed and started flapping his arms and hopping up and down, pretending to be the witch.
He was ridiculous. What kind of seven-year-old liked being scared? I’ve always hated that feeling—I couldn’t even do those cheesy haunted houses around Halloween.
It didn’t take us long to reach the school. Merdel Elementary looked like it belonged in another time period. The bricks were red and crumbling, and a rusty flagpole stood out front. A handful of cars were lined up along the curb to drop off sullen-looking kids who’d rather be anywhere else.
I walked Matt to his entrance. Before leaving, he planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek and said, “I want ramen for lunch later.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I mussed his hair, laughing when he smacked my hand away. “Hurry up. You’ll be late.” I waved as Matt went inside, and then continued to the attached middle school.
Wind spirits sent a sharp gust to tip over the mushroom spirits still trailing after me. This apparently inspired Miv, who flicked a mushroom with a tiny black paw. The small spirit was so top-heavy that they flipped upside down and could only rock back and forth on the speckled red cap of their head, flailing their tiny arms and legs. Miv grinned in satisfaction as the other mushroom spirits rushed to help their friend.
“Stop that,” I whispered loudly.
“Who is she talking to?” a kid mumbled behind me.
“Weirdo,” another boy said, laughing.
My face went hot, but I pretended I hadn’t heard. Although I’m not about to tell people the truth about me, I’m not always good at hiding it, either. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make me very popular. But being the only Asian kid in my grade already makes me an outcast. Even though I’m surrounded by a world filled with spirits, sometimes I can feel pretty lonely.
Miv jumped onto my shoulder. “I should use his locker as a litter box.”
I smiled but kept my gaze on my feet. You’d think that with only morning classes and fewer kids, summer school would be easier to get through than regular school. But nope. Fewer kids just meant I stood out more. Yay me! So I pretended I was an undercover spy. I had to complete Operation Beat the Bell by reaching my first class as quickly and quietly as possible without attracting the enemy’s attention.
I made it to my seat near the windows just as the bell rang. Someone had stuck flower decals on the glass panes but forgotten to remove the plastic snowflakes.
My mom had signed me up for two classes. The first, Intro to Algebra, made my brain feel like it was slowly melting out of my ears. Math should be illegal during the summer. Anybody who attempts to assign math work should be punished by being the last one picked for every team. (I’ve been that kid. It sucks.)
I slouched low and tried to project my best I’m a bush, please ignore me energy. It mostly worked, except for when Miv began peeling off the window decals. Some of my classmates glanced in my direction. I wasn’t sure what people saw when spirits messed with physical objects. Probably nothing too bizarre, because they didn’t run screaming from the classroom. They only squinted a bit, their eyebrows pinched. I resisted the urge to throw my pencil at Miv’s head and sank lower into my desk.
My second class, the Symbiotic Relationship of Plants and Insects, was down the hall, and I had to admit, it wasn’t all bad. On cooler days, our teacher took us out to the flower bushes behind the baseball diamond to watch insects. Today, though, just the short walk to school had made my hair stick to the back of my neck. Mom always complained about how cold winters were in Wisconsin, but Wisconsin summers were no joke, either.
As I took my seat there, Hailey Jones, who sat to my right, looked over. She was tall, with long light-brown hair. Her shorts were embroidered with roses. She frowned a little, which she did a lot whenever she looked at me, like I confused her or something. She didn’t seem very bright. Maybe that’s why she was in summer school.
Since it was too humid to be outside today, we spent the class period doing worksheets about honey bees. Miv amused himself by peeking at other students’ papers and declaring punishments like five minutes of me scratching a chalkboard for wrong answers. I cringed, but at least he wasn’t drawing any attention.
At last, the bell rang. As the other students rushed to escape, relief coursed through me.
Then Hailey Jones pointed at my sleeve. “Ew! Is that snot on your shirt?”
Excerpted from Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee with permission from Rick Riordan Presents. Copyright © 2021 by Lori M. Lee.
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