Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Need to Read: “Aurora Rising”

The Aurora Cycle: #1: Aurora Rising

By: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

            “Scarlett Jones (diplomat) introduces the other members of our squad. ‘Tyler Jones, our commander. Zila Madran, science officer. Finian de Seel. Engineer. Catherine Brannock, pilot. And finally, Kaliis Idraban Gilwraeth, combat specialist’.” (Chapter 7, Kal).

            I’ve always been curious to read stories by authors who write multiple genres of literature. Jay Kristoff has written several amazing stories within the sub-genres in both the fantasy and the science fiction genres. Now, he’s back with a new series with Amie Kaufman—who co-wrote The Illuminae Files with Kristoff—to present us with Aurora Rising, the first book in The Aurora Cycle. Jay Kristoff has described the series as a cross between The Breakfast Club and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which piques a reader’s curiosity. 

            This series is different from many other ones in that the story occurs after the characters graduate from school. Aurora Academy is a military school for future space cadets; and, after they graduate, there is a draft in which the top commanders get to pick their crew members for their first set of missions. Tyler Jones, who is The Top of his Class, missed the draft because he decided to explore a restricted section of a dimension—The Fold—used for space travel, stumbled upon a ship that was lost over 200 years ago, and rescued its only survivor—a girl who is the same age as him, technically. The good news is that his twin sister, Scarlett—who is a trained diplomat—and their best friend, Cat Brannock—a pilot nicknamed “Zero”—bail on the draft in order to join his crew. Unfortunately, those who make up the rest of Tyler’s crew—the science officer, the engineer, and the combat specialist—are the ones no one else wanted in their crew: an aloof girl with a trigger finger, a handicapped boy with a motormouth, and an ostracized male whose species is in the midst of a civil war and he’s not fighting in it. Then, there’s Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley—or Auri—the girl who slept in cyro for over 200 years, who awakens with mystical powers and with the top intergalactic police forces deeming her a criminal and are attempting to arrest her. Meet Squad 312! All of these characters have flaws and with them being 17 years-old, they don’t know how to deal with their insecurities, which make all of these characters more relatable and more believable. 

            Both the plot and the narrative are told in the point-of-views of all 7 characters! Multiple P.O.V.s are NOT new for YA books, for it allows for both character development and plot development. For example, Tyler is a leader, who jumps to conclusions surrounding his crew members—with the exception of his sister—and he would rather follow orders than question them. Kal’s species is in the middle of a civil war and he must choose between serving his tenure with Squad 312 or leaving to participate in the war. Then, there’s Auri, who is dealing with being out-of-time and understanding what is happening to her. 

            The author’s style reminds readers of the reality of space travel. While it’s exciting, it’s dangerous and requires training and knowledge in order to endure it. Auri almost dies after spending over 200 years in cryostasis; Kal’s people are decimating each other in a civil war, which broke a treaty, which had dire consequences; and, an intergalactic coverup is the real threat to the universe. Both the mood and the tone match what Kaufman and Kristoff are exploring in this series: space is vast, mysterious, and archaic. Add an element of danger that is as realistic as space travel and you have a story told by these authors. Both authors do an excellent job illustrating the differences between the star students and the outcasts. However, school is out, and so are the treatments they were all used to receiving. Both the mood and the tone display the need for these characters to become the adults they need to be!

            The appeal surrounding Aurora Rising will be a positive one, and I say this because there are adolescent readers who are sci-fi fans, who have been craving for a new book series about space explorers who are kids like themselves! In response, Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with a trilogy that reflects the Star Trek series. Young readers will enjoy this novel because the characters are kids who just graduated from school and have to deal with the reality of the “real” world/universe. Adult readers will enjoy this book because it will remind them of how they were like after completing school and continuing on with life. The truth within the fiction is what will appeal to readers the most. And yes, I’m already looking forward to the second book in this series!

            Aurora Rising is a fun sci-fi book that presents the collaboration of two authors to readers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with them. While both the character development and the world-building are well done, the plot leaves more questions than answers, which means there will be a follow up to this book, obviously. Yet, the story is entertaining enough for readers to want more from this trilogy. 

My rating: Enjoy it (4 out of 5). 

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

The Daevabad Trilogy: Book 1: The City of Brass

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: November 14, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: Enjoy It! (4 out of 5) 

Why You Need to Read: “Trail of Lightning”

The Sixth World: Book One: Trail of Lightning

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: June 26, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction, Native American Literature, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic, Folklore

NOTE:Understand that any incorrect use and/or spelling surrounding the culture mentioned is unintentional.

            “But I’m no hero. I’m more of a last resort, a scorched-earth policy. I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags,”(Chapter 1).

            There are numerous ways readers find out about which books to read by which authors: school assignments, friends and family, book clubs, random recommendations, the Internet, etc. In this case, it was from the 2018 Hugo Awards. One of the awards presented—the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer—announced its winner…Rebecca Roanhorse. If anyone watched my reaction video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oyX_U2U8kE&t=11s), then you know that I was shocked upon hearing this announcement because I believed either Katherine Arden, or Jeanette Ng should have won that award. Yet, I never heard of Rebecca Roanhorse, or her stories, before, and she did win a Hugo for Best Short Story that same evening. Suddenly, I had a new author to read and her debut novel is titled: Trail of Lightning. And, I’ll admit, I was wrong about my assumption!

            Maggie Hoskie is the protagonist. She is a survivor of a climate apocalyptic event known as “The Big Water,” when the water levels rose and engulfed most of the Earth’s terrain and its inhabitants. After this event, the Navajo Gods, heroes and monsters returned to Earth and to humanity. One of the gods, Neizghání a.k.a. “Monsterslayer,” trains Maggie to become a Monsterslayer like himself. When Neizghání suddenly leaves Maggie, she is able to accept jobs for her handiwork. Maggie’s skills as both a survivor and a monster hunter reflect all of the emotional traumas she’s experienced. However, when a job becomes something more than she can handle, Maggie, reluctantly, agrees to work with Kai Arviso, a medicine man who is also unsure about his supernatural abilities. Throughout the story, readers learn about Maggie and Kai’s past lives including how they survived the flood and how their supernatural abilities are both assisting and restraining them. Other characters, such as Kai’s grandfather, Grandpa Tah, notice how the relationship between Maggie and Kai could be a good thing for the survival of their community, but in a post-apocalyptic world, one should know better than to hope for such a thing. 

            The plot of the story is Maggie and Kai searching Dinétah (the Navajo reservation) for the source of dark magic that’s hunting the surviving humans. The subplot, which will probably carry over to the next book, is the concept surrounding “clan powers.” Clan powers are gifts from the “Holy People” and the gods to mortals. Maggie isn’t a fan of her gift and Kai views his only as a way to survive. However, readers—and Maggie—don’t know what Kai’s gift(s) is, so there is that small mystery to consider. Maggie’s superhuman abilities are not what she would call a blessing from the Diyín Dine’é (people with supernatural powers). Yet, Maggie uses her gifts to make a life for herself. This subplot comes up again throughout the novel, and it is safe to say that this subplot won’t be resolved as quickly as the plot. Both the plot and the storyline of Maggie’s training go hand-in-hand. This is because readers learn how Maggie became acquainted with the gods and how to harness her gifts to become a Monsterslayer. At the same time, we learn about Maggie’s friends and her relationships with other people living in Dinétah. The plot development is appropriate for this story, allowing it to unfold through the characters. 

            The narrative in Trail of Lightningis 1stperson point-of-view from Maggie’s perspective. The sequence begins and ends with murder and the protagonist’s reaction to each one, which is the same reaction, indifference. However, by the end of the novel, Maggie’s reaction makes a lot of sense. Maggie is a reliable narrator who tells Kai and his grandfather her past and how she survived the first wave of chaos after “The Big Water,” many of which she is not proud of doing. Maggie recounting her past actions through flashback allows the author to present her protagonist as flawed and traumatized, yet relatable. This narrative lets readers follow Maggie’s story—both the present and the past—with ease. 

            Rebecca Roanhorse depicts Navajo Gods when an ethnic group of people would need them the most, after an apocalyptic event. While the retelling of gods, heroes and legends are similar to Neil Gaiman and Rick Riordan, Rebecca Roanhorse has the gods of her ancestors return to Earth when the lifestyle of humanity reverts. Many myths and folklore tell of a simple lifestyle, when humans needed the gods to survive. This style of writing lets readers know that the lifestyle changes, but the culture doesn’t. As long as humanity thrives, so will their gods. The author’s tone within the novel, humanity’s failure of taking care of Earth, reflects the mood, an urban apocalypse where everything has to be rebuilt in order to achieve a sense of normalcy. In addition, Rebecca Roanhorse incorporates Navajo diction for both authenticity and reality, with an explanation (and translation) of each meaning. If other cultures incorporate words of their own into everyday language, then why not learn Navajo ones?

            The appeal surrounding Trail of Lightninghave been very positive. Called, “one of the Greatest Science Fiction & Fantasy Debut Novels Ever Written,” by Barnes & Noble, this novel received praise for the portrayal of Native American (one tribe) culture, too. Not to mention, Trail of Lightninghas been nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. The follow-up to Trail of LightningStorm of Locustswill be released in April 2019. And, the author’s YA debut, Race to the Sun, which is part of the Rick Riordan PresentsUniversal Literary Pantheon, will be released in Fall 2019. This will expand Roanhorse’s readers and her universe, explaining the Dine’é to the rest of the world. Obviously, I’m looking forward to reading both novels. 

            Trail of Lightningis a brilliant debut novel that allows for an immersive story about Native Americans—Navajo—and their culture and folklore in an ironic apocalyptic urban fiction book. This narrative is slow at times because the world-building overtakes the pacing. I believe the next book in the series and any other one set in this universe will be just as memorable as the first one. I believe Rebecca Roanhorse will be publishing stories for many years to come, and I will read them all. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

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

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

By: Sam Sykes

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Poppy War”

The Poppy War Series: Book 1: The Poppy War

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: May 1, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military

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

            “Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”

            Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers. 

            She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).

            This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war. 

            The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division. 

            The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her. 

            Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.

            Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals. 

            The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow. 

            The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary. 

            The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story. 

            The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang. 

The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.

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