Why You Need to Read: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood”

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

            “…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

            There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

            Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba). 

            2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.” 

            Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are. 

            The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them. 

            The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.  

            Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.

            The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author. 

            The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s. 

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Why You Need to Read: “The Winter of the Witch”

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witchis the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower,in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower,which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingalein 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingalewas the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witchis the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogyproves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogyleaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials(by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


My Plans for 2019

            2018 has been a reflective year for me because I was able to prove my resilience through my writings and my other creative projects. However, I realized that when it came to the literary market, I had a lot of reading to catch up on. Blogging about the books I enjoyed reading and sharing pictures of the literary events I attended have been a great experience, and I plan on continuing to do both in 2019. This means I’ll be doing more reading, posting, and sharing of the books I read. I’ll share more photos of the literary events I attend, too. I don’t want to say that I will post articles and reviews on my blog every week, but I will aim to post content a few times a month. And, I’ll be expanding my blog to include additional topics surrounding literature such as media adaptations and genres of literature that are not speculative fiction. 

Keep Up with My ARCs and Review Them On Time

            Last year, I joined NetGalley and volunteered to read books by authors for review on retail websites (i.e. Amazon, B&N, etc.). Now, I have not been able to keep track, read, and review all of the books I said I review last year (I still have to complete the ones I missed), but I plan on reviewing as many of those books on time. In addition, I’ve been in contact with authors and I agreed to read and to review their ARCs. Many of the stories I read and review are worth reading, and I said so to other readers. 

            I already started reading my ARCs for 2019 with plans of completing most, if not all, of them. Like I said, I’ll be reading, reviewing and sharing other genres of literature as well. I will continue to let you know whether or not those books are worth reading. Yes, I take requests and I will make time to read your ARCs if you ask me to. 

Keep Up with my Social Media Pages

            I’ve put more work and effort into my blog and my social media pages. This blog is running more actively, my Goodreads page gets updated daily, and my social media accounts are more active with more friends and more followers (I thank you all for your support). I have started a Patreon account, which I hope to get running within the next few weeks. I will keep up with all I mentioned earlier with the new content on a more regular basis. My hope is that this becomes more than what it is at its current state. 

Read 100 Books and Share Them on My Goodreads Page

            In 2018, I read 70 books—based on my Goodreads page—and I know that I read more than that amount. This is probably because the books I reviewed made it to all of my social media pages. Sometimes you read a book just for “fun,” or for a “quick read.” You don’t think of sharing every book you’ve read, but sometimes you forget to mention it at all to other readers. Because of Goodreads, I am aware of the benefits of sharing those reads with other readers such as: meeting new people, attending books events, and learning about more books. It’s not that I want to share ALL of the books I read on Goodreads, but I will definitely include more of the books I enjoy the most on my page!

Some of the Books I Plan on Reading

Books Released in 2018 that I did NOT get to read: Speculative Fiction

Graphic Novels I Need to Catch Up On

Noteworthy (and Completed) Trilogies

“Classic Works” of Speculative Fiction

ARCs & Sequels

Upcoming Releases

Titles that Piqued My Interest

YA Books I Want to Read

Non-Speculative Fiction Books

Non-Fiction Books

Let’s have fun reading together in 2019!

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018

2018 has been an amazing year for writers, editors, publishers, and readers of speculative fiction. Throughout this year, I’ve caught up with my reading of various genres in the print and digital formats. Also, I managed to read many of 2018’s new releases, and they were amazing reads. In fact, there were so many anticipated novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction, and anthologies that I neither read, nor completed many of the books released in 2018. 

            There are two things I learned throughout all of this year’s readings. One, speculative fiction’s spectrum continues to lengthen including stories of all sorts from authors of multiple demographic backgrounds. Two, readers and publishers are becoming more and more aware of the sort of stories that could emerge from this broader genre of literature than the ‘older’ and ‘more rigid’ structures of the previous separate binary genres of the past.

            The award winners and nominees of all the literature prizes demonstrate how the mainstream is starting to publicize these authors more and more. N.K. Jemisin’s historic win at the Hugo Awards made the news on several major news networks. And, Haruki Murakami withdrew his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature so he could, “stay focused on his writing.” These big moments in the literary community captured the attention of non-speculative fiction readers and everyone else. Maybe literary scholars will begin to pay more attention to this genre the way Americans are starting to pay attention to football (a.k.a. soccer). 

            Although I did NOT get to read and/or to finish many of the 2018 releases—Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; Circe by Madeline Miller; Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi; Head On by John Scalzi; Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce;How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, etc.—I managed to read many books of all formats (and in other genres). Obviously, my focus for this posting is what I consider to be the best releases in speculative fiction of 2018. If you are curious as to the other books I’ve read or started reading in 2018, then you can checkout my list on my Goodreads page. 

               Originally, I was not going to do a ranking. There were many books I wanted to mention and I was going to categorize my list based on: debut novels, novels with distinctive narratives, novellas, and anthologies. However, when I spoke to my friends and other readers, I realized that I kept mentioning the same books over and over again. These books stood out to me the most, so a Top Ten list came together. 

            Once again, this is a list of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018. There won’t be any “Honorable Mentions” here, and this list will be descending (#10-#1). If you believe I missed a book, or if you wish to comment on my choices, then please leave a message in the comments section.

#10 The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne #1) by Myke Cole

            As I mentioned in my review of this novella on Goodreads, this novella is a good start to what will eventually be a series. And, since I have not read The Queen of Crowsyet, I can only assume that both the story and the pace will pick up in that book. Don’t get me wrong, the story is worth reading and is different from other stories I’ve read, but I wanted more from it, which is a good thing. For this reason, I cannot put this book any higher on my list. 

            That being said, The Armored Saintis an interesting medieval fantasy tale, which takes the notions of religion and combines it with the idea of technological warfare. In this case, giant armored bots (look at the cover) are the weapons of power. The story begins with the protagonist, Heloise, getting into trouble with those in power and she witnesses the death and the destruction of those she cares about. However, Myke Cole does not use tropes in the ‘clichéd’ way. Instead, readers are surprised at what happens to everyone within the protagonist’s inner circle. And, while this story ends with you wanting for more, you will believe you were cheated due to the slow pace of this novella.

#9Empire of Sandby Tasha Suri

            2018 was a year containing many amazing debut books by authors—many of whom are not Caucasian—and managed to reintroduce readers to the notions of “old magic” and the treatment of the individuals who have the innate ability to wield it. Empire of Sandtakes a look into a society in which clans of tribesmen and tribeswomen are abducted for “the good of the Empire.” 

            Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Imperial Governors who defies her family’s wishes and paranoia, and performs the magical rites of her mother’s family. When the Religious Order notices her, she is forced to become a ‘tool’ for the Empire. As I read this novel, the characters are what kept my attention the most. The protagonist’s love for her family and her mixed heritage are what drives the story. The story gets really interesting during the last 100 pages, and it’ll make you want the next book in the series sooner rather than later. 

#8Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)by Rebecca Roanhorse

            This debut novel written by the 2018 Recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer takes place on a dystopian Earth, which ended due to climate change. The aftermath includes the return of Navajo deities and monsters. Maggie, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities, is hired to locate a missing girl. From there, the story turns into a scavenger hunt in what remains of the Southwestern region of the United States.

            This is the first fantasy novel involving Native American characters that I’ve read. Plus, I can see why Rebecca Roanhorse has been nominated for all the literary awards, and winning some of them. It’s not just about the idea that climate change is responsible for the dystopian society, but it includes the reminder that the ancient deities—no matter where they’re from and/or located—always have their desires over those of humans. The idea that the ‘end of the world’ leads to the return of the gods, so they can reform the world makes for a very intriguing story. 

#7Rosewaterby Tade Thompson

            I received an ARC of this book and I should have read it sooner, but I managed to read it all the same! This Afrocentric book tells an interesting story of individuals who use their innate abilities as part of their jobs, while residing near an alien dome. Yes, there was an alien invasion and every year people travel to Nigeria in order to be blessed with the healing powers of the dome. 

            This novel catches your attention with the reminder that a futuristic world will continue to have some of the same issues as we do in present society. In this case, cyber-hacking is a concern to the point where Kaaro, the protagonist, and others use their psychic abilities as part of their job description for both the local bank and (in Kaaro’s case) the government. After the annual healing ceremony, things go well and poorly for Kaaro. While he gets into an intimate relationship, Kaaro realizes that there is more happening to him and to those in his community. Some of it involves his past and some of it involves the changes occurring within his society. The blend of science, fantasy, and religion makes Rosewaterstand out from the rest of 2018’s speculative fiction releases. And, like the previous mentions, readers can expect a follow up book to be released in 2019. 

#6 The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

            I mentioned pacing as being essential to telling a story and Clark does an excellent job incorporating it into his novella, The Black God’s Drums. The setting is Post Civil War Louisiana where the technology is advanced and dangerous. Gender roles and terrorism are at the center of this steampunk thriller in which a young woman, Creeper, overhears a plot to bomb New Orleans during Mardi Gras. 

            The best thing about this novella is that I forget I was reading a novella! Creeper’s adventure in New Orleans does not occur through the span of a few weeks. Instead, the story and the dilemma occur and resolve within approximately 24-48 hours! The way Clark presents this story has you realizing that you are reading the action in real-time! For anyone who wants a quick and a fun tale, then I highly recommend The Black God’s Drums. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

#5Vengeful (Villains #2)by V.E. Schwab

            Recently, I started reading Schwab’s books, and I can say that my interest in her other books and series continues to increase. Vengeful is the second book in the Villains series, and it lives up to both the fans’ expectations, and its title. Vengeful begins where Viciousends, and it’s a marvelous continuation of what happens to the characters from the first story. In addition, Schwab introduces us to new characters that either are EO’s, or know about them.

            What I enjoyed the most about Vengefulis that Schwab continues to incorporate her take on the concept of ‘superheroes.’ In Schwab’s world, anyone can become an EO, but not everyone receives an ability worthy of awe. In addition, there are consequences pertaining to EO’s, and it reminds readers that anything involving magic, the supernatural, or the unknown comes at a cost. The new characters readers follow is another reminder regarding the name of the series. There are no ‘good superheroes’ in this story. 

#4The Poppy Warby R.F. Kuang

            This debut novel is based on the history of the Sino-Japanese War and the culture of China until that war. Readers learn about Chinese schooling, Chinese warfare, and shamanism. Rin is an orphan who decides that her only chance at a better life is an admission into Sinegard, the most elite military school in her country. While she does get into the university, Rin will have to train harder in order to remain a student there. Unfortunately, by the time Rin completes her training and her education, war breaks out and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned for her survival. 

            I enjoyed The Poppy Warbecause of the blending of history and fantasy. It’s interesting to read a book, which is influenced by another country’s history and culture. It’s a reminder that there are more aspects to our world than we know about. The best part of reading The Poppy Waris learning about the protagonist and the other characters who are learning and putting their training into action. Yes, the battle scenes and its aftermath are brutal reminders of war, but the scenes at the school are brutal reminders of the risks people take in order to achieve their goals. 

#3 Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

            I received an ARC for this novel, too; and, I couldn’t help it, but I started reading Spinning Silver, as soon as I got it. Spinning Silveris a companion novel to Novik’s award winning, Uprooted. This time, the tale is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskinand a cautionary tale of saying a ‘few harmless words.’ While Miryem is the main focus in Spinning Silver, she is not the only protagonist. For this reason, it makes the story all the more interesting. What will all the female characters (and one young male character)—from various backgrounds, with different dilemmas—do when the odds continue to buildup against them?

            I knew that I would love Spinning Silvereven before I received it! Naomi Novik does an amazing job blending folklore into her fantasy tales. Folklore is the idea of customs, traditions and practices that get pass along through generations without keep any formal track of them, such as stories. Novik provides examples of such practices in Spinning Silver. It gives her readers something familiar while reading her fantasy stories!

#2 The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

            This series was going to be my #1 pick of 2018 until I read the book that would push it back to #2. And, I know I’m cheating because the first novella, All Systems Red, was released in 2017, but since it won all of the awards in 2018, and you need to read the first novella in order to read the rest of them, so I rest my case! All four novellas in this series take place in consecutive order, with Artificial Conditionand Rogue Protocolfollowing the first novella, and the story concludes with Exit Strategy, for now. 

            Before reading Martha Wells’ books, I have not read any books about robot protagonists. However, The Murderbot Diariesare told from the point-of-view of a Security Unit, or SecUnit for short, who is a robot that offers contracted protection. In the case of our SecUnit, readers learn that it chooses to follow orders because it is not under the control of its manufacturers. In other words, the SecUnit went ‘rogue’ before the events of All Systems Red. All of the actions and the decisions our SecUnit makes throughout the novellas are choices it made itself and for its own reasons. I enjoyed every single book in this series and the series is a fun read for all science fiction readers. Yes, the SecUnit knows how to fight! I cannot wait until the upcoming novel is published! 

#1Vita Nostraby Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            Every once in a while, one comes across a book, or a story, that is so captivating and impacting that it alters your view of literature. Not only does it find its way to your all-time favorite books list, but also has you searching for similar books in the same (sub)genre. I find it shocking that this award-winning novel from Ukraine was published in 2007! Why did it take over 10 years to get this novel in English?

            The way Marina and Sergey Dyachenko tell this story is interesting. Sasha is ‘selected’ to become a candidate to an exclusive vocational school, before the start of her senior year in high school. Throughout that year, Sasha performs and accomplishes all of the tasks presented to her even as she notices some minor changes within herself. Once she becomes a student at the college, Sasha is pushed to her limits to the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Yet, Sasha and her classmates continue with their studies because failure does NOT equate expulsion! Readers learn with Sasha and the other students as to why they were ‘selected’ and what they hope to achieve by the end of their education at ‘that’ school. Vita Nostrais the first book in the Metamorphosisseries; and, I hope we get the translations of those books sooner rather than later.

            This is one of the best books I have ever read! Yes, I enjoy stories—regardless of its genre—that standout; Vita Nostrais an example of a story that takes its genre to a higher level. As I read the story and the events surrounding Sasha’s education, her growth into adulthood, and her disgruntled interactions with her family, I realized Vita Nostra is one of the best examples of what speculative fiction could be! The idea that there is more to our mundane world is nothing new to readers of the genre, but the way the authors present that notion through their writing leaves you in awe of everything you’ll read in this novel!

            My favorites of 2018 contain books within the speculative fiction spectrum ranging from science fiction to fantasy, from folklore to alternative history, and from paranormal to metaphysical. And, while many of my picks are part of a continuing series, each book stood out to me due to the plot, the story, the setting, the characters, the pacing, etc. While there were many other noteworthy books released in 2018 that I have not read yet, I plan on reading those books while reading both other books and new releases in 2019.

            2019 already looks promising with the books being released as well as others that may or may not get the same level of attention. Many of them sound exciting, but reading them will determine which stories get passed along. I hope this list provided some insight as to which books I enjoyed the most in 2018 and why. Let us continue reading in the New Year. 

Why You Need to Read: These Books While Waiting for “The Winds of Winter”

Many readers recall waiting for the next book in a series whether or not it is a novel, a graphic novel, or a novella. Harry Potter usually comes to mind due to the phenomenon experienced throughout the 2000s, but there are other series that fans wait for with anticipation, patiently. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is one of those series. Due to the success of the show, Game of Thrones, the number of readers has increased, significantly. Unfortunately for Martin, this means that the pressure is mounting and readers have become more demanding for the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter. The fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, was released in 2011; and, with the television adaptation ending in 2019; the hype surrounding the next book continues to grow.

So, what do readers who are waiting for a book do? Simple, we read other books from either his or her contemporaries, or recommendations from friends or other fans. I’ll be listing suggested books and series you should read while waiting for The Winds of Winter. There are plenty of books to read, but which ones should you read? Besides books by Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, King, Jordan, Sanderson, Rowling, Herbert and Baum, there are so many books under the speculative fiction and magic realism genres for us to enjoy. And, readers can read these books and learn for themselves why these other books are just as essential to read as those written by the authors mentioned earlier.

This list is NOT my “favorites” because that list changes all the time. In addition, I will be including books in which I’ve finished reading. So, if there is a book that is NOT listed in this list, then it means either I have not yet read it, or I’m currently reading it and have not finished it. Also, I’m not including novellas or short stories here because that is a list for another time. This list contains suggestions I give to many people who know about my enthusiasm for reading, and are listed in no particular order. These books are available in print, in eBook, or at your local library.

 

Honorable Mentions

The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden

This is Katherine Arden’s debut novel, which is a blend of fantasy, folklore, and magic realism of the Russian culture. The novel is a retelling of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” which I’m learning more about while reading through the series. The novel, the first in a trilogy, follows Vasya, from her birth and early childhood to her adolescent years. Readers learn about Vasya’s family, culture, magic, and changes in her society—particularly Russia’s conversion to Christianity—during the mid-14th century. I recommend this book for fans of fairy tales, Russian history, and Slavic mythology.

 

Alanna: The First Adventure (1983) by Tamora Pierce

This is Tamora Pierce’s first novel, which is set in her world of Tortall. Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, switch places for their schooling. Thom goes to magic school to become a mage and Alanna goes to begin her training to become Tortall’s first female knight in 400 years. In order to accomplish this, Alanna has to disguise herself as a male. This novel provides readers with Alanna’s schooling, training, and developing into a woman (which she has to find ways to conceal). In addition, readers will learn about Tortall, which the author has spent the past 35 years building, creating, and expanding. There are several other books that occur in Tortall, with its own history and timeline.

 

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening (2016) by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (Artist)

Told by Marjorie M. Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, this volume contains issues #1-6. This graphic novel follows Maika Halfwolf, a 17 year-old survivor of a war between humans and magical beings known as Arcanics. Maika is suffering from both amnesia and PTSD from the war and her mother’s “research” that may or may not be responsible for her powers, and her blackouts. This beautifully illustrated steampunk horror story is a hybrid of Eastern and Western storytelling, supernatural elements, and art style.

 

Brave Story (1987) by Miyuki Miyabe

I’ll risk the criticism and call this novel the “first LitRPG”! This entwicklungsroman novel is from Japan and it follows Wataru Mitani, a young boy who goes on a magical quest in order to change his fate. However, he has to complete the quest before his classmate, Mitsuru Ashikawa, beats him to it. Similar to a RPG, Wataru travels to another world, meets companions, fights monsters in order to reach the end of the journey for the ultimate showdown. This fantasy novel includes social and familial issues children deal with on a regular basis, which makes it more enjoyable for fans of low fantasy.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) by Salman Rushdie

This novel is the first in a series by award-winning author, Salman Rushdie. When Haroun’s father loses his ability to tell stories, which is his profession, Haroun travels to the place where his father gets his stories, only to learn that the entire kingdom is in distress. Haroun is both the protagonist and the witness to the events within this novel. Salman Rushdie plays with everyone’s notions surrounding fairy tales, fantasy worlds, and magic.

 

1) The Harbinger Series: Storm Glass (2018) by Jeff Wheeler

The most recent book on this list is by Jeff Wheeler, an underground fantasy author who is very popular amongst the Kindle Unlimited subscribers. He has several fantasy books in multiple series that are interconnected. The Harbinger Series is Wheeler’s latest series and Storm Glass is the first book. If you’re new to Jeff Wheeler, then he recommends that you read this series before reading his other ones.

Storm Glass is told from the point-of-views of two 12 year-old girls from different backgrounds. Cettie is an orphan living in a foster home in the worst district in the city, until a wealthy politician and his family take her in. Sera is a princess who is living a sheltered, but unhappy life above the clouds. Both girls start to change their destinies against a rigid society that attempts to halt them over and over again. The girls realize quickly that their individual lives were never the most complex ones. Each social class has its own dilemmas.

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will appreciate the political discussions, the world building, and the complexity of all the characters. The fact that two 12 year-olds are faced with these adult issues and challenges reminds us that children are pawns in the struggle for power, too. The first book ends with a subtle cliffhanger, but fans and readers will remember that power is a continuous affair.

 

2) Vicious: Villains: Book 1 (2013) by V.E. Schwab

This unique and immersive story is Schwab’s first adult novel. The following influences the story: X-Men, Frankenstein, and The Count of Monte Cristo, toxic families, and toxic masculinity. Told in a narrative that alters between the past and the present, the author builds up a plan of revenge through the points of view of all of the characters, most of who have Extra Ordinary abilities gained from near death experiences.

Victor Vale and Eli Ever will remind readers of pairings such as Professor X and Magneto, Batman and the Joker, and The Punisher and Daredevil. Victor and Eli met and became frienemies at college. When the two decide to experiment with the ideas surrounding EOs for an assignment, both men gain very different abilities at great costs. 10 years later, both men are at opposite ends of the same side, the bad side. Readers learn everything that has happened to both Victor and Eli throughout that time period as well as what is supposed to happen when the two men meet up again. And, it’s everything and nothing you’d expect!

Readers of A Song of Ice and Fire should keep in mind that Victor Vale and Eli Ever could be compared to Varys and Littlefinger (you decide who is who). The cunning of these males are obvious and their traumas are relatable, yet the readers wonder if the ends justify the means. And just like A Dance with Dragons, only the sequels will give readers a closer look into these men. Vengeful is out now for those who crave more from these toxic males, and the author.

 

3) The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (1989) by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth   (Illus.), Mike Dringenberg (Illus.), Jill Thompson (Illus.), Shawn McManus (Illus.), Marc Hempel (Illus.), Michael Zulli (Illus.), Dave McKean (Illus.), and many other illustrators

Just about everyone has heard about this graphic novel series. But, how many people have actually read this series? This story follows Dream, a male who controls every aspect of dreams, as he does his “job” while interacting with various people and beings in the past and in the present. Each of the 10 issues illustrates Dream as he performs his “job” and displays his importance to humanity. The story is told by Neil Gaiman and is illustrated by a slew of talented artists.

Now available in a new printed edition, The Sandman Vol. 1 follows Dream as he is captured and released from a magical prison. Throughout this volume, readers learn of the severe consequences humanity suffers due to The Sandman’s imprisonment. Then, readers see how Dream deals and works through the damage control surrounding those affected by Dream’s absence. Dream even makes a journey to Hell.

Fans of George R.R. Martin will appreciate how Gaiman tells both the story and the consequences of humans messing around with “higher powers” and “the unknown.” If you decide to continue reading this series, then you will notice similarities found in the world building of the supernatural and the magic. The figures behind such powers will have readers wondering whether or not they should get involved with such things.

 

4) Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2005) by Rick Riordan

While many of us have heard of this popular series, how many have actual read the books, especially the first one? Rick Riordan writes a combination of “What if…” and “mundane/within our world” fantasy with modern-day children. The ancient gods still live, and they now reside in the United States. Percy Jackson is 12 year-olds, never met his father, hates his stepfather, suffers from dyslexia and ADHD, and gets expelled from school every year. Suddenly, he’s accused of stealing from Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods, and has to travel cross-country to prove his innocence. Think of it as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but for younger readers.

This book, the series, the sequel series, and the spinoffs should be read because of the references to the myths, the cultures, and the histories mentioned throughout the series. Myths are religious beliefs and customs followed by groups of people. Religion is the forefront of myths because people pray and worship their god(s) or goddess(es). History is a chronological list of events of the past, which allow for current generations to look at both the hindsight and the repercussions of those events. In addition, legends and heroes are added to the tales within the cultures’ mythology. Sound familiar?

George R.R. Martin’s influences come from ancient and modern mythologies and legends: Norse, Greek, Arthurian, Christianity, etc. Why not read a popular series that explains these influences? Riordan has written series about the Greek and the Roman, the Egyptian, and the Norse myths. Plus, he supports and recommends similar series about other world mythologies such as those written by Roshani Chokshi, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jonathan W. Stokes.

 

5) Battle Royale: The Novel (1999) by Koushun Takami

This novel gets lost between Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. And, since both novels are required reading in school, why not pick up another book about a dystopian society in which children are forced to kill each other? This import from Japan is an updated version of William Golding’s text, but with the emotional brutality of Suzanne Collin’s trilogy.

After being abducted and forced to compete in “the most dangerous game,” 42 15 year-old Japanese students make the choice on whether or not to participate. The chapters are told from the point-of-view of several of the characters, thus having the readers realize why certain students are the way they are. This setup of the characters’ past is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Just like in George R.R. Martin’s series, readers get into the heads of the teenagers in Battle Royale, and they decide on whether or not to emphasize with them. Even though the setting is dystopian, the issues and the experiences of the students are current and real. Yet, it is understandable if a reader wishes to continue disliking a character because he or she believes that someone’s past and previous experiences does NOT justify that character’s actions. Not to mention, the pacing is appropriate and believable and matches the mood of the book.

 

6) Uprooted (2015) by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik has been writing and publishing books for over ten years with her Temeraireseries. Yet, she has expanded her fan base due to her latest books, which focuses on what societies know about heroes, legends, magic, and fairy tales and adds the element of realism to them. Uprooted is one of Novik’s novels that follow this method of storytelling.

Loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, Agnieszka is chosen to serve a wizard known as “The Dragon” as a form of compensation for him protecting her village from “The Corrupted Wood.” Agnieszka must serve The Dragon for ten years by assisting him with reducing the power of The Wood. During her service, she learns how to use magic, how to make her way in the royal court, and how to live with the consequences that is her magic.

This novel is similar to George R.R. Martin’s series in that heroes are not always heroic, nature can be dangerous, magic comes at a cost, and power writes history. “Magic has a cost” is the central theme in this novel, just like in A Song of Ice and Fire. Also, the characters question the motives of the trees within the forest: The Wood and The Old Gods. Are there more to them than the characters and the readers realize?

 

7) Who Fears Death (2007) by Nnedi Okorafor

Fans of the Binti trilogy and the Akata series need to read Who Fears Death, the award-winning magic realism novel. Yes, this is the author who was with George R.R. Martin at the 2018 Emmy Awards, and it’s because HBO is adapting this novel for a television series with George R.R. Martin as an executive producer. This book is a gift given to us by its author, Nnedi Okorafor.

This story follows the life, the education, and the quest of Onyesonwu, whose name literally means “Who Fears Death?” She and her mother are labeled outcasts (because Onyesonwu is an “Ewu,” a mixed child of rape and violence), but they manage to find a home with Onyesonwu’s adoptive father, whom she tries to resurrect in the first chapter of the novel. Growing up, Onyesonwu learns about her “Eshu,” shape-shifting and magic abilities, and is determined to be taught by Aro—a sorcerer—about her powers, her biological father, and her destiny.

Just like George R.R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor combines (African) history and culture into an epic tale that is part fantasy and part reality. Everyone is a victim of war, tradition, fear, and death. Expectations are met and the unexpected will keep readers engrossed. War, gender roles, and power make the story what it is as well.

 

8) His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights (1995) by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is known as “The Most Dangerous Man in England,” J.K. Rowling’s counterpart,” and “a well-known atheist.” In addition, he is an Oxford professor and an award winning children’s author. Pullman is currently one of six authors to win both the “Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize” and “The Carnegie Medal” for the same book: The Northern Lights, or as it’s known in the U.S., The Golden Compass.

First published in 1995, this steampunk novel is an allusion—or, subtle connection to other works of literature—to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Ironic, isn’t it? Furthermore, it could be argued that Pullman’s series is his response to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and Lewis’ Narnia series. This first novel in the trilogy follows 11 year-old Lyra Belaqua, an orphan who goes on a journey to rescue her friend and other children from a religious order within her world, a world that is parallel and similar to our world.

The subplot of this trilogy is the cause and the effect religion has in a society. George R.R. Martin writes about various religions and about both their followers, and their fanatics. Unlike Martin, Pullman focuses on the darker side of Christianity. I’m not saying that I’m against Christianity, but every religion has its darker moments throughout history.

 

9) The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1: The Name of the Wind (2007) by Patrick Rothfuss

Fantasy fans have heard of this book, and if you have not read it yet, then you are really missing out on a great story. Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel—which took 15 years to write—follows Kvothe, the protagonist, as he recalls the events of his childhood from youth to orphan to hero to expelled student. Do not let the length of the novel intimidate you. The story and the world building will seize you and leave you wanting more.

This novel looks into the making of a “living hero” and the “semi-retirement” of our protagonist Kvothe is a gifted individual who shows promise of what he’ll become eventually. He does attend a university to learn magic, which has its own rules and structure. Rothfuss incorporates realism by including the conviction, the trauma, and the struggles the protagonist faces as he grows up. In addition, readers learn a bit about the main antagonist, The Chandrian, through the author’s world building. There is a lot more to Kvothe’s world and past than Rothfuss lets on.

And, like George R.R. Martin, fans and readers have been waiting for the next and final book, Doors of Stone, to be released. In other words, fans of both Martin and Rothfuss will be able to relate to each other because both groups have been waiting for the next book for years! This is wishful thinking, but maybe we’ll get both The Winds of Winter, and Doors of Stone in the same year! Or, maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda will release his version of a soundtrack to The Kingkiller Chronicles!

 

10) The Broken Earth: The Fifth Season (2015) by N.K. Jemisin

This award-winning novel from the award-winning trilogy is one of my favorite books of all-time! And, if you have not read The Fifth Season yet, then I suggest you do so immediately! Speculative fiction is changing and this novel is one of many behind the new popularity of this genre of fiction!

In the distant future, where the Earth suffers long-term damage from earthquakes and volcanoes, people with the power to control the planet’s stability are enslaved in order to prevent the planet from destroying its life forms. You learn about the world, its history, and its culture from various characters told from multiple points of view. As you get further along in the story, you realize that not only do you become attach to all of the characters and understand their motives, but also recall everything you learned back in your high school science classes!

This book will remind fans of George R.R. Martin as to why characters are just as important to the story as the world building. You cannot have one without the other. The people make the world and its many societies, and the world and its societies determine what happens to its people. The world is already broken, and the people must decide on whether or not it should be fixed.

 

Those are some of the many books I recommend for you to read while we continue waiting for The Winds of Winter. These recommendations, and their sequels, should be enough to occupy your time while we continue to wait for the 6th book—remember, the 7th and final book in the series, A Dream of Spring, will have its own separate waiting period. As you read, there are several books to choose from, and there are more that I was not able to mention because I wished to keep this list short. All genres and sub-genres were mentioned in this list because their stories are captivating whether or not it’s meant for children, adults, graphic novel readers, or folklore fans.

The settings and the influence surrounding these stories should make you aware that each region and culture on planet Earth has influenced the way these authors present their stories to us. Plus, reading other contemporary works of George R.R. Martin will provide insight to what we—as fans and as readers—can and cannot expect from these modern speculative authors. These are stories of how society affects the characters and their world with magical and spiritual elements.

Please either message me on social media, or in the comments below on what you think of my recommendations. Have you read any of these books? Which ones are your favorite from this list? Is there a book I forgot to mention, or that you recommend I should read? What would your choices be? Please let me know.

Why You Need to Read: “Spinning Silver”

Spinning Silver

By: Naomi Novik

Published: July 10, 2018

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Fairy Tale Retellings

 

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

So we knew that the Staryk had not given us a purse of silver to be kind. I couldn’t think why they had left it, yet there it was on our table, shining like a message we couldn’t understand. And then my mother drew a sharp breath and looked at me and said, low, “They want you to turn it into gold.”

My father sat down at the table and covered his face, but I knew it was my own fault, talking in the deep woods, in a sleigh driving over the snow, about turning silver to gold. The Staryk always wanted gold (Chapter 5).

 

This retelling of Rumpelstiltskin takes place in the same universe as Uprooted (2015)—according to Novik herself—only this time we get a battle between the elements of fire and ice. And no, this will NOT remind you of George R.R. Martin! Once again, we are pulled into a world where magic and talent are desired and have consequences.

The plot is simple: three women from different socioeconomic (and religious) backgrounds are trying to make the best of their current situation and live up to their families’ expectations. At the same time, they and the rest of the kingdom are all trying to avoid any confrontation with the Staryk: magical humanoids with silver hair and silver eyes who have an affinity with ice, snow, and anything related to winter. However, no one can avoid the Staryk or their goal.

The narrative is told from the point-of-view of six characters: Miryem, Wanda, Irina, and three other characters that have close ties to the three female protagonists. This method of storytelling allows for the readers to learn of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations while at the same time, read the events as they occur in real time. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the characters and their predicaments, but also learn of the Staryk’s motivations and ambitions.

The characters are more than what others perceive them to be. First, Miryem takes over her father’s job as a moneylender in order to save her family from poverty and starvation, especially during an unusually long winter. Next, Wanda and her brothers are trying to stave off starvation, too. However, they fear their drunken and abusive father and his ambitions more than hunger. Last, Irina—who knows she’s her father’s unwanted, yet valued child—decides to use her two talents surrounding the predicament of her marriage: intellect and magic. Readers learn about the Staryk, too. This includes their reasons for gathering gold and elongating winter. All of the characters are trying to survive their current situations, to fight a common nemesis, and to hope for a better outcome in their lives.

The style of Novik’s novel is a retelling of the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, told from the viewpoints of six characters. While the Grimm Brothers’ variant of this fairy tale is the one most recognized, it is not the only one. That being said, the familiarity of the older story is in the novel. After all, the title is Spinning Silver. In addition, Naomi Novik returns to the theme of magic and its consequences, which is the same as it was in Uprooted.

The appeal of this novel is deserving of all the hype! Even though Naomi Novik has been writing fantasy for several years—checkout the Temeraire series—Spinning Silver is for fans of Robin McKinley, and for readers who can appreciate a fantasy or a fairy tale with some twists and complexities. If you haven’t already done so, then read Uprooted, too! And, for your information, just because this novel is categorized as “fantasy” and as a “fairy tale retelling” does NOT mean it is categorized as a young adult novel! This novel is for adult readers.

I enjoyed this novel because I was just as immersed in Spinning Silver and I was in other fantasy stories I’ve read beforehand. Since I was already familiar with both Novik’s style, and with the story of Rumpelstiltskin, it was easy for me to get into this novel. I loved the characters, the interactions between the characters, the inclusion of the various backgrounds and cultures, and the uses of magic mentioned throughout the story. I hope you will find it enjoyable, too! I will be re-reading Spinning Silver in the future. All readers need to read this novel!

My final rating: MUST Read It Now!