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)!

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Why You Need to Read: “The Survival of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #2: The Survival of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: July 9, 2019

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Sequel 

WARNING: Spoilers from The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne. You have been warned.

            Molly Southbourne was a freak whose blood grew genetically identical duplicates of her. One drop of blood, and a new molly popped up, but it wasn’t cute. It wanted to kill her. Molly spent her whole life killing her duplicates just to survive, (Chapter One).

            Similar to many of the recent sequels in speculative fiction, The Survival of Molly Southbourne starts where its predecessor, The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off. In the sequel, Tade Thompson answers the questions Molly Southbourne (and readers) have had about herself. And, like other works of sci-fi horror (i.e. Alien), there are more eerie forces at work than anyone else knows. 

            Molly Southbourne is a protagonist who is “a fish out of water” because she has no identity and no purpose to her life. Molly Southbourne—the one who survived both the attacks and the fire—is now Molly Southbourne and is living as Molly Southbourne whether or not she wants to. While Molly is a duplicate of Molly “Prime,” as she calls her, she is NOT Molly Southbourne. She lacks both the knowledge, and the skills Molly Prime had. In addition, Molly does NOT have the same problem with bleeding like Molly Prime did (“hemoclones”). All Molly has are the looks and the memories of someone who is dead. Unfortunately, the new Molly Southbourne is the only one who knows, and it’s driving her crazy, literally. 

            The plot in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is how the new Molly Southbourne is adjusting to life as a 27-year-old woman who is supposed to be living as someone else. Molly has more questions about herself than Molly Prime did; and, unlike Molly Prime, Molly decides to get answers to those questions. To say that Molly’s discoveries come straight from a spy novel—complete with multiple conspiracies—would be an understatement. After she gets some answers to her questions from “several” people, Molly must decide how she is going to survive. She doesn’t have to become Molly Southbourne, but she cannot get rid of that part of herself. There is a subplot, and its focus is about a minor character from the first book who was intimate with Molly Prime. In this book, that character attempts to fight the fate Molly Prime left him with unknowingly. Will the efforts be successful? Will Molly be able to help him?

            The narrative in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an interesting one. While Molly is the protagonist, and the story of the aftermath is told from her point-of-view (1stperson), the sequence is a combination of Molly’s actions and daily life—told in present time—with the memories of Molly Prime—also her memories—bombarding her. The combination of the flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness, and the present gives readers insight to the adaption and the chaos that is Molly Southbourne. Her struggles and her inexperience make the narrative reliable and believable. As discombobulated as it sounds, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style Tade Thompson uses in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is the same as it was in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. The author continues with telling this story using tropes and style based on previous sci-fi horror stories. However, it is the mood—apathetic—and the tone—bizarre—that have changed in the sequel. Molly is making sense of everything that is happening around her, only this time those involved behave as it’s not a big deal. Molly is neither unique, nor lethal as Molly Prime was, but she manages to survive and to adapt to her life as we see through the author’s style. Readers will be pleased with this (continued) style of storytelling. 

            So far, the appeal to The Survival of Molly Southbourne have been positive. Released a month ago (at the time of this posting), readers who were curious as to how Molly’s story would continue is answered. The mysteries and the conspiracies are addressed, and the continuation of the characters from the previous book lets readers know that neither Molly Southbourne, nor Tade Thompson have forgotten about them. Both novellas can be read and enjoyed in one reading. Fans and readers of sci-fi horror need to read these books.

            The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an amazing follow-up to its prequel. While the narrative and the perspective have changed from what came before, the story is as fast paced and as haunting as The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tade Thompson does an excellent job in bringing Molly Southbourne’s story the resolution it needs. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Godsgrave”

The Nevernight Chronicle: Book Two: Godsgrave

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: September 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Historical Fiction

            Ashlinn sighed, her temper fraying. “You have no fucking idea what’s going on here, do you? I know you, Mia. Do you have any idea what the Red Church actually is? Do you think they’re ever going to let you kill Scaeva when he pays their wages?”

            Mia felt the consul’s name like a fist in her belly. 

            “You’re full of shit.”

            “Why do you think Scaeva isn’t dead already?”(Chapter 10, Secrets). 

            Godsgrave—the follow up to Nevernight—is an action-packed fantasy story from beginning to end. Conspiracies are uncovered and secrets are revealed, and characters grow more into themselves. Mia Corvere’s quest for revenge continues when she learns more about the Red Church and the politics of The Republic of Itreya. Jay Kristoff not only delivers an amazing sequel to his readers, but also gives us his take on the Gladiator Games, which are based on the ones from Ancient Rome. 

            Mia Corvere is now a Blade—an assassin—for the Red Church. Thus, she is closer to achieving her quest for vengeance; or, she would be if she hadn’t uncovered a conspiracy within the Red Church that includes her family. Curious to learn more about this connection, she goes undercover by selling herself to one of the noble families—similar to the one she grew up in—as a gladiator. Mia not only has to survive and to learn how to fight within these games, but also must navigate her way into the inner circle of the elite. Mia makes new allies, works with her darkin (shadow) companions, and works with a frenemy. Mia realizes that if she had continued living the life as a Justicus’ daughter it would not have equated to a happy life. At the same time, she learns more about why her parents rebelled against The Republic of Itreya. All the while, Mia learns how to fight as a gladiator, which is its own style and not like how she learned to fight at the Red Church. This is Mia’s coming-of-age story in which she sees everything for what it actually is and how to adapt to this new knowledge, just like everyone else goes through while growing up. Mia and all of the characters she interacts with are as complex as her. 

            The plot is straightforward; Mia continues her path to avenge her family. She’s closer to that goal now she’s a Blade for the Red Church. However, when she’s told not to pursue her target, Mia begins to question the operations within the order. Mia decides to go rogue and to continue her quest by selling herself as a slave to a gladiatorial collegium in order to get closer to Consul Scaeva. There she learns how to fight as a gladiator and how deep conspiracies run. The subplot is Mia learning the hows and the whys of her government and the roles her parents had in it before the rebellion. Both the plot and the subplot are linked in that Mia learns some hard truths about the life she thought she had and lived. This turn of events could alter the way Mia carries out the rest of her plans.

            The narrative in Godsgrave continues from what it was in Nevernight. The events of the past lead up to the events in the present. The difference here is that the narration is in the 3rdperson omniscient point-of-view. Readers want to know what is happening with the other characters when Mia is not around, and the author gives that to us with that method of narration. The world-building continues in the second book through the footnotes, which remain informative and hilarious. Jay Kristoff’s world continues to grow through his narration. 

            The style continues as it started in the first book. Remember, this story is supposed to be one huge chronicle, so the style won’t change, which is a good thing because changing the style would change the way the story is being told and we don’t want that to happen. So, the events of the past are written in italics, the darkins’ dialogue are told using smaller font sizes, and the footnotes continue to explain Iterya’s history and culture. The mood, once again, lets readers know that this world is not a caring one; even the elite mistreat each other. The tone illustrates how an individual could react to such mistreatment; and, it is not good. 

            Godsgrave is the follow up that fans and readers crave for from a sequel. The appeal surrounds how the story and the plot develop through character growth and world expansion. Jay Kristoff succeeds in providing a perfect continuation of this trilogy. It’s safe to assume the same will happen in Darkdawn, the final book in the trilogy. 

            Godsgrave is the perfect transition from Nevernight to the point where you forget that you’re reading two separate books. The theme of doing the wrong thing for the right reason continues in this narrative and in many of the characters. Fans will not be disappointed with this sequel! Mia Corvere’s journey continues to grasp our attention!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: July 23, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Historical Fiction, Mythology

            Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament. She was eighteen, penniless, and had grown up in Uukumil, a drab town where mule-drawn railcars stopped twice a week and the sun scorched out dreams, (Chapter 1). 

            I read this ARC in 4 days (finishing it after midnight on the 5thmorning)! I was that engrossed in this story that reminded me of both Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez with story elements similar to both Rick Riordan and Katherine Arden. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a beautiful blend of history, culture, and mythology. Anyone who is a fan of standalone works such as The Wolf in the Whale and The Sisters of the Winter Wood will love this book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this story, but the focus is on Casiopea Tun. She is the granddaughter of Cirilo Leyva, the wealthiest man in town, but you wouldn’t know it based on her appearance and her demeanor. Because her mother had married a poor native man—who later died—both Casiopea and her mother live as servants to their family. Casiopea and her mother clean and cook for their relatives while the rest of the family live comfortably according to their socioeconomic status. All the while, Casiopea’s cousin, Martín—who is also Cirilo’s only grandson and 2 years older than Casiopea—entertains himself by bullying Casiopea. Unlike Casiopea—who is pragmatic, yet hopeful—Martín is the traditional spoiled heir who has nothing else going for him except for his family name and the wealth that comes with it. He wants nothing more than his grandfather’s approval, which he never earns, and he believes his cousin has it (which she doesn’t). After a spat between the two cousins, Casiopea opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed with the key he left behind. When she opens the chest, she finds a pile of bones that revive into Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. Casiopea learns that Hun-Kame was betrayed and imprisoned by Vucub-Kame, his twin brother. Immediately, Casiopea is traveling with the god in order to locate his missing essences and to help him regain his throne. The twin deities, Hun-Kame and Vucub-Kame are static characters (for the most part) because they are gods who have personas which are not affected by any change. Martín Leyva is a complex character who is forced to confront his demons, his family, and his insecurities, but that doesn’t mean he becomes a better person. It is Casiopea Tun who undergoes the most character development throughout the story.     

            The plot is part folklore and part bildungsroman. The folklore aspect of the plot follows the Hero’s Quest in that Casiopea leaves her home and goes on a “divine” quest. Except, Casiopea is compelled to accompany a god on this journey, and she doesn’t have anything forcing her to remain at her home. The bildungsroman, or coming-or-age story, surrounds both Casiopea and Martín. The growth these characters undergo happens because they leave home. Casiopea sees her chance to see the world and to experience new things; Martín, who had left his home once before, has no choice but to have these experiences. I’m not saying that Martín doesn’t need the experience that comes with leaving home, but it’s obvious that the growth won’t have the same positive effect on him the way it will have on Casiopea. The twin deities play their roles as gods, limited direct interference, which is expected. The subplot in this novel is family and family dynamics. Even though the setting is Mexico in 1927 (during The Jazz Age), some things remain universal and unchanged. There is nothing new about the spoiled heir and the “half-breed” child, but Moreno-Garcia makes sure that the long-term effects of such treatment and behavior remains realistic and believable. Martín, and the rest of the Leyva Family, know he’s not the heir anyone wants, but he’s the heir nonetheless, so the family finds it easier to indulge him rather than to curb his behavior. Casiopea, who is mistreated by the entire family, has a poor relationship with her mother because she never comes to Casiopea’s defense whenever she is abused by a relative. While both mother and daughter do care for each other, the relationship is strained. Casiopea goes on her adventure without hesitation because she has neither loyalty, nor emotional ties to her family. While there is both plot development and character development, the subplot of family develops and affects the plot within the story.  

            The narrative is an interesting one. First, there are multiple 1stperson point-of-view’s, and all 4 narratives are reliable because each character admits to his or her flaws and strengths during their P.O.V chapters. Next, the locations mentioned within the novel—with the exception of Uukumil(?)—are real places throughout Mexico. Readers can pull up a map of Mexico and follow the journey of the two adversaries throughout the narrative. Last, each of the characters provide both flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness throughout the narrative. Providing thoughts of both the past and the present not only allows readers to know what the characters are thinking at that particular moment, but also how and why they all think the way they do. This narrative method provides an understanding of each of these characters while allowing readers to choose for themselves whether or not they like, dislike, pity, etc. each character. The author incorporates all of these narratives into the story, yet it makes the story that much easier to follow along.

            The style Silvia Moreno-Garcia provides is a mixture of history, culture, and folklore. The historical events mentioned throughout the novel—automobiles, the Charleston, Prohibition, etc.—provides the mood of the story, which is modernity brings change. Each location throughout the story elaborates the clothing, the music, and the hustle and bustle illustrates how far behind the town of Uukumil is compared to the rest of Mexico. The culture reminds and informs readers that Mexico is a big country with a rich culture, but what Northern Mexico practices is not practiced in Central and Southern Mexico (necessarily). The folklore, while Mayan mythology is the main focus, fairy tales—such as “Cinderella”—is mentioned over and over. The author does an amazing job explaining Mayan mythology, Mexican culture and history, and pop culture, she mentions both fairy tales and poetry as cautionary tales to staying pragmatic no matter what is occurring in your life. In fact, that is the tone of the novel, staying humble regardless of any life changing events both positive and negative. Readers see the consequences of both examples within the story, and that moral is relevant in our modern times.

            The appeal surrounding Gods of Jade and Shadow are already positive (remember, I read an ARC of this novel). The book received advanced praise by critics and authors alike. And, it has been called one of the “Best Books of the Month” by Amazon and Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog for July 2019. I did mention that fans of mythology-inspired fantasy will enjoy this novel the most. I should mention that several years ago, many people throughout the world became obsessed with Mayan culture and history when it was believed the world would end in 2012. This novel would appeal to them, too. This book can be read over and over again, and it belongs in the canon of mythological fantasy alongside Circe and American Gods. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel as well. 

            Gods of Jade and Shadow is an informative and entertaining story about change, tradition, desire, and family. The honor of it being called one of the “Best Books of 2019” are not just words, but fact. This book is definitely one of my favorites of 2019. Silvia Moreno-Garcia conducts a grim, but magical journey throughout Mexico while reintroducing what we forgotten from our world history class. This novel is one of the best stories that balance fantasy and reality in recent years. This is an enjoyable story for readers of multiple genres.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Murders of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #1: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: October 3, 2017

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Winner of the Nommo Award for Best Novella 2018

            The rules are simple.

            “If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.

            Don’t bleed.

            If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.

            If you find a hole, find your parents.”

            Molly recites the lines to herself many times. She finds herself many times. She finds herself repeating them without intending to when she is bored, (Two).

            The Murders of Molloy Southbourne is an homage to classic horror and science fiction stories such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. To say that Molly Southbourne makes the best of her situation through survival is a HUGE understatement. If Tade Thompson’s Rosewater didn’t capture your attention, then his novella will!

            Our first introduction to Molly Southbourne is from the perspective of the person she has shackled in her basement. After a few interesting interactions, Molly Southbourne tells the person her life story. From there, the person—and the reader—learns about the unusual upbringing and life of this tragic individual. Molly Southbourne grew up on a farm with her parents. And, due to an unusual condition, she is home-schooled. In between learning about literature, languages, and mathematics, Molly learns hand-to-hand combat, different types of bleach, and pyromantics. These lessons are essential because whenever Molly bleeds, a clone of her appears; and, whenever a “molly” appears, that “molly” attacks Molly. In order to keep Molly’s condition a secret, Molly is taught how to fight, to kill, to butcher, and to dispose “herself.” As eerie as it sounds, Molly proves to be an intelligent and a resilient individual. Unfortunately, life gets more complicated as she grows into adulthood and attempts to live a “normal” life. Molly continues to grow as a person, but she can neither keep her condition a secret, nor cope with what her condition could lead to. As much as Molly wants to be “normal,” she cannot.

            The plot of the story is Molly Southbourne’s life right up to the prisoner in her basement, and it follows a traditional sci-fi/horror storyline. Molly’s entire life has been stringent due to her “condition,” and as the plot develops, so does Molly, and we all realize Molly can only endure her situation for so long. At the same time, the subplots—Molly’s prisoner, and the root of Molly’s “condition”—are developing. To say both subplots will remind you of a spy thriller would be an understatement. By the time Molly discovers the “truth” of her existence, both the plot and, the subplots converge, and Molly’s character development reaches its end. 

            The narrative starts off in the first-person of Molly Southbourne’s prisoner. The prisoner is disoriented and has no memory of how and why Molly is doing what she is doing. Chapters 2 and 3 are told in flashback by Molly Southbourne and she refers to herself in the third-person. In the last chapter, the narrative switches back to the prisoner’s point-of-view, which is in the present. While it is easy for readers to view the prisoner as a reliable narrator, it is difficult to perceive Molly Southbourne as one. Yes, the narrative is vital to both the plot development and the character development, and it can be followed, but—by the end—both the prisoner and the readers are left with more questions than answers. It is safe to say that Molly Southbourne feels the same way, but she doesn’t know what else to do. 

            The style Tade Thompson presents in this novella is a throwback to the earliest horror stories we now view as classics. The word choice and the sentence structure alerts readers that the author wants your attention. Both the mood—bizarre—and, the tone—apathetic—are obvious as soon as you begin reading the story. The author makes sure that the actions and the skills of his protagonist come across as “normal” and that the condition of Molly Southbourne is “unusual.” Tade Thompson allows readers to determine whether or not Molly’s story is believable. At the same time, the author uses pivotal moments of Molly Southbourne’s life—her first menstrual period, her first boyfriend, etc.—to remind his audience over and over that Molly Southbourne is unique and lethal in her own right. Tade Thompson’s style of writing leaves the story with an open ending; just like the classic horror stories.

            The appeal surrounding The Murders of Molly Southbourne have been positive. The book won the “Nommo Award for Best Novella” in 2018; and, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award. The Tor.com eBook Club selected this novella as its June 2019 selection (free ebook!). Readers and critics enjoyed it enough that its sequel, The Survival of Molly Southbourne, is an anticipated follow-up (published July 9, 2019)! The Murders of Molly Southbourne is an amazing addition to the horror (and science fiction) genre and demonstrates Tade Thompson’s talent as a storyteller. This novella is enjoyable to the point where it can be read over and over again; and, readers might find an additional clue surrounding Molly Southbourne’s life during one of their many re-reads (I did!). I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series. 

            The Murders of Molly Southbourne is the perfect story for readers who enjoy horror stories. All of the events that lead to the actions performed by Molly Southbourne and those she loves reminds readers that living with any condition is bearable as long as that individual is willing to bear it. Tade Thompson knows how to present a realistic horror story.

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

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. 

Why You Need to Read: “Nevernight”

The Nevernight Chronicle: Book One: Nevernight

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: August 9, 2016

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            “A girl some called. Pale Daughter. Or Kingmaker. Or Crow. But most often, nothing at all. A killer of killers, whose tally of endings only the goddess and I truly know. And was she famous or infamous for it at the end? All this death? I confess I could never see the difference. But then, I’ve never seen things the way you have.” (Caveat Emptor).

            This novel, and trilogy, begins with the end and its aftermath: an empire is in ruins and its society has been left in shambles by a teenaged assassin, who killed more people than can be recorded. We are told this by the narrator who decides to record her story about her early life, the path that led her to becoming an assassin, and her death. Jay Kristoff introduces his readers to Mia Corvere, “a killer of killers.”

            Mia Corvere is the protagonist and readers are introduced to her as she is killing a man. We learn two things about her immediately after. One, the murder is part of her initiation into the Red Church—a league of lethal assassins—and the institution that trains them. Two, Mia is the daughter of Justicus Darius Corvere—one of the four leaders who led a failed rebellion against The Republic of Itreya—who was publicly executed when she was 10 years-old. The aftermath led to her mother—Dona Corvere, Alinne—and her infant brother—Jonnen—being arrested and imprisoned, too. Mia is taken away to be drowned in the river; obviously, she escapes and is raised by Mercurio, a retired assassin, who trains Mis in the basics of killing so that she can avenge her family. She is about 16 years-old when she travels to the Red Church for training. Accompanying Mia is her shadow daemon—in the shape of a cat—Mister Kindly. Once at the Red Church, Mia meets her classmates: Tric, Ashlinn and Osrik Järnheim, Hush, Jessamine Gratianus and Diamo. All of them are also rivals for one of the four spots for the title, “Blade,” an assassin for the Red Church. This is done by impressing one of the Shahiids—Solis, Spiderkiller, Mouser and Aalea—as well as Drusilla, the Revered Mother, and Cassius, the Lord of Blades (and a Darkin—one who controls the darkness with their shadow daemon—like Mia). Throughout her training, Mia never forgets her goal—avenging her family—but, Mia begins to question the nature of an assassin all while learning about her abilities as a Darkin and solving the mystery of who is killing the residents of the Red Church. 

            The plot of Nevernight is about Mia’s training to become an assassin and what she endures to make it through the initiation. At the same time, we learn about Mia’s past, which led her to both Mercurio and the Red Church. Both plots are crucial because we learn about Mia through this plot and character development. Readers learn that Mia doesn’t miss the life of being a nobleman’s daughter, she misses her parents and her brother. The subplot is the killer who is attacking the apprentices within the Red Church. While it is not surprising for a league of assassins to have enemies, it is surprising that the perpetrator(s) is attacking the initiates inside the Red Church, and not even those in charge can the perpetrator’s identity. This subplot is essential because it presents Mia with a realistic view of what being a member of the Red Church entails. 

            The narrative in Nevernight is one of the most creative ones I’ve come across in a while. The chronicles are written in the past tense because Mia is dead; however, this recording switches between the “present”—as we’re reading it—and, Mia’s “past”—everything that occurred before Mia arrived at the Red Church. This 3rd limited point-of-view lets readers know how Mia, and those closest to her, are feeling and thinking in the story. In addition, much of the world-building is mentioned in the footnotes, which is both informative and hilarious, so that readers have a better understanding of the world the author is creating. And yes, it’s based on Ancient Rome. While it becomes obvious in the beginning chapters as to who is writing Mia’s story, it is unclear how the Chronicler is able to recall all of these moments of Mia’s life. That being said, we are left to believe that this narrator is a reliable one. 

            Jay Kristoff’s style is as creative as his choice of narration. Mia’s past experiences are written in italics, which makes it easy for readers to distinguish between Mia’s “past” and “present.” Mia’s daemon, Mister Kindly’s—who talks to her and to the other characters (when he chooses to)—dialogue is written in lowercase italics. This is brilliant because the author found a creative way to distinguish the dialogue between two species (?). The information provided within the “footnotes” present the truth surrounding society, especially the culture and the history—both brutal and carnal. The “footnotes” provide satire of the society. Both the mood and the tone are relatable and juxtapose to each other. The mood tells readers of the realities within this fictional story—cruel, harsh and unforgiving. Mia’s father is executed publicly for organizing a failed rebellion, her mother and her brother are imprisoned, and she escaped her execution and was raised by a former assassin who trains her as his apprentice. The tone tells us that one’s path towards revenge usually leaves that individual (and many others) dead. 

            I would describe the appeal surrounding Nevernight as a hidden jewel. It is popular in the grimdark subgenre, and it’s gaining more recognition within the rest of the speculative fiction community. In other words, more and more people are reading this novel. Historical fiction readers will appreciate Kristoff’s society which is based on historical and cultural research. Godsgrave—the 2nd book in The Nevernight Chronicle—was released in 2017 and is an amazing follow-up to Nevernight (review coming soon). And, Darkdawn, the 3rdand final book in the trilogy, will be released in September 2019. 

            Nevernight is a great novel for those who are curious about the grimdark subgenre. Besides that the characters, the plot, the subplots and the style will keep readers interested from the Caveat Emptor (opening chapter). The harsh reality told within the pages reminds us that good and bad are NOT concepts, but manifestations within each individual; everyone is capable of both, but what drives them to perform acts of one or both? This is the question readers are forced to ask themselves more than once. Nevernight is both an enjoyable and a psychological read that I’ll re-read over and over again!

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