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: “A Spindle Splintered”

Fractured Fables, #1: A Spindle Splintered

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 5, 2021

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore

            …I’ve fallen out of my own story and into one that might have a happy ending. Because this is my last chance to have a real adventure, to escape, to do more than play out the clock, (2).

            Fairy tales have existed since oral and literary traditions became embedded in folklore and culture. For example, there is a “Cinderella” story for each region and culture in the world; and, it is one of the “oldest” folktales in human existence. In fact, anyone can recite a few fairy tales orally and include all of the “elements” within it. Disney movies aside, fairy tale retellings continue to exist, and there have been numerous stories released recently, which demonstrates how these tales continue to entertain us. In Alix E. Harrow’s novella, A Spindle Splintered, she fuses traditional variants with modern knowledge. 

            There are 2 things you need to know about the protagonist, Zinnia Gray. First, she is obsessed with the tale of “Sleeping Beauty”; second, Zinnia is dying from a rare genetic disease. In fact, she is not expected to live past her 21st birthday, which is today (in the story), and time is limited as Zinnia starts to process her “last days.” Fairy tales have been a coping mechanism for Zinnia—she earned a Master’s degree in Folk Studies—and, it is the story of “Sleeping Beauty” she finds most relatable to her. And yet, Zinnia’s best friend, Charmaine Baldwin a.k.a. “Charm,” has stood by her since childhood. Furthermore, Charm insists that her best friend attends the “Sleeping Beauty” themed birthday party she put together for her. There’s even a spinning wheel! But, what happens when Zinnia pricks her finger on it? And, who is the young woman claiming to be a princess? Readers learn quickly that Zinnia is more than just a “sick girl.” Her determination and her resilience allows her to view her current predicament as an opportunity to save her life, and another’s as well. 

            The plot of this story is Zinnia dreading her impending death. Her disease means that she won’t live past 21, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. That is, until a spinning wheel provides a rare chance to change her fate. At the same time, Zinnia might be able to rescue a princess from hers. There is a subplot in this story, and it is fairy tales: their origins, their evolution, and their “lasting appeal.” Remember, every story is a story unless it’s yours; that’s when the story becomes one’s experience. The subplot drives the plot in this narrative, which brings out the reality (and the magic) within the fiction.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Zinnia’s point-of-view, and it is told in the present. Zinnia’s stream-of-consciousness is vital to the narrative because her knowledge of the past helps her with her quest and her phone lets her (and us) know that all of the events within the narrative are happening—Zinnia is NOT under a sleeping spell. A few revelations throughout the quest leads to genuine moments of awe and of shock through Zinnia, which makes her a reliable narrator with a narrative that can be followed easily. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses in A Spindle Splintered is different from her novels. Instead of allusions to previous stories, myths, legends and magic, this novella delves into the evolution of fairy tales—also known as Märchen, or “magic tale” by folklorists—many in which, “expresses the escape from reality,” (Dégh 59). In addition, this story is NOT a fairy tale retelling, but a “fractured fairy tale.” A fairy tale is “a story involving the fantastic, usually involving familiar traditional formulas and often ending in eucatastrophe (after which people live happily ever after),” (Mendlesohn and James 253). A fractured fairy tale is the practice of breaking fairy tales (from as small as a split to as large as a chasm) up so that the storyteller can rewrite them to reflect the present world while maintaining key elements from the fractures that get used in them. In other words, new variants of the older variants of fairy tales must have something in it so that the audience can identify the (new) tale being told. The most popular example of this is Disney and how they took older variants of these folktales and retold them in a way in which the audience knows it’s the “Disney variant.” A fractured fairy tale is another way for stories to be “told and retold in many different ways. They are guised and disguised,” (Yolen 4). Another explanation is that the author has taken parts of the tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” kept the parts that would identify it as “Sleeping Beauty,” include the possible origins of the tale within a modern conflict that presents the tale as a new variant. In short, and I repeat, this is NOT a fairy tale retelling (per se), but a modern fairy tale. How many fairy tales have working smartphones in them? The mood in this story is dread. 2 young women are fearful of their impending 21st birthdays. The tone is resilience. Both young women actively seek out ways to change their fate.

            The appeal for A Spindle Splintered will be positive. Fans of the author’s previous works will enjoy this one; however, they should know that this book is closer to a fairy tale than a fantasy story—similar yet different. If you’re not a fan of fairy tales, then this book might not be for you. Fans of Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley will enjoy this book the most. But, fans Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Rena Rossner should consider reading this story, too. Anyone who studied folklore—such as myself—will appreciate all of the scholarly references mentioned throughout this tale. And, anyone who enjoys this book will be pleased to know that the follow up—A Mirror Mended—will be released next summer.

            A Spindle Splintered is a tragic yet entertaining story about the lasting affect of fairy tales, and what an individual should do when they find themselves in one. Once again, Alix E. Harrow reminds her audience of the significance of fairy tales and their everlasting impact throughout culture and humanity. This is the “Sleeping Beauty” tale for the 21st century.

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

                                                                        References 

Dégh, Linda. “Folk Narrative.” Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard M. Dorson, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 53-83.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Tachyon Publications LLC, 2018. 

SCKA 2021: The Nominees, the Finalists & the Experience

One of the best things about being a bookblogger is the book awards. Besides the “big awards” such as the Hugo and the Nebula Awards—which many of us have read at least half of the nominees—there are the SPFBO and the SPSFC—which gives bookbloggers and (indie) reviewers the chance to propel indie books towards more readers. How many of you have heard of SCKA? Well, I didn’t until I was asked to participate on the jury this year.

            SCKA stands for Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, which was started by bookbloggers. This year, I was asked to participate as one of the judges. Even though I had some other things going on at the same time—i.e. grad school—I said yes. This has been a fun yet tense experience because there is a process that must be followed. It makes you have a stronger appreciation for the other literary awards.  

            First, was the categories. There are 12 of us, including myself, who make up the jury and we agreed on which categories we all wanted to include for these awards. We agreed on: fantasy, science fiction, blurred (a.k.a. genre blended), debut work, series, novella and short fiction. Next, we all had the opportunity to nominate a work for each category; but, there was a catch: if we nominated for a category, then we had to read ALL of the nominees. Some of us had to remember how much we could read within a given time. So no, I didn’t participate in the 1st round voting in every category. 

            As you can observe from this chart: we all nominated on our nominees while making sure we didn’t nominate the same book, the same series, or the same stories. For the short fiction, we all made sure sources—either links or anthology titles—were provided for everyone so they could access them. 

Here are the nominees for each category (I apologize for the list, but I couldn’t format the Excel chart onto WordPress):

Fantasy:

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Comet Weather by Liz Williams

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Sci-Fi:

Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Repo Virtual by Corey S. White

Blurred:

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Debut:

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Series:

Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard

Islands of Blood and Storm by Kacen Callender

Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez

The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Novella:

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Sweet Harmony by Claire North

Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Short Fiction:

“Tiger Lawyer Gets It Right” by Sarah Gailey

“Convergence in Chorus Architecture: by Dare Segun Falowo

“In Kind” by Kayla Whaley

“Volumes” by Laura Duerr

“You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark

“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen F. McHugh

“Juice Like Wounds” by Seanan McGuire

Then, we read, and we read, and we read some more. 

Recently, we voted on our finalists. The finalists were determined based on votes, and whichever nominees received the highest and the 2nd highest (or, in some cases, the 3rd highest) votes moved on to the finalists round.

Here are the finalists for each category based on the most votes:

Fantasy:

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Sci-Fi:

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Blurred:

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (tie)

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (tie)

Debut:

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (tie)

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (tie)

Series:

The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard

Novella:

Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Short Fiction:

“You Perfect, Broken Things” by C.L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine, #32)

“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen F. McHugh (Tor.com)

            Please note: the finalists do NOT take away from the rest of the nominees AT ALL! In comparison to the rest of the nominees, the finalists stood out the most. Now, we have to read ALL of the finalists to determine the winner for each category. Unlike the nominees, all of the judges are allowed to participate in voting for the finalists in any or in all of the categories. This means that all of the finalists must be read by each juror before voting, which is fair. You can expect an announcement of the winners within the next couple of months.

            Which one will be voted as the winners of SCKA 2021? Stick around and find out!

Why You Need to Read: “The Gilded Ones”

The Gilded Ones, #1: The Gilded Ones

By: Namina Forna

Published: February 9, 2021

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains elements of rape, misogyny, familicide, dismemberment, human trafficking, and violence against females. Be advised.

            Confusion lines my face, and I frown at her. “An invitation for what?”

            “For you, Impure One. Emperor Gezo has decided to create an army of your kind. He invites you to join it and protect our beloved Otera from those that would oppose her will,” (3).

            Readers have become familiar with genre-blending—the blending of at least 2 distinguished genres and/or subgenres within a book or a book series—but, every now and then there are books which are “crossovers” for the audience. For example, consider which books you had to read in secondary school for your literature class. You know many of those books were written for adults, right? And yet, many adolescents have at least 1 book from school that they remembered reading, and some even enjoyed the story. There are several examples of books written for adults that should NOT be read by younger readers—The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff—but, there are several young adult books containing numerous adult themes that should be read both by adolescents and by adults as well. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is the latest book to tackle how the “adult world” influences the youth negatively and why certain societal practices continue to exist through posterity. 

            The protagonist is Deka. She is 16 years-old and is about to undergo the “Ritual of Purity,” a rite to see if a female’s blood runs red or gold. If a girl’s blood runs red, then she is declared a woman and becomes a member of the village they reside in. Deka has become even more terrified of the Ritual since her mother’s death 3 months earlier; her father is the last family member she has left. However, she has 2 close friends who she envisions remaining close to after she passes the Ritual. Unfortunately, 2 events occur on the day of the Ritual that changes Deka’s life. First, her village is attacked by creatures known as Deathshrieks who kill several people. Second, her blood runs gold—the blood of the Impure—and she is ordered to be “cleanse…” that is until a figure—a woman with white hands—arrives with an offer to reclaim her identity: join the emperor’s army of Impure women to defeat the Deathshrieks for good, or be sentenced to death. Almost immediately, Deka leaves her fanatical village for a chance at “absolution.” Along the way, Deka meets and befriends Britta from the Northern Province. Once at the compound, she meets twin sisters, Adwapa and Asha from the Southern Province; Belcalis from the Western Province; and, Gazal and Jeneba their “Honored Elder or Senior Bloodsisters” who help the girls with their training and to become acclimated with their new life. Then, there is Keita, an uruni—(human) men partnered with each of the girls to work together with (and to spy on) the women as they fight against the Deathshrieks. Last, is White Hands, the Impure woman who brought Deka and Britta to the compound for a chance at absolution; but, she has a close relationship with the Emperor, and she has an interest in Deka, and Deka doesn’t know why. All of these characters help Deka accept her new life and her purpose as she becomes stronger—physically, mentally and emotionally—and determined to protect Otera. 

            The plot of this novel has several parts. First, is Deka’s journey towards absolution after her blood classifies her as a demon. Second, is the explanation of the “Infinite Wisdoms,” the religious mandate practiced in most of the provinces in Otera, which limits the roles of females to their families and their households; but, an army of Impure Ones has existed for some time. Last, is the world-building that occurs throughout the narrative including the various provinces of Otera, the history of Otera—including the goddesses and the Infinite Father. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first is about the Deathshrieks. What are they? Why have they been attacking villages? Why have their numbers continued to grow? The second subplot is about the “Impure Ones,” or “demons” who are descended from the Gilded Ones—the goddesses who founded Otera. It seems that there are some unknown benefits to being “impure,” which are known by those who are “impure.” In addition, why are all the “Impure Ones” female? What about males? These subplots are essential to the plots as the reader(s) learn more about the characters and the world through them and their conflicts. The plots and the subplots go at an appropriate rate as the story reveals everything that will happen in it.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Deka’s point-of-view. And, the narrative is presented in the present tense. This means that the reader experiences everything and learns about everything through Deka’s P.O.V. and her stream-of-consciousness. Deka’s growth from devout outcast to lead warrior—including some revelations about herself—make her a reliable narrator. A reminder that the narrative is intended for young adult readers, and it can be followed easily by both YA and adult readers. 

            The style Namina Forna uses for The Gilded Ones is NOT new, but it is one of the most candid seen in (YA) literature for some time. The author wanted to examine the idea of the patriarchy—how and why it is practiced—and how religion continues to influence this societal practice. Namina Forna is from Sierra Leone and—when she moved to the U.S.—she saw no difference in the practice of patriarchy between Africa and America. And, given what many of us know about similar practices in the rest of our world (i.e. Asia, the Middle East, etc.), this book is a commentary on how females continue to be treated throughout the world. Feminism and misogyny are international themes and issues that continue to permeate into individuals worldwide. Personally, I believe that one of the reasons “change” and “equality” haven’t happened for women yet is because every region of the world acts like gender equality is “better” where they are; and that is a HUGE lie. Namina Forna presents the harsh reality females—especially young ones—face because some males desire to express their dominance over them. Regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or ethnicity, this book speaks volumes of what girls and women experience throughout their lives. The mood in this novel is domination. The females are dominated by the males and their religion, even the “Impure Ones” are oppressed by men. The tone in this novel is belligerence. The “Impure Ones” are trained to fight their foes, but are they limited to the Deathshrieks? There is a map of Otera at the front of the book and it should be used by the reader(s) whenever they need to consult it. 

            The appeal for The Gilded Ones have been mostly positive with 75% of the ratings on Goodreads being 4- and 5-stars. One thing that needs to be mentioned is the book’s publication. This book’s release was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. That being said, the hype surrounding the author’s debut novel made the wait worth it (I read an eARC of this book). This book is described as being for fans of Children of Blood and Bone, Shadow and Bone, Legendborn and Raybearer. I would describe The Gilded Ones as a combination of The Year of the Witching and Speak. Once again, this book is written for YA readers containing “adult” themes they know exist in our world. Not everyone will view this book for what it is, and that’s all right because it means that the book wasn’t written for them. The next book in this series—The Merciless Ones, which releases in April 2022—continues Deka’s journey to discovering her role within the Impure Ones and warring against those who want her dead.

            The Gilded Ones is the book young girls crave and adult women wished they had as children. Namina Forna found a way to present the truth within the fiction for adolescent readers, but made it alluring for adult readers as well. While this book should NOT be read by everyone, it should NOT be missed by anyone. Go and read one of the best (debut) novels of this year!

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

The Midpoint of 2021: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021. I won’t begin this post with the usual current events, but I will mention that I’ve been enjoying ALL of the sporting events that are taking place (i.e. Euro Cup, Copa America, NBA & NHL Playoffs, Summer 2020/21 Olympic Trials, etc.). More attention has been given to both books and video games as those who’ve been at home continue to remember that they’re both entertaining and artistic.

As for me, I’ve been recovering from an exhausted winter and spring. This is because, as a few of you know, I went back to graduate school in order to earn a MA degree in Library and Information Science. For the last 2 years, I’ve been taking classes on an accelerated pace in order to complete the program sooner rather than later. No, COVID-19 wasn’t an “imminent” threat when I started back in Fall 2019; and yes, it was an interesting experience completing the program throughout the majority of the pandemic, work my part-time job outside of my residence, and continue working on my blog. In addition, I’ve only told my closest friends and acquaintances (including you) about this, meaning I’ve managed to work on a degree without my ENTIRE family knowing about it. And, unless they read this post, then it will stay that way until I am ready to make an announcement, which will be sometime after I get a job within my field (whenever that may be).

Why am I mentioning this now? Simple, it’s because during my last semester, I had to work on graduating on time and in order to do that I had to cutback on SOME of my reading. Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will notice that I’m behind on my Reading Goal and I’m lagging on completing the books I’m reading currently. I won’t get into my TBR piles both from Netgalley and Edelweiss! It’s NOT that the books are bad in anyway, I’m still mentally exhausted from all of the work I had to do in order to graduate on time; not to mention all of the other events called life.

I am starting to feel better and I started to catch up on both my reading and my writing (including reviews). You’ve noticed that I started posting reviews again, but remember I read faster than I write. Which brings me to another announcement: I realized that my 200th post is upcoming and I plan on writing another “special” piece in order to commemorate the milestone. What will it be? You just have to wait.

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for:

Books I’ve Finished Reading:

Across the Green Grass Fields

First, Become Ashes

Tower of Mud and Straw (It was nominated for a Nebula Award for “Best Novella”!)

The Bone Shard Daughter (Yes, it was released in 2020, but the sequel comes out later this year!)

The Light of the Midnight Stars

Chaos Vector (Just in time to read the final book in the trilogy!)

Fugitive Telemetry

Over the Woodward Wall (Along the Saltwise Sea comes out this fall!)

Shards of Earth (My 1st Book Tour!)

And, A LOT of Paranormal & Fantasy Romance Books by Indie Authors (That’s for a future post!)

Books I’m Reading Currently:

The Empire’s Ruin

The House of Always

She Who Became the Sun

The Unbroken

The Jasmine Throne

The Gilded Ones

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2021:

The Broken God

Firebreak

The Fire Keeper’s Daughter

House of Hollow

The Unspoken Name

The Witch’s Heart

For the Wolf

The Two-Faced Queen

The Next 2 Books in The First Argentines Series

The sequels of the upcoming books mentioned; more paranormal & fantasy romance books; and, several MORE books I can’t list here because otherwise, this post would be never-ending.

I don’t know whether or not I will be able to read the books mentioned by the end of this year. I’m still trying to catch up from last year’s TBR! So right now, I want to thank the authors, the other bloggers, Fantasy-Faction, all of the publishers and the agents for being both supportive and understanding as I continue to work my way through the last 6 months, and for encouraging me to continue working on my other writings.

Speaking of “other” writings, please keep an eye out for any upcoming essays and lists I will continue to share here. Any and all feedback are welcome.

We’re halfway through 2021. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Also, if you haven’t already, then please read the essay I wrote that was published on the SFWA website! Click here to access it.

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!

This Week’s Book Haul (April 4-10, 2021): NetGalley Edition

We are familiar with posts about Weekly or Monthly Book Hauls, or new arrivals of books. These books can be ARCs, purchases and/or gifts. Sometimes, there are stories surrounding these book hauls, but most of them don’t need to be told. I’m taking the opportunity and I’m using this week’s book haul to discuss some lingering and continuing issues I’ve been having with NetGalley.

Request Rejected

Most of us remember when we had our requests rejected. This is a scenario I’m still familiar with: request a book, have that request rejected, search other opportunities to receive an ARC (Goodreads giveaways, Bookish First, etc.) and fail in that, purchase the book the week it’s released.

‘Read Now’ Quota Reached

Those of us who check NetGalley daily and/or receive the newsletters know what I am talking about. You receive an email and/or you’re browsing a galley site and you realize that you can download the book immediately. However, you’re NOT in front of your computer and you are unable to download the galley from your mobile device, which means you’ve missed out on receiving the galley. On top of that, your request is rejected; so, you wait until you can purchase the book.

Request Pending (even with the ‘Read Now’ selection available)

This happens more often than NetGalley wants to admit. You request a galley and it’s pending. Then, a few weeks later, the publisher gives the book a “Read Now” status. So, you access your NetGalley account hoping to download the book, only to notice that your request is still pending. You can’t cancel the request and there is no way around downloading the book due to its “status,” which leaves you feeling more annoyed because you were so close to obtaining the galley that you wanted.

In this case, after entering numerous giveaways, the author of Firebreak, Nicole Kornher-Stace, mailed an ARC to me (Thank you SO MUCH for doing that for me)! Firebreak is one of my most anticipated books of 2021, and I’m honored that the author decided to mail me an Advanced Copy in exchange for an honest review, which I will be doing sooner rather than later (after I read the book of course)!

I should mention that this is NOT an issue with Edelweiss+. In fact, there have been times when I’ve had a request rejected only for the publisher to allow for the “Download” option for anyone who is interested. This change overrides the any previous status. If Edelweiss has this override, then shouldn’t NetGalley?!

Galley I Forgot to Download BEFORE the Archive Date

This one was my fault. I heard about this book from other bookbloggers, and I my request was granted almost immediately. Unfortunately, I did NOT download the galley by the archive date. Honestly, I might have misread April (Apr. on NetGalley’s website) for August (Aug. on NetGalley).

I still wanted to read this book, so I bought it! This book is a translation of a trilogy about Norse mythology. Since Norse myths are the stories to read at the moment (I still have to read both Northern Wrath and The Witch’s Heart), I decided to add this one to the list. I want to do a Norse-themed read through before Norsevember 2021!

So, why did I write this post? I wanted to let readers, bloggers and reviewers know that they are not the only ones with these issues on NetGalley. I believe that all of these issues are common knowledge, but for some unknown reason, NetGalley has yet to address the issues surrounding their available galleys. I understand some of it goes back to the publishers’, but they are NOT the ones running the site.

Have any of you had similar and/or different experiences with these galley sites? What did you do? What are your other options for gaining ARCs and galleys? And yes, I’m looking forward to reading ALL of these books!

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!

Current Speculative Fiction Series I Need to Complete

The Poppy War, #3: The Burning God (2020) by R.F. Kuang

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been meaning to read this final book in this bloody and brilliant historical grimdark trilogy. I did read the first couple of chapters, so I know that this story begins immediately where The Dragon Republic left off. And, that Prologue! I’m familiar enough with this subgenre of fantasy to know how this story could end, but I’ll have to read it to find out! If you haven’t start this series yet, then you’re missing out. Remember to start with The Poppy War.

Blood and Gold, #3: Queens of the Sea (2019) by Kim Wilkins

This series is unknown outside of Australia, and I had to order a copy of the 3rd and final book in this trilogy from a bookstore in the Down Under. The first book in this trilogy is Daughters of the Storm, and the premise of the book is about 5 royal sisters who go on a journey to save their father, the king, from a mysterious illness. Meanwhile, their stepbrother seeks the throne, and goes out of his way to expose the secrets each of the sisters are hiding from each other. The second book in the trilogy, Sisters of the Fire, takes place 5 years later, and it delves into the oncoming threats heading towards the kingdom, and the aftermath of the fallout amongst the 5 princesses. Queens of the Sea takes place 5 years after the end of the second book, and I’m still excited to read it!

Mistborn: Era 1 (2006-8) by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, I started one of Brandon Sanderson’s series! It was a few years ago; and yes, I remember what happened where I left off (in the 2nd book)! Tor was kind enough to gift me these books from one of their (previous) sweepstakes, and I started reading the books immediately. However, I stopped halfway through The Well of Ascension (around the point where the pace slows down) and I haven’t had time to finish reading this trilogy. Interestingly, the only other book by Brandon Sanderson I’ve read was The Original (the audiobook he co-wrote with Mary Robinette Kowal). I own some of the author’s other books (including The Starlight Archive), but I guess I want to complete one series before starting another one.

Rosewater Trilogy (2017-19) by Tade Thompson

I read and reviewed Rosewater, and I was very excited to read the rest of the trilogy. And then, I read the author’s Molly Southbourne series instead. I should hurry up and read the rest of this Africanfuturism trilogy! If you’re a fan of both Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi and P. Djeli Clark, then you need to start reading this series!

The Wicked + The Divine (2014-19) by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie (Illustrations), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Clayton Cowles

I’ve been getting back into graphic novels. I was reading this series until around Volume 3, and then I just stopped. I kept buying them, but I haven’t finished the series yet. With this series, I’m going to start from the beginning and read them all straight through.

This series is about how 12 immortals are reincarnated as teenagers, who get their live as pop idols with all of the fame and recognition. However, there is a catch: after 2 years, they die. So, what will this generation of reincarnated gods do with 2 years left to live?

Knowing my schedule, I probably won’t get to these books until the summer. Not to mention, I have A LOT of other books to get through from my TBR pile. What will I read next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Which series do you still need to finish reading?

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)!!!