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BOOK EXCERPT

‘Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt’ is the epic conclusion to the Seven Sisters series

‘Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt’ is the epic conclusion to the Seven Sisters series
'Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt' by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittaker. (Composite image: The Reading List / Harry Whittaker / Pan Macmillan)

Spanning a lifetime of love and loss, crossing borders and oceans, Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt, co-authored by her son Harry Whittaker, draws Lucinda Riley’s saga to its unforgettable conclusion.

Dear Reader,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Harry, and I am Lucinda Riley’s eldest son. I suspect not, but perhaps it surprised you to see two names on the cover of this long-awaited novel.

Just before the release of The Missing Sister in 2021, Lucinda announced that there was to be a surprise eighth and final instalment in the Seven Sisters series, which would tell the tale of the enigmatic Pa Salt. In her Author’s Note at the end of the seventh book, she wrote: ‘It’s been in my head for eight years, and I can’t wait to finally get it down on paper.’ 

Tragically, Mum died in June 2021 following an oesophageal cancer diagnosis in 2017. Perhaps you are speculating that she never had the chance to pen anything. But fate works in mysterious ways. In 2016, Mum was flown over to Hollywood by a production company who were interested in acquiring the film rights to the Seven Sisters. As such, the team were desperate to know how she saw the series ending – four books ahead of schedule.

The process forced Mum to assemble her fragmented thoughts in a document. She wrote thirty pages of script dialogue for the potential producers, which take place at the climax of the series’ narrative. I’m sure I don’t need to persuade you that those pages were predictably magnificent; packed with drama, suspense … and an enormous surprise.

In addition to this, fans of the series will know that Pa Salt cameos in each book. Mum kept a timeline of the character’s movements across the decades, forming a comprehensive spotter’s guide. In these ways, Lucinda got more ‘down on paper’ than she ever gave herself credit for.

In 2018, Mum and I created the Guardian Angels series for children, and co-authored four books. During this time, she asked me to complete the Seven Sisters series if the worst were to happen. Our conversations will always remain private, but I wish to stress that I was a fail-safe put in place in case of the unthinkable. And unthinkable it was. I don’t believe that Mum ever really considered that she would actually die, and neither did I. Several times, she somehow defied the laws of science and nature to bounce back from the brink. But then, Mum was always a little bit magic.

After her death, there was no question that I would keep my word. Many people have asked about the pressure of the task. Ultimately, Atlas promises to reveal secrets that have kept readers guessing for a decade. However, I’ve always seen the process as a tribute. I’ve completed the task for my best friend and my hero. In that way, there’s been no pressure at all, and it’s proved to be a labour of love. I predict that some will naturally obsess over which plot elements are Mum’s and which are mine, but I don’t think that’s important. Put simply, the story is the story. And I know you will be emotionally satisfied at the end of this book. Mum has made sure of that.

Arguably Lucinda’s greatest achievement is that no one has correctly identified the secret driving force behind the series — and there have been thousands of theories. Atlas will reward those who have loved the novels since the beginning, but there is a new story to tell too (although it’s always been there, hidden quietly amongst the first 4,500 pages). Perhaps all I’m doing is removing the smokescreen…

Working on Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt has been the challenge and privilege of a lifetime. It is Lucinda Riley’s parting gift, and I am so excited to deliver it.

Harry Whittaker, 2023

***

Prologue

Tobolsk, Siberia, 1925

As the bitter wind whipped up a flurry of snow before them, the two young boys pulled their thinning fur coats tightly around their faces.

‘Come on!’ cried the elder of the pair. Although he had just turned eleven, his voice already possessed a gruff, husky quality. ‘That’s enough. Let’s get back home.’

The younger boy — only seven — picked up the pile of firewood they had been collecting and ran after the older boy, who was already striding away.

When they were halfway home, the children became aware of a faint cheeping noise coming from the trees. The older boy stopped in his tracks.

‘Do you hear that?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ replied the small boy. His arms were aching from the weight of the wood, and although they had been still for just a moment, he had started to shiver. ‘Can we get home, please? I’m tired.’

‘Don’t whine,’ the older boy snapped. ‘I’m going to investigate.’ He made his way to the base of a nearby birch and knelt down. Reluctantly, the smaller boy followed behind. 

Before them, wriggling helplessly on the hard ground, was a baby sparrow no bigger than a rouble.

‘He’s fallen from the nest,’ the older boy sighed. ‘Or, I wonder … listen.’ The pair stood still in the snow, and eventually heard a high-pitched call from above. ‘Aha! That’s a cuckoo.’

‘The bird from the clock?’

‘Yes. But they are not friendly creatures. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Then, when the chick hatches, it pushes the other babies out.’ He sniffed. ‘That’s what’s happened here.’

‘Oh no.’ The smaller boy bent down and used his little finger to gently stroke the bird’s head. ‘It’s all right, friend, we’re here now.’ He looked up at his companion. ‘Maybe if we climb the tree, we can put him back.’ The boy attempted to spot the nest. ‘It must be very high up.’ Suddenly, there was a sickening crunch from the forest floor. He looked down to see that the older boy had crushed the chick under his boot.

‘What have you done?’ the small boy cried in horror.

‘The mother wouldn’t have accepted it. Best to kill it now.’ ‘But … you don’t know that.’ Tears began to prick the boy’s brown eyes. ‘We could have tried.’

The elder of the pair put his hand up to dismiss the protestations. ‘There is no point in trying when something is doomed to failure. That is simply a waste of time.’ He continued down the hill. ‘Come on. Let’s get back.’

The younger boy bent down to look at the lifeless chick. ‘I’m sorry about my brother,’ he sobbed. ‘He is in pain. He didn’t mean to do this.’ DM

Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittaker is published by Pan Macmillan (R399). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

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