The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Photo: McClelland & Stewart.

It’s been 34 years since the release of Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale, though its popularity has hardly waned. Now that the novel has been adapted into a graphic novel and an Emmy-winning TV series on Hulu, more people are invested in the trials and tribulations of Gilead than ever, including the fictional world’s similarities to the current sociopolitical situation in the U.S. And on Tuesday, September 10, Atwood’s long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, will hit bookstores — and offer a look into the catastrophic fall of Gilead.

As reported by Entertainment WeeklyThe Testaments takes place about 13 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale season three. Those who have read the original novel know that the series adapts the entire story as presented on the page into its first season, then veers onto its own path. There aren’t solid timelines in this world, but characters present in Atwood’s sequel novel allow for some rough math; The Testaments takes place in the same universe as both the novel and the series. According to Atwood, The Testaments will inform the writers’ room for The Handmaid’s Tale season four, on which she will serve as a consultant.

“What I have given the writers’ room, which no one is allowed into including me, is a whole new whiteboard and a bunch of new characters,” Atwood told EW. “The story of the characters in the show is left open at the moment, so it’s up to [showrunner] Bruce [Miller] and the highly competent team locked in the room as to how they get those people into position.”

The Testaments alternates points of view between three characters: Aunt Lydia (played in the Hulu series by Ann Dowd), a teenager in Toronto whose family is deeply involved in Mayday’s operations, and a young Gileadian girl who is no longer enamored of the country she was raised to worship.

“If you look at regimes that have come and gone over the years, you’re going to see that among the Nazis and Stalinists, a certain kind of education was prioritized,” Atwood said, regarding the women who hold allegiances to Gilead. “Don’t think we’re exempt. Every outlet teaches itself in the best light and tells people that this is the only way. So it was when, long ago, the Christians got control of education.”

Similarities to the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale seasons two and three aren’t exactly coincidence, but per Atwood, she never had a grand plan for how Gilead would fall, though the epilogue in the first novel tells readers that it did, eventually, do just that.

According to EW, Atwood began putting together the story for The Testaments just in the last few years. She hired research assistants to help her go through the original novel and the TV series line by line. As for the play-by-play of Gilead’s fall, Atwood said, “the only reason for writing novels is to find out what happens — if you already know, why would you bother?”

Although The Testaments doesn’t hit shelves until tomorrow, a “technical error” at Amazon led to the book being delivered to pre-order customers ahead of its release, which also broke the spoiler embargo for literary outlets and bookstores. Amazon has since apologized, but the impact on critics who signed non-disclosure agreements in order to review the book, as well as indie bookstores who don’t have Amazon’s circulation numbers, still stings.

The Testaments is sure to prompt conversation among The Handmaid’s Tale fans and literary circles; it has already been long-listed for the Man Booker prize.