End of 2020 Releases I’m Looking Forward to Reading

By some miracle, we survived to the end of September (2020). It seems that books and video games have managed to remain constant throughout the year—as in some delays and/or minimal postponement. I’m still working my way through my TBR pile as it continues to grow. Fall 2020—September-December—continues the unceasing releases within the literary world (not that I’m complaining). Here are some of the books being released between October and December 2020 I’m excited to read. 

            Please note, I haven’t listed all of the speculative fiction books that will be released by the end of 2020, just the ones I’m hoping to read. If some books are missing, then it’s because either they are part of a series which I haven’t read yet, or I am unaware of their upcoming release. 

Books I’ve Read

Between Earth and Sky #1, Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            For those of you who haven’t read my review of this book, you should read the book as soon as it’s released because this book doesn’t stop until its end. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book, you’ll realize that there will be a sequel, which will leave you asking: what else can happen? 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            If The Deep looks into the possibilities of the events surrounding the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Riot Baby is the potential of the future surrounding current racial events, then Ring Shout presents a horror story of the consequences of hatred and violence within a society. Since this is based on U.S. History—a subject that continues to be glossed over—readers can expect Jim Crow Laws, and KKK rallies and attacks in this novella. 

Books I am Reading

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This is the second book by Alix E. Harrow. So far, it’s an amazing follow up to The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This time the story follows three sisters who use their magic to obtain the right to vote. So far, I can say that this is a clever look into how misogyny and sexist practices can lead to a small rebellion demanding equality by using unconventional methods, and magic. 

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

            Finally, I’m reading a book by this acclaimed author. In this book, the protagonist is a recently divorced woman who moves into her uncle’s “museum,” only to locate a hidden passage inside the house. However, the length of the passage doesn’t equate to the perimeter of the museum, making her (and us) question as to where the passage leads to and whether or not anyone else knows about it. 

Books To Be Read

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

            Anyone who has read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is excited for this book. This book is a companion to Middlegame in that this is the book mentioned throughout the novel. Over the Woodward Wall is the book written by A. Deborah Baker in “code” for anyone who is interested in reaching The Impossible City. Think of it as a fictionalized version of The Secret: A Treasure Hunt.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

            There’s the “age-old” story that serves as a cautionary tale: immortality can be a lonely life. However, what if on top of living forever, no one will remember meeting you? Eternal loneliness is the ultimate sadness, but what if—by some miracle—someone remembers you? That miracle can blossom into the hope the protagonist needs in her immortal life. 

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

            There are a lot of books about witches and their magic that have been released in 2020. This book by C.L. Polk is the latest of them, as well as the author’s first standalone novel. In a world where women have to choose between magic and marriage, the protagonist seeks a way to have both. 

Eventide by Sarah Goodman

            This historical fantasy focuses on the Orphan Train and the superstitions within a small town. Sisters Lilah and Verity struggle to stay together after the death of their parents. Unfortunately, their family history and the dark forces within the town seek to destroy the siblings like it destroyed their parents. This YA novel is the author’s debut book. 

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

            Norse mythology continues to be a source of new fantasy stories, and this debut novel by the author is no different. This epic fantasy occurs when Christianity and Norse folklore clash constantly for dominance. The book follows several characters as they go on a quest to save their gods and Midgard. 

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

            The Rage of Dragons started off as an African-inspired military fantasy became something even more by the time readers reached the last quarter of the book. Tau has lost everything he’s cared about at the same time he’s given a promotion that would make anyone else happy. Unfortunately, all Tau has left is his rage. And, although the queen needs his skills to end the war, it’ll take more than anger to get Tau motivated again. What will it take to get him to fight again?

War Girls #2, Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War Girls is the realistic dystopian YA novel about the cost of war and how it can affect children before, during and, after a war. Tochi Onyebuchi empathized the emotions felt by his readers throughout the book, especially the ending. Rebel Sisters takes place 5 years after the events of the first book, which sees Ify returning home to Earth. Those of us who read the first book already know to expect our emotions to pour out onto the pages, again. 

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

            After the release of The Dragon Republic, R.F Kuang announced who Rin, the protagonist, is supposed to represent in this historical military grimdark fantasy. Wow! And, with the way Book 2 ended and what that means for everyone who survived those events, I can only imagine how this trilogy is going to end. The title alone gives a hint as to what readers can expect from this finale. I hope I’m right about this assumption. 

The Graven #1, Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

            Hostile aliens, smart ships and humans can be found in this science fiction story. This debut novel follows the protagonist after he loses everything—literally—when his planet is destroyed. On a quest for vengeance, he travels to the home of those who destroyed his planet. Along the way, he learns more about the universe.  

The Tide Child #2, Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

            The Bone Ships was my surprise book of 2019; and, since I’ve finish it, I’ve been excited to read the sequel. I don’t know whether or not the sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first book, but I know that the subplot continues in this book and it’s going to be very interesting. More voyages ahead for the readers!

Poison Wars #2, Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

            City of Lies is a great book about political conspiracies, history and folklore, and poisonous plants. Now, with the return of magic within the Empire, will it lead to something positive or to more treachery for the protagonists? We’ll have to wait and read what happens next. 

            Now, will I complete all of these books by the end of this year? Probably not. Yet, I’m aiming to read as many of these books as I can by December 31, 2020. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll finish reading them in 2021! Which books are you excited to read by the end of 2020?

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). 

Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            This year, the solstice will be marked by the rarest of celestial occurrences. As the year divides into old and new, so also will the earth, sun, and moon align in the Convergence. Over our very heads, we will witness order move to chaos and back to order again. So it is with the heavens, so it will be with Tova. We will bear witness to the cycle of evil rising in darkness to be battled back by goodness and light when the sun prevails, (Chapter 9). 

            Remember when I said that I read Trail of Lightning, the first book in The Sixth World series, because I wanted to determine for myself whether or not the author was as big of a deal as the speculative fiction genre community made her out to be? And, that the author’s book was worth reading? Well, if Trail of Lightning was part of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut—the other being her award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”—then, Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, cements her status as one of the must-read authors within the genre. 

            There are four protagonists in this novel. First, is Serapio, the son of an Obregi Lord and a foreigner. The foreigner is his mother, Saaya, who along with three others, prepare Serapio towards his destiny of his transcendence to godhood. Second, is Xiala, a female sea captain and an exile from the Teek tribe. She is hired to bring cargo to Tova, one of whom is Serapio. The two exiles form a friendship during their journey to Tova. Along the way, Xiala learns about Serapio and realizes that his magic is just as powerful and as lethal as hers. Third, is Naranpa, one of the four priests in Tova—and, the head of the oracle society. On top of all of her responsibilities, she must deal with several political conspiracies all at once, including: several assassination attempts on her life, rumors surrounding the death of one of the matrons to one of the four tribes, prophecies surrounding the return of the crow god, rumors of what is to come on the winter solstice, talks of revenge for an event of the past, and the plot to have her removed from her seat of power. With all of these political conspiracies surrounding her, Naranpa doesn’t know who to trust. This includes Iktan—head of the knife society—one of the other four priests and Naranpa’s friend. The fourth and final protagonist is Okoa, the son of the Carrion Crow matron and future leader of the Shield, a military troop who serve as the matron’s bodyguards. After his mother’s death, Okoa rises to his role. During the transition, he uncovers two conspiracies. One is about his mother’s death, and the other is about the cultists from his tribe who believe their god can be raised and returned to them so that past wrongs can be paid back through divine retribution. All of these protagonists are complex people who find themselves being responsible for a group of people, and their choices affect those around them and everything they care about. As “The Day of Convergence” approaches, each of the protagonists develop into the individuals their roles demand of them to the point where not even the secondary characters can divert them from their path. 

            The plot of this novel involves the events that lead up to “The Day of Convergence,” which falls on the winter solstice. The plot develops through each of the protagonists as they uncover the mystery of what is to occur on that day, and whether or not it can be prevented. Serapio travels to Tova in order to fulfill his destiny of becoming a god, as per his mother’s actions. Naranpa is doing everything she can to remain the Sun Priest of the Celestial Tower while uncovering a plot of revenge against the Faith for a treacherous transgression from the past which left hundreds dead. Okoa is trying to unravel the events that led up to his mother’s death while trying to shake off the unwanted attention of his tribe’s cultist group. And, Xiala is trying to keep her powers in check while deciding whether or not to bring the apocalypse into Tova. While these appear to be four separate plots, they converge into one unforgettable moment when all of the protagonists must decide on acting on their destiny, or doing the right thing. There are two subplots within this novel which not only explains the plots, but also the motivations for the actions that take place at the novel’s end. The first one is vengeance. Vengeance, while mentioned from time-to-time, plays a large role in the story. Usually, the reason for an act of revenge depends on those who want it; but, in this case, everyone is expecting it. It all depends on who is involved and when the act will be carried out. The second subplot involves religion and magic. Similar to our world and other fantasy worlds, there are a few religions, each with its own rituals and practices. Some of this involves magic and how those in the out-group view that magic as opposed to their magic. Some of it is accepted, some are based in superstition, and a lot of it is forbidden; yet, it is all real and powerful, especially when done correctly. These subplots play a huge role in the plot development and must not be overlooked by the reader(s).

            The narratives are told from the points-of-view of the four protagonists. And, they are in third-person limited, which means readers know only what each protagonist is thinking and is experiencing at one time. Even when two characters are together, we are limited only to one character’s P.O.V. The sequence of the narration jumps back-and-forth from the start of Serapio’s transcendence to “The Day of Convergence” to the aftermath. While the sequence might come off as confusing, it is not because readers learn of all of the essential events leading up to the winter solstice from multiple P.O.V.s. So, while the narration moves from past to present, it follows a stream-of-consciousness of each protagonist so that we gain a better understanding of them, their culture, and their motivation of their actions. This presents the readers with a reliable narration (from each protagonist) that can be followed easily.

            The style Rebecca Roanhorse uses for her new series is amazing and informative. Once again, she draws on inspiration from her Native American heritage; but this time, the author draws on inspiration from Yucatec Mayan, Tewa, Polynesian and pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, many of which continues to be glossed over in school curriculums worldwide. Some of what I recall of ancient pre-Columbian societies (i.e. Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.) involve rituals and ceremonies to the gods, and their calendar, which was accurate. History and folklore aside, the use of foreshadowing and of characterization enhances the story to the point where readers known what is going to happen and why, and that there was no way to prevent the events from happening. By the time everything is revealed, the protagonists have made their decisions, and what is going to happen, happens. This leaves the reader(s) stunned, yet anticipating what will happen next during the aftermath of those events. It’s a shocking and an impressive move by the author. The mood in this novel is preparation. Everything that happens in this novel revolves on the winter solstice. To many, the day marks a celebration. To the protagonists and the other characters involved, it’s a day of dread, retribution, and change. The tone of the novel is fate. Without getting into too many spoilers, two of the protagonists were predestined to be part of “The Day of Convergence,” but an argument can be made that they could have chosen to resist that fate at any given time before that day. In fact, the choices of the other two protagonists should be noted as well because they all have no choice but to live with the decisions they make leading up to the winter solstice. I read an eARC of this book, and it did NOT come with any maps of the setting. Luckily, Rebecca Roanhorse provided some of the maps through Tor.com, which made picturing the mentioned towns and the distance between the cities easier.

            The appeal for Black Sun is already positive. So far, literary critics and other authors have praised Rebecca Roanhorse for the story she has written. Fans of the author’s urban fantasy series will be impressed with how the author can fuse her heritage into one story of the past and another story of the future. Not to mention that this book is an amazing addition to the fantasy canon, and will leave readers anticipating the second book in this series. Fans of historical and/or mythological fantasy—Tasha Suri, S.A. Chakraborty, Evan Winter and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—should read this book as soon as they are able to, they will enjoy it a lot.

            Black Sun is proof that Rebecca Roanhorse can weave her talent and her heritage into powerful stories over and over again. If you need a reason to read one of her books, or if you want to read a fantasy series that will take your expectations to another level, then you really should read this book. It has everything from magic and prophecies to political power struggle based on a moment in human history, in which it all could have happened, but its setting is a fantasy world. I don’t know about you, but while I’m waiting for Book 2 of this series, I’ll be reading Storm of Locusts, Book 2 in the author’s other series. Enjoy!      

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (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: “City of Lies”

Poison Wars, #1: City of Lies

By: Sam Hawke                                                                      Audiobook: 18 hours 16 minutes

Published: July 3, 2018                                                          Narrated by: Rosa Coduri, Dan Genre: Fantasy                                                                                                         Morgan

                        I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me, (1: Jovan).

            “The Land Down Under,” is also known as the continent, Australia. Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania make up the region with its own flora, fauna and culture. Before The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Australia was known for famous people such as Steve Irwin and Huge Jackman, but there have been some notable speculative fiction authors from the continent, too. Both Garth Nix and Juliet Marillier have had their books published in the U.S. since the 1990s, with Kim Wilkins and Jay Kristoff following them in the 2000s, presenting readers with a new spin on the genre. Now, there are two more authors from Australia that have captured everyone’s attention. The first is Devin Madson; and, the other is Sam Hawke, the author of City of Lies, the first book in the Poison Wars series.

            The story follows Jovan and Kalina—brother and sister—who have been training to take over their “Tashi,” their uncle Etan’s position as advisor and protector of the Chancellor (and his heir), as well as a poisoner, someone who tests all of the foods in order to avoid poisoning—both accidental and deliberate. At least Jovan, who is younger, has been training to be their Tashi’s heir. This is because Kalina didn’t pass her uncle’s testing, so she has been finding ways to prove herself to her family, so she doesn’t have to return to the family home away from the Talafan Empire’s capital. While Jovan learns everything about his upcoming role and travels the Empire with the Chancellor’s nephew, Tain, Kalina reads up on everything about the Empire so she can be of use when the time comes. Unfortunately, Jovan, Kalina and Tain are thrust into their roles when their uncles—a member of the Council and the Chancellor—are poisoned and die before Jovan and Kalina can identify the poison and find the antidote for it. From there, Jovan and Kalina must figure out who and what killed their Tashi and the Chancellor, and why. Besides Tain, Jovan and Kalina are accompanied by Marco—a Warrior-Guilder—and, An-Hadrea, a young woman from Losi of the Ash Estates, who meets Jovan and Tain and explains to them about the Darfri, their religion, and their role in the death of the Chancellor. Jovan and Kalina are the protagonists, yet they are able to grow due to their interactions with Tain, Marco and An-Hadrea.

            The plot of the story is two-fold. First, is who poisoned the Chancellor and his advisor. The second is the rebellion that causes a siege within the capital. The questions are: who are the rebels? Are they the lower class? Are they the religious fanatics? What do they hope to accomplish? As these plots unravel and develop, the subplot develops alongside the plot, which is the growth of the roles Jovan, Kalina and Tain take on. Tain is the Chancellor and Jovan must step up into the role of advisor as he aids and protects Tain while solving all of the mysteries behind the poisonings and the rebellion. Meanwhile, Kalina finds her purpose during the siege, and grows into the role she created for herself. The subplots are necessary in this story because it demonstrates how the world—real or fictional—keeps going and the characters have to adapt to the changes in order to survive the larger dilemma. Both the plots and the subplot develop and move at an appropriate pace. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of both Jovan and Kalina as the events in the capital of the Talafan Empire unfold from the poisonings to the siege to the revelations of everything that led up to it all. The narrative is told in 1st person and both Jovan and delve into the history and the politics of the Empire as they try to piece together the mystery that led to the deaths of their Tashi and the Chancellor, as well as the current siege. Both brother and sister are reliable narrators as their streams-of-consciousness provide their thoughts and their emotions as everything occurs. Not to mention, the time frame of the narrative provides a realistic approach from traveling through the country to how long military sieges can last. All of these components make the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Sam Hawk uses is very intriguing. Yes, readers are familiar with multiple P.O.V.s and political backstabbing in such stories; yet, not too many fantasy stories start off as a low fantasy with magic having a “smaller” or a “limited” role within the story. This novel focuses more on the conflict while introducing the magic as a secondary bit of world-building. This is why each chapter opens with a (known) poison to the protagonists and not about the various Guilds or noble families, because the poison used to kill the Chancellor, which leads to all of the events in the story, has to be determined before someone else gets poisoned. The mood of the novel is a conundrum. Everyone is trying to solve several mysteries within a “short” time frame. The tone of the novel is the disclosure of those mysteries and what the revelations of them means for all of the characters affected by the poisonings. 

            The appeal of City of Lies have been positive. While the author has won several awards in Australia, Sam Hawke has received international praise and accolades as well. The author was even nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, which is given during the Hugo Awards. This novel joins the canon alongside other political fantasies such as A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell. And, with how this story ended, it makes the upcoming sequel—Hollow Empire, to be released in December 2020—an anticipated book of the year.

            I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Rosa Coduri and Dan Morgan. Both narrators were excellent as Kalina and Jovan, respectively. However, I was very impressed with how the two narrators seemed to tell the story at the same pace. I’m not sure whether or not the two of them recorded their parts at the same time, but they did an excellent job with keeping the pacing of the story balanced.

            City of Lies is a brilliant debut novel about the realities of politics and society within a fantasy world. Sam Hawke delivers a strong story about dealing with the bigger issues while maintaining composure so that even personal affairs can be handled discreetly. The guide of poisons reminds me of what I learned of plants from gardening and from Girl Scouts. I’m looking forward to reading and to learning more about the magic system in the upcoming sequel. This novel is extremely underrated and should be read by readers and by fans of the fantasy genre. Let us all wait and see what the author gives her readers next!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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)!!! 

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. 

The Popularity and the Revolution of Fantasy Thanks to S.P.F.B.O.

S.P.F.B.O. 5 is over, and this year’s winner—The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang—received one of the highest scores in the competition’s short history, 8.65. While this year’s competition was fierce and resulted in a close 2nd place, the hype and the feedback circulated to where bookbloggers with a larger platform started discussing the competition and published authors shared their thoughts on the books—the finalists—on social media. This competition has amassed such a huge following in such a short time and a few of the finalists did get picked up by big name publishers to become the published authors they already were. Mark Lawrence is the perfect example of “paying it forward” and “sharing the wealth.” In 5 short years, this international best-selling author has used his platform to kickoff careers of these emerging authors.  

I heard of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off while searching for fantasy books on Amazon. If you recall my essay—“Factions in Technology that Made a Difference: e-Readers and Self-Publishing Companies”—then, you’ll remember that I mentioned a few authors who are indie authors and/or publish through “smaller” publishers, thus embellishing the sort of books I’ve been reading ever since. As I browsed through ebooks to purchase, a few covers caught my attention, and they all had the same acronym: S.P.F.B.O. When I finally Googled the letters, I learned of the competition organized by Mark Lawrence. And, my first question was: Who is Mark Lawrence? Yes, I learned about S.P.F.B.O. before I read and reviewed any books written by Mark Lawrence. When I started contributing to Fantasy-Faction, I realized that this competition was growing into an event indie authors, bookbloggers and fantasy fans look forward to, and it’s been going on for 5 years! 

I experienced S.P.F.B.O. 5 from the entries to the semi-finalists to the finalists, and of course, the winner. While I haven’t read all 300 books that were entered, I did read a few before the competition—because their descriptions intrigued me, and some titles and book covers caught my attention as well. And, I purchased the books of all 10 finalists! So far, I’ve read only The Sword of Kaigen, but I started reading both Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke and Never Die by Rob J. Hayes, and I am blown away by what would have been overlooked stories if not for the competition. It’s because of bookbloggers and fantasy review sites that more indie authors are willing to enter S.P.F.B.O.! At this rate, Mark Lawrence might have to expand the entry pool (please don’t take that suggestion too seriously)! 

So, will S.P.F.B.O. continue to influence the market and the industry that is the fantasy—and the speculative fiction—genre? Yes, I believe so, especially if it hasn’t already. I’ve noticed on social media that these “indie” books are being read and enjoyed by “mainstream” and award-winning authors as well (i.e. C.L. Polk reading Fortune’s Fool by Angela Boord). And, this is more than authors supporting other authors, it’s about how indie authors and small publishers continue to strive to get their stories out there with the threat of them being overlooked…until the right attention is given to them through their published books (i.e. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter). S.P.F.B.O. is both introducing and promoting the works and the creativity of these authors to a platform that is willing to keep an open mind. And, because of this competition set up by Mark Lawrence, readers get to experience and to witness this transcension, which is expanding the speculative fiction genre, too.

I’ll end my experience with S.P.F.B.O. 5 by saying the following: Congratulations to M.L. Wang; read The Sword of Kaigen and the books by the other finalists; good job to all of the reviewers, the bookbloggers, and the vloggers for all of the time and the effort you put into this from reading the 300 submissions to the 10 finalists to the winner; and, a huge THANK YOU to Mark Lawrence for starting this competition and turning it into an annual event. The number of books that have been added to my TBR pile has increased yet again, and I’m okay with that. I can’t wait to see what happens during S.P.F.B.O. 6!

Why You Need to Read: “Velocity Weapon”

The Protectorate: Book 1: Velocity Weapon                          

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                        Audiobook: 18 hours 22 minutes

Published: June 11, 2019                                  Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

I am called “The Light of Berossus,” the voice said, (Chapter 1, The Aftermath of the Battle of Dralee). 

For every individual in a fandom, there is the moment, in which they were hooked, thus beginning their membership. For me and science fiction, it was my parents’ love for the two Star Trek shows which aired during the 1990s: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine—yes, Star Wars was part of my introduction to the genre, too. From there, I started reading science fiction novels, until I stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a fan of the genre, but I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to (there were plenty of movies, TV shows and video games, but that’s for another time). Sometime later I got back into the science fiction by reading the recent releases by different authors which had my exploring the genre again. Yet, it was Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe which kept my interest to the point where I bought the audiobook so that I could know what happened after my “stop point” in reading the print book. This space opera reintroduced me to the science fiction genre and reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place!

There are 3 protagonists in this novel, who narrate the events over the course of several years from 3 different settings. First, there is Sanda Greeve. She is a sergeant for the Ada Prime System, and the last thing she remembers is being shot by the Icarions before her evac pod allowed her to escape, onto an enemy ship—an A.I. Smartship. When she wakes up she learns is the only living being on the ship—The Light of Berossus, or Bero—and, when she asks how and why this is possible, she learns that it’s been 230 years since her ship was shot down. Sanda processes this shocking bit of news as she figures out a way to survive in space with a smartship for company. Next, there is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother, who has just graduated from the academy at the top of his class. This means that Biran will become a Keeper—a member of the Protectorate who leads Ada Prime and is one of the “keepers” of secrets and knowledge of the Star Systems, which are embedded in a chip that gets implanted inside their skull. However, as Biran is giving his speech, the Battle of Dralee—the same battle his older sister ends up fighting in—breaks out. Biran must behave as a Keeper before his indoctrination and before he can wonder whether or not his sister survived the battle. Last, there is Jules, a thief. During the latest heist with her crew, Jules and the others stumble upon two things: a dead body and a room filled with test tubes. There are other characters who interact with these protagonists throughout the story: Lolla and Harlan, Tomas Cepko, Anaia, and Callie Mera; and, they all help the protagonists develop into the people they need to be given their circumstances. Then, there is Bero, who is more than a smartship. It is aware of what’s going on more than its letting on to everyone else. 

The plot of this novel is an interesting one. The Battle of Dralee in the Prime Standard Year 3541 starts the story and the plot emerges from there, from the Greeve siblings. Biran must step up into his role as Keeper, while he breaks protocol in order to search for his missing sister. Sanda is drifting towards another Star System injured and alone on a damaged smartship. She must rely on her training and instincts, and on Bero to survive her situation. There are two subplots, which are related to the plot. The first one is the secret, in which Jules and her crew stumble across and what it could mean for them, for Icarion and for Ada Prime. The second one focuses on Bero and his motivations. Why is an enemy smartship drifting in the middle of Space? And, why did he rescue Sergeant Sanda Greeve? The plot and the subplots develop alongside the characters and the world-building at an appropriate rate, which make it impossible for the readers to lose track of everything that is going on in the story. 

The narrative jumps across 3 different years from 3 different locations from the points-of-view of several characters. All of the narratives are told in first person from the protagonists and the other characters perspectives. Readers must pay attention to the sequence of the narrative because while the narrative is the present for one character, it may be occurring in the past or the future for another character. The sequence of the narrative starts off with puzzlement for both the readers and the characters, but the events within the sequence keep the narrative in one constant motion where it can be followed by the readers and the audience. The characters’ streams-of-consciousness allow readers to know the thoughts of the characters and the reasons they make the decisions and perform the actions they do. There are moments of flashbacks within the narrative, and they provide clues of the bigger story that is being told. 

The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Velocity Weapon consists of the jargon of science fiction, the colloquialism of the armed forces, and the terminology for the world of space she cultivated for this series. The idea that two-star systems have been at war with each other for hundreds, or thousands, of years, with Earth as the potential beacon for the establishments for these star systems is an interesting factor to consider for the sort of story the author is presenting to her readers. The author is not presenting a science fiction story about two warring nations, she is writing a space opera—”a space story involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful technologies and abilities on a very large scale”—and about the consequences of hidden technology, which is the tone of this novel. The mood is hostility, including what it entails and how it is dealt with. While it is not that different from other space operas, it’s the way the author writes it that makes it very engaging.

The appeal for Velocity Weapon has been positive for sci-fi fans—which is good—but, minimal for the rest of the speculative fiction community. And, what I mean by that is that it is a great story that seems to be limited to one part of the literary fandom. There is enough of the same themes and ideas found in other works of science fiction and in fantasy fiction, yet it seems that more people would read this book and others like it if given the chance to learn about this story. There is a reason why this book was one of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. When I wasn’t able to continue reading this story, I finished it by listening to the audiobook. Joe Jameson’s performance of the characters make them easy for listeners to make out which character is speaking and narrating the story; and, his narration and voice is appropriate for the story that is being read by the listeners. The next book in The Protectorate series, Chaos Vector, will be released in July 2020. Fans of the first book are waiting eagerly to learn what happens next.

Velocity Weapon is an entertaining space opera about family, government conspiracies, A.I. ships, and an ongoing military campaign between nations that will keep readers’ interests from beginning to end. Megan E. O’Keefe demonstrates her abilities for writing engaging stories across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Sci-fi fans should consider adding it to theirs. This book is a reminder that space is a fascinating frontier!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Ruin of Kings”

A Chorus of Dragons #1: The Ruin of Kings

By: Jenn Lyons                                                    Audiobook: 27 hours 22 minutes

Published: February 5, 2019                          Narrated by: Feodor Chin, Vikas 

Genre: Fantasy                                                               Adam, Soneela Nankani

            There’s a prophecy. Actually no, it’s more like a thousand prophecies. It’s the collected rantings of a thousand people…the prophecies refer to an end time, a great cataclysm, when a single man of vast evil will rise up. The “Hellwarrior” will conquer the Manol, strip vane of our immortality, kill the Emperor, destroy the Empire of Quur, and free the demons. In his right hand he will hold Urthaenriel, and with his left, he will crush the world and remake it as he desires, (29: Teraeth’s Return, Kihrin’s story). 

            There are times when books are released to critical acclaim and maintain buzzworthy feedback, which piques a reader’s curiosity. While I was unsure whether or not the debut novel, The Ruin of Kings—the first book in A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, would meet my expectations, I was curious about the hype surrounding this book. I guess “the powers that be” wanted me to read Jenn Lyon’s book because I received the hardcopy as a prize in a drawing, the eBook for free, and the audiobook through my subscription. So, I read this book through audiobook and immediately, I understood what all of the attention was about. 

            The protagonist is Kihrin, the son of a minstrel who spends more time getting into mischief for his thievery and fighting than practicing his harp. After one of his heists, it looks as if Kihrin is about to profit from his work, when a demon manifests in the city and chases him through the streets of Quur. After being saved by the city watch, it is revealed to him—because of his physical attributes—that he is the lost heir of House D’Mon, one of the 12 Royal Houses of the Quur Empire. Claimed against his will into a life he doesn’t want, Kihrin learns quickly that being a noble is not as worthwhile as the tales and other people make it out to be. At the same time, Kihrin suspects that a few members of his new family might be up to no good. However, before he can escape, Kihrin is kidnapped and sold to the Black Brotherhood as a slave. Yet, this organization isn’t interested in keeping him as a slave, but wants to train him to be an assassin in order to fulfill his destiny in the war to come. Kihrin’s story is a twisted bildungsroman about a 15-year-old boy who is forced to grow up under arduous conditions in a hostile environment with people who refuse to reveal his identity to him. Kihrin develops into an adult whose complexity leaves him with more questions than answers; but, the other characters he meets and interacts with along the way give him hints to his (true) identity.

            The plot in this novel has two parts. The first is Kihrin’s life from his latest thief to his kidnapping, and in between is the time he spent living as a member of a Royal House and what transpired there. The second part is Kihrin’s capture, auction and imprisonment with the Black Brotherhood and everything that happened to him with them. Both plots reveal the two identities which were kept from Kihrin in order to keep him safe. Unfortunately, recent events brought an end to Kihrin’s carefree life. This is because the subplot—events which will lead up to the end-of-the-world—has begun and Kihrin is one of the many who can put an end to this upcoming and inevitable event. However, no one knows which part Kihrin is supposed to play within the prophecy. The subplot is crucial to the two parts of the plot because it is the reason why everything happens to Kihrin and it becomes the focal point of the series. 

            The narrative is what garners the most attention. The novel has two parts, which presents various moments of the occurrences throughout the Empire of Quur. Part I is told in the past tense, but with two different narrators reciting two different timelines. Kihrin begins his narration from when he was sold to the Black Brotherhood and all of the events, which happened right up to his imprisonment in jail. The second narrator—and fellow jailer—is Talon, a woman with shapeshifting abilities, among other powers, who knows A LOT about Kihrin from the jewels he stole that night, to his “return” to the D’Mon family, to his kidnapping. Talon, tells Kihrin’s story to him from her point-of-view (3rd person) and Kihrin tells his story from his point-of-view (1st person). Both of these narratives are told in flashback and they introduce the readers—and the chronicler who is the intended audience of this story (read the footnotes!)—to all of the characters Kihrin interacted with: Ola, Galen, Tyentso, and several more characters who navigate Kihrin’s life and the decisions he makes throughout the narrative. At the same time, the world-building occurs from these narrations as the audience learns about the world the author created, its history and society—including immortals, magic and jewels—how it relates to Kihrin’s predicament and how it all relates to the end-of-the-world. The world-building will keep the interest of the reader, with help from the Appendums. In Part I, Talon forces Kihrin to tell the truth and everything that happened to him up to his imprisonment, and Talon does the same for Kihrin, which angers him to no end. Due to this “creative method” of blackmailing, both Kihrin and Talon are reliable narrators through their recounting of events. Part II focuses on the first wave of cataclysmic events, which set off the prophecies about the end-of-the-world. It is here when the narration moves to present tense and the point-of-view switches between the characters who’ve become “players” in this part of the apocalypse, including Kihrin, a few members of the Black Brotherhood, and Kihrin’s family. Part II is told in 3rd person omniscient, which provides all of the action everywhere from all of the characters P.O.V.s. Here, the narration is reliable, too. The readers receive a full account of everything that led up to the end, and the stream-of-consciousness the author provides for all of her characters enriches the story so that it can be followed by the readers.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Ruin of Kings is the concept of oral tradition. Instead of one character providing an oral account of his story, the author inserted a second storyteller so that no detail would be omitted by the first one. Oral tradition typically results in changes to a narrative either through voluntary omission, or lack of knowledge of any kind by the storyteller (in this case, not being able to be two places at once). Here, the author found a way for the entire narration to be told orally. This is similar to how epic stories such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgameshwere passed down before being written down by scribes and chroniclers, and that is the style presented to the readers: two oral storytellers and one chronicler. The mood in The Ruin of Kings is imprisonment whether or not it comes from an individual’s identity, social status, or role in a prophecy, all of these elements put a restriction to one’s freedom, especially choice. The tone is how those individuals deal with their imprisonment and what choices (if few) they make when given the opportunity to make them; and, what happens when those individuals are no longer imprisoned and what that means for everyone else. Once again, both the maps and the appendums are a huge help to reading this book.  

            The appeal for The Ruin of Kings have been positive. Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire series and the Book of the Ancestor trilogy will enjoy this book the most. This is because both the character motivation and the idea of how prophecy is not straightforward are themes that are reflected in this novel. Jenn Lyons lets her protagonist learn the hard way that the tropes of long-lost heirs and prophetic heroes are nothing but embellishments to make such stories sound more appealing to everyone else. The one experiencing it has it the worse and gets to decide how the story will be told to everyone else; and, Kihrin almost makes the same mistake about his story, almost. This book was one of my selections for best speculative fiction books of 2019. The second book in this trilogy, The Name of All Things, was released in October 2019 with readers claiming it was better than the first book. And, the final book in the A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, The Memory of Souls, will be released in August 2020. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his trilogy!

            The audiobook experience was different this time because there were three narrators instead of the usual one. Yet, having three different voices for the three different characters who are telling the story—Kihrin, Talon and the chronicler—clue the listeners in as to who is telling the story at that moment. And, it keeps the listener(s) from tuning out of the story. Feodor Chin, Vikas Adam and Soneela Nankani voice the characters in a way that one can picture the voice matching those characters perfectly; they speak the way I imagine those characters sounding if they were real people. 

            The Ruin of Kings is an ambitious start to a new epic fantasy series, which present the harsh realities surrounding royalty, magic and prophecies. Within these twisted tropes is a story about a young man who had all of his choices taken away from him, yet he strives to protect everything he cares about, even if destiny says otherwise. Jenn Lyon’s story contains complex characters and a world whose history and culture is as complex yet constant as ours. This novel is like the story it tells, simple at first, and then drops you into the story “in media res.”

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