My Favorite Speculative Fiction Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Final Fantasy X (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “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)!!!

Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

Why You Need to Read: “The Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

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

Why You Need to Read: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

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

Why Persona 5 is more than an Excellent JRPG

         Phantom Thieves

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 won “Best RPG” at 2017’s Video Game Awards in Los Angeles. The win was no surprise to anyone who was familiar with the series, or with the game company, ATLUS. ATLUS has gained more momentum in the past 15 years thanks to the popularity of Persona 4 (2008) and Demon’s Souls (2009). This company has become known for their inclusion of fantasy and folklore within the gaming narrative and taking risks in developing and releasing video games that may or may not be a game-changer.

The success and the enjoyment of Persona 4 immediately had players and fans anticipating Persona 5. After teasers and delays, gamers received insight into the games’ narrative, presentation, and combat. Not only does Persona 5 returned to its earlier combat and theme, but also it evolved in order to match other video games and desires of their fans and players. The game went back to its darker theme surrounding human nature, and improved on their gameplay mechanics.

The dungeons and the grinding were a huge improvement, and it’s about time! The stealth and the combat make dungeon crawling more entertaining. The art style, the design and the menu illustrate the tone of the game, but it still manages to lure you in. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year, too! The songs, sung by Lyn and, the music, composed by Shoji Meguro, are catchy and make you want to challenge society.

The location matches the overall concept of the Persona series. Persona 5 takes place in Shibuya, Japan, a real place with buildings and subways to match. This is because the story is about the existence of a parallel world based on the occult and human emotion. While, Square Enix’s The World Ends with You (2007) also takes place in Shibuya, Persona 5 has the characters travelling in-and-out of the parallel world, or the Metaverse. Thus, the game feels more realistic due to the “parallel world” and “double life” storyline. The fact that Japanese towns and culture piques our interests!

Yes, it is an amazing JRPG and it deserved the win. However, the game was a contender for “Game of the Year.” It was well deserved, but Persona fans are not oblivious! We knew The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild was going to win that prize (and with good reason)! And yet, fans were pleased with the nomination because not only was it well-deserved, but also it brought the game series to the attention of mainstream gamers, especially those who neither heard of, nor played the series until now—I’m looking at you, Jirard “Dragonrider” Khalil a.k.a. “The Completionist”!!!

So, what makes Persona 5 stand out from other JRPGs and RPGs? First, it takes the concept from American comic super heroes and Japanese manga: you’re a student who is working to save the world! You play as a student who, along with his friends and classmates forms “The Phantom Thieves,” is protecting and saving the world from dark forces that inhabit both the real world and the paranormal world. Next, “the story” takes place over the course of a year. I believe the pacing in the game takes on an aspect of realism in that the objective cannot be met or completed in a short time. Last, children and adolescences are the main characters in this series. Not only does this fulfill the notion that “the younger generation” can make necessary changes within their society, but also the idea and the circumstances of social issues remain a constant throughout the series. Identity and the real world loom over adolescents because they are close to adulthood, and “how” the world views them affects and influences their personality. This is why the characters struggle with “who they are” throughout the game. However, in the narrative, we see the main characters dealing with their identities better than the “criminals.” It is fascinating to grasp on what motivates people to remove themselves from their negative identities.

The gameplay is a combination of turn-based strategy with some stealth. Grinding consists of completing side quests and building up bonds with confidants and personal social stats. Even what items you buy are part of your strategy throughout the game. Every confidant plays a role towards the ultimate goal of the game. The dungeons are artistic and narrative driven. Speaking of narrative, it seems more relevant with recent events. Children and adolescences are still people, and people can only take so much injustice and mistreatment.

Persona 5 is worth the 100+ hours of devoted gameplay, and the replay of “New Game Plus” for the “True Ending” reminds fans, and displays to newcomers how distinct the games in the Shin Megami Tensei series are within the video game industry. Granted, it takes true devotion in order to complete the Persona Compendium (Good Luck Jirard!), but seeing the numerous references to fantasy, folklore, the supernatural, the occult, the paranormal, and religion by ATLUS developers leaves us awestricken.

The numerous delays and the long hours of playing makes Persona 5 a worthwhile experience. I believe I can say—and many will agree—Persona 5 is a video game that ALL gamers need to play! The game radiates perfection in everything from style and music, to characters and story. While fans wait for an announcement for Persona 6, we will continue to play, and to enjoy, the games—and the spinoffs—of the Persona series!

Factions in Popular Culture that Made a Difference: Anime: Sailor Moon

            I remember the first imported Japanese cartoon, or anime, I saw and which forever became one of my favorite genres of television. I had just started middle school and there were times I woke up before my alarm clock went off. With an extra half hour to kill, I turned on the T.V. and flipped through the channels. One of the basic channels, yes not on a cable network, had a new “cartoon” on before the morning news. Sailor Moon had arrived in the United States.

            With nothing to lose—I had already finished my homework the night before—I watched not the ‘first episode’ (it never aired in the U.S.)—but the “introductory” episode. Serena (as she is called in the English dub) is in middle school and is trying to survive early adolescence, when her friend is attacked at her family’s jewelry store. Luna, a cat she met earlier that day, tells Serena of the danger and that she must ‘reawaken’ as ‘Sailor Moon.’ It was when Serena transforms that I realized that this show was about a girl superhero. I was hooked.

            I enjoyed the show because not since Spiderman had there been a good series about young heroes who must balance saving the world with school life. Also, more “Sailor Scouts” appeared and they were all girls. There was also a male hero called ‘Tuxedo Mask,’ but instead of leading the Sailor Scouts, he assisted them. And, at several occasions had to be saved by them. That was also a first I saw in my cartoons.

            Like most anime, there were more adult themes and more real life realities such as characters getting killed off and failing exams. The girls had to balance being heroes, being students, and being members of society. This cartoon was more realistic than anything else I had ever seen. I was able to take Sailor Moon more seriously over Disney and Nickelodeon cartoons. Maybe it was because I was ready for ‘big kid’ shows.

            I know I keep saying ‘cartoon,’ but try to understand that this was before Pokémon and Gundam Wing premiered in the United States, so the word “anime” was not in my vocabulary at the time. It was not until Cartoon Network and the Internet, which both imported and aired more anime that I fully grasped what I was observing. The anime movement of the 1990s made it okay to watch animation beyond elementary school, and The Simpsons. Also, they provided different expectations from what was expected before. For instance, Sailor Moon focuses on other worldly beings who would corrupt humans in order to get what they wanted, mostly powered energy. Plus, unlike in comic book cartoons, the villains would eventually get killed and never return for any reason. This method of storytelling was more realistic, thus more believable.

            As for the main reason I kept watching as a kid I enjoyed watching girls kicking ass. Before Sailor Moon I only knew of Batgirl, Storm, Wonder Woman—you see where this is going. These were a group of girls who were a team, and had to work together to protect the planet and to rescue the male counterpart more than once. I saw what female characters could be like and I saw how an ongoing series could evolve.

            By the time I graduated middle school, both “anime” and “dubbing” were now part of my vocabulary and I was getting into other anime shows. And yes, I knew they were all from Japan. My brother, my cousins, my friends, and I were watching Gundam Wing, Dragonball Z, and Pokémon. And, we wanted more, which we all got eventually. For me, it all started with Sailor Moon” and with the rebooted series airing to help mark the 20th anniversary, I’m as excited now as when I was a preteen. And, I am looking forward to see if the new series actually follows the manga (yes, I do own them) closely or not (I’m referring to both Fullmetal Alchemist and Inuyasha).

            Sailor Moon, like Harry Potter and video games, are part of my childhood and I will always recall how this series helped to broaden my horizons. When you discuss T.V. shows for older girls, Sailor Moon should be in the Top 5. Anime such as this one is more than just a simple cartoon, it is a well-developed story.