Why You Need to Read: “The Empire of Gold”

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold

By: S.A. Chakraborty 

Published: June 30, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

            Daevabad, in all its glory and infamy. The mighty brass walls embellished with the facades of its founders, her ancestors. The crush of ziggurats and minarets, temples and stupas; the dizzying array of clashing architecture and eras—each group, each voice leaving its defiant mark on the city of djinn. The shafit stolen from Persepolis and Timbuktu, the wandering scholars and warrior-poets from every corner of the world. The laborers who, when their work was left unacknowledged in official chronicles, had instead emblazoned their names in graffiti. The women who, after erecting universities and libraries and mosques, were kept silent because of “respectability,” had stamped their presence on the cityscape itself, (42: Nahri).

            It still amazes me how I almost missed this series. When a book’s title and/or cover captures your attention, make time to read it because you might enjoy it to the point where it becomes one of your new favorite books. The Daevabad Trilogy has been a different reading experience and its due to the influence based on Middle Eastern culture and the classic story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The series started with The City of Brass and continued with The Kingdom of Copper, which had an ending that left readers stunned. The Empire of Gold is the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy, and it begins where the last book left off.  

            The story begins with the antagonist, Manizheh—the former Banu Nahid and mother to both Nahri and Jamshid—as she looks over Daevabad after the almost successful usurpation of the kingdom and its ruler, King Ghassan. The rebellion was “almost successful” because Manizheh failed to retrieve Suleiman’s Seal. Instead, Nahri and Prince Alizayd beat her to the ring. And, just as Nahri and Ali are confronted by Manizheh, they jumped into the lake to get away from her only to find themselves transported to Cairo. Meanwhile, because the ring has been taken out of Daevabad, magic has vanished. Now, Manizheh is left without her magic and with hostile forces who are either trying to gain more independence or regrouping to take her down and reclaim the kingdom. Manizheh descends into madness as she struggles to maintain control of Daevabad. There is only one individual who has magic in Daevabad and it’s Darayavahoush e-Afshin. Dara is fighting a war within himself. He’s struggling to display his loyalty to Manizheh while trying to reach a truce with all of the 6 Tribes, the surviving members of the royal family, and the shafit. In addition, all of the trauma Dara experienced during the last war, which led to the deaths of his family has been resurfacing. It doesn’t take long for Dara to realize that history is repeating itself, and he’s the only one who comprehends what the war could lead to for everyone in Daevabad. This causes Dara to do everything he can to achieve a truce even if it means betraying his Nahid. Thousands of miles away, Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo with no clue as to how or why they ended up there. Ali wants to return to Daevabad immediately, but Nahri needs some convincing. The last 5 years haven’t been kind neither to the prince nor to the Banu Nahid, but it is the former’s surviving family members who remain at risk. After a lot of consideration, Nahri agrees to save Daevabad from Manizheh. Unfortunately, the journey back to Daevabad is even more perilous than Nahri’s first journey there with Dara. Not to mention, it turns out EVERYONE is searching for Nahri and Ali, and not just their families. Numerous “outsiders” hope to collect the bounty, and several mystical beings demand the payments of their ancestors’ “debts.” Why does everyone know about Nahri’s heritage except her? And, what other “debts” does Ali have to pay on behalf of both his maternal and his paternal ancestors? Throughout the story Nahri, Ali and Dara develop as characters as they find ways to overcome their traumas as they fight to save their home and to restore magic. It is essential to understand that the horrors and the traumas these protagonists face do not motivate their actions, they allow them to make “reasonable” decisions as they strive to change their world for the better. 

            The plot in this story picks up where The Kingdom of Copper ended. King Ghassan’s tyrannical rule is over, but Banu Manizheh proves quickly to be more ruthless and more paranoid than her former oppressor. And, Manizheh didn’t factor in losing Suleiman’s Seal or magic. Now, she feels powerless and she is forced to depend on Dara to complete her tasks. Meanwhile, Dara doesn’t wish to lose his independence, so he works against Manizheh secretly in order to keep everyone alive. Another plot in this story is Ali and Nahri’s journey back to Daevabad, which is full of physical and emotional turmoil. Ali has to decide whether or not to go through with his plans or that of his family’s. Nahri is dealing with what was revealed to her about her family and whether or not it’s true. The 2 friends need a plan to retake Daevabad and to defeat Manizheh, but it looks like they’ll have to make bargains of their own. There is one subplot in this novel and it relates to family. Ali, Nahri and Dara have struggled with family expectations—yes, even Nahri—and they’ve had an impact on all 3 of them. Ali has been a dutiful prince, but clashed against his father’s rule and his mother’s ambitions. Nahri was told what was expected of her due to her heritage even though she believed her relatives were all dead. Dara did everything that was expected of him by both his family and the (then) ruling family—the Nahids—only to witness his family’s deaths and the Nahids being overthrown. All 3 protagonists attempt to go against their family’s expectations as they strive to make their own decisions and what is best for themselves. This subplot is necessary for the plots of the story because readers can relate to some of the struggles the protagonists are experiencing and why they make certain choices throughout the story. 

            Once again, the narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali—with one chapter told in Manizheh’s P.O.V. The narrative is told in real-time and are in 3rd person limited narrative—the characters know only what is happening around them and to them at the moment. All 3 protagonists are reliable narrators because each of them provide everything that is happening to them, including the mistakes they make. The narrative follows the streams-of-consciousness of all of the protagonists. Yet, keep in mind these characters experience both flashbacks and memories. It is important to know the two are not the same thing, and the narrative is able to present this distinction.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses for The Empire of Gold is a continuation of what readers received from the previous books in the trilogy. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern culture are major influences in this book, and there are allusions to the Ottomans and the Napoleonic Wars as well. Now, instead of an impending rebellion, civil war has broken out after the ruler has been overthrown, and the person who claims she is in charge does not know how to maintain control and cannot solve the kingdom’s biggest dilemma, which is the loss of magic. The mood in this novel is discord. All over the world, magic is gone and everyone is dealing with the ramifications, including the civil war in Daevabad. The tone in this novel is resilience and which of the characters, including the protagonists, are able to withstand all of the incoming challenges. Readers should refer to the maps and the appendices as they read this book so that they can keep track of the Tribes and the world-building.

            The appeal for The Empire of Gold have been positive. Several fans and readers have lauded the author for providing a strong conclusion to this trilogy. Yes, this book is over 700 pages long, but any fantasy fan will appreciate all of the world-building the author has put into her books. Not only does this series belong in the fantasy canon, but also is a great addition to the historical fantasy and the Middle Eastern fantasy subgenres. Even George R.R. Martin has praised this series. And, fans can expect a new series from the author in 2022!

            The Empire of Gold is a gratifying end to The Daevabad Trilogy. The plots answer all of the questions readers have about the characters, and the author provides appropriate endings for all of them. Do not be intimidated by the book’s size because you will finish reading it before you know it. Fans of Tasha Suri, Sabaa Tahir, Egyptian mythology, and Scheherazade will enjoy this series the most. This book is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

TBRcon21: Another Success for Virtual Cons

It’s 2021, the pandemic is ongoing, and it still sucks. Fortunately, we’ve gotten better at entertaining ourselves through our hobbies and interests. Readers and bookbloggers have been able to make the most of lockdown by reading (or, trying to read) our TBR piles and helping authors and publishers with promoting any books we get our hands on! Technology continues to be a lifesaver as we all continue to find ways to keep up with news surrounding our favorite authors and any upcoming book releases.

            David Walters—a.k.a. FanFiAddict—impressed everyone last spring with last year’s “MayDayCon2020” where he hosted 7 panels and 7 live readings in 14 hours! This time around, FanFiAddict reached out to a few of his fellow bookbloggers—Beth Tabler, Travis Tippens (from The Fantasy Inn), and Jason, a.k.a. Traveling Cloak—to assist with “TBRcon2021.” This virtual Con had 17 panels across 6 days, with several of our favorite speculative fiction authors participating in the panels discussing numerous topics within the genre, and about writing in general. In fact, I’m going to say that it was because of the “Writerly Advice—NOT” panel that led to #writingadvice trending on Twitter (with some “interesting” responses).

            Without listing all of the authors, this virtual con had authors ranging from debut to indie to “established” ones across the speculative fiction genre—epic fantasy, grimdark, space operas, historical fantasy, etc.—and, all of the S.P.F.B.O. finalists were there too, with the Con ending with a round of Dungeons & Dragons. So, what made this virtual Con so memorable? First, as I mentioned before, was the authors. Just about all of the subgenres and genres were represented by the participants—whom were from diverse backgrounds and from around the world (i.e. Australia)! Next, were the topics discussed on each panel. Topics from world-building to history to the future of the genre were talked about, and it was interesting to hear what each author had to say about them. Last, was the schedule. While it was impressive how David managed to host the first Con in a day by himself, how he managed to get even more authors to participate in 1 or more panels for a 6-day event is beyond laudable. Yes, this virtual Con was free, and could be viewed on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, but I would argue that this is further proof that these virtual Cons are worthy fillers for all author events while the pandemic continues (yes, I want it to end, too).

            “TBRcon21” had something for everyone, and you can rewatch these panels online. Another reason I’m discussing virtual Cons again is because of what I believe fans are getting out of them. Although several Cons have moved to virtual, not all of them are accessible for everyone. Everyone who is interested has to register for tickets, and there are times when they sell out. It is too early to tell what will happen to virtual Cons whenever “normalcy” returns, but I don’t believe they will go away. This Con is proof authors are interested in interacting with fans and readers, and those fans and readers will find ways to attend these events. I hope agents, marketers and publishers are paying attention because it looks like bookbloggers have found a way to bridge themselves between the publishing industry and the readers who Google whether or not they should read a particular book. And before you ask, I’m not excluding BookTubers. In fact, if these virtual Cons were to become more ubiquitous, then I believe some BookTubers could give us a hand with certain panels. While we’re on the subject, I know some podcasters who would be interested in participating as well. 

            “TBRcon21” is another accomplishment by FanFiAddict, and it is proof the publishing industry is paying attention to us, and authors are willing to communicate with their fans and vice versa, and will find ways to keep at it no matter what it takes. So, what shall we do as we all decompress from this event? Well, Virginia McClain will be hosting “QuaranCon2021” this spring, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see more participants (and authors) at that event this year! I hope to see you all there participating in the live chats!