Why You Need to Read: “Chaos Vector”

The Protectorate: Book 2: Chaos Vector                               

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                                           Audiobook: 19 hours and 5 minutes

Published: July 28, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

            “It’s been two years. Why would things escalate now?

            Graham smiled slyly. “Because you’re back, kid. Two years and some change was about the time you disappeared, about the time Icarion lost control of Bero. Nakata, Kenwick, Lavaux—they’re all tangled up somehow, and Harlan and his crew crossed paths with that lot,” (Chapter 6: Can’t Count on a Spy). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting concept in storytelling. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that cliffhangers are excellent ways to keep the audience engaged in the narrative. There are several cliffhangers the storyteller can use, but depending on the narrative, one fits better than others. In the case of Megan E. O’Keefe and her The Protectorate trilogy, Chaos Vector—the sequel to Velocity Weapon—picks up immediately after the revelations in the first book. And, that includes both the plot and the pace.

            There are 4 protagonists in this book. First, is Sanda Greeve, who went from “Hero of Ada Prime” to suspected murdered of a Keeper. Now, she’s on the run to clear her name after a brief reunion with her family and to discover what is in the Keeper Chip that is embedded in her skull. After learning some about one of her fathers’ past, Sanda joins up with Arden, Nox and everyone else in Harlan’s crew in order to solve 2 mysteries with 1 person of interest, Rainier Lavaux. Second, is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother and one of the Keepers. Life as a Keeper begins to catch up with Biran as he does damage control, first for his sister and then for the Keepers; and, he begins his investigation into the missing Keeper, the stolen Keeper Chip, and The Light of Berossus, all while trying to figure out who among the other Keepers are his allies. Third, is Jules, whose circumstances and previous actions now have her working for Rainier Lavaux. She hides herself from her friends as she does everything she can to save one of them, but is she being played? Last, is Tomas Cepko, the agent from Nazca whom Biran hired previously. Now that his mission is complete, Tomas is given a new assignment; and, it’s Rainier Lavaux. All of the protagonists and the other characters are beginning to comprehend the effect their recent actions have on one another, for the rest of Ada Prime, and the Icarions. Not to mention, what happened to Bero? 

            The first plot in this novel carries over from the first book, only now there are more questions than answers. But, everything revolves around Rainier Lavaux, the wife of the murdered Keeper. Somehow, she knows about both The Light of Berossus and the Keeper Chip; but, which one will she go after? And, why is she so interested in Jules? The second plot revolves around the Keeper Chip lounged in Sanda’s skull. Sanda is on a mission to discover the contents on the Chip before Ada Prime’s enemies track her down and reclaim it. Meanwhile, Biran looks into which Keeper went missing and why that Keeper’s Chip stands out more than the other ones. There are 2 subplots, which develop alongside the 2 plots which enhances and expands the narrative. The first one focuses on Jules’ efforts to thwart Rainier Lavaux’s plans, which pulls Jules further into an intergalactic conspiracy that she never would have imagined getting involved in. The second subplot delves into the events of the past which may or may not have impacted the present. As everything converges, it begins to make sense. 

            The narrative is more straightforward than in the first book. There are 2 years that the narrative focuses on: Prime Standard Year 0002 (the past) and Prime Standard Year 3543 (the present). All of the narratives are told in the 3rd person limited in the present tense from the points-of-view of the protagonists. Unlike the previous book, the sequence of events allow the narrative to be followed easily by readers (and by listeners). The streams-of-consciousness of the protagonists not only give the audience a complete understanding of the revelations, but also make the characters reliable narrators.

            The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Chaos Vector flows from Velocity Weapon. There is a political conspiracy that is starting to unravel, but the majority of the citizens seem focused on the continued conflict between 2 feuding nations. This conflict reflects the mood of this novel which is distraction. The leaders of Ada Prime do not want their citizens to worry about “threats,” so they make announcements about falsehoods to keep everyone “calm” as they continue to work on a cover-up instead of addressing the conflict. This leads to the tone of this book which centers around the idea of duty. Some of the characters are more willing to follow up on their obligations than others including their superiors. It remains to be seen whether or not the characters’ choices will have negative consequences for the rest of the galaxy.

            The appeal for Chaos Vector have been positive. Fans of Velocity Weapon will be pleased to know that the author presents a strong and fast-paced sequel to this familial space opera. Science fiction fans and anyone who is interested in an intriguing space opera should read this series, especially with the third and final book in the trilogy—Catalyst Gate—releasing this summer (2021)! If you cannot read the book, then you can listen to the audiobook like I did. Once again, Joe Jameson does an excellent job narrating this story, and I hope he does the next book!

            Chaos Vector is a strong and an entertaining sequel to this underappreciated space opera. Both the characters and the plot develop as answers lead to more questions. Everything Megan E. O’Keefe has written in her story guarantees a promising conclusion to this trilogy! Don’t wait any longer, start reading The Protectorate

My Reading: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Fugitive Telemetry”

The Murderbot Diaries, #6: Fugitive Telemetry

By: Martha Wells

Published: April 27, 2021

Genre: Science Fiction

            But whatever, now I just needed intel for threat assessment so I could figure out if GrayCris had killed the dead human or not and go back to my happy boring life on Preservation Fucking Station, (Chapter Three).

            I LOVE MURDERBOT! And, I’m so happy that both Martha Wells and TorDotCom continue to write and to release stories about this snarky, astute and loyal rogue SecUnit. Following up on the success of the Murderbot novel, Network Effect—which, I haven’t read yet—fans get to read, Fugitive Telemetry, the next novella in the series, whose story takes place AFTER the events in Exit Strategy and BEFORE the events in Network Effect

            Murderbot, the rogue Security Unit, is starting its new life on Preservation Station after rescuing Dr. Mensah from GrayCris. However, that is easily said than done. Dr. Mensah is experiencing P.T.S.D., certain members of her team still don’t trust Murderbot—for example, it can’t use its name because it might scare everyone off—and, oh right, there was a murder of human and Station Security is trying to figure out what happened. Murderbot is worried that GrayCris might have something to do with it and decides it’s going to investigate the scene so it can go back to adapting to its new life. Whether or not it wants to admit it, Murderbot wants to continue protecting Dr. Mensah and her team. It would never admit it, but it feels both welcomed and needed by them.

            The plot in this novella focuses on the murder mystery at Preservation Station. Who was the dead human? Who wanted him dead? Is there a connection between the dead human and GrayCris? Regardless, Murderbot is willing to work with Station Security—through its own methods and strategies—to put its humans at ease. The subplot in this novella is Murderbot becoming acclimated with its new life. While it is no longer a SecUnit for hire, Murderbot is not one to relax—although it wants to very much. In order to adapt to its new life, Murderbot has to compromise with Station Security, Dr. Mensah, and its instincts. 

            The narrative is told from Murderbot’s point-of-view in the past tense. The name of the series is more than a hint as to how the narrative is presented, which is in the format of a report that recounts all of the events after they occurred. Given that Murderbot is an A.I., the narrative includes the sequence of events based on its stream-of-consciousness, which makes it a reliable narrator. This brilliant narrative technique presents a straightforward and hilarious narrative that can be followed by readers easily.

            The style Martha Wells continues to use in her Murderbot series reminds us that diaries are private for a reason. Murderbot keeps track of his actions and activities in a way sci-fi fans believe an A.I. would when necessary. And honestly, if all reports were written the way the author has written for her protagonist, then they all would be just as entertaining to read. The mood in this novella reflects a dark comedy—or, a style of comedy that points out a subject matter that is too serious to present straightforward. There is a “dead human” and Murderbot has no intention of using euphemisms because everyone else is “upset” about it. The tone reflects agency, especially Murderbot’s. Say whatever you want about it, but Murderbot knows A LOT about humans, which is why it is so reliable to its allies. 

            So far, the appeal for Fugitive Telemetry have been positive. Several other readers and fans have given this novella 4- and 5-star reviews. This latest novella is an excellent addition to the series and the science fiction canon. And, with Network Effect winning this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel, fans can relax because they are not the only ones who love this series. In fact, we can expect at least 3 more Murderbot books in the future. Where will those books fall within the series? We’ll have to wait and see.

            Fugitive Telemetry is a humorous murder mystery story that happens to be about a prickly A.I. who refuses to admit that it cares about humans. Fans can rest easy because neither the author nor her protagonist have lost their spark in this latest entry. Newcomers to the series have no idea what they’re in for and they should be prepared to binge read the series, and then wait for the next book with the rest of us. Now, I have to read Network Effect!

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

Thank you TorDotCom for sending me an eARC of this book!

Why You Need to Read: “Shards of Earth”

The Final Architects Trilogy, #1: Shards of Earth

By: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published: May 27, 2021 (U.K.)/August 3, 2021 (U.S.)

Genre: Science Fiction

            The Architects had discovered that humans existed. The war, that had raged for eighty years and cost billions of lives, had been fought without the knowledge of one of its parties. And on becoming aware of humanity, the Architects had simply vanished. Nobody knew where they went. Nobody knew where they had come from or why they’d done what they did. They had never been seen again, (Part 1: Roshu, 3: Solace). 

            There is always that one author whose books you try to make time to read because you’ve heard nothing but excellent things about their books. However, for some reason, you buy, and you start reading one of their books, and for some reason, you don’t get to finish it. So, what do you do? Well, in my case, you get asked to participate in a book tour for the author’s upcoming novel, Shards of Earth, the first book in The Final Architects Trilogy. Finally, I could delve into this author’s creative mind. 

            The main characters in this novel are the crew of the ship, Vulture God, scavengers who travel throughout the galaxy and perform jobs for payment. The captain of the Vulture God is Rollo Rostand, but one of the protagonists is the ship’s navigator, Idris Telemmier, who is an Intermediary, a genetically modified individual who was used as a weapon to fight against the Architects 40 years ago. Idris still suffers from PTSD and keeps both his past and his abilities to himself. That is until Myrmidon Executor Solace, a Partheni soldier and agent, tracks Idris down with a “proposition” for him. Idris knows he can’t evade Solace forever, but before he can confront her, the Vulture God accepts a job no one else wants. The good news is the Vulture God completes the job. The bad news is the crew stumbled upon something HUGE, which forces them to become fugitives. Another protagonist is Havear Mundy, an Intervention Board agent, who has been tasked with tracking down the crew of the Vulture God to learn of their “activities.” The rest of the crew—Kris (another protagonist), Olli, Barney and Medvig—develop alongside Idris, Solace and Havaer. While they are all different races and have separate histories, they are terrified of the Architects.  

            The plot of this story focuses on the long-term aftermath of an alien invasion of a different sort. The Architects invaded the galaxy, but instead of simply dominating humans and the other races, they destroyed planets in a way which leaves the survivors shaken. After several decades, the Architects left and the societal galaxy has changed, but there have been signs that the Architects have returned. The question is: should the news go public? Not to mention, who is left that knows how to fight them off? There is one subplot that deserves the most attention and that is the various factions—both political and religious—who are fighting for dominance and have their own views about the Architects and the rumors of their “return.” Between the cults and the stereotypes all of the races have about each other, you are left wondering how they all would survive a 2nd invasion. This subplot develops alongside the plot at an appropriate rate. This is because the world is fleshed out as the story develops.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Idris, Solace, the other crew members of the Vulture God, and Havear in the 3rd person limited. This means the reader knows what is happening to the characters from one of their perspectives. While there are moments where the characters present their memories and their past experiences, the narrative is presented through their streams-of-consciousness in the present; and, their experiences and knowledge of their race and their history make them reliable narrators. Yes, the narrative is heavy at times, but it can be followed by the reader(s). 

            The style Adrian Tchaikovsky uses for Shards of Earth is part hard science fiction and part space opera. Readers can tell this story is a space opera—the mention of spaceships, galaxies, space battles, etc.—from the Prologue. The hard science fiction becomes noticeable when readers learn about the genetics of each race and the ecosystems of each planet. Yes, it is A LOT of information and scientific terminology, but the world-building that comes from it presents a believable galaxy (could it be our future?). Plus, there is a Glossary which readers can consult while they read the book. In addition, the author’s take on the factions as part of the war’s aftermath is believable. Think about it, during the last 20 years of global events—including the COVID-19 Pandemic—how much has religion and politics changed? In fact, it’s creepy how accurate the cult following of the author’s factions reflect the ones in our present day. The mood in this novel is an ominous one because the signs of the threat are there, and the individuals must decide on what they are going to do about it. The tone in this novel focuses on the self-imposed options of all of the characters within the story. Many of the characters in this story come from races and/or planets where certain “orders” are expected to be followed by those in charge. However, when “bigger” things are at stake, shouldn’t there be a choice for everyone regardless of societal expectations? In fact, why is free will such a difficult concept for some of these factions and races? 

            So far, the appeal for Shards of Earth have been positive. I say this because this book have been released in the U.K. with an upcoming release in the U.S. later this summer. As I mentioned earlier, I am participating in a book tour, so I received an eARC of this book. I can tell you that the hype surrounding this book is real, and fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s previous books will appreciate this one. And, as a fan of both Megan E. O’Keefe and Martha Wells, I highly recommend this book. Yes, this is the 1st book in a trilogy, and with the way this book ended, you’re going to be anxious to read Book 2 when it comes out. While there were moments where familiar sci-fi tropes appeared, the story was worth the read.

            Shards of Earth is an informative and an exceptional story about alien invasions, feuding factions, and eugenics. I’m glad this book tour gave me the opportunity to read this book in advanced, which allowed me to complete a book by Adrian Tchaikovsky! So, which of his books should I read next as I wait for the next book in this series?   

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

Book Haul: Indie Bookstore Day Edition

On Saturday, April 24th, it was Indie Bookstore Day (and my younger brother’s birthday)!

The purpose of Indie Bookstore Day is to support your local and/or your favorite indie bookstore by purchasing merchandise and/or books from them.

One of my favorite indie bookstores is Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, New York! Besides being a bookstore with 5 levels of books, several events take place there on a weekly basis. Before and during (and soon, after) the pandemic, I’ve attended several events where authors would discuss their books, have book signings and participate in live Q&As! Even now, with the pandemic, Strand has managed to keep everything up and running.

The Strand decided to have a 30% sale on their ENTIRE store! I couldn’t miss out on this deal, so I delve into book shopping. And surprisingly, I was in more control than I thought I would be.

These are some of the books I bought! If you’re familiar with these titles, then you’ll notice something interesting about the books I bought!

Here’s the answer behind my purchases!

Now, I can read this series without worrying about the gap between the books!

After winning the 3rd book in a giveaway with the author’s signature, I had to buy the 1st 2 books in this trilogy!

Finally, I have ALL 4 books in The Nine Realms! I’m hoping that Tor plans on publishing a 4-in-1 Collector’s Edition of this series in the near future!

And, I couldn’t help myself, I had to get a tote bag with one of The Strand’s most infamous quotes!

Did you participate in Indie Bookstore Day? If so, then what did you buy? What’s your favorite indie bookstore?

I’m looking forward to when I can visit the Strand Bookstore again!

Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

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

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!

Why You Need to Read: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

The House in the Cerulean Sea

By: T.J. Klune

Published: March 17, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of the 2021 ALA Alex Award*

            It was set up a hill on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked as if it were at least a hundred years old. It was made of brick and had a large turret of all things set right in the middle of the roof. The side of the house facing Linus was covered in green ivy, growing around multiple white window frames. He thought he could see the outline of a gazebo set off next to the house and wondered if there was a garden. He would like that very much. He could walk through it, smelling the salt in the air and—

            He shook his head. He wasn’t here for such things. There would be no time for frivolities. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it right, (FIVE). 

            It’s amazing how a reader comes across a book. In this case, after receiving an eARC, I received a print copy of this book from a giveaway. At the time of this book’s release, the reviews were all about how great and how beautiful the story is, and how everyone should read this book. And, when I started reading the book, I realized the description didn’t do it justice to the story as a whole. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune is a poignant story about family and identity.

            The protagonist is Linus Baker, a middle-aged caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (best described as social services for “magical” children). He is the stereotypical vapid and lonesome adult who lives alone—with his cat, Calliope—and focuses on his job, in which he is very good at. In fact, Linus is so good at his job, he receives a summons from Extremely Upper Management to take part in a highly classified assignment: investigate an orphanage on the distant island, Marsyas; report and determine whether or not it should remain open; and, check the well-being of 6 “magically dangerous” children and their caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. It doesn’t sound too bad, until Linus reads the files for each child. That is when Linus realizes this assignment is unlike the other ones he’s had before, and why the files are classified. Linus reads up on the files of the children: Lucy, Talia, Theodore, Chauncey, Sal and Phee. But, he waits to read Arthur’s file because Linus believes it isn’t relevant to the assignment. In addition to the children and Arthur, there is Zoë Chapelwhite, the “Caretaker of Marsyas Island,” and the mentor to one of the children. Each of the children are as unique as their files make them out to be, and Linus is able to see them all as children and NOT the magical beings they are. While Linus has no issues with writing up his reports and bonding with the children, he is puzzled by Arthur’s demeanor, especially when it comes to the humans who reside on the island. Arthur is a complex character, but it is through him that Linus develops as both a character and an individual throughout the story. 

            Although the plot appears to be cliché, it is less straightforward and more complex than presented in the first chapter. In this world, humans and magical beings coexist in society, but they remain segregated from each other. The obvious reason for this is the fear between both groups. Humans fear what they don’t know, and the magical beings fear for their safety (from humans). Linus believes he’s investigating the Marsyas Orphanage because of his ability to “do things by the book.” However, Linus learns quickly about the true intentions of Extremely Upper Management and of Arthur’s reasons for becoming the guardian for these particular children. There are two subplots in this book. The first one surrounds foster care. Just about everyone has heard of (or knows someone who went through or works within) the foster care system—which, includes orphanages and children’s homes—and, the numerous stories—both true and false—about the ongoings that occur within them. This includes visits from caseworkers and social workers. I’m not saying that this book provides “accurate” information—I wouldn’t know—but, there is enough familiarity in this book that brings out the reality within the fantasy. The second subplot involves trauma and fear, and how it is handled. Approximately, half of the characters are dealing with their personal fears and traumas, and they all deal with them in their own way. However, there are positive and negative methods to overcome them, which are explored in this story. These subplots are necessary because they provide more depth and development to both the plot and the characters.

            The narrative follows Linus’ point-of-view in the present, and is told in 3rd person limited narration. This means that the readers know what is happening from Linus’ experiences, and what is told to him by the other characters. This use of narration is essential for the story because of Linus’ role as a case worker. He must be able to understand the children, Zoë and Arthur while maintaining his identity as a human; especially, when Linus is told of the traumas the children have gone through. This makes Linus a reliable narrator. 

            The style T.J. Klune uses for The House in the Cerulean Sea is first and foremost a commentary on stereotypes, especially those placed on children. Ironically, this book was released during the year the world was forced to observe how they operated, and how their societal practices led to social turmoil. In addition, it is children who are taught how the world will perceive them based on these societal norms and practices; and, how it can get better, or worse (usually worse), as they reach adulthood. Earlier, I mentioned foster care systems, but there are several allusions to magical beings across folklore and speculative fiction, including the “smaller details” to what some of us suspected about those magical beings. The mood in this book is paradise. Linus arrives on the island and he is awed instantly by its beauty: the weather, the colors, and the appeal. However, each literary paradise contains its own underlining issue. The tone in this book is the dismantlement of stereotypes and appearances. All of the characters have something within themselves they need to overcome so that they can continue living their lives. 

            The appeal for The House in the Cerulean Sea have been immensely positive. Several readers and critics have had nothing but great things to say about this book. In addition, this novel was named “One of the Best (SFF) Books” of 2020 by everyone from Goodreads to Amazon. This book is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon and it should be read by all fans of the genre, especially for its lighter tone. Recently, this book became one of the recipients of the American Library Association’s (a.k.a. ALA) 2021 Alex Award. And, I’m going to say that this is the first of many accolades this book will receive. 

            The House in the Cerulean Sea is the magical book readers and fans didn’t know they needed. T.J. Klune presents a story about stereotypes surrounding identity, youth, family and appearances; and, it provides a bit of magic to it in order to present it as realistic, and it works. If you are looking for a fantasy story that will make you smile, then look no further. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

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

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold

By: S.A. Chakraborty 

Published: June 30, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

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

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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