Why You Need to Read: “Bound”

Book of the Ancestor: Book 2.5: Bound

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: December 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Short Stories

            X is Nona Grey. And nobody knows what this is.

            This short story gives fans and readers an interlude to Nona’s life back at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. The events in Bound take place after the events in Grey Sister. However, the Convent is the center of all of the political drama and the invading armies, so there is never a dull moment for the residents at Sweet Mercy. 

            After a lesson in algebra—Nona’s worse and most disliked subject—Nona meets up with Ara and Ruli to have some forbidden fun. During the novices’ adolescent antics, the girls overhear some disturbing news from outside the Convent’s walls. The Sis—the noble families of Abeth—are in danger, and the nuns decide to investigate with a recruit. And no, it’s NOT Nona!

            The plot is a straightforward murder mystery that reminds all of the characters that people do NOT have short memories. Readers are treated to a look into the social practices of the Sis in both the significance and the silliness. While Nona and Ara participate in the Sis’ activities, Ruli and Jula conduct research in the library. Readers will admire the way the novices work together, and fans will appreciate the appearance of a few minor characters, who continue to be a part of the plot and its development. At the same time, Nona continues to become more and more powerful.

            Mark Lawrence’s style is reflected in the narrative. Told in Nona’s point-of-view, readers learn everything that is happening inside and outside the Convent, which reflects the mood: war is coming, and everyone is on edge. Nona is experiencing everything including the thoughts of her friends, her allies, and her enemies This style is an interesting use of stream-of-consciousness that the author has used before, but this time, Nona is able to learn more about herself from this particular event. Once again, this short story takes place between Grey Sister and Holy Sister. This is important because the tone—long-term grudges and its meaninglessness—presents how trifle things almost always overshadow more relevant issues such as invading army or two. 

            This short story and trilogy interlude are perfect for fans of the Book of the Ancestor series who knows other things occurred before the third and final novel was released. While there are some fans who admit they either didn’t know or didn’t read Bound said they would read it in order to revisit some of their favorite characters. Think of Bound as a continued expansion of Nona’s world through her eyes.

            Bound is not only a story about how our favorite characters continue to grow into themselves, but also a precursor into what’s to come in Holy Sister. This short story provides a perfect look into what’s at stake; yes, it should be read before reading Holy Sister. Mark Lawrence knows how much to give his readers with his stories!

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

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Why You Need to Read: “Vita Nostra”

Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra

By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.

Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman 

Winner of the PocKoH 2008

Vita nostra brevis est,                                                 Our life is brief,

Brevi finietur;                                                             Soon it will end;

Venit mors velociter,                                                   Death comes quickly,

Rarit nos atrociter,                                                     Snatches us cruelly,

Nemini parcetur!                                                        No one is spared!

                                                                                                                       (Part One).

            I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible. 

            Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute. 

            The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors. 

            The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.  

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre. 

            Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!

            Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions! 

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction

Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism

Why You Need to Read: “The Gutter Prayer”

Book One of the Black Iron Legacy: The Gutter Prayer

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Audiobook: 16 hours 58 minutes

Narrated by: John Banks

Published: January 15, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark 

WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been warned. 

…the thieves—the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl…(Prologue).

            All readers have at least this one thing in common—so many books and very little time to read them all. With so many books—in all genres—being released to the acclaim of both critics and readers, there are moments when a reader does not know which book to read next. Also, there are times when a reader wants to read a book but has to find a way to read it alongside the other books they are reading. In this case, I wanted to read The Gutter Prayer—a grimdark fantasy debut novel by Gareth Hanrahan—which, I have heard nothing but positive things about the book. However, I didn’t have time to read my eBook copy, and I did not want to wait until “later” to read it. So, the only option I had left was the audiobook. I bought it and I prayed that the narration would be as good as the story, and I was not disappointed in either one! The Gutter Prayer is one of the most creative and most entertaining debut novels I’ve read in a while; and, listening to the audiobook gave me a new respect and outlook on narrators. 

            This novel contains several characters. There are 3 protagonists: Carillon Thay, or Cari, a young woman who lived a nomadic life before becoming a thief for the Guild; Rat, a ghoul who is considered to be of a young age amongst other ghouls; and, Spar, a lifelong member of the Thieves’ Guild, who is also a Stone Man, suffering from a disease that slowly petrifies people. When we first meet this trio, they are breaking into a building to steal some documents as appointed by Heinreil, the Guild’s leader. After the job goes awry, we meet: Jere: a thief-taker (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who has a borderline obsession with the trio; Professor Ongent and his son, Miren, scholars with their own baggage and piqued interest in Cari; Eladora Duttin, Cari’s cousin whom she has not seen since they were children; and, Aleena, a woman with unusual ties to Cari. This motley band of characters are about to become acquainted with each other whether or not they want to be. All of the characters are rounded and complex and have down-to-Earth concerns, secrets, and ambitions. At first, readers assume these characters are static and are expected to adhere to the tropes, but the complexity and the connection these characters have demonstrate how each of them develop throughout the novel. 

            The plot of The Gutter Prayer is extremely intriguing: 3 thieves are betrayed by their leader, and as they plot their revenge they uncover not only political conspiracies, but also an ongoing war amongst gods, mages, and alchemists. All the while, Cari, Rat and Spar are linked to this war whether or not they want to be. However, if they want a chance at vengeance, then they must stop Armageddon from happening. Of course, this is easier said than done, but they are not alone. The subplots are interconnected with the plot. First, there are Cari and Eladora. Most of their relatives were killed in a massacre, in which neither Cari, nor Eladora were present. Cari ran away from home and became a thief, and Eladora settled in Guerdon to distance herself from her religious zealot mother. Professor Ongent and Miren take interests in them, but Cari can’t shake the feeling that the Professor has ulterior motives. Next, Spar struggles with the disease that will kill him eventually. At the same time, he knows it’s time to fight Heinreil in order to become the Head of the Thieves’ Guild. This is one of two promises Spar makes to Cari; the second one involves getting back an amulet Heinreil took from Cari. Last, Rat, the ghoul who spends as much time underground as he does above it, is very knowledgeable about the ongoing war between the gods and all of the mages. What the others don’t know is that Rat and the other ghouls have a role to play in the war as well. All of these subplots are necessary for the plot to go at an appropriate rate. This is because, as the plot continues, readers learn the hows and the whys all of these characters remain motivated to stop the mages from bringing destruction to the world. 

            The narrative follows a chronological sequence of events that are told from multiple points-of-view. From the botched robbery to the motives of all of the characters, the readers learn everything that is happening and why from all of the locations the characters find themselves in. Usually, in narratives like these, it is difficult to determine which of the characters are reliable. However, due to each of the protagonists’ stream-of-consciousness—which include flashbacks of important moments in their lives—readers are able to follow the narrative easily. In other words, readers learn where each protagonist is coming from and are able to understand them a lot more. 

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is very interesting, and it brings out the grimdark aspect within the fantasy. The author created a world where ghouls are NOT the threat, but mages, saints, and wax figures are working to prompt Armageddon. In addition, the use of word choice and figurative language—especially when it comes to describing bells and medallions—clues readers in as to what they should pay attention to. The mood of The Gutter Prayer is preventing the coming of the end of the world and the lengths people go to either to invoke it, or to prevent it. No one survives the coming or the prevention of the end-of-the-world unscathed, so the mood here would be the tension of the dilemma. And, while the author did this unknowingly (I asked him about it on social media), a lot of the action occurs on “Desiderata Street.” Anyone who is familiar with the poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, knows that it is a reminder to individuals to strive for high ideals and to respect others the way they want to be treated. This is the tone of the novel, and this “way of life,” is the philosophy (remember “Philosopher’s Street”?) which, is reflected in one of the protagonists. Yes, it sounds cliché, but the way this is used within the author’s style of writing doesn’t feel that way at all. 

            The appeal surrounding The Gutter Prayer have been beyond positive. While it’s obvious that grimdark fans will enjoy this book the most, this should NOT be missed by other fantasy fans and readers! This debut—yes, remember debut—novel is already considered to be one of the “Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2019” by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Social media fandoms kept raving about this book to the point where I knew I had to find a way to read it. So, I bought the audiobook. The narrator, John Banks, was perfect for voicing this book. The way he used his voice to convey each character and to describe the setting the way he did matched the story perfectly. I felt that John Banks’ narration embellished the story. And, while I hope to read The Shadow Saint, the upcoming sequel to The Gutter Prayer (to be released on January 9, 2020), I wouldn’t mind if John Banks narrated that book and any other ones in the series as well. It did not feel like I was listening to 17 hours of a novel, it felt like I was there!

            The Gutter Prayer is a striking addition to the fantasy genre. It’s dark and twisted story will remind readers that fantasy is more than “knights in shining armor arriving to save the world.” The fact that it is a debut novel will leave fans craving for more from Gareth Hanrahan. If you’re a fan of fantasy and you want something both new and different, then look no further. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Dragon Republic”

The Poppy War: #2: The Dragon Republic

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: August 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Grimdark, Folklore, Military 

WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. You have been warned. 

            She didn’t care about anyone’s visions for the future. She’d stopped wanting to be great, to carve out her place in history, a long time ago. She’d since learned the cost, (Chapter 6).

            Books about war—whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction—attempts to include the horrors it brings along with it. In recent years, more fiction stories have included the “realities” of war as opposed to the “glories” of it, which usually make their way into the narratives. R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, re-establishes the “cost of war” and its aftermath in the sequel, The Dragon Republic.

            Runin “Rin” Fang is (still) reeling from her actions, which led to the end of the Third Poppy War and victory for the Empire. However, the victory has left Rin feeling hollow due to the deaths of her friends, her teachers, and her comrades. Everything she’d witnessed throughout the war: death, rape, starvation, mutilation, her lack of control as a shaman over a goddess, her addiction to opium, and the betrayal she and her Unit suffered towards the end of the war has left Rin in a depressive state of mind. As a soldier, Rin believes her only purpose lies in seeking revenge against those who betrayed her and the other denizens of the Empire. Lacking support, resources, and leadership skills, Rin leads the 13th Division to fight their remaining enemies. However, Rin and her soldiers are approached by Yin Vaisra—the Dragon Warlord, the Head of the House of Yin, and the father of one of her Sinegard classmates—and, he has a proposition for her: join up with him to form a “democratic” Republic amongst the now disbanded 12 Provinces and he will assist her with her vengeance. Rin—suspecting hidden motives and desiring to remain a soldier—agrees to the Dragon Warlord’s terms. As Rin works with her Unit and the Dragon Province, she is reunited with her former classmates who make their own decisions regarding the civil war that has broken out between the Empire and the Dragon Republic. This time, she has to determine her worth within this latest conflict. In order to do this, Rin develops from soldier to puppet to commander; it is a rough, but essential growth for Rin!

            Just like The Poppy WarThe Dragon Republic has three parts: the aftermath of war, the beginning of a civil war, and the fallout as a result of the civil war. Part I focuses on the Aftermath of the Third Poppy War, especially how the survivors—both military and civilian—are dealing with the damage that remains. Rin struggles with keeping her unit alive while avoiding the troops who would capture Rin in order to collect the bounty on her head. She makes a deal with the Dragon Warlord not only to achieve her goal of revenge and to have access of supplies for her troops, but also to maintain her purpose of being a soldier. All Rin knows is warfare and she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. She’s not alone in this because her friends and her comrades feel the same way. 

            Part II is the campaign launched by the Dragon Province. The mission: either to parlay, or to destroy the other 11 Provinces. The choice lies between siding with the Dragon Warlord or fighting against him. The reality of war is presented to readers again as war tactics, war strategy, and death becomes part of the plot. Decisions are the difference between life and death, and death always seems to prevail. Meanwhile, Rin is suffering from her lost abilities as a shaman and from the humiliating “testing” done to her by the Hesperians—an advanced civilization who promises to ally themselves with the Dragon Province towards the goal of a united republic with the promise of weapons as long as they: win the civil war, allow missionaries to assist with the refugees, and to “study” Rin. Rin has flashbacks to the same experiments done to her and Altan by the Mugenese and begins to wonder whether or not if more than her self-worth is on the line. At the same time, Rin learns how the Empress became so powerful and how the damage she inflicted on Rin can be skirted. For that to happen, Rin must learn more about the powers of a shaman. To do that she’ll have to learn from those who taught Jiang, her former Master of Lore. These two subplots are necessary for both the plot development, and the character development, especially Rin’s. 

            Part III unveils all of the revelations and the intentions of all of the characters. Everyone is involved with another oncoming war whether or not they want to be. The Empire and the Hinterlanders are on the brink of another civil war, and Rin and her Unit must decide who they are going to fight for when the war begins. Even Rin has intentions for this war, especially after she learns the truth about the Dragon Province, the Empress, and their “allies.” Amongst the death and the reunions Rin must determine if she is a soldier or a shaman. 

            Once again, the narrative is in 1stperson and stream-of-consciousness. With the exception of the Prologue, readers follow Rin’s experiences during the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. All of Rin’s thoughts and traumas are witnessed by both readers and other characters. It seems during the postbellum everyone sees Rin as a solder without purpose. She’s a terrible leader and her mistakes puts others in danger. Yet, she wants peace and prosperity (and revenge) just like the other survivors of the war. The scenes involving war, refugees, and previous events and memories are told in real time, so readers experience the anticipation, the suffering, and the confusion all of the characters experience. While it is long, the pacing of the narrative is appropriate for this military fantasy novel.    

            The style Kuang uses in The Dragon Republic is both similar and different from The Poppy Way. The conflict and the aftermath of war—based on the conflicts stirring in several countries before the beginning of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II—is found throughout the pages within this novel. The difference, or better yet the addition to the conflict, is the notion of imperialism. It is obvious that the Dragon Province is attempting to do this, but they are not the only ones fighting for control of a weaken empire. The mood of The Dragon Republic is death and suffering; just because (one) war is over doesn’t mean everything will get better soon. The tone in this novel is not only about the cost of war, but also about the price one is willing to pay for power. There are no innocent people left alive in this story. 

            The appeal surrounding The Dragon Republic have been positive. Fans of The Poppy War, other military fiction, and grimdark will enjoy this sequel. As the world expands, so does the world-building, which is found in the characters and the weapons, which are based on military history and Chinese culture and folklore. It must be mentioned that anyone who couldn’t finish The Poppy War and/or are triggered by real life acts of violence should NOT read this book! While not all readers are into military literature, actual events of war, such as rape, is mentioned in this novel. Otherwise, expect another well-written story by R.F. Kuang. 

            The Dragon Republic is an amazing sequel. The story picks up where The Poppy War left off and it is both creative and realistic for the type of grimdark and military fantasy the author is telling the readers. Parts of the plot and the narrative can drag on at times, but they are necessary for the story the author is telling everyone. I can’t wait for the next book, even though I must. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

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

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “Small Spaces”

Small Spaces: #1: Small Spaces

By: Katherine Arden

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Children, Paranormal, Horror, Folklore

            Ollie, poised on the edge of flight, said, “Tell me what?”

            “Avoid large places at night,” the woman breathed. “Keep to small.”

            “Small? That’s it?”

            “Small!” shrieked the woman. “Small spaces! Keep to small spaces or see what happens to you! Just see!” She burst into wild laughter, (Chapter 2).

            Katherine Arden, author of The Winternight Trilogy, has demonstrated her ability to branch out to a wider audience with her stories. This time, the author shares a story for young readers. Small Spaces will make you believe that you are reading a book from Goosebumps, a series that terrified me as a child. The difference here is the reality written within the story. Katherine Arden reminds her readers that folklore is ubiquitous. Every “story” has a dose of “truth” in it.  

            The protagonist is 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler and she is dealing with the recent death of her mother. After a bad day at school, Ollie rides her bike to the local river where she sees a woman standing at its edge screaming at a book she’s about to throw into the water. Ollie manages to steal the book believing “it’s just a book,” but the woman screams a warning not to read the book and to keep to “small spaces.” Just like anyone else, child or adult, Ollie believes the woman is crazy and sees no harm in reading the book. She reads about Beth Webster—a woman who had the affection of brothers Jonathan and Caleb. A few days later, Ollie’s class goes on a field trip to the farm, the same farm the book mentions. When the bus breaks down during the return ride, some of her classmates disappear. Ollie begins to wonder whether or not the story in the book is based on truth. Ollie has been withdrawn since her mother’s death. However, with all of the eerie coincidences and the same warning about “small spaces,” Ollie and two of her friends—Coco and Brian—must use the knowledge they have and their skills in order to survive the night and to save their classmates and teacher. Ollie is a complex character in that she is a child who lost her mother but must focus on surviving an urban legend. Her classmates are typical sidekicks, but they provide Ollie with the companionship she needs at the moment. 

            The plot is simple: a girl steals a book an adult is trying to destroy, the girl reads the book and soon realizes that what she thought was a story isn’t a story, and the girl must survive a supernatural force that is hunting her down. Before the field trip, Ollie is reading “Small Spaces” and about the people who are mentioned in it. At the same time, Ollie and her classmates learn about Smoke Hollow and its eerie history surrounding the family that owns the land, who happen to be the descendants of the people mentioned in Ollie’s book. Urban legends—tales based on rumors—are part of folklore, which are beliefs and cultural practices shared by a group of people that are passed from generation to generation. The story Ollie reads in her book and the tales she hears in class are examples of folklore, which is the subplot of the novel. These stories give Ollie just enough information to survive her upcoming ordeal. Both the information and the plot (and the subplot) are presented at an appropriate rate. Readers will forget this is a children’s book. 

            The narrative is told from Ollie’s point-of-view; and, given everything that has happened to her, she is a reliable narrator. The story is told in present time, with the exception of the events in Ollie’s book, which are presented as journal entries. Throughout the narrative, readers learn about Ollie and the choices she makes and why. All the while, readers are reminded that Ollie is just a kid. 

            Katherine Arden’s style remains as it was for her adult books, but the word choice and the sentence structure are written for children. The author presents another aspect of folklore to her fans and readers: legends and urban legends. Legends are unverified popular stories believed to be based on historical events that are passed from generation to generation. Ubiquitous examples are King Arthur and Atlantis. Urban legends are rumors of experiences that someone known to the storyteller—a friend of a friend—had. Urban legends involve creepy and/or supernatural stories such as: hitch hikers and haunted houses. The mood is the eeriness presented by these stories and urban legends. The tone is the notion that legends and other stories are “stories” until the truth in them emerges. In other words, don’t ignore any strange occurrences that happen around you!

            The appeal of Small Spaces have been positive. It is a horror book, so readers of any age will find it frightening at times, but it is an enjoyable read about an adventure in an individual’s small hometown. Remember, there are children who read and enjoy horror stories. As a 90’s kid, both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? were popular amongst kids my age (and both series gave me nightmares). Children who have watched Jordan Peele’s horror movies and/or the IT movie remakes will enjoy Small Spaces the most. In fact, the next book in the series, Dead Voices, comes out in August 2019. 

            Small Spaces is a strong introduction to young readers who enjoy believable haunted stories. Katherine Arden continues to use folklore in her stories in order to provide a sense of realism for her readers. As a fan of her adult fantasy, I was just as impressed with this book as with her other ones! Small Spaces is a fun read!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Grey Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Two: Grey Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 3, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Sequel

            “You’re powerful Nona, and you’ve come into your power at an early age. The understanding that power corrupts is an idea older than the language we repeat it in. All of us in positions that afford authority over others are susceptible, be we high priests, prime instigators, even abbesses.”

            “Or emperors,” Nona said.

            The abbess winced. “Some truths are better left implied, dear,” (Chapter 17).

            Sequels and other follow ups to their predecessors work well when the events that occurred beforehand are addressed AND the action picks up where it left off. In addition, both the plot development and the character development must continue to show growth in order for the story to remain realistic, and to keep the attention of the reader(s). Mark Lawrence achieves all of this in Grey Sister, the Second Book of the Ancestor.

            The second book in the trilogy has two protagonists: Nona Grey, who is now around 14 years-old and just reached Mystic Class; and Abbess Glass, the Reverend Mother and Headmistress at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. From these protagonists, readers are able to gain knowledge of the on goings of everything happening at the Convent. Nona is coming into her powers and her abilities and is dealing with the consequences of her actions from her time in Grey Class. At the same time, Abbess Glass continues her task of running the Convent and continuing her task of exposing corruption inside and outside of the Convent. More is at stake for both female protagonists as both the Emperor and the Inquisition continue to meddle in the affairs of the Church. All of the other novices: Ara, Darla, Ruli, Jula, and Zole, and the nuns: Wheel, Apple, Kettle, Pan, Rose, Tallow, and Rail know that more is happening outside of the Convent than the Emperor is willing to admit. And, once again, Nona meets up with a few of her former “cage mates,” who have grown into their abilities as well. Everyone is preparing for a war that is inevitable. Nona must endure the obstacles and the hardships in order to graduate from Mystic Class. Abbess Glass must use all of her wisdom and her connections to keep everyone safe, including the “Chosen One” and her “Shield.”

            The plot for Grey Sister is a continuation from Red Sister. Nona and her friends and classmates continue with their classes and the nuns continue their work inside and outside of the Convent. All of this occurs after the betrayals and the heartbreaks from the last two years. These events prompt the identity of the “Chosen One” to be revealed, which brings a motley crowd of zealots and doubters alike. At the same time, neither the noble families, nor the nuns have forgotten the efforts of one noble family’s continued plans to kill Nona. Nona is struggling with her classes due to the long-term “consequence” of the attack on her life. Through it all, Nona grows stronger and more powerful to the delight of her peers and to the horror of her enemies. If Nona wishes to remain at the Convent of Sweet Mercy and to stay alive, then she must find a way to navigate herself through her trials. The subplot of the “Chosen One” is growing and merging into the plot of Nona’s education and the significance of the 4 tribes that traveled to Abeth.

            Once again, the narrative is limited omniscient narration, meaning the readers and the protagonists know what is being experienced at that moment through the character’s point-of-view. Unlike Red Sister, the narrative in Grey Sister is told in real-time through the P.O.V.s of both Nona and Abbess Glass. Thus, these stream-of-consciousness narrations are reliable and can be followed by readers easily. It should be mentioned that the present narration of Grey Sister starts with Chapter 2. Chapter 1 picks up with the cliffhanger from Red Sister, and the Prologue provides a continuation of the action first introduced in the Prologue in Red Sister. Since Grey Sister’s narration is told in the present, any events of the past that is mentioned proves to be a revelation to both the characters and the readers. This is because what gets revealed demonstrates that everything that is, has been, and will continue to happen is bigger and more grievous than anyone at the Convent of Sweet Mercy could imagine. 

            The style Mark Lawrence uses in Grey Sister is a continuation of how prophecy is exploited through means of distraction. Those involved directly with the prophecy want nothing more than to be left alone and to live their lives as “normal” individuals. Some hopefuls wish for the “divine” powers of the “Chosen One” to work miracles for them only to be left disappointed with this notion. Then, there are those who use the prophecy as a way to fulfill their agendas, typically political ones. And, if the prophecy of the “Chosen One” is a distraction, then the political agendas of several noble families, including the Royal Family, serves as the knowledge that no one wants to admit is the issue: war is coming. In other words, religion is exploited in order to distract everyone from the politics of society. This is the mood found within Grey Sister; and, the tone is how the truth—surrounding both religion and politics—is revealed and the reactions and the consequences of it. There are neither winners, nor losers, yet everyone continues to believe whatever they want to believe in. 

            The appeal of Grey Sister is as positive as Red Sister. Fans of the first book had just as many praises for its sequel. This is because the sequel continues to build and to develop the characters, the plot, the world-building, and the action. Not only will readers want to re-read this book (to search for clues and Easter Eggs), but also to continue recommending this series to other readers, all while waiting to read Holy Sister, the third and final book in the series. 

            Grey Sister is an amazing sequel to Red Sister. This is because there is an expansion of the world and further development of both the plot and the characters. At the same time, the events and the revelations from the first book play a critical role that cannot be overlooked. The story is as immersive as the action is entertaining. Mark Lawrence’s novel is a must-read for fans of both fantasy and grimdark.

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