Why You Need to Read: “Summer Sons”

Summer Sons

By: Lee Mandelo

Published: September 28, 2021

Genre: (Southern) Gothic Fiction

            Eddie had made those decisions for Andrew as a matter of course, keeping them paired together as much as he could—until his surprise early semester at Vanderbilt. Five months of separation that had stretched into eight over the summer, and now would never end, (2).

            Gothic fiction continues to have an interesting run. First, gothic fiction had a medieval setting. Then, the setting shifted to a rustic one where “gloomy castles and/or manors” were the focus of the story—think of the books we read in high/secondary school. Next, Southern Gothic fiction branched off with similar conflicts and settings in the Southern U.S. Now, Gothic fiction has an academic setting in which higher education is the subplot of the story. Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, Summer Sons, presents a new spin on the genre.

            Andrew Blur is the protagonist. He has arrived in Tennessee in order to attend grad school at Vanderbilt University. Unfortunately, Andrew is not excited for this “new chapter” of his life; and, it’s because his best friend and adoptive brother—Edward Lee Fulton, or Eddie—died the month before from an apparent suicide. Understandably, Andrew is still in shock and is grieving for his friend. He decides to attend Vanderbilt in order to learn what really happened to Eddie. Andrew must get used to grad school and to living life without his best friend. He makes the trip and moves into his—Eddie’s—house, where he meets his housemate, Riley, who tries to console Andrew with his grief. On campus, he meet Thom West, a Ph.D. candidate and Andrew’s mentor, and Dr. Jane Troth, one of the research professors within the English department. Andrew is keeping track of who he meets and their relationship to Eddie because he is convinced Eddie didn’t kill himself. Then, Andrew meets Halse who is Riley’s cousin and one of Eddie’s closest friends. He is interested in helping Andrew with one or two conditions. Andrew is a complex character due to everything he is going through. It is easy to observe Andrew as a wayward individual who is indifferent, but given the circumstances it is easy to see why Andrew behaves the way he does. It is the other characters whose efforts to help Andrew allow for character development to occur. 

            The plot delves into Andrew’s true reason for attending Vanderbilt. He is convinced Eddie didn’t kill himself and he is willing to do anything and everything to prove it. In fact, between his grief and his investigation, he begins to neglect his health and safety to the horror of his new companions. Yet, he is not alone in his conviction; both Riley and Halse believe the same thing, and they are willing to help him out with everything. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first subplot delves into higher education and life as a graduate student. As a former grad student, I can confirm the depiction of graduate seminars, motives of professors, and academic backstabbing are all accurate and ongoing. The second subplot revolves around the curse and the “haunting” Eddie was researching. Ghost stories and hauntings are part of Southern folklore, but know that there is some truth to those tales, and you don’t want to mess around with them; especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. These subplots play a significant role alongside the plot because as Andrew continues his investigation into Eddie’s death, he has to get involved with anything and everything Eddie was doing before he died. The mystery unfolds in tandem with the plot. 

            The narrative is presented in 3rd person limited from Andrew’s point-of-view. This means everything that is happening occurs through Andrew’s stream-of-consciousness and memories. While readers are able to comprehend all of Andrew’s thoughts and emotions as he goes through his grief, his memories play a pivotal role in Andrew’s mission to discover the truth. Yes, there are times when the narrative is overwhelming—which reflects the grief—but it can be followed easily by readers.

            The style Lee Mandelo uses in Summer Sons revolves around both Southern Gothic and academia. The Gothic novel started as Gothic romance, in which the setting:

“was often a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels; the typical story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences,” (Abrams and Harpham, 151). 

Books such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë fit this definition. American Southern Gothic fiction takes place in the Southern U.S. and, compared to Gothic romance, more emphasis is placed on the supernatural. The most popular books in this subgenre are Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and the works by Edgar Allan Poe. As for academia, American readers know Vanderbilt University is a prestigious university with a reputation which is reflected in the author’s novel. Life in grad school can be easy for some students and cut-throat for others. Some of what happens to Andrew, Eddie, and the other characters are NOT exaggerations. Such occurrences are more common than you realize. The mood in this novel is creepy. Throughout the novel, the protagonist and the other characters “sense a presence” amongst themselves. Who or what is it? What does it want? The tone in this novel is pursuing; pursuing truth and pursuing a reason to keep on living. Grief never goes away we just learn how to live with it.

            The appeal for Summer Sons have been mostly positive. In addition to being one of TorDotCom’s most buzzworthy books of 2021, over 70% of readers have given it 4- and 5-star ratings. That being said, I understand why some readers did not enjoy this book as much as I did. One of the reasons I believe this is the case is because those readers read this book with the notion that it is a horror story. Horror and gothic have some similarities, but they are very different. There are elements of horror—“the protagonist seeks to destroy a supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others”—but this is a Southern Gothic novel, where more emphasis is placed on the supernatural being present and not hostile (Frohock). On a side note, as someone who is Caribbean and has resided in the Southern U.S. for several years, I do NOT recommend downplaying the supernatural. This is the author’s debut work, and it does belong in the Gothic canon.

            Summer Sons is an academic Gothic narrative about grief and lineage. The characters not only have to confront the dilemmas surrounding their futures, but also deal with the ghosts they carry with them. While the book does have a slow start, the plot development and the character development allows for a fast-paced second half that is both enjoyable and believable. Higher education is scary.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                                        Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 2012.

Frohock, T. “Random Notes: The Differences between Horror, Dark Fantasy, and the Grimdark.” T. Frohock.

https://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2018/8/2/random-notes-grimdark-darkfantasy-horror. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.   

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reading Check-In: November 27, 2021

What have you finished reading recently?

I’ve been working my way through reading the “Sapphic Trifecta,” which I started earlier this year, but I had to halt because I was working on my final project for grad school. So far, I’ve finished reading 2 of the 3 books, which are amazing reads. However, do not expect reviews of them until after the New Year.

The latest audiobook I finished was the debut space opera by J.S. Dewes. The voice actors were brilliant!

What are you currently reading?

The third book in the Sapphic Trifecta (which was published first).

I just started this audiobook. So far, I’m enjoying this book A LOT more than Ready, Player One.

What will you read next?

So far, I’ve read Part I of this epic dark vampire fantasy. I’m looking forward to finishing it.

I started reading this series when the first volume was released and I enjoyed it! Think of DIE as a hybrid between Jumanji and Dungeons & Dragons, but with more trauma and graver consequences. I kept purchasing the volumes so I could keep up with the narrative. I haven’t read past the 2nd volume, so this will be both a reread and a read through. I want this to be the 1st graphic novel series I review on this blog. I am hoping to start reviewing graphic novels, manga and comics in the near future.

There are other books I will be reading throughout the end of 2021, but these are the books that have my upmost attention. I am closer to my aim for compiling a Top 20 of 2021 List, which will be interesting to put together. My Top 5 is starting to change and I know no longer which books will place there.

What are you trying to finish by the end of this year?

Why You Need to Read: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Rook & Rose, #1: The Mask of Mirrors

By: M.A. Carrick                                                                    Audiobook: 23 hours 13 minutes

Published: January 21, 2021                                                   Narrated by: Nikki Massoud

Genre: Fantasy

            Still, she insisted that obsequiousness was part of the role, and no amount of correction from either Ren or Alta Renata could stamp it out. Sighing, Renata put in her earrings—formerly Letilia’s—while Tess retrieved ribbon, brushes, needle, and thread, and set to work, (2The Face of GoldIsla Prišta, Westbridge: Suilun 4).

            There is a young adult portal fantasy series titled Stravaganza by Mary Hoffman. Each book in the series follows an unhappy teen who stumbles upon a magic talisman, which transports them to a world that is similar to 11th century Italy. In that world these travelers find others like themselves, and they help them fight against a family which is similar to the infamous House Borgia. In that series, both magic and alchemy are studied and practiced by the characters in secret from their enemies. This series was a fun read and it had me wondering why a similar series didn’t exist (where I had access to it). While The Mask of Mirrors, the 1st book in the Rook & Rose trilogy—by M.A. Carrick is not a portal fantasy set in Renaissance Italy, I could not help but make comparisons throughout my reading of this book to the Stravaganza series. 

            There are 3 protagonists who mingle within their social circles consisting of other characters. The 1st protagonist is Arenza Lenskaya—a.k.a. “Ren”—who is a con artist and a thief. She has just returned to Nadežra with her sister, Tess, after being away for 5 years. Back then, Ren, Tess, and their brother, Sedge, were planning on leaving their knot—group of thieves bonded by blood and by magic—when their leader, Ondrakja, killed Sedge as punishment. Ren poisoned Ondrakja as payback, and then she and Tess fled the city. Now, the 2 young women have returned with a plan: infiltrate House Traementis—one of the noble houses—as the long-lost niece, Alta Renata Viraudax, in order to swindle away some of their fortune for themselves to live off from. Tess will play the role as Alta Renata’s handmaiden while Ren will play the role as a young noblewoman. Meanwhile, Era Donaia Traementis, the head of the House, is unsure what to make of the vagrant who may or may not be the daughter of her willful sister-in-law, Letilia Traementis. At the same time, her children, Leato—who is around Renata’s age—and Giuna, are excited to meet their “cousin,” especially since there are rumors that their House is cursed. Renata mingles with members of the other Houses so that she can claim her “position” faster. She befriends House Acrenix, she angers House Indestor, and meets up with Derossi Vargo—a known crime lord and businessman—who has a proposition for Renata and House Traementis. 

            The 2nd protagonist is Derossi Vargo—known simply as Vargo. It should be mentioned that Vargo’s dealings are as unknown as the crimes he has committed in the past. Thanks to his network of knots, Vargo knows what Renata seeks, and he is willing to assist her, for a price. One thing the denizens of Nadežra know about Vargo is his ability to perform numinatria—a form of magic based on geometry (and gods)—which he learned from an “unknown” individual. On the side, Vargo continues operating his “business.” However, after an attack at one of his locations, Vargo sends out his best men to investigate. This includes: Nikory, Pavlin Rainieri—who works in the Vigil, the police force—and, another who has ties to Renata and Tess. Strangely, Vargo cooperates with the Vigil with this case and “other” ones. 

            The 3rd protagonist is Captain Grey Serrado. He is one of the leaders of the Vigil, and he takes his job very seriously. He is willing to investigate the crimes on the streets of Nadežra so that trust can build up between the Vigil and the denizens, especially the poor. For example, when children start going missing only to return claiming they can’t sleep, Grey meets with Arkady Bones—the boss of the largest knot in Nadežra—and asks her for information about it. At the same time, he is investigating the explosion which cause his brother’s—Kolya’s—death; and, Era Traementis wants Grey to investigate Renata’s “identity.” Later on, when another attack occurs, Grey begins to wonder whether or not everything could be connected.

            All three protagonists find themselves involved in a conspiracy of politics and magic. Together with their friends and their allies, Ren, Vargo and Grey use their talents and their abilities to work towards their goals, and to save the city of Nadežra from destruction. The question all 3 are asking is: who is behind all of these crimes and why?

            There are 3 plots in this novel—1 per protagonist. Ren is conning her way into House Traementis as a long-lost relative of theirs. When she learns that helping them with their financial troubles can give her what she wants, she agrees to meet with Vargo in order to keep up the con. When her plans begins to overwhelm her, Ren transforms into Arenza and uses her pattern deck—similar to tarot cards—to read people’s spirits and relationships while learning about the ongoings on the streets. Unfortunately, when Alta Renata Viraudax becomes sought out by several individuals, Ren begins to wonder whether or not she is in over her head. Vargo is trying to move beyond his criminal status so he can be recognized as the businessman he has worked hard to become. However, someone is using his reputation in order to blame him for the death of Captain Serrado’s brother. Not to mention, his “mentor” keeps directing him in the direction he wants Vargo to go in. Grey has a lot on his mind; and, the cause of his brother’s death is at the forefront. Then, children start dying in the streets and it isn’t from hunger or violence. And, of course, the noble houses are fighting amongst themselves, again. Grey wonders why no one is taking the deaths of the street children more seriously, until the reason presents itself to him.

Out of all of the subplots, 2 garner the most connections to the plots throughout the narrative. The first subplot is the magic used by the Vraszenians. Some have power to use numinatria, some use astrology, and some use a pattern deck. To non-Vraszenians, they believe much of the “magic” is based on superstition. However, too many unusual ailments—including a new drug—starts to affect everyone to the point where everyone begins to ask, who is powerful enough to stop it. The second subplot surrounds the figure of The Rook, the infamous outlaw from legend who offers “justice” to whoever needs it the most—usually the poor and the orphaned. Yet, The Rook finds himself in a bad situation. On the night Captain Serrado’s brother was killed, several witnesses reported seeing The Rook at the building. But, there is one thing which doesn’t add up: The Rook does NOT kill. So, what happened that night? There is a lot going on within the narrative, but the plots and the subplots develop at an appropriate rate so the readers can keep track of everything that is happening to all of the characters. The subplots are essential for the plot developments within this story. 

The narrative is told in 3rd person limited from the points-of-view of Ren, Vargo and Grey. While each of the protagonists don’t know everything that is happening, the reader(s) know because they follow the events from their P.O.V.s and their streams-of-consciousness which are essential throughout the narrative. In addition, readers get a few passages from the P.O.V.s of some of the other characters, which allows for everyone’s thoughts and emotions to be known, which allows these characters to become more rounded. The sequence of the narrative can get confusing at times due to certain events being told and retold through someone else’s P.O.V., but this grants readers with the complete knowledge of everything that is happening at once. The memories, the flashbacks, and the visions are pivotal as well. The narratives are presented in a way that makes all of the characters reliable, and each one can be followed easily. 

The style M.A. Carrick—the joint pen name of both Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms—use for The Mask of Mirrors resembles an urban fantasy mystery where both magic users and con artists and vigilantes are involved. All of the characters know something bad is about to happen, and the protagonists are doing everything they can to find out who is behind it and to stop it. Not to mention, someone is using magic to harm children; but, whose magic is powerful enough to do such a thing? Both the magic system and the world-building transports the reader(s) to a fantasy world which will remind them of something from 19th century Italy (and maybe France?). An argument can be made here that both Ren and The Rook are homages to the fictional character, Arsène Lupin (think Persona 5), the gentleman thief and master of disguise created by French writer, Maurice Leblanc. The allusion to Leblanc’s series is obvious to those fans. Will one protagonist solve the mystery before the others, or will all 3 protagonists find a way to work together? The mood in this novel is jeopardy. Every single character is risking themselves in order to survive and to continue to make their way in the world. The tone in this novel is executing actions in order to do what needs to be done. Each protagonist finds themselves in scenarios where they must ask themselves whether or not their desires mean more than those of (several) others. 

The appeal for The Mask of Mirrors have been positive. A majority of the readers (so far) have given this book the highest praises. I would recommend this book to fans of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews, the Chimera trilogy by Cate Glass, and any fantasy series with expansive world-building set within an urban fantasy world (i.e. City of Lies, Nevernight). I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, which was narrated by Nikki Massoud. Her performance, her voicing of all of the characters, and her pronunciation of all of the nouns made it easy to distinguish one from another. Thanks to her performance, I was able to keep track of everything that was happening throughout the narrative. Yes, this is a dense book, but it has a fast pace and the buildup to the events towards the end of this book will leave readers craving to read the next book in the series, The Liar’s Knot, when it is released at the end of 2021.

The Mask of Mirrors is one of the most underrated fantasy books of the year. M.A. Carrick presents a blend of fantasy and mystery within a world complete with nobles, vigilantes, magic users and characters who are trying to learn about themselves as they survive the madness within their city. Do not be intimidated by the size and the narrative style of the book. I promise you will fall under its spell.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.75 out of 5). 

SCKA 2021 Winners

The Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards 2021 has its winners! After 6 weeks of re-reads and voting, the judges–including myself–have voted on the winners from our finalists. If you need a refresher about what the awards are and what they are about, then you can read my previous post about it here.

First, let me say I enjoyed this experience A LOT. It was fun working and conversing with other bloggers–many of whom I knew beforehand–about our nominees and our votes for these awards. Second, I believe it’s safe to say whoever has to vote for any other literary awards (i.e. SFPBO, Hugo, Nebula, etc.), I have a better understanding on how there are times when you have to make a decision between 2 finalists so there is a winner. Third, NONE of my nominees won! But, that’s okay because there were cases where some of the other nominees were the better choices. Last, there were an even number of judges, so expect a surprise within one of the categories.

Here are the winners as voted by all of the judges. Each of the judges wrote a blurb as to why the finalist was selected as the winner.

BEST SHORT STORY: “You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark

“This is a story about an athlete competing in a race which forces her to push her sick body to its limits to win a cure. There’s a perfect blend of camaraderie between the main character and their training partners, and the desperate, unfair competition they are pushed into to survive; these are characters still fighting in the face of constant, overwhelming struggle and that’s a powerful, challenging, necessary thing.” -Adri Joy.

BEST NOVELLA: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is an epic tale in miniature: a mosaic of moments and manipulations that resolve into a bigger picture of rebellion.” -imyril.

BEST DEBUT: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn is not only one of the most creative reworking of Arthurian myth–making the corpus truly the author’s own–but also is is a tender exploration of grief and Black Girl Magic in a richly crafted world touching on slavery, privilege and secret societies.” -Fab.

BEST SERIES: The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

“Based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), R.F. Kuang’s trilogy starts off as an academic fantasy, transforms into a military historical fantasy, and ends as a grimdark narrative. This Asian-inspired series delves into the layers and the consequences of power and warfare.” -Misty306.

BEST BLURRED: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia

“This stylish thriller blends Gothic tropes with 50s noir and body horror. Expect modern themes of prejudice and complicity in an unapologetically creepy tale of controlling families and psychedelic fungus.” -imyril.

BEST SCIENCE FICTION: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

“A beautiful intelligent story exploring the parallel worlds concept but also combining it with issues of racism, classism and yet also has a core of hope running throughout.” -Runalongwomble.

BEST FANTASY (TIE): The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

The Midnight Bargain is not only a wonderful story about witches in a richly imagined Regency-style setting, but also a clever exploration of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. It is a thoroughly modern and political book while masquerading as a gorgeous escapist fantasy, and that makes it a fantastic read.” -Fab.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

“Alix E. Harrow has crafted something truly special with this story. Her prose is by turns powerful and deft of touch, and blends together fantasy, fairy tales and history into a thoroughly modern classic.” -FLSchwizer.

I had an excellent time with this process and I am looking forward to participating again next year. That being said, yes I’m already processing what some of my nominees will be. Not to mention, the Best Series Category will be a very challenging one (you know why)!

Congratulations to all of the winners! I can’t wait to read your next written narrative! Excellent job judges! We’ll meet again for SCKA 2022!

An Analysis of the Genre: Grimdark, Horror & Dark Fantasy

NOTE: This post is a rewrite of an assignment I wrote for a graduate school course. If you would like to read the original essay, then click here. Also, this is written in APA Format.

Speculative fiction is the general term used when describing books which fall under the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, but contain elements of one or more of the genres, and/or contain elements from any of the subgenres. Speculative fiction can be described as: “fantasy, science fiction, and horror to their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres, including the gothic, dystopia, zombie, vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, weird fiction, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, retold or fractured fairy tales, and many more,” (Oziewicz, 2017). Nowadays, it’s common to see more genre-blending books (i.e. historical fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romantic thriller, etc.), but defining the subgenres these books fall under is essential because readers need to know what they are reading. Just because a book is popular does not mean the reader(s) will enjoy other books from the same genre or subgenre. 

            One of the more recent examples of this is the subgenre grimdark. This subgenre emerged during the 1990s thanks to both George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire and The Farseer Trilogy, respectively. Both authors “removed the idealism, cut out the pastoral myth and infallible heroes, and replaced them with mud, blood, shit, and a focus on the darker aspects of human nature,” (Fultz, 2018). The difference between Martin and Hobb is while Hobb used these elements during various points throughout her series in order to enhance her world-building and her characters, Martin used the same elements in order to drive everything within his series. Characters who are “good” die, “villains” continue to succeed, and everyone dies. When the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire—Game of Thrones—ended in 2019, many viewers were angry with how the series ended. However, what they didn’t understand was the subgenre of the books the TV show were adapted from wasn’t based on “traditional” fantasy tropes. “Grimdark does offer a bit more realism than your traditional epic or high fantasy,” (Speyer, 2019). 

            There are several definitions of grimdark and it’s difficult to select one definition. In fact, there is confusion between the subgenres grimdark and dark fantasy, and with the genre horror. In order to distinguish the three, indie author T. Frohock provides her definitions. “Horror is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. The protagonist seeks to destroy the supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others, but only when they are forced into a confrontation,” (Frohock, 2018). Authors of the horror genre include: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, T. Kingfisher, Stephen Graham Jones and Tananarive Due. 

            “Dark fantasy is similar to horror in that it is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. Unlike horror, dark fantasy tends to have a thread of hope running through the story. While at times being helpless, the protagonist generally wins in the end; although the cost (loss of friends/family or even their own innocence) will be great,” (Frohock, 2018). In other words, dark fantasy is a combination of the genres fantasy and horror. Authors of the dark fantasy subgenre include: Seanan McGuire, Jay Kristoff, V.E. Schwab, Leigh Bardugo, Evan Winter and Alexis Henderson

            “Grimdark is a story where the protagonist faces a supernatural threat, but s/he isn’t helpless against their adversary. Rather than run from the supernatural threat, the grimdark protagonist actively seeks to subvert or control it,” (Frohock, 2018). One reason grimdark stands out from other subgenres in speculative fiction because, “the antagonist can be as relatable, or if not more so, than the protagonists. And, you never know if the villain is going to be defeated or the book will end with the world in a worse shape than when it first started,” (Speyer, 2019). In other words, grimdark is the opposite of fantasy books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Glen Cook, Anna Stephens, Gareth Hanrahan, Michael R. Fletcher and Rob J. Hayes write, “a more relatable form of fantasy. Psychology replaced ideology. Brutality replaced honour,” (Fultz, 2018). In all, grimdark can be summarized as: “a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style, or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly graphic in its depiction of violence. In most grimdark literature the supernatural is a passive force, controlled by humans—unlike supernatural horror where the preternatural forces are most often an active entity with agency,” (Frohock, 2015). It should be mentioned that the violence depicted in grimdark include: rape, dismemberment, death, torture, all types of abuse, sacrifice, regicide, dark magic, vengeance, etc. This subgenre is not meant for everyone. If you cannot handle more than a few scenes of this sort of violence, then grimdark is NOT for you.

            If anyone is interested in this subgenre of literature (especially after learning about the sort of stories they’ll be reading), then the following books and/or series should be read:

  • A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-Present) by George R.R. Martin

Dubbed as the series that began the subgenre, George R.R. Martin presents his story in a world where the landscape can kill you, where heroes don’t wear white (and villains don’t wear black), and multiple viewpoints which allows readers to comprehend where all of the characters are coming from, allowing for morally grey plotlines to present itself as the series continues. Fans continue to wait for the next bookThe Winds of Winter—to be released. 

  • The First Law Trilogy (2006-8) by Joe Abercrombie

              This trilogy is the first series set in a world the author created using series of narratives, bleak and unforgiving plots, and the most relatable characters readers will come across throughout the series. Abercrombie is known as “the go-go author” (known as “Lord Grimdark” by fans) in grimdark. Not only are his books popular with grimdark fans, but also have crossed over into mainstream fantasy where readers of the genre can get an understanding of what grimdark continues to offer to the fantasy genre.

  • Empires of Dust (2017-19) by Anna Smith Spark

What starts off as a story following a band of mercenaries sent on a mission to kill a ruler of a wealthy, yet unconquered empire becomes a story about the harsh reality and the bleakness that comes with performing such a task. This series contains the same amount of political intrigue and maneuvering found in A Song of Ice and Fire, but matches the brutality found in Abercrombie’s books, which led to fans dubbing Spark the “Queen of Grimdark.” 

  • Raven’s Mark Trilogy (2017-19) by Ed McDonald

This series follows a hired killer who is sent to investigate the work left behind by a dead sorcerer, and protect a noblewoman. As they make their way across a wasteland containing ghosts, flesh-eaters and traitors, the duo attempts to learn more about the weapon the dead sorcerer left behind. Unfortunately, by the time the two arrive at the location where the weapon is kept, war breaks out, and the mercenary and the noblewoman must uncover who the traitors are before the war and/or the weapon destroys the world they live in. 

This trilogy is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and while it starts off with the protagonist attending an elite school where she learns shamanism, which will remind readers of Harry Potter, the war brings a change in the narration, which presents war as violent and brutal. Not to mention, war can lead to the extinction of a race of individuals. And, this series provides an expansion of the grimdark subgenre in that the setting is based on Chinese history (during the 20th century). And, the recent announcement of a TV adaptation to the series will attract fans of Game of Thrones as well as fans of the books. This time, all of the books have been written and released before the media adaptation.

  • The Godblind Trilogy (2017-19) by Anna Stephens

When an uneasy truce comes to an end, the followers of a banished god seek to send the world into bloodthirsty chaos so that the veil which keeps the Gods exiled from the physical world can render and return the Gods in their carnal forms. The beginning of the series lets readers know what to expect throughout it: rape, sacrifice, regicide, cheating and more violence. The female characters are just as violent as the males. This series is NOT for everyone, but it is one to be read by fans of the subgenre. 

  • War for the Rose Throne series (2018-Present) by Peter McLean

Can a priest be a gangster as well? Well, the protagonist in this series is; and, after serving in the war, he learns that his crime empire has been stolen and his people are suffering the consequences of it. Filled with political intrigue from the viewpoint of urban society, the protagonist learns that the war isn’t over yet. 

  • Best Laid Plans series (2017) by Rob J. Hayes

The first book in this series, Where Loyalties Lie, was the Winner SPFBO 2017. Fans of pirate fantasies such as The Tide Child Trilogy and One Piece should give this series a read. However, these pirates are actual pirates and many of them don’t have any redeeming qualities. Not to mention, these pirates are fighting to survive in a world where other societies seek to destroy them once and for all. 

This trilogy follows 2 protagonists who represent the opposite ends of a brutal caste system. The female protagonist is a street sorcerer who uses her magic to make life better for herself and her companions. The male protagonist is a priest who grew up in luxury and who is tasked with keeping the peace in the outer ring of the city. Both have been selected by vengeful, bloodthirsty gods to fight for them in an upcoming war amongst the immortals. 

  • Malazan Book of the Fallen series (1999-2011) by Steven Erikson

The easiest way to describe this series is the density of Robert Jordan combined with a higher death count than George R.R. Martin. Filled with maps and a lengthy Dramatis Personae, readers learn quickly of the level of magic, world-building, battle sequences and narration to expect in this series, within the first few chapters of the first book. There are 10 books in the main series—all completed—and, everyone who has read this series claims that it is worth it.

            Please know that this is a short list of recommendations. There are several more authors who write grimdark fantasy whose works you should consider reading as well. And yes, that includes indie authors.

            Not only has grimdark been presented in novels, but also in other forms of media. Similar to all genres and subgenres in speculative fiction, grimdark “operates across the spectrum of narrative media, from print to drama, radio, film, television, computer games, and their many hybrids,” (Oziewicz, 2017). For decades, fantasy, science fiction and horror stories have been adapted for movies, television shows, graphic novels and video games. Grimdark is no different, yet before Game of Thrones, the subgenre had more of a cult following than mainstream attention. For example, The Walking Dead is a postapocalyptic graphic novel series steeped in elements of grimdark; but how many of those fans have heard of Claymore by Norihiro Yagi? This manga series is about “half-demon warrior women who are charged with defending the general populace from a demonic threat, but at the cost of their humanity,” (Vergara, 2018). While these warrior women are the strongest, they are under the control of the organization which ordains how they fight the demons. If any of them “go astray,” then they are executed by the organization. The question throughout the series is whether or not the actions of these half-demon warrior women should be determined by the organization. 

            Video games are just as eclectic as literature with numerous genres to choose from. However, during the last ten years or so, some of the more popular video games revolved around gameplay narratives in which, “some kind of built-in morality system that allows players to perform actions and make decisions that ultimately determine their character’s future in the game world. Many of these choices are difficult, influencing…These allow the player to perform actions and make decisions that manipulate the system one way or another,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019). Critically acclaimed games such as Fallout 3 (2008), The Witcher 2 (2011), The Wolf Among Us (2013) and any game developed by Telltale Games focus on the decisions players had to make during the early parts of the game, which would influence what happened to their characters later on. There were no right or wrong answers; players had to make a decision and watch how it influenced the rest of the game. “Morally grey characters are the quintessential core of grimdark,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019). 

            Unfortunately, just like how the series finale of Game of Thrones did not end the way many fans expected it to, the same can be said about the narrative in The Last of Us 2, which was released in 2020. This game is a direct continuation—not a sequel—to the first game. Meaning you must play the first game in order to understand the story within the second one. The Last of Us (2013) is an action-adventure game which occurs 5-10 years after an apocalyptic event, which is the opening cutscene of the game. The gameplay reflects a narration of a dystopian novel. However, given the ending of The Last of Us, the themes, the ideals and the narrative within The Last of Us 2 reflect a grimdark story. Many critics and players noted the game was “darker and more violent” than its predecessor. One of the reasons for this is because unlike the first game which was about surviving a worldwide disaster, The Last of Us 2 was about protagonists “murdering the people who ruined their families, only to bring holy hell down on each other’s lives as more people get involved in their vendetta,” (Phipps, 2020). The video game focused on characters who were performing acts of violence against those who’ve wronged them. The dilemma becomes who is right and who is wrong, and does the ends justify the means. Both protagonists are right in their beliefs and it’s hard to choose sides because the audience comprehends where they are coming from. This makes it difficult to determine the fate of these characters, which is the sort of story grimdark presents to the audience.

            Within a short time, grimdark has emerged into an established subgenre within the fantasy genre. Due to the success of recent TV shows and video games, grimdark has become more ubiquitous amongst readers, players and others. This doesn’t mean everyone is going to enjoy or to appreciate the themes, the tone, the style, etc. found within these stories, but they will admit grimdark is the bleakest subgenre in a genre where good defeating evil and happy endings have become the norm.  

What are your thoughts about grimdark? Which books have you read from this subgenre? What are your thoughts about the comparison to both horror and dark fantasy?

                                                                        Resources

Frohock, T. (2015, Nov 2). Is it grimdark, or is it horror? Tor.com. 

Frohock, T. (2018, Aug 2). Random notes: The differences between horror, dark fantasy, and the grimdark. T. Frohockhttps://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2018/8/2/random-notes-grimdark-darkfantasy-horror

Fultz, J.R. (2018, Apr 20). The mud, the blood and the years: why “grimdark” is the new “sword and sorcery.” Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/grimdark-is-the-new-sword-and-sorcery

Oziewicz, M. (2017). Speculative fiction. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Phipps, C.T. (2020, June 20). Review: The last of us 2. Grimdark Magazine. 

Speyer, J. (2019, Oct 10). What is grimdark fantasy? What to know and where to start. The Azrian Portal. https://www.theazrianportal.com/blog/what-is-grimdark

Szal, J. and Cummins, L. (2019, Nov 5). Grit in your controller: grimdark and gaming. Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/discussion-grit-controller-grimdark-gaming

Vergara, V. (2018, Jul 3). 20 grimdark books to put some grit into your fantasy reading pile. Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/grimdark-books

Books and Book Series I Hope to Read in 2022

This year, 2021, is almost over. And, while I should be plowing through what’s left of my reading for this year (and writing up reviews), I wanted to post about speculative fiction titles that were released in recent years that I haven’t been able to read yet for multiple reasons (i.e. grad school). These are titles I didn’t forget about, I just didn’t have the time to read them when I wanted to read them.

FYI: I did start reading the books mentioned on this list (~50 pages), so the desire to read and to complete each book is there. But, similar to everything else, I lacked the time to read it when I wanted to (which, in most cases, was when each book was released). The reason why these books have remained on my radar is because I’ve read enough of the beginning of each book to conclude that these books are worth my time to read.

Confession: I am NOT a fan of The Inheritance Series. I tried reading Eragon when it was released, but the obvious allusions and inspirations did not impress me, and I never made it to the halfway point of that book (I gave that book and Book 2 to a younger neighbor who enjoyed them; I was an undergrad at the time).

That out of the way, when this book was first announced, I was curious to how the author has grown as a writer and as a storyteller. Not to mention, the premise of the story caught my attention. An unknown entity is discovered, but takes over the body of a scientist, but is hostile only when threaten. I want to know what happens next; and, I’m curious to witness the start of what is supposed to be a new sci-fi universe.

All that being said, I might end up listening to the audiobook.

I received an eARC of this book and I managed to read the first 2 chapters. Unfortunately, even though I enjoyed where the story was going, I wasn’t able to finish reading it when I wanted to. That being said, I haven’t heard anything bad about this book by those who have read it. Not to mention, the premise surrounding the plot is very intriguing. I do want to read this book so I can jump right into The Thousand Eyes when it is released.

I tried to listen to the audiobook edition of this book, and after about an hour and a half I lost track of the narrative, which led me to stop listening. However, I decided that I still wanted to read the story because I have heard excellent things about this book (and I got it signed by the author at an event!). In addition, thanks to some further reading, I have a better understanding of the style of writing and narrative presented here. Not to mention, the upcoming sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, sounds promising.

I know what you’re going to say, but hear me out. I have started reading this book 3 times and all at the wrong times. This story is part dark fantasy and part occult fiction with an academic setting. So, reading this book while I was still in grad school was a bad idea. I do want to finish reading this book, especially since it’s by a respected author and the series sounds very interesting. This one will most likely be read through the audiobook format.

Tor/Forge was kind enough to send me this book knowing I’m a fan of historical (fantasy) fiction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read this book immediately. Originally written in Polish, this book has a similar plot and conflict which reminds me of both The Daevabad Trilogy and the Winternight Trilogy where royal families and magical beings and/or gods clash. I really want to read this book, especially since it is the first in a series. Hopefully, the translation for Book 2 has already started.

Believe it or not, I own this book and The Glass Hotel, but I haven’t been able to read either book. However, I read the synopsis for the author’s upcoming novel, Sea of Tranquility, and I’m already obsessed with reading the book (when it comes out). I won this book in a giveaway, but I want to read this book not only because it’s critically acclaimed, but also because I want to familiarize myself with the author’s prose and style before her next book releases.

Good ahead and say it, “what are you waiting for?!” It’s been a busy year! I will dive into the Abercrombie Pantheon soon! I really, really am trying to make the time for this series, but there are not enough hours in a day to read everything we want to read. That being said, I am aware that once I start reading this author’s books I won’t be able to stop.

Knowing my luck, I probably won’t get through reading/listening to these books (and their sequels), but that’s the point of having goals, right? You make them with plans to accomplish them. The difference here is that I really, really want to read these books, so I know I will make the extra effort, along with all of the other books and book series I need to read.

What about you?

Reading Check-In: October 23, 2021

What book have you finished reading recently?

This debut novel lives up to all of the hype and the praises its been getting. Even if romance isn’t your to-go genre, if you’re a fan of Norse mythology, then you have to read this book. It gives an interesting picture of the Norse Pantheon from the perspective of other immortal beings.

Another great debut novel that is worth reading. However, there are 2 things you need to know about this gothic story. One, it does have a slow start, but it’s for a good reason. Two, a lot of the plot surrounds higher academia and its “lifestyle.” So, if you’re not familiar with graduate school, then much of the story won’t make too much sense to you.

What are you reading currently?

This is my Halloween read. I’m less than 100 pages in (it’s been a busy week), but so far it’s so awesome! Thanks to similar reads, I’m not having any issues with he narrative style! These vampires are vicious!

I’m listening to the audiobook edition of this book, and WOW! This is one of the most underrated fantasy books of this year! I have about 4 hours (120 pages) left in the book. Not only am I looking forward to the ending, but also I’m excited for Book 2 (yes, it’s a trilogy)!

I’m still making my way through the SCKA Finalists. The final votes take place soon, but I have an idea on which ones I’ll be voting for.

What will you read next?

My next audiobook. Everyone I know who has read this book has enjoyed it a lot! I might not get to the sequel until next year, but at least I’ve had read/listened to the first book.

I know I’m behind on reading this book (and the next one), but I’m going to use Norsevember as a reason for reading through both books. Hopefully, I can finish reading at least one of the two books.

I did manage to complete my Reading Goal for 2021; however, I am reading more because I want to (and because my TBR keeps getting longer). Also, I want to do my annual Favorite Speculative Fiction Books with 20 books. Right now, I’m close to reading my 14th book that qualifies for that list (I might make a separate list to include the other books I’ve read, too). I believe I can read 6 more books for the list.

What are you reading?

My Favorite Speculative Fiction Narratives

***My 200th Blog Post!!!***

For this post, which marks a new milestone for me, I decided to discuss one of the most enjoyable—and the most dreadful—topics: favorites. We all know why favorites is a fun topic, but it can be daunting for opposing reasons: others have them as their favorites, they are ubiquitous, they are different from yours, etc. 

            Why am I using the term “narrative” instead of story? What is a narrative? MasterClass has a great definition of the word (no, I am NOT a member). “A narrative is a way of presenting connected events in order to tell a ‘good’ story. A narrative unites distinct events by concept, idea, or plot.” Narratives have existed since the start of humanity, and they range from folktales to poetry to visual media, etc.

            So, why am I using narrative for this post? It is because it is tied to the topic of my 100th post. In that post, I mentioned how speculative fiction genres and subgenres can be used for films and video games. Personally, I believe speculative fiction should include both visual art mediums more often because many films and video games are presenting narratives. Yes, many films (and TV shows) are based on text narratives (a.k.a. books)—and, some video games are based on books and films; yet, there are many films and video games that standout because they are excellent narratives that are NOT based on books.

            Think about it, which films and video games are considered to be the best based on their narratives? And yes, not everyone has seen the same films, and not everyone plays the same video games, but you’ve heard of the “popular” ones and the “excellent” ones. Most of the these are critically acclaimed within their own academy, but their narratives are what capture our attention the most as we progress through them. These narratives are so captivating, we appreciate them regardless of the medium they are being presented to the audience. 

            So, for this post, I will be discussing my favorite speculative fiction narratives. My (current) favorites span across speculative fiction genres and narratives formats. Expect not only books, but also films and video games as well. Many of my favorites shouldn’t surprise you, but I hope you understand why I continue to gush over these narratives. This is a Top 10 List, but the order is based on when I experienced each one.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman

Known as both “the most dangerous man in the U.K.” and “J.K. Rowling’s contemporary” this (now retired) Oxford professor has been enjoying the latest adaptation of this dark fantasy—with blended elements of science fiction and religion—trilogy which have been more faithful to the books. This trilogy was published right before the Harry Potter Phenomenon, which were released in tandem (to the first half of the Harry Potter series). And, while this series might not have the same amount of fans as Hogwarts, readers of this series became devoted fans who waited years for the same level of media adaptation as its counterpart. 

I’ll say it right now, this is my favorite book series from my childhood. That’s over Harry Potter, Animorphs, and other series (from the same decade). Why? Because this series had a narrative that presented various conflicts within a coming-of-age story with realistic elements—which we take for granted—told through a lens that is speculative fiction. In addition to the protagonist being a less than ideal heroine (she has flaws), she takes matters into her own hands in order to do what she believes is the right thing to do, regardless of what the authority figures tell her to do.

Not only was this series my introduction to portal fantasy—I read C.S. Lewis’ and L. Frank Baum’s series in college and in grad school respectively—and genre blending. This trilogy is fantasy that contains several elements of science, religion and folklore—dæmons are a belief from Ancient Greece and the shamanism dates back to the Pre-Socratic Era—which tie into the plot, the character development, and the world-building. You can recognize the series based on keywords mentioned from the beginning to the ending. 

This narrative is one of my favorites because it takes the familiar tropes of a fantasy story (i.e. family) with real life elements (i.e. science) and scenarios (i.e. identity) and allows it to be presented between science fantasy and reality. And, the idea that a single action can lead to the same ramifications in all worlds is extremely thought provoking as well. The series’ ending—given the circumstances—is satisfying. This narrative has you saying, “what is” instead of “what if.”

  • Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001)

I remember when this movie was released in the U.S., but I didn’t get to see it in theaters. When I did sit down to watch this movie, I was mesmerized by both the animation and the narrative. And, while I understand the comparisons between this narrative and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—this story, fused with Japanese folklore, stands out on its own.

Chihiro isn’t a curious young girl who wanders into a magical world. She is a whiny child who is saddened with moving to a new home with her parents who are more optimistic about the move than her. When they get lost, it is her parents whose curiosity leads them all into the spirit world, where they are trapped inside. Chihiro is forced to complete the “Hero’s Quest” by completing 3 tasks. However, Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl, and she behaves like one throughout the narrative. It won’t be easy.

I love the narrative within this movie because it explores the balance between fantasy and folklore. Some tales from a region’s religion, culture and/or superstitions are often dismissed as being “false” or “fantasy.” However, the fantastic often presents what is real in its own way; and, this movie presents a spirit world with more than one location within it, which demonstrates that world is as vast as ours. There is one unanswered question: how long were Chihiro and her parents in the spirit world for? 

  • Final Fantasy X (2001)

I’ve discussed my love for video games before, but I haven’t talked about them as much as I wanted to beforehand. Some readers of speculative fiction do enjoy video games of the same genres, but role-playing games—a.k.a. R.P.G.s and Japanese R.P.G.s—are visual narratives in which you play your way through the story until you reach its end. And, some of the games in this genre are both popular and laudable enough for all gamers to play at least once.

Everyone has their favorite Final Fantasy game; and, each game in the main series has its own superlative. For example, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VII is the “Most Popular” game in the series. Final Fantasy X has my favorite narratives in this series. In addition to this game having an excellent story—which the other games in the (main) series all have in common—this game presents a narrative in which all of the main characters develop and grow over the course of the game.

            You play as Tidus, a famous athlete who takes after his father (who he hates and has been missing for 10 years). During a game, the city is attacked by an entity, and Tidus is transported 1,000 years into the future. From this point in the game, Tidus (and the player) learn about the world they find themselves in, what happened to their world since the initial attack there, and how the two are tied together. Conflicts and themes surrounding power, identity, religion, beliefs, love and choice are presented in each of the main characters throughout the gameplay. Each conflict and its relation to each character is presented early within the narrative. However, as each “truth” is revealed to the party, they must decide on how they want to carry on knowing the consequences of their actions. While the ending is bittersweet, you finish the game’s narrative aware that the world will be able to start anew; which is something we can all learn from this game.

            Final Fantasy X is one of the games in this main series with a direct sequel. Final Fantasy X-2 (2003) takes place a few years after the events of its predecessor. This presents a unique, yet believable, look into how the world has changed, and how the main characters have changed with it.             

  • The Twelve Kingdoms (1992-Present, Japan; 2007-10, U.S.A.) by Fuyumi Ono

Personally, I believe we take narratives for granted. Yes, we learn how stories were told orally and passed down from generation through posterity, then collected and written down, and then translated into other languages so more can enjoy them. The 1990s saw the demand for Asian content to be presented to a Western audience, and not just action movies. TV shows, anime, manga, etc., were in high demand; some works of literature were translated as well. Battle Royale: The Novel and the movie have a strong cult following, but some light novels (Japanese YA novels) were being translated as well.

Sea of Shadow is the first book in The Twelve Kingdoms, and the narrative focuses on the trope of the outcast and presents it in a way that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Yoko Nakajima has lived her entire life as an outcast. She is a high-schooler with red hair living in Japan with her traditional parents. Although she is an only child, she receives little love from her parents; she gets good grades in school, but she is ostracized due to her hair color. All Yoko knows is how to get through life by trying to please everyone around her. One day, a man with golden hair appears at her school—which is an all-girls school—abducts her from her classroom, and spirits her away to a world where Asian folklore and fantasy are authentic. After arriving, Yoko is separated from the man and now must survive in a world where she is even more of an outcast than in our world. 

This narrative is part coming-of-age and part survival story. Yoko is in a place where she is considered to be a criminal because she is an immigrant. After a few close calls, she is left on her own to survive in the wilderness. From there, Yoko grows into the individual she was forced to suppress due to her familial and societal notions. After accepting that there is nothing left for her in our world (she can never go home anyway), Yoko mush find a reason to keep living throughout all of the adversities she faces. Her goal matches a shocking revelation about herself.

The rest of the series introduce new characters and reintroduces fan favorites as the timeline of the 12 Kingdoms’ history is covered throughout each book. The same issues of immigration, regional biases and political conspiracies are covered in the narratives of each book. In addition, without too many spoilers, each of the protagonists in each book represent one of 3 types of societal outcasts within that world. 

Print copies of this series is limited; not to mention just 4 books in the series were translated to English. There is an anime series based on the first 4 books which you can stream online. Hopefully, one day we’ll get the rest of the series translated and released.

  • Pan’s Labyrinth, El labriento del fauno (2006)

I’ve discussed fairy tale retellings and fractured fairy tales, but I haven’t mentioned fairy tales and folktales as often as I should in my posts. In short, fairy tales are a genre of folktales in which there is a strong storyline and plot, emphasis upon magic and fantasy, repeated motifs and tropes, with a “happy ending.” Characters are represented as good or evil, and there are beings with magical powers or objects which serve a purpose for the characters. Director Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed his own fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth, in which he blends fantasy, magic realism and folklore into this poignant, yet dark film. 

The setting of the narrative grabs your attention immediately. It is the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)—which occurred in tandem with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and World War II (1939-45)—and a young girl, Ofelia, and her pregnant mother are traveling to her (new) stepfather’s residence. The protagonist’s stepfather is a captain in Franco’s army, which holds dominance over Spain. Ofelia does her best to cope with the changes by retreating into fairy tales, her favorite literary genre, which the adults all comment that “she is too old for them.” Amidst the violence that happens outside of the home, Ofelia comes across a magical faun who tells her her true identity and the 3 tasks she must complete in order to prove that she is “the lost princess.” 

The narrative is haunting and beautiful as it explores the reasons why anyone would read fantasy and fairy tales; besides escapism, they offer a semblance of hope during difficult times. Not to mention, this is one of the few “fairy tales” where there is a villainous step-father instead of a step-mother (and he’s not a child molester). Each of the 3 tasks correlate to the themes of war and violence—not to mention one of the scariest evil creatures in recent narratives to date—and whether or not magic does exist.

This new fairy tale resembles the older variants which were collected by the Grimm Brothers, and written by Perrault, Andersen, and Baum. In other words, it is for adults not children; that being said, anyone who is a fan of fairy tales will appreciate how new tales can emerge through the appreciation of previous ones. And yes, you can read the literary variant of this narrative—released in 2019—but the film presents how the audience, and the general public, continue to take these narratives for granted instead of seeing them for what they are: a much needed and a wonderful fairy tale. 

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 (2016)

I’ve played both Persona 3 and Persona 4—which you should as well—and, while those entries in the series have great narratives, characters and gameplay, it does not have the same down-to-Earth element Persona 5 maintains throughout the entire game. The series is an urban fantasy JRPG with elements of folklore, science, horror and paranormal in it. Persona 3 delves into themes of depression. Persona 4 is a murder mystery which focuses on the effects of media coverage and urban legends. Persona 5 investigates how societal norms and conformity has a negative effect on individuals. 

The narrative focuses on a group of misfit students who are victims of misconceptions placed upon them by the adults in their lives and the rest of society. Anyone who remembers feeling like an outcast—even in adulthood—can relate to these emotions. And yet, the game explores how it is not only adults and power figures who mistreat other individuals, but also other children and adolescents. In addition, players realize how each of the antagonists ended up as they are because of societal expectations. Are the Phantom Thieves heroes, or “a group of meddling kids”?

The narrative within this game is the reality within the fiction. The unfortunate truth is that we all know more than 1 person in our life and “social circle” who is similar to the characters in the game. Another factor to consider is that the narrative forces us to look at ourselves and to determine whether or not we are mistreating anyone for our own gain. The game’s narrative serves as one part fable and one part entertainment.

I’ll mention the narrative within Royal as well. Without getting into too many spoilers, the narrative in this part of the narrative focuses on how manifested desires allows us to achieve a life that is too good to be true, and the causes and the consequences of living such a life. Living this life can lead us to being “out of touch” from reality, especially to those who might be suffering because life isn’t as good for them. Persona 5 (Royal) examines the lives we choose to live while fighting beings from folklore around the world. 

From the first page to the final sentence of this trilogy you are transported to a world where science, fantasy, history, magic and reality enmesh into one of the most engrossing narratives of all time. What if the seasons lasted for several centuries? What if Earth was unstable due to tectonic activity? What if there were individuals who could control seismic activity? What if life on Earth was dead for centuries? Would you be able to survive?

In the far future, Earth has become an unstable planet where earthquakes kill life for centuries at a time. In a twist of fate, some humans gained abilities to sense and to control the Earth’s tectonic activity; so what does the majority of humanity do? Resort to the old methods of societal oppression by practicing fear, control and slavery of these individuals for millennia, which leads to the beginning of the series where a woman arrives at her home to find her toddler son has been murdered, her daughter abducted by her father, and her secret exposed to her community. On top of that, the “fifth season” has begun, so she must hurry and find her daughter (and kill her now ex-husband) before the surface becomes too uninhabitable to survive. 

This series not only takes genre blending to a new level, but also reminds the readers of the dangers of repeating negative social norms instead of solving the bigger problem. Not to mention how such negative treatment and hostility affects posterity for the worse; and, how far will any mother go to protect her child(ren)? And, what will a child do to ensure their own survival? The world-building explains the current predicament the characters find themselves in and how the planet ended up the way it did. In addition, this is one of the few series in which the beginning chapters play a huge role in the narrative. Even the 2nd person P.O.V. chapters are well-written. You finish reading this series knowing it was an amazing narrative. There is a reason why every book in this trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and in consecutive years. 

How do I describe Murderbot to someone who hasn’t read this series? Murderbot is a brilliant A.I. who is smart enough to gain control over itself, hates stupidity, has a bleak outlook on life to the point where it borders on nihilism, watches soap operas so that it can understand humans better, and is very good at its job at providing security and killing threats to those under its protection. On a serious note, I haven’t laughed so much regarding robots since watching the Star Wars movies.

The series follows Murderbot—which is what it calls itself—on its latest assignment, protecting a group of scientists as they explore a planet. After a close call, it wonders if something else was happening on that planet, not that it cares what happens to the humans. Basing its knowledge about humans on the T.V. show it watches (i.e. Sanctuary Moon), Murderbot concludes that some of the other humans are up to no good. So, it abandons its post to go on a mission to determine whether or not Murderbot is right; but, not because it cares about the humans who were nice to it. And, from there the narrative takes off. 

With 5 novellas and 1 novel (with more books expected in the future) readers get to look into how the future could look—and without any intergalactic wars, just corporate greed. Through Murderbot’s P.O.V., readers learn how various types of robots are created and are treated throughout the galaxy, and how they interact with each other when they have the opportunity to do so. Murderbot is a “Security Unit, or Sec Unit,” whose purpose is to follow orders and to protect those within its “contract.” But, Murderbot is smart enough to play dumb when it has to survive and to remain incognito from other bots, A.I.s, and humans. 

Each narrative is a “report” of events Murderbot has to submit. And, given its personality, expect a lot of laughs because you will get its inner thoughts as well; and they are on point! Anyone who wants to read a sci-fi action-adventure series with a funny and a unique narrative will enjoy this one as much as I do. 

After reading so many fantasy stories (and playing them), you ask yourself 2 questions. One, if I ended up in a fantasy world, then what would it be like? Two, if I found myself in another world I started to call, “Home,” then why would I consider returning to the world I came from? Seanan McGuire isn’t the first author to think about these things (read the Oz books by L. Frank Baum), but she is one of many to consider such worlds existing parallel to ours. 

Wayward Children takes the trope of “lost/wandering” children—they ended up in a different world with a different set of rules and time span—and transforms it into a new narrative with a twist. The ones who “return” are “changed” by their time in the other world, which they called Home. Their families don’t know what to do with them, so they send them to “Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children” (or, its sister school in Maine) so they can become “reacclimated” into society again. In truth, these students are searching for ways to return Home by looking for their Doors.

The series is divided into 2 narrative sequences. The first one follows the ongoings at the school, which is more like a school than the characters want to admit. There are disagreements about clothes, cliques are formed based on the sort of worlds they traveled to, and what their plans are for the future—in our world or in their Homes. Not to mention, when they do go on quests, they have to be quick about it, so Miss West doesn’t tell their parents. The second one focuses on each adventure each character, or characters, has in the world they traveled to, from how they found themselves there to the reason(s) why they had to leave it. The one thing these characters all have in common is that they’ll do anything to return Home. 

Worlds such as Fairyland, the Moors, the Goblin Market, Hooflands, and several more where beings such as mermaids, talking skeletons, resurrected individuals, centaurs, etc., exist in worlds next to ours. In fact, some of those worlds are connected to each other as well. How many other worlds exist? Which one would you find yourself in and why? Would you want to stay there or return to our world? 

The narrative of this novel begins with a familiar trope before twisting into something else. The protagonist, Sasha, is on vacation with her mother when she notices a strange man watching and following her. When she confronts him, he gives her strange tasks to complete. The catch is if she doesn’t complete them, then a loved one will suffer the consequences. After the first failure, she accomplishes all of the tasks given to her (which causes her to vomit gold coins). Afterward, Sasha is coerced into attending a university in order to “enhance” her knowledge.

Before you start comparing this book to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc., remember, Sasha was coerced into attending this university (which is in the isolated and rural parts of Russia). In fact, all of the students are in the same situation as Sasha, but why are they there? What makes them different from their former high school classmates? What are they supposed to be learning? 

This narrative blends the college experience within a speculative fiction setting. Sasha and her college peers have to deal with roommates, classes, changing family relationships, and the changes that go with being away from home; but, they don’t have the option to flunk out of the university. If a student fails their classes or reveals the ongoings at the university, then their families will pay the price. This is done to ensure the secrecy of the university and the success of their students. As for what they are studying, well none of the students know until halfway through their second year. And then, they have to study for a test so that they can “attend” the graduate program.

Without giving away anything else, the narrative does an amazing job balancing college life with the unexpected. And, similar to the narrative, the college experience becomes an addiction you don’t want to give up. In fact, some of the students decide to stay at the university during the holidays, instead of returning home. No one is forcing them to stay there during that time, so why won’t they leave? And, what happens to the students—including Sasha—when they begin to comprehend their “schoolwork”?

            Those are my (current) favorite speculative fiction narratives. Yes, they are on my lists of favorites by medium as well, but I won’t be mentioning that topic anytime soon. I hope you all consider reading, watching and/or playing what I listed here. If anything, then I hope you enjoy the stories being told as much as I did, and still do.

            Coincidentally, I started my blog site 9 years ago, and it started as a simple hobby. It’s amazing what any individual can achieve when given the opportunity to do so. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me to keep my blog going from when I was just posting theories about A Song of Ice and Fire and pop culture essays. I wasn’t sure whether or not anyone would read the posts on this blog; then again, I didn’t believe I had so much to say about literature, social issues, pop culture, etc. I’ve been able to branch out and work on projects for other websites (i.e. Fantasy-Faction, SWFA). So, thank you for reading, liking, commenting, and sharing my work; especially when I was attending grad school and I had to limit the content in my posts. And, a huge thank you to the publishers, the authors (and their literary agents), and other bookbloggers for sending me ARCs and galleys of so many books so I am able to keep up with the industry; and, as I make my way through my never-ending TBR pile.           

            Obviously, I’ll still be posting on my blog while working on all of my many projects and any new ones that come my way. A few of you have asked me about one potential project (more like a revival). My answer: I’ll decide after the New Year because there are other things that require my immediate attention. So you’ll have to wait and see. 

            Here’s to 9 years and to 200 blog posts with hopes that I make it to the next milestone. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Burning God”

The Poppy War Trilogy, #3: The Burning God

By: R.F. Kuang                                                                       Audiobook: 23 hours 47 minutes

Published: November 17, 2020                                              Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Grimdark, Military Fantasy, Folklore

            What was wrong with her? She’d started and ended wars. She’d buried a god. She’d incinerated a country. There wasn’t an entity on the planet that could face her in a fair fight and win. She was certain of her own strength; she’d sacrificed everything to make sure she never felt powerless again. 

            So why was she so afraid? (Chapter Eight). 

            History presents war with selections to choose from; some wars are revolutions, some wars are civil, some wars are invasions, and so on and so forth. The surface of war may be simple, but the layers run so deep it’s difficult to determine the alliances and the motivations for it. Not to mention, war affects EVERYONE and EVERYTHING. The Burning God—the third and final book in The Poppy War Trilogy—by R.F. Kuang, delves into the power and the warfare of a war that doesn’t seem to end. 

            Fang Runin “Rin” is still alive, but she’s without her troops, her allies, and her hand. Betrayed again by those who wanted to use her powers as a shaman for their goals, Rin decides to return to her home province in the south in order to liberate them from both the Dragon Republic and the Hesperians. There, she learns that her past actions have turned her into a living legend amongst the common people. And, they want to fight with her. Rin’s friends are Kitay, her friend from Sinegard, and Venka, her classmate and her former rival turned ally. Then, there’s Nezha, the son of the Dragon Lord, who is serving his family’s cause instead of Rin’s. While Nezha is Rin’s opponent, he isn’t the only antagonist Rin has to kill in order to liberate Nikan. However, will her new alliances led to more betrayal? Rin continues to develop in a way so that we can still root for her while trying to overlook the numerous atrocities she commits for liberation and for revenge. In Rin’s case, you can’t have one without the other. 

            Similar to the first 2 books in the trilogy, there are 3 parts in The Burning God; and, each part focuses on the antagonist(s) Rin must defeat to claim victory once and for all. Part I has Rin, Kitay, Venka, and what remains of their army marching into the Southern Provinces to liberate them from the Dragon Republic. Rin returns to Tikany for the first time since she left for Sinegard, and what she discovers there strengthens her conviction to transform Nikan into an independent nation. Rin’s new army consists of the common people and those who rebelled against the Dragon Republic. From them, Rin and her army are taught about elements of war that they didn’t learn at Sinegard. It turns out, guerilla warfare works for revolutionary purposes. But, what about against an invading nation? 

            Part II has Rin betrayed (again) and separated from her friends. From here, Rin makes an uneasy alliance with one of the last individuals she expected to see again. However, Rin knows this alliance this the only way to defeat both the Dragon Lord—Yin Vaisra, Nezha’s father—and the Hesperian fleet. During the march to regroup Rin’s troops and to rescue her friends, Rin learns the truth about her shaman powers and the Trifecta. Now, Rin has to decide where and who her loyalty lies with, and whether or not the end justifies the means.

            Part III has Rin and her army at full force. Rin, Kitay and Venka defeat all of their enemies and have liberated Nikan. However, the end of the war isn’t over until all hostile forces either surrender or die. In addition, Nikan has been ravaged by war for so long that there is no short-term plan for the survivors to carry on living. On top of that, Rin has the power and the recognition she always wanted, but like each war leader in (our) history, Rin struggles to maintain power and control for herself. All Rin has to do is weed out the remnants of her enemies—including Nezha—and find a resource to make Nikan self-sufficient in the years to come. Unfortunately, war is NOT a game, and it doesn’t end until all of the foes from one side are dead. 

            In addition to the plots in each Part in the novel, there are several subplots which enhance both the narrative and the character development. Some of the subplots include: the destruction of Speer, the fragility of the Trifecta, the Yin Family, Rin’s return to Tikany, and shamanism. All of the subplots tie in the plots of this story as it reaches its end. The characters’ story arcs end in ways that match the mood of the series, which is a combination of shocking and appropriate. Not only do these subplots wrap up the plots going back to the first book in the series, but also presents the conflicts all of the characters face throughout (and before) it. 

            The narrative is in 3rd person limited, which means readers learn everything going on from Rin’s point-of-view and from her stream-of-consciousness. The latter is essential because readers are able to understand why Rin makes the choices—both good and bad—throughout the narrative. It should be mentioned that there are a Prologue, an Epilogue, and 2 Chapters which are not told from Rin’s P.O.V. These serve as memory sequences which enhance the story and the conflicts, and lets readers know what Rin is up against. The narrative is what drives the story; it is well-written, and it can be followed by the readers easily. 

            The style R.F. Kuang uses in The Burning God brings The Poppy War Trilogy to a full circle. As the author ends the series, she reintroduces everything from The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic in order to remind her readers about the cost and the effect of war. In addition, this finale presents grimdark through a historical lens. After the release of The Dragon Republic, Kuang announced the historical figure Rin was supposed to represent. Anyone who is familiar with what happened in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), knows what Rin’s victory could mean for Nikan. The mood in this novel is puissance; it is a non-stop power struggle from start to end. The tone in this novel is the evanescence of power; the effects of war last much longer than an individual’s power and influence. 

            The appeal for The Burning God have been positive. Fans and readers who have stuck with this series will not be disappointed with the story’s conclusion. Fans of historical fantasy, military fiction and revenge stories—The Priory of the Orange Tree, The Rage of Dragons and Nevernight, respectively—will enjoy this book (and series) the most. There have been criticism of this book due to the realistic violence portrayed throughout the trilogy. However, this portrayal of warfare and of violence is the reality within the fiction, sadly. As I mentioned in a previous post, this series is the most similar to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—and, maybe Joe Abercrombie’s books (I haven’t read them yet, but I will very soon)—so, his fans might enjoy this series as well. I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, and the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, did an amazing job.

            The Burning God is a blazing finale to a series that started off as a school fantasy, transformed into a military historical fantasy, and ends as a grimdark series. R.F. Kuang delivers a powerful end to a series with Asian roots and influence. Do not wait as long as I did to read this book, you have no idea on what you’re missing out on. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

P.S. Thank you Sasha for getting me to finish this trilogy through out buddy read!

Why You Need to Read: “Catalyst Gate”

The Protectorate: Book 3: Catalyst Gate

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                                           Audiobook: 20 hours 49 minutes

Published: June 22, 2021                                                        Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera

            Rainier Lavaux had threatened everything and everyone Sanda had ever loved. Sanda had felt that loss once. And she’d burn the bitch to the ground rather than suffer through that pain all over again, (Chapter 1: Hello, Spy).

            Space operas remain popular in modern society, and there are 2 reasons for this popularity. One, the idea of traveling in space enraptures everyone’s imagination. Two, we all want to see fights within space with spaceships and blasters. Many movies and TV shows emphasis both of these—especially, the latter; however, like other narratives, the conflict must be addressed and be resolved before the resolution. In books of this genre, more emphasis is placed on the characters and the world-building because it is through their points-of-view that we learn more about the conflict, which is at an intergalactic level, literally. Catalyst Gate—the 3rd book in The Protectorate Trilogy by Megan E. O’Keefe—delivers on the characters’ story arcs, the conflicts, the world-building, and, of course, the space fights. 

            The same 4 protagonists have returned, and they’re all going after Rainier Lavaux, the entity set on destroying all of humanity. First, Commander Sanda Greeve has Bero, Grippy and her crew—made up of Arden, Nox, Conway, Knuth, Dr. Liao, and Tomas—are racing to stay steps ahead of Rainier as she searches the galaxy for the “keys” she needs to finalize her plans. Second, Director Keeper Biran Greeve is on a mission to “purge” those who “fell under” Rainier’s “influence.” Some are close to his job while others are with the Icarions. Third, Tomas Cepko has learned what he is in relation to Rainier and has decided to join the Greeve siblings on their mission to stop her. Last, Jules Valentine has committed numerous atrocities to keep her friend, Lolla, alive. This puts her at an advantage because she’s figured out how to stop Rainier once and for all. All of the protagonists and their companions are resolved to stopping Rainier, but first they have to confront how her actions in the past has led to this upcoming showdown. The war forces all of them to develop into the “heroes” they have to become; yet, their ordeals won’t be straightforward. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel, and they continue from the first 2 books in the series. The first plot revolves around stopping Rainier Lavaux, who is the mastermind behind all of the events and the incidents involving the protagonists, the Icarions, and Ada Prime. Obviously, there is more to Rainier than even the Keepers know, so where do all of the parties travel to in order to learn the entire story? How far back into the past does Rainier’s plans go? The second plot delves into Atrux, the planet where Jules once called home and where her life changed for the worse. Everything for Jules had started in the Grotta, which means Rainier’s plans might have started there, too. Jules’ search to cure Lolla could lead to answers on how to stop Rainier. There are a few subplots in this novel as well, and they wrap up the remaining plot holes in the series. Everything mentioned from the first book: the Chip, the Gates, the Icarions, the agent, etc., are reiterated so that the answers can be revealed, and so that the plots can conclude. 

            There is a difference in this narrative compared to the ones in the previous books; there are NO Interludes. This means the narrative occurs in the present—Prime Standard Year 3543—without flashbacks to the past; yet, we learn whose memories they belonged to and their relevance to the series. Once again, all of the narratives are from the points-of-view of all of the protagonists, and they are told in 3rd person limited through their streams-of-consciousness. It is through the protagonists’ P.O.V. that we learn all of the events that led to everything happening now, and the possibility of it all working out for them all. The truths and the revelations uncovered by the protagonists make all of them reliable narrators. 

            The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Catalyst Gate continues from the previous 2 books; only this time, the timeline is complete. Space operas are science fiction stories about galaxies with complex plots which take place in “near-future” Earth. Well, Earth is mentioned, but it is not from the “near-past.” The conflict goes back millennia—even before Prime Standard—which, influenced the events leading up to the present war in the narrative (sound familiar?) Mistakes were made in the past because of human error and alien technology; and now, posterity is paying the price for it. This is no longer a complex political conspiracy, but a war to preserve humanity; and, not everyone makes it out unscathed or healed. The mood in this novel is combative. All of the protagonists, the other characters, the antagonists, and the villain have been fighting. Only now, the war has begun. The tone in this novel is sacrifice. Each of the protagonists have a conviction and they are willing to defend those convictions at the cost of their lives.

            The appeal for Catalyst Gate have been positive. What started with a shocking start to this space opera trilogy concludes with a satisfying conclusion with several action sequences along the way. Fans of the first 2 books will be satisfied with the last book in this trilogy. Fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Martha Wells should consider reading this series. Fans of the space opera subgenre will appreciate this series, too. I listened to the audiobook for this book—actually, the entire trilogy—and, Joe Jameson’s performance was well done and very entertaining. I’m glad he did the narration for this trilogy.

            Catalyst Gate is an action-filled conclusion to an entertaining space opera trilogy. The characters and the plots sucked me into the story and kept me there after its end. The Protectorate Trilogy reintroduced me to space operas and reminded me why they are so much fun. Megan E. O’Keefe’s trilogy needs to be read by all sci-fi fans because they don’t know what they are missing.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).