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!

Why You Need to Read: “The Memory of Souls”

A Chorus of Dragons, #3: The Memory of Souls

By: Jenn Lyons

Published: August 25, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Thank you Tor Books for sending me an eARC of this book! And, thank you for your patience on waiting for my review.

Note: There are a few spoilers from the first two books in A Chorus of Dragons series. 

            “The more I remember, the more I hate being able to remember,” Janel said. “It feels like another person taking over my mind. Someone else’s thoughts intruding on my own. I’m not…those people anymore,” (74: Who They Used to Be).

            The cast has been introduced. The conflict has been revealed. So, the story can continue, right? Many readers of any genre understand both stories and real life are more complex than they first appear to be. Fans of epics, sagas and (space) operas know to expect more from such stories, but they never know which direction the story will move throughout the narrative. The Memory of Souls, the third book in A Chorus of Dragons series, is the latest epic fantasy to provide more plot devices as the story reaches its climax. 

            All of the characters (and, I mean all of them) from the first two books in the series—The Ruin of Kings and The Name of All Things—are back as they all continue with their roles pertaining to the end-of-the-world. The protagonists include: Kihrin D’Mon—the man who murdered the last emperor of Quur; Janel Thernanon—the Black Knight; Thurvishar D’Lorus—the son of the last emperor of Quur, who was also an infamous necromancer; and, Tereath—a member of the Black Brotherhood. These protagonists were saved and are tasked by the gods to convince the vané—the last race of immortal beings—to perform a sacred ritual. Unfortunately, there are a few parties who attempt to stop this quest, but the reasons vary between each group. One group is the parents of the protagonists: Therin D’Mon and Khaeriel—Kihrin’s parents; Terindel—Tereath’s father; and, Tya—Janel’s mother, work to assist their kids with the strength of their abilities. Another group involves more relations to the protagonists: Khaemezra—Tereath’s mother; and, Relos Var—Thurvishar’s grandfather, are some of the antagonists in this story, but they are neither working together nor working towards the same goal. Then, there are the characters who are working towards their own goals. First, is Senera who is still working with Relos Var (blindly), and who still possesses ‘The Name of All Things.’ Second, is Suless, one of the immortal wizards who seeks vengeance on those who kept her captive. Last, is Talea who was the former slave girl Kihrin failed to save, but she appears to have gain her freedom. After the events in The Name of All Things, all of the protagonists and the characters realize the “actual threat” wasn’t Relos Var, but someone who is more ancient and more powerful than him. There are more characters, old and new, who appear throughout the story who either try to hinder or try to help the “heroes” save the world. Throughout this story, the protagonists develop as they journey on their quest(s) and learn more about themselves through each other. Granted some of the protagonists’ revelations are just as shocking to them as they are for us, but the way the protagonists handle them allow them to make the decisions they know are coming their way, and they won’t have to do the fighting alone. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first plot revolves around the “newest” threat to Quur, Vol Karoth, who after having one of his tethers cut loose by Kihrin (who was tricked into doing it by Relos Var) is closer to being freed from his prison. The second plot concerns ‘The Ritual of Night.’ Kihrin, Janel, Tereath and Thurvishar must convince the vané to perform the ritual so that Vol Karoth will be reimprisoned. The catch is the race who performs the ritual will lose their immortality, which is something the vané are not giving up willingly. So, how will the “heroes” convince the vané Vol Karoth is a threat who should not be unleashed onto the Quur Empire? There are two subplots in this novel, and both of them embellish and develop alongside the plots in this story. The first subplot concerns the mysterious character known as Grizzst. He is a famous wizard whose magic may or may not have saved Quur from destruction. And yet, so few people know who he is and what he’s done, so why is everyone searching for him now? The second subplot involves memories and past lives. There are the vane—who are immortal—and, the god-kings—immortal wizards—then, there is reincarnation. That’s right, on top of gashes and soul swapping, there is the reincarnation of souls. However, how often do you hear of people remembering their past lives? There were a few examples in The Ruin of Kings, but it’s happening a lot more in this book. In fact, some of what the characters are starting to remember might contain clues as to how to stop both Vol Karoth and Relos Var. These subplots are necessary because they refer back to the plots, which allows them to develop and to go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative in this book is slightly different from the narratives in the first two books in the series. Unlike the first two books in the series—where the narration and the points-of-view go back-and-forth among 2-3 characters—this book follows the narratives of several characters—some old and some new. Similar to the previous books, all of the narrations are being compiled into a single chronicle which presents all of the events in the “chronological order” they occurred in. Most of the P.O.V.s are told in 3rd person omniscient with one narration told in 1st person. In terms of how the narration is present, pay attention to the title. This means the narration goes from stream-of-consciousness to memories—NOT flashbacks! Without giving away too many spoilers, these memories are essential to the narration because it provides even more insight into the world the author created and the actions several of the characters performed as well. Not to mention, the events of the past influence the decisions some of the characters make in the present for the future. Believe it or not, all of the characters are reliable narrators, and the narrative can be followed easily by the readers. 

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Memory of Souls continues with the chronicler. Unlike the first two books, there is only one oral speaker recounting events. All of the other characters have written their “experiences” and “gave” them to the chronicler to compile. In this book, readers witness the “arrangement” of all of the “participants” into one coherent text. And, let me say the chronicler (and the author) make it look easy. The mood in this novel is crusade. All of the parties go their separate ways in order to engage in a campaign either personal or divine. However, many of these campaigns go against (one or more of) the other one(s). When that is the case and the parties involved meet up, discord occurs—which is the tone in this novel. Readers should refer to the map, the glossary, the family tree, and the timeline throughout their reading of this book. The series is at the point where these references provide enough information and backstory without having to refer back to the previous books.

            The appeal for The Memory of Souls have been mostly positive. While most of the readers enjoyed this book, there were a few who either found the story to be confusing, or thought the series was “getting too long” (not my words). That being said, those readers might want to look up the difference between fantasy and epic fantasy. Not all fantasy series are trilogies! I’ve made this assumption with this series and other ones before the authors corrected me! This book and the previous books in A Chorus of Dragons belong in the (epic) fantasy canon. Fans who have stayed with this series this long can look forward to reading the next book in the series, The House of Always, when it is released (in 2021); especially with those cliffhangers, we all need to know what happens next. 

            The Memory of Souls is the climax of A Chorus of Dragons series, which will leave fans and readers with the (grimdark) question: does the ends justify the means? While the story doesn’t omit any of the detail, it does leave readers with several more questions about the direction the author seems to be moving it in. No one is expected to survive the end of this series, but we’ll have to read in order to find out who will live.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Speculative Fiction Starters for Children and Young Adults

This article was written for the Martian Chronicle blog, but it was never posted so I decided to rewrite and to present it on my blog. Enjoy!

            When children and adolescents show an interest in reading, we—as adults, and as readers ourselves—want nothing more than to load our recommendations and favorite books on to them. Unfortunately, not only will this overwhelm young readers, but also turn them off to reading the books we want them to read (outside of school reading). One of the reasons for this is because many adults fail to pay attention to the genre of literature the kids are reading. If a teen is reading non-fiction, then they’re not going to be interested in historical fiction. If a child enjoys fairy tales, then giving them a book about aliens might not capture their attention. In addition, suggesting “popular” (i.e. Percy Jackson, Magic Tree House, etc.) books isn’t the way to go because those readers might have read those books already. Knowing the books within a preferred genre is worth reading and it will keep the interest of reading in children and in adolescents. 

            When it comes to speculative fiction, adults tend to select the “typical” and/or the “popular” books of the genre to give to children and to young adults. And, there is nothing wrong with choosing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Watership Down. However, there are so many other books to give to these young readers and the genre has expanded so much that it can feeling overwhelming for everyone. That being said, here are some recommended books for young readers who are fans of the speculative fiction genre. 

CHILDREN

  1. The Wizard of Oz: The Complete Collection by L. Frank Baum

There are 14 books in this series which is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Several books, including the 1st book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, does follow Dorothy and her dog, Toto, on their many adventures in Oz, but the series gives readers more insight into the entire world through several other characters who live in different parts of Oz. Think of them as “modern” American fairy tales. 

  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black

Holly Black is more known for her young adult books, but she has co-written this series—and, a sequel series—with Tony DiTerlizzi; and yes, the books are better than the movie. This series follows twin brothers, Jared and Simon Grace, and their older sister, Mallory, as they move into their family manor. As they unpack, they wonder if there is something, or someone, else living in the house. When Jared finds a “field guide” that belonged to their great-uncle who disappeared over 80 years ago, Jared, Simon, and Mallory learn that their backyard is home to numerous magical creatures, both good and bad.

  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

DO NOT CALL THIS BOOK, “HOGWARTS IN AFRICA,” because it is NOT THAT!!! This book will remind readers of Rick Riordan and Ursula K. LeGuin, in which “gifted” children attend a school where they learn magic that is based on their heritage. Sunny and her friends learn how to hone their abilities which is based on African shamanism and cultural practices. The plot alone makes this book and its sequel, Akata Warrior, stand apart from other “magic school” stories. 

  • Young Wizards by Diane Duane

What if wizardry and magic weren’t just about casting spells, but protecting the entire galaxy? What if your spell book was real and you had to be able to read the language its written in in order to cast spells? This series, which started in 1983 with So You Want to Be a Wizard, follows Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez as they begin their careers as wizards. After completing their “Ordeal,” the two friends travel throughout Earth, to Mars, and to the rest of the galaxy as they work on their tasks using scientific spells. Currently, there are 10 books in the series, and each one sees the development of the young wizards. 

This horror story will make readers question whether or not their local urban legends are real. The story follows 11-year-old Ollie, who is grieving the death of her mother. One day after school, Ollie sees a crazed woman yelling at a book and threatening to throw it into the river. Ollie steals the book and begins to read it. She reads about two brothers who were in love with the same woman, and a deal they made with “the smiling man.” Ollie believes what she’s reading is just a story until her school bus breaks down and her broken watch “warns” her to “RUN.” 

YOUNG ADULT

  1. Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith

This book won the Batchelder Award in 2008, and it was written for children as young as 8-years-old. However, this book can be enjoyed by adolescents; and yes, the fact that the book is more than 800 pages long is another reason this book is recommended for adolescent readers. The story follows Wataru Mitani as he goes on a quest in another world to save his parents’ marriage. The difference here is that this story is written in a style that appeals to gamers, especially fans of (Japanese) role-playing games, or RPGs. Fans of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Final Fantasy will love this story.

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

What if your father was a famous storyteller who receives his stories from a river of dreams? What happens when that river stops flowing and your father can no longer perform his job? Join Haroun as he journeys to defeat the dark force that is halting the flow of the river, and the stories, which flow to his father. This is a very unusual quest.

  • Memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar Trilogy by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

15-year-old Alexander Cold is sent to stay with his grandmother who works for International Geographic. Her latest assignment takes both of them on an expedition to the Amazon. There, Alex meets Nadia Santos, and the two friends go on an adventure through the Amazon, where they learn about their spirit guides, which are in the forms of animals, so that they can save an ancient city from ruin. Isabel Allende’s YA trilogy, which starts with, City of the Beasts, follows the protagonists’ adventures both in the Himalayas and in Kenya as well. 

This book, which is set in a futuristic war-torn Nigeria, was influenced by the anime series (and its many spinoff series), Gundam. Onyii and Ify are sisters who live in a camp with other orphaned girls that is isolated from the ongoing civil war. However, after an attack on the camp, the sisters are separated and find themselves on opposite sides of the war. In a future where space colonies, A.I.s, and flying mechs exist, how does a war end when both sides have advanced technology. Will Onyii and Ify survive the war and reunite? 

  • Tamora Pierce Pantheon

For almost 40 years, Tamora Pierce has written stories of several characters through generations in the world of Tortall. Alanna: The First Adventure was released in 1983, and it follows Alanna as she and her twin brother, Thom, switch places in order to go to the school they want to attend. Thom goes to school to train as a mage, and Alanna travels to the King’s castle to train as a knight. There is only one problem. Females haven’t trained to be knights in over 400 years. This means Alanna will have to disguise herself as a boy so that she can become the knight she wants to be. And, that’s just the first quartet in that universe! There are a lot more stories about different girls learning and growing into strong women that take place inside and outside Tortall. 

These are a few of several books and series available for young readers of speculative fiction. Now, some of these authors have written other books for children and for adolescents, and I recommend those books as well. This is a starting point for young readers who want to read books that might not receive the recognition they deserve. Yes, let them read Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Earthsea Cycle and the Rick Riordan Pantheon; but, these fantasy, horror, science fiction, fairy tale, and magic realism stories are worth reading, too. I hope you enjoy them all as much as I do!

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Come Tumbling Down”

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Horror

            “Everyone who comes here becomes a monster: you, me, your sister, everyone,” said Mary, voice low and fast and urgent. “The doors only open for the monsters in waiting. But you made the right choice when you left this castle, because you would have been the worst monster of them all if you had grown up in a vampire’s care.”

            “I know,” said Jack… (13: The Broken Crown).

            Responsibility is a trait which marks the coming of adulthood. The older we get, the more responsibility we get whether or not we want it. The concept of being responsible follows the practice of being reliable to others and being held accountable for your actions both good and bad. Even adults don’t always know who is reliable and who isn’t. Children and adolescents are given the benefit of the doubt due to their youth. However, once society deems the youth as “old enough to know better,” society expects the youth to follow the rules and obey the laws, or face the consequences. The Wayward Children series is about children and adolescents who traveled to other worlds for various reasons, and there are those who were kicked out of those worlds because they broke the rules. But, what happens when a traveler believes the rules shouldn’t apply to them? Fans of the series know of one example thanks to the past events in In An Absent Dream, but the author presents readers with an example occurring in the present in Come Tumbling Down.

            Readers catch up with the misfits at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children: Christopher, who traveled to Mariposa; Cora, a Drowned Girl; Kade, a hero of Fairyland and headmaster-in-training; and Sumi, who—thanks to the events in Beneath the Sugar Sky—is alive and her old self again. It seems like an ordinary day at school, until lightning strikes the basement and a Door appears, but none of the students recognize it as theirs. This is because the Door swings inward revealing a large girl carrying a smaller one in her arms. No one recognizes the first girl, but the other girl is one of the Wolcott twins, but which one? It turns out that it’s Jack, but she’s in Jill’s body. Jack didn’t give her consent for the body swap; not to mention, Jack and Jill aren’t identical twins anymore since Jill’s death and resurrection. Jill’s death was one of two punishments she was dealt as consequence for breaking the rules in the Moors. Jill either had to remain in her world, or return after dying where she can no longer become a vampire. The problem was Jill proved to be as ruthless in our world as she is in the Moors, forcing Jack to make a decision to save her sister from herself. Unfortunately, everything blows up in Jack’s face, and Jill and her Master have decided to wreak havoc on the Moors, prompting a war between mad scientist and vampire, and between identical twin sisters. Jack flees the Moors with her fiancé, Alexis, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children so she can get help with getting her body back from Jill and save her Home. Throughout the story, readers learn more about Jack: what she’s been up to since returning to the Moors, and her future plans there with Dr. Bleak and Alexis. Jack is able to open herself up more to her former schoolmates than she was able to while staying at the school, which is a huge development for her character—and, as a (fictional) individual. Another character who develops in this story is Cora, but not in the “traditional” way. Cora—like the other students—hopes to return Home. However, it seems Cora has a deeper connection to the Drowned Worlds than everyone realizes, including Cora. 

            The plot in this story is sibling rivalry to extreme levels. Jack and Jill were kicked out of the Moors for Jill’s crimes (in Down Among the Sticks and Bones) and Jack made the decision to “change” Jill so both of them could return Home (in Every Heart A Doorway). Unfortunately for Jack, Jill views her twin’s actions as NOT “saving” her, but as “stealing eternity away from her.” Jill sees getting Jack’s body as a way to get everything she wants and damn the consequences. There are 2 main problems with this nonconsensual body swap. First, is that Jill and her Master believe they have found a loophole in the order of the Moors, but the rules in the Moors are strict and valid, and those in charge will NOT allow these transgressions to continue. Second, is Jack has OCD and she cannot cope with being in Jill’s body because of what the Master did to it; and, Jack has no intention of becoming a vampire, so she has to get her body back before the next full moon. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first is the concept of Death within some of these worlds. Just like in Confection, death isn’t permanent in the Moors. However, there are setbacks to being resurrected in the Moors—the body loses its function after each one—and time is of the essence. The second is the continued world-building of the Moors. We learn—through the other characters—how vast the world of the Moors is and about the Powers who run the Moors making sure ALL rules are followed. The subplots are necessary because they develop alongside the plot. Plus, everyone learns quickly how much trouble Jill is in for going against the order of the Moors. 

            The narrative follows a present sequence with moments of recounting the past (which is not the same as a flashback). It is presented in 3rd person omniscient from the points-of-view of Christopher, Cora and Jack. Readers learn how the Moors affect these characters who either reside in the Moors, or traveled to worlds similar to them—the Trenches and Mariposa. The streams-of-consciousness of the characters allow for the readers to experience Jack’s OCD, Cora’s attraction to the Drowned Worlds, and Christopher’s admiration and creepiness for the Moors make them all reliable narrators. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Come Tumbling Down is a return to the concept of duality. However, unlike the idea of binary—which, was explored in Down Among the Sticks and Bones—the concept of oppositions is the focus. Identical twins find themselves on opposing sides of a challenge, which could evolve into a war, and their mentors are based on 2 of the most popular classic literary books and film characters: Frankenstein and Dracula. The allusions to both Vincent Price and the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, lets readers know there has to be a victor. The realization Jack admits about Jill make it obvious as to what must happen. The mood in the story is one of urgency. Everything in the Moors from the residents’ safety to Jack’s sanity is on the verge of being destroyed and Jack and her companions have 3 days to set things right. The tone in this story revolves around the outcome based on the urgency to answer the challenge. Jack and Jill are on opposing sides and the victor will determine the outcome of the balance within the Moors. There is more at stake than a stolen body, but one side doesn’t seem to care as long as they get what they want. Rovina Cai’s illustrations provide the extra context to the story as required. 

            The appeal for Come Tumbling Down have been positive. Fans of the Wayward Children series enjoyed this latest installment in the series as they travel with the students on another quest—remember, it’s against the rules to go on quests. And, while this portal-quest fantasy novella is a great addition to the fantasy canon, fans of horror will enjoy this book, too. The next book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields, will bring readers back to the past.

            Come Tumbling Down is a fun story which balances adventure and rule-breaking as the characters and the readers return to the Moors. While it seems like this is the end of Jack and Jill’s story (for now?), I have an inkling we could return to the Moors. It might not be anytime soon, but readers will be satisfied with the ending, until the next adventure.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Juice Like Wounds”

Wayward Children, #4.5: Juice Like Wounds

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: July 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Short Story

***This short story can be read for free here on Tor.com.

            They walked west, the three girls: Lundy with her knife, Mockery with her spear, and Moon with her sling. And when the trees loomed before them like the walls of heaven, they exchanged a look but not a word, ducked their heads, and stepped into the darkness.

            This short story is NOT an interlude, but an expansion on Lundy’s first “trip” to the Goblin Market. So, you need to read In An Absent Dream before reading this story. Juice Like Wounds explains why Lundy decided to return to her parents after her first trip to the Goblin Market. 

            Lundy is 8-years-old and is learning how the world of the Goblin Market operates. She has made a deal to stay with the Archivist, whose library Lundy has access to. This means Lundy has been able to read upon the world’s history. And, Lundy is hanging out with her new friends: Moon and Mockery. This is the first time Lundy has had friends, and she is about to lose one of them. Just like Lundy, Moon and Mockery are from other worlds who ended up in the Goblin Market and find themselves happy to be there. This trio of travelers decide to slay a monster in order to retrieve back what was once stolen. 

            The plot is simple: children go on an adventure so they can become heroes. Unfortunately, they are too young to understand adventures don’t always have happy endings. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first one is a further explanation of the world of the Goblin Market. There is more there than the Market, and Lundy and her friends want to learn more about it. The second subplot revolves around Mockery. Readers learn who she was, what happened to her, and her relevance to Lundy’s story. Both subplots are necessary for the plot, and the development of the characters. 

            The narrative in this short story is a continuation of Lundy’s first visit to the Goblin Market, which ended with blood and death. The points-of-view are those of Lundy, Moon and Mockery, and the Archivist, which makes it 3rd person omniscient. The sequence is of the past, and told in the past tense. Readers follow the streams-of-consciousness of the protagonists, and given what happens to them, it is fair to say the narrators are reliable.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses for Juice Like Wounds is a continuation of what she used in In An Absent Dream. The reference to Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti comes up again because the poem mentions a 3rd girl who died after buying and eating fruit from the goblins. Seanan McGuire goes further with her cautionary tale and mentions not only Mockery, but also Zorah—another young visitor to the Goblin Market who no longer lives there. This short story is the first of many cautionary tales about “fair value,” which goes over Lundy’s head. While the Wasp Queen could be a figure of foreshadowing, the story is about Lundy and the Archivist in equal measure. 

            Fans of Wayward Children will enjoy this short story. Juice Like Wounds lets readers know what Lundy was up to during her first visit to the Goblin Market and why she was so eager to return to her parents afterwards. It is unfortunate Lundy never understood the reason why Mockery died although hints were left throughout In An Absent Dream for her to pick up on—Lundy never forgot about Mockery; she just didn’t know what her death signified. 

            Juice Like Wounds is a short story which serves as a cautionary tale as readers travel back with Lundy to the Goblin Market. Seanan McGuire answers the question: who was Mockery? in this expansion of In An Absent Dream. I hope the author has similar stories for future releases because I have some questions about other characters I would enjoy reading in similar format. I know other fans of the Wayward Children series feel the same way.

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

Why You Need to Read: “In An Absent Dream”

Wayward Children, #4: In An Absent Dream

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            This, then, was Katherine Victoria Lundy: pretty and patient and practical. Not lonely, because she had never really considered any way of being other than alone. Not gregarious, nor sullen, but somewhere in the middle, happy to speak when spoken to, happy also to carry on in silence, keeping her thoughts tucked quietly away. She was ordinary. She was remarkable, (1: A Very Ordinary Garden). 

            We’ve all asked the question: ‘How did ‘x’ come to be in existence?’ In our world, we have history lessons and oral tradition to teach us about historic moments and events, and changes in technology. In other worlds—in works of fiction—the audience receives the history as the narration continues explaining the scenario, the characters’ backstories, and—in the case of speculative fiction—how the world came to be. Throughout the Wayward Children series, readers have learned about the various worlds the travelers visited, and how Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a haven for these travelers. It makes you wonder how those who returned to our world readjusted in society before these schools existed. In An Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series, provides one infamous case.

            The protagonist in this story is Lundy, whom we met in Every Heart A Doorway. Everyone already knows how her life ends, but we’re given a look into her life—both with her family and in the Goblin Market. Katherine Victoria Lundy is the middle child in her family’s household. She is 6-years-old at the beginning of the story. She has an older brother, Daniel, who is 6 years her senior; and, her mother is pregnant with her 3rd child, which will be Lundy’s younger sister, Diana. However, Lundy isn’t Lundy yet, she is Katherine; it’s her birthday, and none of Katherine’s classmates are celebrating with her. The reason for this is because Katherine’s father is the principal at the school, which goes unnoticed by both parents. For another 2 years, Katherine is a model student, which isolates her even more. One day, 8-year-old Katherine is walking home from school when she finds a Door with the words: BE SURE. Well, Katherine is sure and she enters the world of the Goblin Market. There, Katherine meets “the Archivist,” who explains the rules and the ways of the Goblin Market; and, “Moon,” a girl around Katherine’s age who is a resident at the Goblin Market, who has trouble following the rules. The first thing Katherine learns there is NOT to use her actual name, but either an attribute or a family name. Thus, Katherine chooses to go by her last name, Lundy; and, Lundy is told she is not the 1st visitor to go by that name. Throughout her “trips” to the Goblin Market, Lundy grows into the person she was denied to be in her world (the story starts in 1962). Meanwhile, Lundy’s family cannot understand why she would choose to be anywhere else but with them, especially Lundy’s father. So, what does Lundy’s family do to her? They find ways to keep her from leaving them, even succumbing to enact guilt. This move begins a rift in Lundy as she tries to figure out a way to find “fair value” before the curfew.   

            The plot is a look back into Lundy’s early life—who can be viewed as a “tragic” character—and her childhood and her time in the Goblin Market. This is an intriguing view into how a child survives in “another world” with minimal adult guidance, which could be one of the actual dilemmas Lundy had to deal with as well, while remaining divided on which Home was her real one. The sad thing is Lundy was thriving in the Goblin Market for reasons her family was too blind to notice. There are 2 subplots and they are essential to the plot (and, the entire series). The first subplot regards the concept and the importance of the rules in each world. Throughout the series, readers learn which students haven’t returned Home due to the rules they broke, but there wasn’t too much context in their stories—except for Kade. Lundy is the first character who has to admit her choices to break the rules led to her permanent punishment (unlike Jill). The second subplot presents how and why schools like Eleanor West’s—remember, there are several others throughout our world—became the much-needed havens and fellowships travelers, especially children, never knew they needed. Lundy knew of 2 other travelers: Moon, who was already a permanent citizen of the Goblin Market; and, Franklin Lundy, Lundy’s father, who does everything in his power to stop his daughter from returning to the Goblin Market. Neither friend nor parent can give the guidance Lundy needs so badly. It makes you wonder what could have been if a school existed during Lundy’s childhood. It is obvious both subplots are necessary for the plot to develop throughout the story.

            The narrative in this story is told from Lundy’s point-of-view, but in 3rd person omniscient. This is because there are moments when the P.O.V. shifts away from Lundy—usually to her father—in order to fill in the smaller details of the story. The sequence is broken down into the events leading up to Lundy’s “trips” to the Goblin Market, particularly her first 3 visits. Each visit leads Lundy to staying at the Goblin Market for longer periods of time. However, it is the visits before the curfew, which receives the most attention. Lundy’s “trips” become more frequent, but for shorter visits, almost like they match Lundy’s hesitation instead of her heart. The narrative is a look back at the past, so it is NOT a flashback. This means most of the narration is told from Lundy’s stream-of-consciousness. And, because the narration leads to the end readers know is coming, Lundy is a reliable narrator.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in In An Absent Dream is an intriguing one. The concept of the Goblin Market comes from the narrative poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti. The poem is about 2 sisters who meet goblins by the river encouraging all to “Come buy, come buy.” The synopsis of the poem is: one sister eats the fruit, while the other one does not. As time passes, the sister who ate the fruit begins to age unnaturally. This causes the other sister to go and buy some of the fruit to save her. The sister resists the temptation to eat the fruit, which saves her sister’s life. It is obvious the author took this children’s poem and retold it with the same dilemmas and the same morals. Seanan McGuire’s retelling of Goblin Market is easier to comprehend, but is just as much of a cautionary tale as the original poem. The mood in this story is the discord one’s desires can lead to within the individual, which is brought on by those closest to them. Once again, the illustrations done by Rovina Cai bring out the beauty in a world very few people know exist. 

            The appeal for In An Absent Dream have been positive. Not only was it nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2020, but also it is one of the highest rated books in the Wayward Children series by readers on Goodreads and on other social media and (book) retail websites. This novella is an excellent addition to both the book series and the fantasy canon. I should mention that anyone who did enjoy this book because of the world of the Goblin Market should read both Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti and The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner. The latter is a historical fantasy novel with allusions to Goblin Market. After reading those, fans can move on to the next book in the series, Come Tumbling Down

            In An Absent Dream is a story so beautiful and tragic readers will be torn between wanting it to be real and wanting it to be a dream. This is my favorite book in the series next to Every Heart A Doorway. There are several reasons for this: the believable characters, the beauty of the Goblin Market, the split between family and where you belong, and the heart-wrenching end everyone knows is coming but doesn’t want it to happen. Not to mention, the reason and the importance of schools like Eleanor West’s for travelers in similar scenarios. Now, readers have a complete understanding of what these children really need: the desire to choose without any guilt. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

Wayward Children, #3: Beneath the Sugar Sky

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 9, 2018

Genre: Fantasy

            The Queen of Cakes would never have been defeated: Sumi had died before she could return to Confection and overthrow the government. Rini wasn’t just saving herself. She was saving a world, setting right what was on the verge of going wrong, (5: Places of the Living, Places of the Dead).

***NOTE: This review contains some spoilers from Every Heart A Doorway. That book should 

be read BEFORE reading this one. 

            Quests; adventures; journeys. Everyone is familiar with the numerous stories about “ordinary” people who leave home to go on a “hero’s quest” usually “to save the world.” Other journeys include a fellowship attempting to do the impossible, and most of them take place in different worlds. Stories about Narnia, Oz, Middle-earth and the gods involve quests. In fact, several video games such as Final Fantasy are about a group of individuals on an adventure to accomplish a goal. Seanan McGuire has her readers return to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children before they go on a quest, which is against the rules. Beneath the Sugar Sky, the 3rd book in the Wayward Children series, takes place after some time has passed after the events in Every Heart A Doorway

            Readers are reunited with the students from Eleanor West’s school: Kade, who is training to be the school’s next headmaster; Christopher, who is waiting for the Day of the Dead so his Door will appear, if it does; Cora, the school’s newest student, who was a mermaid; and, Nadya, one of the school’s longest residents, who talks to turtles. It is an ordinary day at school, until a girl wearing a cotton candy dress falls from the sky and into the turtle pond. The girl identifies herself as Onishi Rini, the daughter of Onishi Sumi, one of the students at the school. Rini claims she is from the future and she is searching for her mother—who disappeared from their home in Confection. There is one problem, Sumi is dead, which means she can’t have a daughter in the future, at least in our Logical world. However, Confection is NOT a Logical world, so there should be a loophole, right? Eleanor allows some of her students to go on a quest—which, is against the rules—”to put Sumi back together.” Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya travel with Rini on her quest bringing their knowledge and their skills as they attempt to do the impossible. Readers learn more about these characters, the worlds they call Home, and the worlds they travel to. Who else will they meet along the way?

            The plot in this story is straightforward. A few schoolmates are going to resurrect the dead friend with her future daughter leading the way. All they have to do is travel to the worlds where pieces of Sumi can be found so they can put her back together. Not too difficult right? Not to mention, with Sumi dead, Confection remains under control of a despot, who will do everything in her power to stop her nemesis from coming back to life. There is one subplot and it goes back to one of the plots from Every Heart A Doorway, which is the construction of the Great Compass. Kade, Christopher, Cora, Nadya and Rini all traveled to different worlds; and, those worlds are connected to each other somehow. As the students continue on their quest, they note which worlds are connected to each other, which serve as clues for the students who are trying to return Home. It seems like the Great Compass is forming into a larger map where one world has pathways to several other worlds. Someone just has to figure out a way to map them all out. The subplot develops alongside the plot as the characters note which Doors take them to which worlds. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of all of the travelers, but the focus is on Cora because she is the newest student. This means that the P.O.V. is 3rd person omniscient and the sequence is in the present as readers follow the events in “real time.” In addition, following the streams-of-consciousness of the characters make them reliable narrators that makes it easy to follow the story.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in this story reminds readers of the adventure stories they’ve read (and, probably continue to read). Throw in elements of hero’s quest stories from myths and legends and some Japanese pop culture and you have a story everyone can enjoy. Allusions to Orpheus, the Underworld, JRPGsSailor Moon and Back to the Future can be found throughout the story and are recognized by readers who are familiar with them. Additionally, the allusions to magic objects and other tropes from folklore could be viewed as foreshadowing for future books in the series and as evidence that magic exists in our world. The mood in this story is adventure. The students go on a quest to save their friend and her future and her Home. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it will be more fun than they’ve had in a long time. The tone in this story is fellowship. The students wouldn’t embark or assist in this quest if it wasn’t for the loyalty—both strong and fragile—they have for each other. They are not sure whether or not they will succeed in their quest, but they are willing to risk it all because of the friendship they share. There are illustrations in this book done by Rovina Cai. While they are few, they capture the essential parts of this quest, and the illustrations are beautiful.

            The appeal for Beneath the Sugar Sky have been positive. And yes, this novella was nominated for some of the literary awards its predecessors have won. However, fans of the series agree this book is a creative continuation about the lives of the students at the school. Readers learn through the characters that magic is brought over to Earth from other worlds, and the magic and the worlds are connected. This book is a portal-quest fantasy and it belongs in the fantasy canon alongside the other books in the series. This book can be read by fans of both Philip Pullman and Joseph Campbell. And, due to its connection to the first 2 books in Wayward Children, readers can and should reread all of the books in the series so they know how each book is related to each other. After reading all 3 books, they will be ready to read the next book in the series, In An Absent Dream

            Beneath the Sugar Sky is a sweet addition to the Wayward Children series. This book gives readers a quest with some of their favorite characters—both old and new—where they learn about them and some of the many worlds as they journey to save their friend. The author combines story elements from the past and the present in order to present this narrative to her fans. In all, this novella is a must read for fans of fantasy stories and of fantasy scholarship. 

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