Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Why You Need to Read: “Uprooted”

Uprooted

By: Naomi Novik

Published: May 19, 2015

Genre: Fantasy/Fractured Fairy Tale or Fairy Tale Retelling/Coming-of-Age Story

            The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one, somehow: if there was one girl who was far and away the prettiest, or the most bright, or the best dancer, or especially kind, somehow he always picked her out, even though he scarcely exchanged a word with the girls before he made his choice, (Chapter 1).

            I remember what led me to read this book. The ebook was on sale and I saw the promotion for its upcoming companion novel, Spinning Silver. Then, I attended BookCon in 2018. I had read an excerpt of the author’s upcoming novel, Spinning Silver, and I wanted to meet her and have her sign copies of her books. Yes, books, because in addition to Spinning Silver, I picked up Naomi Novik’s other books, His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire Book 1—which, I still haven’t read, yet—and Uprooted, which I had already read. I reviewed Spinning Silver first. Both books are similar in themes and tropes, but they stand out well as individual standalone novels. 

            Agnieszka is 17-years-old and lives with her parents in the village, Dvernik, near the corrupted Wood’s border. A wizard, known only as “the Dragon” to the villagers, protects the village from the Wood, which is his task set to him from the royal court. As part of the Dragon’s tribute, he takes one girl from the village for 10 years of service. No one knows what the service entails except the girls return as women, but “changed,” and leave the village for city life shortly after. Agnieszka is tall, clumsy and awkward, and she’s one of the girls who is of the age for the Dragon to choose from for his next tribute. However, Agnieszka knows she won’t be chosen, but her friend, Kasia, will be the one chosen. Kasia is beautiful and talented in almost everything she does, and Agnieszka and the entire village knows the Dragon will choose her. Only, he doesn’t. To everyone’s shock, Agnieszka is selected to serve the Dragon. Now, Agnieszka has to learn what is expected of her for the next 10 years. And, this includes filling in for the Dragon when he cannot attend court. Agnieszka learns about the Dragon and his service, why she was chosen over the other girls, and how the Wood became so corrupted. Agnieszka develops as a character and as a person as she learns about the outside world, which she has been sheltered from her entire life, and about the dark forces that make the Wood so dangerous. Agnieszka is accompanied by the Dragon, but as she learns more about what is expected from her, she refuses to lose contact with her family and her friends. Agnieszka grows up in an unusual way under unusual circumstances, and she manages in her own way.

            The plot is divided into two parts. The first part regards Agnieszka’s “services” to the Dragon, which is easier said than done. While Agnieszka shows promise with the more “difficult” tasks, she is awkward when it comes to completing the “easier” ones, which makes for a very entertaining “education.” The second plot revolves around the Wood and how it continues to grow stronger and more aggressive. After the Dragon is injured during a confrontation with the Wood, Agnieszka must travel to the royal court in his place in order to request reinforcements. Once there, Agnieszka meets the royal family and other individuals like the Dragon. It is here when the subplot develops: the Dragon’s relationship with the court, and the court’s connection to the Wood. The subplot explains the two plots of the novel as they all go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative is told from Agnieszka’s point-of-view in first-person in the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness. Everything the readers learn, is from Agnieszka’s perspective. If she is not where the action is taking place, then she learns about it afterwards from someone else (and, so do the readers). The fact that Agnieszka can only account for her actions and her experiences make her a reliable narrator. All of these elements make the narrative easy to follow.

            The style Naomi Novik uses for Uprooted follows both a fairy tale retelling and a fractured fairy tale. A fairy tale retelling is when a known fairy tale is retold with components that alter either the setting or the characters. A fractured fairy tale is when a smaller, yet popular part of a fairy tale is kept while the rest of the story changes. In this case, elements of the story, “Beauty and the Beast” can be found throughout the narrative, but the author presents a new story from the few parts she fractured and used. The mood in this novel is anticipation. All of the characters in the story are anxious or excited about an upcoming event, or dreading a threat that cannot be stopped. The tone of the novel focuses on how all of the characters remain resilient during such difficult times and how they handle themselves. The last two literary elements of style will make you forget about the fractured fairy tale and focus on the fantasy story.

            The appeal for Uprooted have been noteworthy. Besides receiving critical and popular acclaim, this novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2016. However, it seems that since the release of Spinning Silver, Uprooted has fallen a bit behind on the popularity, but I can assure you, if you enjoyed the former, then you will enjoy the latter. Uprooted remains a great addition to the fantasy canon, and fans of Katherine Arden, S.A. Chakraborty, and Rena Rossner will enjoy this book the most. There hasn’t been any announcements on whether or not we should expect another novel similar to this one, but I am willing to wait for as long as it takes, especially since the rumor is that both books are set in the same universe. Uprooted can be reread; in fact, older adolescents can read and enjoy this book as well (regardless of some of the adult content). 

            Uprooted is an entertaining coming-of-age story about identity and magic of all sorts. All of the familiar fairy tale tropes are twisted from what you know of them, and that makes the story more enjoyable. If you read and loved Spinning Silver, and you haven’t read Uprooted yet, then don’t wait any longer. If you want to read a fantasy story that uproots the expectations of the readers, then this is the book for you.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Vengeful”

Villains, #2: Vengeful

By: V.E. Schwab

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Superheroes

            “Most Eos are the result of accidents,” he said, studying the snow. “But Eli and I were different. We set out to find a way to effect the change. Incidentally, it’s remarkable difficult to do. Dying with intent, reviving with control. Finding a way to end a life but keep it in arm’s reach, and all without rendering the body unusable. On top of that, you need a method that strips enough control from the subject to make them afraid, because you need the chemical properties induced by fear and adrenaline to trigger a somatic change.”

 –1: Resurrection, VIII: Three Years Ago: Capital City

            Authors and creators have many works which demonstrate the change and the divergence their careers have taken them through time. Each “period” of the artist presents both the influence and the expression of the artist(s) at that time. This is essential to know because the audience will have their favorite “periods” and/or their favorite work(s) from each “period.” This is relevant because the creator will work with either different mediums and/or different themes, while the author will write several stories of various genres for different readers. V.E. Schwab has written several books for children and young adults readers; however, it is her stories for adults in which fans and readers notice both the talent and the desire found within the narrative in that we all get the story we want so badly. V.E. Schwab does it twice, as we see in Vengeful, the sequel to Vicious, the second book in the Villains series. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this novel. The first 3 are familiar: Victor Vale, Eli Ever and Sydney Clarke. Readers meet up with them following the events at the end of Vicious. However, that end was just an end of those set of problems as new ones emerge. All three protagonists have experienced the wonders of their EO abilities, but now are understanding the consequences that come with them. Victor and Eli experience more physical pain now compared to all of the emotional pain they felt before they became EOs. Sydney’s difficulties are more long-term and obvious, but she experiences more loneliness after the death of her sister, Serena. Being an “Extra Ordinary” is wonderful and life-changing, until reality sets in. This truth transforms all three of these protagonists into vulnerable beings. And, while Sydney is no stranger to being vulnerable—she is 13-years-old at the beginning of this novel—both Eli and Victor are not. These “powerful” males are struggling to regain control over both their abilities and their lives. All the while, a new EO rises to become ‘The Villain.’ Marcella Riggins is the 4th protagonist, the newest EO, and the next villain to be dealt with in this series. The novel opens with her life, her death, her rebirth, and her EO abilities, which put her on the same level as Victor Vale and Eli Ever. The latter are examples of toxic masculinity, but Marcella Riggins is a perfect example of “a woman scorned.” When all 4 of these protagonists meet up—for 3 of them, it’s a dangerous reunion—chaos will ensue and A LOT of people will die. 

            There are several plots within this novel and it’s because there are so many protagonists, with different conflicts in the story. First, there is Marcella Riggins. Her life and her death are mentioned as they influence the EO she becomes. Readers have no choice but to sympathize with her, even when Marcella becomes drunk on power and seeks to seize control of the city her late husband would not. Eli Ever is in prison serving multiple life sentences for all of his crimes. However, he is kept in a “special” high secured prison where Eli becomes the obsession of physician whose toxic masculinity makes Eli’s (and Victor’s) look “normal.” Readers actually feel bad for Eli once his experiences at the prison, and in his life before he met Victor, are revealed. Victor Vale is enjoying his life as a free man, yet again. Only, his EO ability isn’t what it used to be. Not used to being not in control of his life, Victor seeks help for his EO ability in his way, which usually ends up with people dying. As for Sydney Clarke, she continues to hone her EO ability, which continues to strengthen. This is significant because Sydney’s ability grows while her body seem to remain the same. There are two subplots which help to enhance the story. The first is the introduction to other EOs who help with the development of who EOs are, their understanding of their abilities, how they use it and why, and who knows about EOs. The second subplot delves right back into the concept of negative emotions and how they are expressed. This subplot is a repeated one, but whereas males were observed in Vicious, females act out on them in Vengeful. And, there are just as many angry females as there are males. The subplots are necessary because not only do they enhance the story, but also they expand on the concept of EOs and their world which is hidden from most of the remaining population. Meanwhile, the plots develop as several individual rising actions are working their way towards a climax amongst the protagonists, which promises the reader(s) that something big is about to happen. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all 4 protagonists across a 5-year time frame, which jumps across various moments in time. While the novel starts with Marcella Riggins’ P.O.V., the narrative jumps back to what happened to Victor Vale 5 years ago—the ending of Vicious. From that point and for the duration of this novel, the time sequence goes from the present to one moment in the past to another moment in the past. This is not so much of a flashback sequence, but a narrative frame in order to explain to the reader(s) what is happening to a certain protagonist at a certain time, and then jump ahead to the consequences of those past actions. While it may sound confusing, it isn’t because as the past is explained so are the actions and the motivations of the characters. The points-of-view are in 3rd person limited (or, subjective). This means that during one character’s P.O.V. chapter, neither the readers nor that character knows the thoughts of another character. For the reader, the thoughts of the other character may or may not get revealed to them in another chapter. The characters will never know what the other ones are thinking (just like in real life). 

            The style V.E. Schwab uses in Vengeful is a continuation from what she did in Vicious. The characters had to lose something in order to become EOs; and yet, they continue to lose parts of themselves as they become more powerful. Similar to related themes found in comic books and superhero stories, the characters lose more of their humanity as they continue on the path to become separate entities. The mood in this novel is dread. From Marcella Riggins’ death and rebirth, a new sensation of awe and fear emerges and no one knows what will come from it, but it won’t be anything good. The tone in this novel is the preparation. The upcoming showdown that is foreseen due to the rise of Marcella Riggins will keep EOs (and readers) in anticipation. Readers know that Eli Ever and Victor Vale must reunite, but the reason for it remains unknown to all, even to the two former friends. If Vicious was the origins story, then Vengeful is the action movie sequel!

            The appeal for Vengeful have been positive. Fans of both V.E. Schwab’s other books, including Vicious, have claimed it is one of her best stories, yet. In addition to gaining (more) new readers, myself included, Vengeful has reminded readers not only of comic books and superheroes, but also of (great) action movies. V.E. Schwab is a huge fan of the John Wick movies (just like I am), and she has said more than once that both the fight scenes and the world-building were influences for her Villains series. And no, I have not located the John Wick Easter Egg in Vengeful, yet (DO NOT TELL ME WHERE IT IS!), it is obvious that the climactic scene was influenced by it A LOT! The author has promised her fans at least one more book in this series, with a publication date as early as 2023 (she takes 5 years to write each book). With at least 2 more John Wick movies scheduled to be released in between Vengeful and Book 3, I can only imagine the story that will emerge from V.E. Schwab’s imagination in response to those movies.

            Vengeful is the beautiful yet dark and twisted sequel to the story about the reality of the metaphysical. Fans and readers are reminded why possessing such powers and desiring to become extraordinary should remain restricted. Not only are there long-term consequences to gaining such powers, but also not everyone should possess such abilities. There was a reason this book made my list of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018! If I still enjoy this book now as I did then, then you will love it, too!

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

The Disclosure Behind the 2020 Hugo Awards

A lot can happen in a week. Politics and COVID-19 aside, it seems like “everyone” wants to return to a time when “things were the way they used to be.” Out of all of the prejudices that’s been going around, it seems that ageism continues to be accepted widely due to the notion that “the new will replace the old.” Unfortunately, it seems that “the old” keeps finding ways to hold out for a bit longer, which is equivalent to years. Not only have Americans been forced to admit the issues surrounding race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and domestic violence, but also delve into several generational gaps and the beliefs that come from a particular age group. “Trumpeters” aside, it seems that many older White men have nothing better to do than to whine about how modern society is uprooting “the morals and the structure of ‘their youth’.” Yes, because White men have had it so bad, they get to complain about what they no longer have as opposed to other groups of people who are still denied the basic rights and privileges they continue to take for granted. And, it seems that the microcosms are reflecting the macrocosm as certain in-groups continue to find ways to make themselves exclusive as they express their desires to omit other groups of people and to keep them from participating alongside them. In recent years, we all witnessed this happening more and more in Hollywood and film, and in the video game industry. Not to mention, it’s happening within the literary community and the fandom are familiar with the ongoings within speculative fiction.

            One week after Tom Shippey’s comments about fantasy novels in The Wall Street Journal, the 2020 Hugo Awards was livestreamed during Worldcon, which would have been held in New Zealand if it wasn’t for the global pandemic. The good news was, many fans were able to watch the Award Ceremony; the bad news was, those same fans were reminded that those who write speculative fiction are not as open-minded as their stories make them out to be. More people were able to witness the blatant sexism and racism that is whispered about in the publishing industry. Obnoxious doesn’t even begin to describe the behavior of those grown men. 

            First, let me address George R.R. Martin’s mispronunciation of the names of several of the nominees and the presenters. As someone who has worked within education for over a decade, yes there were times when I mispronounced A LOT of names; and, I’m not limiting that list of names to “minority” ones. One, there are some European names a lot of people cannot pronounce. Two, your name maybe unusual and/or hard to say for someone else. Three, names do not always equate to your concept of gender (think of unisex names). So, why were so many people upset with GRRM? It was because many of the nominees saw the name butchering as unprofessional, which it was. Some authors are friends with each other, and they all often attend the same events (I’m assuming here), so it is understandable when after a while the mispronunciation comes off as rude. I understand how those authors felt, and it did ruin the Hugo Award experience for several people, especially the nominees (and the winners). Then again, there are several authors—whose works I’m a fan of—whose names and book titles I cannot pronounce to save my life (audiobooks have been a huge help). I know GRRM issued an apology, but that is neither for myself nor for the fandom to accept because it is for the authors and the creators who were nominated to decide. Whether or not they want to accept it is NOT up to us, it is their choice.

            There was another thing GRRM mentioned that night that has me upset, and it was his statement regarding all of the Finalists for the “Best Novel” category being women. Maybe he was trying to be funny when he said, “maybe we’ll see some men nominated next year,” but the context of that statement—especially after Robert Silverberg’s rant about John W. Campbell’s “legacy”—remains to be open to interpretation. 

            Robert Silverberg is an award-winning author of over 1,000 sci-fi and fantasy stories, some of which won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Awards. In addition, he was the Toastmaster of several Hugo Award Ceremonies throughout the years. Silverberg’s publishing career started in 1954 and he retired around the early 1990s. As he mentioned in his rant—which was prerecorded—he is a fan (and I want to say a friend) of John W. Campbell’s stories—he is considered to be “the father of modern science fiction”—which he wrote and published during the 1930s, and he talked about the sort of “person” Campbell was when he met up with other authors, including those who were influenced by him. In fact, Silverberg was so defensive of his “idol” that he decided to insult the author who “insulted” Campbell after winning the award that was renamed once it was rediscovered that he was a bigot. Did anyone else notice how many viewers “left” once it became obvious what Silverberg was saying a loud? No one is denying the contribution Campbell made to science fiction, but the truth of the matter remains in tandem with his legacy, which is that Campbell was a racist and a sexist. Like many other (fantasy) readers of my generation, I enjoyed and I’ve been influenced by the Harry Potter series. However, J.K. Rowling has some disturbing views about transgenders (which, she has voiced more than once). Neither the fantasy community nor the fandom—myself included—cannot deny the contribution Harry Potter has had. Yet, while we are able to separate the art from its creator, we must know when to say, “that’s not right.” 

            Let’s face it, everything is changing whether or not we want them to change. I grew up during the 1990s during a time when the Internet was becoming communal tool. Yes, I have my moments of nostalgia, but I don’t wish for things to revert backwards! There are a lot of things that must change and there are some things that we all look forward to happening. Halting progress or returning to the past brings about chaotic results, something we are all witnessing firsthand on a global scale!

            Now, I’m going to sound like the English teacher/instructor I used to be: did you all even bother to read (or, to watch or to play) any of the works that were nominated for the Hugo Awards?! I was under the impression that members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) got to vote for the Hugo Award nominees and winners. Don’t get me wrong, it is NOT easy to attempt to read ALL of the books that get nominated for awards (my Shortlist Award Reading Challenge is a challenge), but to act as though these works aren’t worth reading because it didn’t suit your “preferences” or “expectations” of the genre? Or, were you worried that you wouldn’t be as familiar with the context of works written and created by females, BIPOC/BAME, and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals as you are with those of yourself and your peers?! No one is denying that the authors of the past (and the present) contributed to the genre, but there shouldn’t be a “shared model” for a genre that is dependent on the imaginations and the creativity of each individual. No genre is supposed to remain the same overtime. This is because stagnation kills progress of any kind! If science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the other genres, and the subgenres, within speculative fiction have changed over the course of the last century, then why should it remain constant in order for the genre to befit YOUR preferences? As John Scalzi mentioned on his blog, “’The canon’ didn’t just somehow ‘happen.’ It is a result of choices…” The genre was different before I was born, it has branched out and evolved since my childhood, and it will go beyond our expectations and imaginations with posterity. However, we get to decide on what we read based on what is available, which is A LOT!

            Here is my first of many proposals (hopefully). There are books about the history of fantasy, the encyclopedia of literature, the companion to science fiction, etc. In literature and in poetry, there are “schools” and “literary movements” and “periods” that categorizes the evolution of that “form” of literature based on the era in addition to literary form and genre. We are all familiar with the general history, the definitions, the genres and the subgenres of speculative fiction. However, if the influences and the changes of the genre are going to keep getting mentioned by the “elder” generation, then we should at least consider compiling “schools” and “periods” of the genre so that there is more comprehension than saying, “this author was a contributor of this subgenre due to the works which reflected the genre,” or “this author’s stories cemented this movement within the genre, etc.” For example, one of the most familiar eras of fantasy are “The Inklings.” When that group is mentioned, many know it refers to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other Oxford professors of literature who were also fans of folklore, and wrote stories based on those tales. We need more groups and/or eras like that so that there is recognized clarity within the community. Is this similar to canonization? Yes. However, if time frames and eras are going to keep being brought up, then we can find ways to make it all easy to understand.

            This could be the opportunity the genre needs in order to progress further. I’m not saying that this will resolve any of the issues that have been and continue to be brought up within the speculative fiction community, but it with academic scholars, numerous awards, and an ever-growing fandom, we should consider a plan and/or a project that will involve everyone; especially, if we want the genre to continue to be taken seriously without all of the attention focusing on “elder White heterosexual males” who won’t stop bringing up the past. Think about it because the Hugo Awards are a celebration of the best of the (current) year, and not just the past. All of the groups within this in-group should start working together more in order to include all who participate in the speculative fiction community. For that to happen, we have to acknowledge (and perhaps learn) of all of the eras and the communities within the genre. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

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

The Midpoint of 2020: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we made it to the halfway point of the year 2020, which will go down as one of the most pivotal (and the wackiest) years in living memory. Just like everyone else, I’ve been affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders which led to the international Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few things in my personal life. I managed to adapt and I’m starting to catch up on everything that’s been going on. I am managing to keep up with all of my reading while expanding on my blog and my other projects. So, while my WIP remain in that state, I’m glad to say that I’ve been branching out and checking out new YouTubers and following fellow bookbloggers; and, I want to thank those who have asked me to be guests on their channels and on their blogs. Last, I want to thank everyone for reading my posts that are not reviews, but are personal essays and deep dives into literature, pop culture, and current events. It feels good to know that there are people who are interested in what I post online.

            As for reading in 2020, I’m reading, but I’m reading more than speculative fiction. You can look at my Goodreads page and you’ll see what I mean. In terms of speculative fiction, I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed, and I’m getting back into paranormal and urban fantasy. I have a stack of graphic novels that I need to read, too; but, I’ll get to them eventually. How many of 2020’s Most Anticipated releases have you read so far?

            So, what does that mean for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2020, so far? Well, I haven’t finished reading 10 books that were released this year, yet; but, I can talk about at least 10 speculative fiction books in 2020 that I’m enjoying, and ones I’m excited to read. In other words, this list will be different from last year’s, but I hope you find this list of reads as interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable.

Books I’ve Finished:

The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding; The Queen of Raiders; A Broken Queen; The Cerulean Queen

     by Sarah Kozloff

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

The Black Iron Legacy, #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

Books I’m Currently Reading:

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

The Kingston Cycle, #2: Stormsong by C.L. Polk

Malus Domestica Trilogy, #1: Burn the Dark by S.A. Hunt

The Protectorate, #2: Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

A Chorus of Dragons, #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

The Reborn Empire, #1: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

The City, #1: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Murderbot Diaries, #5: The Network Effect by Martha Wells

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

Anasazi Series, #1: Between Earth and Sky by Rebecca Roanhorse

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab

Burningblade & Silvereye, #1: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rook and Ruin, #1: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

City of Sacrifice, #2: Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

The Burning, #2: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

Malus Domestica Trilogy: I Come with Knives and The Hellion by S.A. Hunt 

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Hanged God Trilogy, #1: Northern Wrath by Thilde Kold Holdt

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

            I hope to read 100 books by the end of the year, with at least 30 of them being speculative fiction books that were released this year. Which books will be on my Top 20 (or 25) Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2020? We’ll have to wait and see. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Name of All Things”

A Chorus of Dragons #2: The Name of All Things

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       Audiobook: 25 hours 46 minutes

Published: October 29, 2019                                        Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld, Dan

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                   Bittner, Lauren Fortgang

                                                      

            In the twentieth year of the hawk and the lion, beneath the silver sword, the sleeping beast’s prison shatters. The dragon of swords devours demon falls as night takes the land, (61: Under The Waters). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting method of maintaining the attention of an audience, etc. Narratives in all formats—oral stories, books, movies, TV shows, and video games—continue to use this method of storytelling in order to let the audience know when one part of the story ends and when another begins, or to continue the action and/or the pacing of a story where it left off. In the case of Jenn Lyon’s A Chorus of Dragons series (not a trilogy, but will be 5 books), readers get both and so much more in Book 2: The Name of All Things.

            The protagonist in this story is Janel Theranon, a noblewoman from Jorat (a dominion in the Quuros Empire). She has been looking for Kihrin D’Mon since their first meeting, which was during the events involving Kihrin, his family, and the Emperor. Unfortunately, Kihrin doesn’t remember meeting Janel—with good reason—but, Janel doesn’t hold that against him. Ironically, the two outlaw nobles have been searching for each other without knowing where to locate the other one. Janel had lived a simple life as the granddaughter and heir of Count Jarin of Tolamer. She identifies herself as a “stallion,” or a Joratese whose gender—not sex—and gender expression is male. After an attack on her home and the citizens, Janel masquerades as “The Black Knight” in order to bring the culprits to justice. Instead, Janel’s true identity is revealed and she is sent on a quest to find a mystical spear so she can kill a dragon. Accompanying Janel is her friend, Brother Qown, who is a chronicler. The two friends have a long and arduous journey in locating Kihrin and the spear. Janel is from Jorat, a dominion known for its horses, and she was raised to become the next Count of Tolamer. Janel is smart, headstrong and combative, and she is known for her fighting skills and her willingness to protect her people. 

            The plot in The Name of All Things has four parts. Part I introduces Kihrin (and readers) to Janel’s life as a Count and the first of the events which caused her to leave Tolamer. Part II has Janel learning about her heritage, her abilities, and about “The Name of All Things,” another one of the eight Cornerstones. Not to mention, Janel meets and puts up with Relos Var. Part III has Janel reciting prophecies while surviving captivity without her abilities and while “conforming” to her opposing gender. Part IV brings all of the events back to the present and has Kihrin and Janel fulfilling prophecies whether or not they want to do so. The plot delves into Janel’s life, especially after it’s been uprooted, which takes place at the same time Kihrin’s life was upended. This is essential to know because this lets the protagonists (and the readers) know that more was happening throughout the Quuros Empire, and it seems that Relos Var is the central figure. The subplots include Armageddon, and the quest for magical artifacts and mystical weapons, which is familiar to readers. Another subplot is the idea of gender and its practices in Jorat. While gender is binary amongst the Joratese (and in our reality), it is NOT determined based on genitalia, but on the societal role and how each individual expresses their gender. These subplots are necessary in order to keep the plot going at an appropriate rate and they keep the narrative going as well. Just like Kihrin, Janel has a role to carryout for a prophecy, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. 

            Once again, the narrative jumps between the past and the present, with 3 different narrators. Kihrin serves as the narrator for the present mostly because he’s the person everyone is looking for. The flashbacks of events are told from the points-of-view of both Janel Theranon and Brother Qown. It is important to know while both of these characters are recounting the experiences to Kihrin, Brother Qown is a chronicler, so most of his recounts have been written down already (probably). This means he’s writing down Janel’s experiences as they overlap his in order to provide a complete story. Remember, someone else is reading this completed chronicle. The world-building comes from Janel’s P.O.V. as she explains Joratese culture, magic, and the events that occurred while Kihrin was with the Black Brotherhood, and there is a lot. We learn more about Relos Var, and about a few recurring characters both new and old. The narrative can be followed and this is because the audience (remember the reader) knows the narrator(s) is reliable. Given everything that’s happened so far, it seems to be the only choice.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Name of All Things follows the method of chronicles. Early written narratives were written down in order to include as many details as possible. In other words, whatever was said by the oral storyteller was written down by a chronicler. Early epic stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid were told orally and then written down, so however the length of the story was determined by the oral variant. A recent example of this style within a fantasy novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A chronicler is writing the story of the protagonist as it is being told to him, so the length is determined by how much the storyteller is willing to say to the chronicler. The mood in The Name of All Things is hostility and chaos. The former is due to the demons and the dragons set loose within the Empire, and the latter is due to how and why Kihrin had to flee the Capital. The tone is motivation after enduring traumatic events. We know Kihrin’s story and we learn Janel’s. Both leave us with questions and admiration for them being able to continue living their lives, even if it is as fugitives. Please note: the maps, the Foreword, and the Appendices are essential for the reading of this book.  

            The appeal for this book have been positive. There are many readers who enjoyed The Name of All Things just as much or more than The Ruin of Kings. This series continues to explore the tropes of prophecies and the ideas and the origins regarding them. Plus, Jenn Lyons does an excellent job incorporating the themes of gender—not sex and sexual orientation—into her story. This is a reflection of the reality in fiction in that the concept of gender is more complex and more fluid than it being binary. The world-building is done in a way where readers know another character from a different region within the same country/empire is the focus. Not to mention, we get an update on what happened to some of the minor characters from the first book. Once again, I listened to the audiobook, and this time, there were 3 new narrators. It took some time getting used to the “new voice” for Kihrin, but after telling myself that Kihrin is supposed to sound “more mature,” it made the listening experience go smoothly. Saskia Maarleveld, Dan Bittner, and Lauren Fortgang keeps the narrative going at a good pace, and keeps the listeners engaged in the story. The cliffhanger at the end will have fans excited for The Memory of Souls, which is the third book in a 5-book series and NOT the third and final book in a trilogy as I stated in my review for The Ruin of Kings. Remember, authors will answer your questions. The Memory of Souls will be released in August 2020.

            The Name of All Things is an achievement in world-building and in overlapping narratives. The characters remain as engaging as before, the dragons and the magic remain deadly, and the immortals are in it for themselves. Not to mention, the world won’t end due to just one prophecy. I’m looking forward to reading what happens in the next book, and I know the chaos will continue to grow.

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