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: “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)!

Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy

            “She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).

            2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.

            Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand. 

            The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved. 

            The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.

            The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon! 

            C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The City of Brass”

The Daevabad Trilogy: Book 1: The City of Brass

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: November 14, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            “Nahri had spent her entire life trying to blend in with those around her just to survive. Those instincts were warring even now: her thrill at learning what she was and her urge to flee back to the life she’d worked so hard to establish for her Cairo,”(Chapter 3). 

            I read S.A. Chakraborty’s first novel, The City of Brass, after its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, was released in January 2019. The good news is that I enjoyed this novel, and the better news is I don’t have to wait to read the second book! This is a magical story that starts in Egypt and travels to a hidden kingdom in the Middle East.

            Nahri is a con woman with a magical intuition who is surviving on the streets of Cairo during its occupation of the Ottoman Empire. Hoping to become a trained healer, Nahri takes jobs “healing customers” while conning them. However, during one of her jobs, Nahri not only reveals her magical aptitude to herself, but also summons a djinn warrior named Dara, who whisks her out of Egypt to the kingdom of Daevastana, where she’ll be safe from enemies, or so they both believe. Meanwhile, Prince Alizayd al Qahtani of Daevastana is scheming behind his father’s back by aiding the poor Shafits, whom are being harmed and mistreated throughout the kingdom. Ali’s intentions are good, but he is naïve both in royal politics and in the truth surrounding the anger of the indentured population. When Nahri and Dara arrive in Daevabad, Ali must quash his ambitions in order to protect his family. Both Nahri and Ali must learn how to navigate and to cope with both their identities and their responsibilities to themselves and to those who rely on them—Nahri to the Daeva and Ali to his family. In the middle of all the impending drama is Dara—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—who has an interesting history with both Nahri’s and Ali’s ancestors. 

            The plot is about power, both political and magical. Nahri goes from being a thief to becoming the Royal Healer and the Last Nahid, and Prince Ali—the Qaid, or Head of the Guard for the Royal Family—must choose between doing what is right or being loyal to his family. Both protagonists are trying to determine whether or not Dara has ulterior motives and whether or not he is in control of his magical powers. The subplot, which will most likely become the plot later on in the trilogy, is the tension building within the six tribes residing in the kingdom. More is happening than either Nahri, or Prince Ali realize, but they can only do so much to keep a war from breaking out. Yet, there are more forces at work, which are revealed as the story continues. It goes slow at times, but both the plot and the subplot fall together by the novel’s end. 

            The narratives are told from the point-of-views of both Nahri and Ali; but, they are told in the third person limited narrative. Everything is told in real time, which makes the world-building and the plot easy to follow. Both Nahri and Ali are reliable narrators because readers learn of their flaws and the mistakes they make as the story continues onward. These flaws and mistakes are pointed out to them by the other characters, constantly, which could be argued to be an element of foreshadowing.

            The author’s style of writing can be presented in the mood, in which the beauty of the Middle Eastern region covers up the harsh realities of the people who reside there. Nahri swindles the wealthy residents in Cairo, which is moving between the Ottoman Turks. Ali is the Second Prince who hopes his brother’s reign will be better than their father’s corrupt one. Chakraborty’s tone reminds readers that the settings within the novel are in the midst of an occupation by those who don’t belong there: The Ottoman Turks in Cairo, and the Geziri tribe’s (Prince Ali’s family) rule of the Qahtani throne, which was once occupied by the Nahid (Nahri’s) family. The inclusion of Middle Eastern history and folklore flow within the story in order to add to the richness of this fantasy novel. The Glossary at the back of the book and the map at the front of the book allows for readers to keep track of the characters, the locations, and the culture with ease. Chakraborty’s style allows readers to have a flowing and an informative look into her world. 

            The appeal surrounding The City of Brasshas been a positive one for the Science Fiction Fantasy community; and it is a great addition to the sub-genre that is Middle Eastern fantasy. Both the novel and Chakraborty have been nominated for numerous awards such as the Locus, the British Fantasy, the World Fantasy, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The second book in the trilogy, The Kingdom of Copper, has received praise from readers and critics alike. As far as I know, the second book picks up where the first one left off. Hopefully, the third and final book, The Empire of Gold, gives us everything we want.

            The City of Brassis a fantasy novel that gives Western readers a story that could have occurred during the Ottoman Rule of the Middle East with the culture and the myths that go with it. While the narrative was smooth, the characters believable, the world-building and the conflicts take a bit longer to develop than I prefer. The “revelation” towards the end of the novel came a bit too late, but it works with the narrative and makes you want to read the next book in the trilogy, which I plan on doing. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer whose novels should not be missed by readers of the genre.

My rating: Enjoy It! (4 out of 5) 

Why You Need to Read: “Seven Blades in Black”

The Grave of Empires: Book One: Seven Blades in Black

By: Sam Sykes

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            “Galta the Thorn. Riccu the Knock. Zanze the Beast. Taltho the Scourge. Kresh the Tempest. Vraki the Gate. Jindu the Blade. Seven names. Seven out of thirty-three. It might have seemed small, maybe. But there was another name on my list that had taken a lot of bullets, a lot of blood, and a lot of bodies so that I could finally cross it out. I would have killed for one name. For seven? I’d burn the world to cinders,”(Nine: Lowstaff). 

            This novel only takes the idiom, “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned,” to the zenith, but it also puts revenge tales on the same level as Quentin Tarantino’s,Kill Billmovies. Sal the Cacophony is one angry woman and she’s on a journey to make sure those who have made her this way pay with their lives. She has a list with 33 names on it. The first book in The Grave of Empirestrilogy (or series?) focuses on seven of those names.

            Sal the Cacophony is a Vagrant—a mage who no longer fights for the Imperium—who is imprisoned and awaiting execution by the Revolution—a group of non-mages who oppose the dominance of the mages. She is questioned by Governor-Militant Tretta—a figure who is only concerned with earning a promotion so that she’ll become more noticeable to her superiors—who demands an explanation surrounding the disappearance of Revolutionary Low Sergeant Cavric Proud and the attack on one of the towns within the region known as “The Scar.” Sal accepts both the (multiple) charges and her fate and tells the Governor-Militant the recent events, which led to the disappearance of the Low Sergeant. Tretta—and readers—learn of all the events right up to Sal’s arrest. Sal tells of her last bounty job, which turned into the hunt for the names on her list, which uncovered a conspiracy, which became a rescue mission, which turned into a massacre, which led to her arrest. Along the way, we learn what happened to the devout Revolutionary Sergeant Cavric, and Sal’s girlfriend, Liette, who is a mage. Sal is a woman with many aliases, abandonment issues, and a lot of anger. And, it is ALL justified!

            The plot, as mentioned earlier, focuses on Sal’s revenge against those who wronged her. However, we learn of 7 of the 33 names and why she goes after those particular people first. Like many revenge tales, we follow the person who has been wronged while wondering whether or not the ends justifies the means. In the case of Sal the Cacophony, she has been wronged and she has every reason to be angry to the point where you can understand her murder streak. Yet, you wonder about the “after.” What will Sal do if she does cross out all the names on her list? How will this journey change Sal? The subplots include the world-building and the world’s history, which is mentioned by Sal through her story. Since Sal is retelling the events that led to her arrest, the plot moves very quickly, which is a good thing because a lot happens and we want to know what happens next, and we don’t need all the little details in order to get to the heart of the story. 

            The narrative is told in flashback from Sal’s point-of-view; and, given the state of Sal’s situation, it could be argued that Sal is an objective narrator, yet Sal is a character that allows for both Tretta and the reader to be empathetic towards Sal. Sal does admit to all of the crimes—and the heroics—she’s done, recently; but it isn’t until the novel’s end that you realize how truthful Sal has been to the Governor-Militant, to her friends, and to herself. Each chapter is labelled with the setting where each event occurs. This makes it easy to follow the narrative because the sequence of events follows Sal’s destructive path towards vengeance. The narrative clues you in to what happens next.

            The author, Sam Sykes, sets the tone of this humorous epic fantasy tale by giving his readers a cynical protagonist who drinks, curses and kills as a coping mechanism. Both the tone and the mood setup the grittiness of the location known as, “The Scar.” Sal’s exploits illustrate how everything can go wrong while accomplishing a task but completing it anyway. Readers have no choice but to laugh as each event occurs because you have no choice but to laugh. Sykes does an amazing job teasing some of the common fantasy and revenge story tropes in his dark comedy novel.

            The appeal surrounding Seven Blades in Blackwill introduce SFF readers who haven’t read Sam Sykes’ books before to him. The description surrounding this novel as a “blend of Kill Billand Final Fantasy” is very accurate. Fans of George R.R. Martin and Brian McClellan will enjoy this new series, too! Readers of epic fantasy will enjoy this story and appreciate the effort the author makes in clarifying both The Scar and Sal’s character. This has been one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a long time, and I’m already anticipating Book 2! Seven Blades in Blackis a welcomed addition to the speculative fiction genre. One more thing, if there was to be an adaptation, then an anime-styled animated series would be the way to go!

            I’m glad I received an ARC of Seven Blades in Blackbecause not only did it allow me to read a book by an author I had never heard of before, but also it allowed me to appreciate epic fantasy by providing a 704-page novel and leave me begging the author for a potential release date for Book 2! The protagonist is one who deserves our sympathy and will leave you hoping that she does accomplish her goals without destroying herself. I want to know what happens next!

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

An Update on My Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2019

On Tuesday, April 2nd, the nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards were announced, and just like everyone in the SFF Community, I was excited over all of the nominees and offered my congratulations (and consolations) to the authors, artists, editors and other nominees. The good news is, once again the nominees of the Nebulas and the Hugos contain different selections within each category, which means there are different works to consider for each category. In other words, someone who wasn’t nominated for a Nebula was nominated for a Hugo! The bad news is, I’m still reading (and watching) my way through these nominees. I’m going to have to start being realistic about how I’m going to present my predictions for the upcoming awards.

            One of the issues about reading the nominations for literary awards is the actual reading of them. Time and money are the usual suspects as to why I’m falling behind on the reading. However, I can say that I fell behind in the reading of some of these nominations because I’m behind on the series. Dave Hutchinson, Yoon Ha Lee and Emma Newman are nominated for some of the awards for their novels that are part of a series. Unlike Nnedi Okorafor, Martha Wells and Seanan McGuire, reading novels takes longer than reading a novella. And, while I’ll be working my way through both Yoon Ha Lee’s and Becky Chambers’ series in time for the Hugo Awards Presentation, I won’t be able to complete them in time for the BSFA Awards. That being said, the nominations for “Best Novel” are just as puzzling as the “Best Novel” nominations for the rest of the awards, the novels/series are that good.   

            Another issue I’ve been having is the access to the stories themselves. I’ve been making numerous trips to the public libraries in my neighborhood and in the neighboring neighborhoods. Amazon Unlimited—Amazon’s digital library service—has been a huge help, as well as the many sales on e-books both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have had since January. However, many of the short stories and the novelettes are not as easy to access as you may think. Some of the nominees are available online for free by the publisher or the magazine that published them. The rest are not even available to purchase online unless you buy the entire issue the story was featured in. As of right now, I don’t know what I’ll do as each awards presentation gets closer. 

Please keep in mind that I’m doing the Reading Challenge. I know about the nominations in the categories involving movies, television shows and video games. I’m working my way through those as well and I’ll give my predictions on those potential winners, too.  

            In terms some of the other awards, I tweeted a message to The Arthur C. Clarke Award Committee. They said that their awards ceremony will take place in July 2019, although the dates are still TBD. I want to say that we’ll probably get their nominations either at the end of April, or at the beginning of May. I don’t know which books will be selected for their nominations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the nominees for the other awards are selected for this one. I’m looking forward to The Arthur C. Clarke Awards because their nominations are made up of both familiar and new names, as well as series a reader—such as myself—might have overlooked. I should also mention that as I’m posting this update, the nominations for the 2019 Locus Awards have not been announced yet. If there are any other awards I should look into, then please let me know. 

            On Monday, April 15th, the winner of the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award will be announced, but the award will not be presented to that winner until Balticon 53, which is taking place after this year’s Nebula Awards Presentation. I have either read or read most of the books of all the nominees. I have an idea of who my pick for this award is going to be, but that doesn’t mean that the author I choose is going to win. This will be the first of my awards videos I plan on making and uploading to YouTube. I can say all of the nominees on this list are worth reading, especially because three of the authors are nominated for other speculative fiction literary awards. However, this does not mean that the other three nominees should be overlooked. I have a feeling that we’ll receive more intriguing stories from them for a very long time. 

            That’s my update. I’ll be reading and posting my reviews and updates about each award presentation as they come and go. I’m making progress with my reading and I’m excited and conflicted about this year’s nominees. This means that many of the stories the authors have gifted readers with are that good, so it’ll be hard to determine just one winner. I’ve heard of ties happening in some cases and I doubt that it could happen this year, but you never know. 

Why You Need to Read: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains some minor spoilers. You have been warned.

            “My name is Alek Fitz,” I said. “I’m a reaper for Valkyrie Collateral, and I’ve come to collect your debt.”(Chapter 1).

            When an author diverts from their known genre, the fans notice. Several questions are asked: Why is this author working on this? Will this genre/sub-genre be as good as the author’s other books? Should I read it? J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are the current popular examples of the genre switch up. Brian McClellan shifts from epic fantasy to urban fantasy in his new novella series, Valkyrie Collections. Both fans of McClellan and urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.

            Alek Fitz is a part troll, part human individual who is an indentured servant/reaper for Valkyrie Collections, a debt-collecting agency that keeps track of people (mostly humans?) who exchange their souls for corporeal desires. Think of it as a world in which people think and behave like Dr. Faustus. However, instead of the individual going to Hell once the contract is over and the conditions are met, that individual is doomed to live without their soul for the rest of their mortal life. Of course, nobody wants to live without their soul, so there are some people who try to avoid the exchange; and, that’s where reapers—a.k.a. bounty hunters—like Alek Fitz comes in. Alek is the best in the business, but it isn’t because he is a workaholic. His boss, Ada, owns him, literally. Alek was sold to her as an infant by traffickers. The barcode over his heart gives the “owner” control of him. All Ada has to do is touch the barcode, which inflicts pain and Alek is obedient to her every whim. This means that Alek is put on the most demanding and dangerous cases. 

            Alek is “partners” with Margarete Abaroa, or Maggie, a jinn who is trapped inside a ring because of a curse, which Alek cannot get off due to the same curse. Both Alek and Maggie work well together, and both share common ground that they are victims of unwanted circumstances. Maggie gives Alek the upper hand and Alek treats her with respect. Both Alek and Maggie are the protagonists in this story because Alek is stuck with Maggie and vice versa. However, Maggie is not without her secrets, so whatever Alek knows about her is because she told him. No one knows about Maggie and why Alek wears a ring while at work. I would say Ada is the antagonist because she is the reason for Alek’s lifestyle. Just like in other stories from the genres of urban fantasy and mystery, Alek has confidantes and sources who are the type of “people” who you expect them to be, friendly but self-serving. 

            The plot for Uncanny Collateralis Alek is forced to take a job for the Ferryman—a.k.a. Death—in order to recover numerous souls, which have been stolen and are being sold secondhand to those who have traded their own. This is a problem for two reasons. One, missing souls throws off the “process” that occurs after an individual’s death. Two, someone who is in possession of any soul but theirs causes them to rot from the inside out. Alek and Maggie are on the case with a limited time span, because the balance of death is in jeopardy. The subplots within the story focuses on the past surrounding both Alek and Maggie. Alek wants out of his bondage from Ada, and he wants to know who his parents are and why they sold him. And, Maggie’s past is revealed to Alek—and to readers—when someone comes looking for her with ominous intentions. The subplots reveal more of Alek and Maggie’s character to each other, but it furthers their resolve in working on a way to escape their bondage. The plot develops, rises, and resolves at an appropriate rate because the series needs to begin and to end with the continuing dilemmas of these characters.

            Just like in other urban fantasy stories, the setting plays a huge role because the characters interact and travel from place to place. Alek travels throughout parts of Ohio—real places—talking to imps, necromancers, and angels while searching for the missing souls for one of the agents of death. The narrative is told in real time, so everything happens in a stream-of-consciousness and we learn about the setting and the society in which Alek resides in. Obviously, Alek is the narrator, and it’s safe to say that he’s a reliable one because of his predicament and lifestyle. The real time and the action within the narrative makes this novella an easy read. 

            One of the ways the author writes his story is by using allusion and pop culture references. Ferryman is described as looking like Keith Richards with a voice like Bob Dylan. Alek works for Valkyrie Collections; Valkyries are beings who travel the world collecting souls of warriors to fight in Ragnarok. And, Maggie is a jinn who is cursed to live inside of a ring. McClellan uses these methods in order to set the mood of the story. At the same time, the tone of this story lets readers know that this urban world is harsher than ours. Lost souls, cursed objects, and necromancy are just some of the negatives that comes with living in a world with magic and paranormal forces. This is the author’s take on the paranormal and it is very engaging. 

            Fans of urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.Fans of McClellan’s other works will enjoy both the worldbuilding and the fight scenes. This novella is the first in a new series by a popular best-selling author who is branching out with his storytelling and giving readers something new and different to enjoy. It seems novellas are gaining more popularity when authors present their fans with the chance of reading more of what they have to offer. It is obvious that McClellan plans on continuing this series, and I hope he does because the story is very entertaining, and it would be a shame if the series ended before it could continue. And, while it’s too soon for any form of adaptation to be considered, I believe either a graphic novel or an animated series would be the best formats for consideration.

            I had the opportunity to be both a Beta and an ARC reader for Uncanny Collateral. And, while it’s cool seeing your name on the Acknowledgements Page, I really did enjoy this story. The Valkyrie Collection reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s American Godsbecause of the use of actual places for the setting gives the story a realistic appeal, and something unknown could happen without anyone else knowing about it is a bit eerie. Brian McClellan presents his urban fantasy world and it works. All of the familiar elements are there: magic abilities, humans with knowledge of the existing worlds, and half human protagonists struggling with their identity. Like I said before, both urban fantasy readers and McClellan’s fans will enjoy this novella. 

            Uncanny Collateralis a fun addition to the urban fantasy genre. The setting is realistic, and the characters are rounded with conflicts that match the world the author created. The pacing of the story is appropriate for a novella and the plot fits within the length as well. My only issue is that it’s too obvious there is going to be more to come in this series, but of course readers won’t know what will happen next until the next book is released. I hope we get more because I want to know what happens next, too.

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).