Why You Need to Read: “Empire of Sand”

The Books of Ambha: #1: Empire of Sand

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 13, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Winner of the Brave New Words Award 2019

            The Emperor’s hatred had not grown suddenly, as Mehr had so foolishly believed when Maryam had warned her of his messages to his nobles. His hatred was a storm that had grown ever larger by feeding on itself, and Mehr had been protected from the full weight of it by the shelter of her privilege and of the very Ambhan walls that so stifled her. Now the storm was too great for even Mehr to ignore. Her status as the Governor’s daughter couldn’t protect her forever. She had Amrithi blood, and the Amrithi were being erased, (Chapter Two). 

            I’ll repeat what I’ve said about the speculative fiction released in 2018: it was the best year yet! There were many debut novels that gained the acclaim of fans and critics alike. In addition, there seemed to be a debut novel that represented each region of our world. Tasha Suri is one of many whose novel takes place in a historical fictionalized Middle East. Empire of Sand reflects on the notions of “old magic” and the oppression of the users that comes with it from those with political power. 

            Mehr, who is 18 years-old, is the eldest illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Mehr and her younger sister, Arwa, who is 9 years-old, live with their father and their stepmother, Maryam, at the Governor’s home. As daughters of a nobleman, the sisters live sheltered lives of luxury; as daughters of an Amrithi woman, the sisters have magic in their blood. Mehr is old enough to remember their mother and has accepted the customs of her mother’s people. Arwa is too young to remember their mother, but Maryam has no issue with raising and molding Arwa into an Ambhan noblewoman. Obviously, Mehr and Maryam are at odds with each other and it seems that the girls’ father is unaware of the relationship between his wife and his daughters. As paranoid as Maryam is, it turns out that she is right to be worried about Mehr’s rebellious behavior. When Mehr defies her family’s wishes and her mother’s cultural paranoia, she is married off and sent away to become a “tool” of the Empire. She is married to Amun, a full-blooded Amrithi who has been a captive of the Maha—mystics of the Religious Order—since he was a child. Married, isolated, and far from home, Mehr has to figure out how to survive her new life, to stay alive, to determine who is trustworthy, and to determine how much magic she has and what that means for her. Throughout the novel, Mehr grows into a powerful woman who embraces both her magic and her culture as she interprets the use of her power for the good of everything she cares about.

            The plot of the story follows the culture and the traditions of South Asia, along with its dark side based on historical events. “The rule of law and rule of faith are tied together. One cannot exist without the other,” (p.76). The Maha—the one in charge of the mystics—founded the Empire, so the Emperor and all of the Ambhan are “blessed” with their fortunes and lifestyles because of them. However, when angered, or demand something and are denied, the Maha can become anyone’s worse enemy. And, Mehr has alerted the Maha of her presence and her heritage. The mystics demand that she serves “for the Maha and the Empire.” Mehr knows that this goes against the practices of the nobles and her father threatens to rebel. Mehr gives into the demands in order to protect her family, especially Arwa. The plot develops as Mehr grows into herself and she learns more about the Maha and the Empire. She learns the reasons why her mother left her father, and her father’s neglect to teach her what she needed to know about herself and the Empire. Mehr soon realizes that power is determined based on who wields it. And, if the Emperor looks to the Maha for power, then does that mean the Maha hold the power? The subplot here is family and the bonds that come with it. Mehr sees herself as her mother’s daughter to the horror of her stepmother. Maryam, who has not been able to have children of her own, claims Arwa as hers and does everything in her power to keep the sisters apart. While her abuse of Mehr and harsh upbringing of Arwa is disturbing, her paranoia is justified when the Maha demand Mehr to be delivered to them. At the same time, Mehr learns more about her mother and father’s relationship as well as the decisions they made together and separately. This subplot is essential to the plot in that all of Mehr’s decisions are based on what’s best for her family. 

            The novel is told in real-time from the point-of-view of Mehr. With the exception of 3 chapters from 3 minor characters, the narrative is told in 3rd person free indirect discourse. In other words, readers are aware of all of Mehr’s thoughts, impressions, and perceptions—a.k.a. stream-of-consciousness—and, given the mistakes Mehr makes throughout the story and her known flaws, she is a reliable narrator. 

            The style Tasha Suri uses in her novel presents the various lifestyles people of different classes and faiths have even in modern South Asia. The descriptions of the different homes and clothes display the distinction between cultures and social classes. The word choice and the figurative language that illustrates the lands and the dances gives the beauty of the two to the readers. The mood in this story is the beauty of the Empire, which the Gods created. Yet, the tone in the novel is the balance of the world and the consequences of any unbalance in the world whether or not it’s from divine intervention, societal expectations, or parental influence. In all, the style presents how beauty in the world can remain if there is a balance. 

            The appeal surrounding Empire of Sand have been immensely positive. The novel has received positive reviews from critics, readers, and other authors. The novel has been nominated for several awards including the Locus Award; and, it won the Brave New Words Award in 2019! This fantasy novel is a beautiful debut and a wonderful addition to the speculative fiction genre. Fans will want to re-read Empire of Sand, especially before the sequel, Realm of Ash, is released in November 2019. I should warn readers that in addition to familial abuse and neglect, there is a scene in the story that contains non-consensual sex, and scenes of torture and murder. Other than those scenes of trauma, the novel is worth reading and the follow-up looks to be very promising, too.

            Empire of Sand is a beautiful debut novel about the history of an empire that struggles to maintain control of everything and how the bonds of love and family can help an individual endure suffering. Even though there were some flaws surrounding the pacing of the novel, my love of the characters is what kept me reading this novel. Empire of Sand was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018, and I’m really excited for the next book in the series, and any future books by the author!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

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Why You Need to Read: “The Gutter Prayer”

Book One of the Black Iron Legacy: The Gutter Prayer

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Audiobook: 16 hours 58 minutes

Narrated by: John Banks

Published: January 15, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark 

WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been warned. 

…the thieves—the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl…(Prologue).

            All readers have at least this one thing in common—so many books and very little time to read them all. With so many books—in all genres—being released to the acclaim of both critics and readers, there are moments when a reader does not know which book to read next. Also, there are times when a reader wants to read a book but has to find a way to read it alongside the other books they are reading. In this case, I wanted to read The Gutter Prayer—a grimdark fantasy debut novel by Gareth Hanrahan—which, I have heard nothing but positive things about the book. However, I didn’t have time to read my eBook copy, and I did not want to wait until “later” to read it. So, the only option I had left was the audiobook. I bought it and I prayed that the narration would be as good as the story, and I was not disappointed in either one! The Gutter Prayer is one of the most creative and most entertaining debut novels I’ve read in a while; and, listening to the audiobook gave me a new respect and outlook on narrators. 

            This novel contains several characters. There are 3 protagonists: Carillon Thay, or Cari, a young woman who lived a nomadic life before becoming a thief for the Guild; Rat, a ghoul who is considered to be of a young age amongst other ghouls; and, Spar, a lifelong member of the Thieves’ Guild, who is also a Stone Man, suffering from a disease that slowly petrifies people. When we first meet this trio, they are breaking into a building to steal some documents as appointed by Heinreil, the Guild’s leader. After the job goes awry, we meet: Jere: a thief-taker (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who has a borderline obsession with the trio; Professor Ongent and his son, Miren, scholars with their own baggage and piqued interest in Cari; Eladora Duttin, Cari’s cousin whom she has not seen since they were children; and, Aleena, a woman with unusual ties to Cari. This motley band of characters are about to become acquainted with each other whether or not they want to be. All of the characters are rounded and complex and have down-to-Earth concerns, secrets, and ambitions. At first, readers assume these characters are static and are expected to adhere to the tropes, but the complexity and the connection these characters have demonstrate how each of them develop throughout the novel. 

            The plot of The Gutter Prayer is extremely intriguing: 3 thieves are betrayed by their leader, and as they plot their revenge they uncover not only political conspiracies, but also an ongoing war amongst gods, mages, and alchemists. All the while, Cari, Rat and Spar are linked to this war whether or not they want to be. However, if they want a chance at vengeance, then they must stop Armageddon from happening. Of course, this is easier said than done, but they are not alone. The subplots are interconnected with the plot. First, there are Cari and Eladora. Most of their relatives were killed in a massacre, in which neither Cari, nor Eladora were present. Cari ran away from home and became a thief, and Eladora settled in Guerdon to distance herself from her religious zealot mother. Professor Ongent and Miren take interests in them, but Cari can’t shake the feeling that the Professor has ulterior motives. Next, Spar struggles with the disease that will kill him eventually. At the same time, he knows it’s time to fight Heinreil in order to become the Head of the Thieves’ Guild. This is one of two promises Spar makes to Cari; the second one involves getting back an amulet Heinreil took from Cari. Last, Rat, the ghoul who spends as much time underground as he does above it, is very knowledgeable about the ongoing war between the gods and all of the mages. What the others don’t know is that Rat and the other ghouls have a role to play in the war as well. All of these subplots are necessary for the plot to go at an appropriate rate. This is because, as the plot continues, readers learn the hows and the whys all of these characters remain motivated to stop the mages from bringing destruction to the world. 

            The narrative follows a chronological sequence of events that are told from multiple points-of-view. From the botched robbery to the motives of all of the characters, the readers learn everything that is happening and why from all of the locations the characters find themselves in. Usually, in narratives like these, it is difficult to determine which of the characters are reliable. However, due to each of the protagonists’ stream-of-consciousness—which include flashbacks of important moments in their lives—readers are able to follow the narrative easily. In other words, readers learn where each protagonist is coming from and are able to understand them a lot more. 

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is very interesting, and it brings out the grimdark aspect within the fantasy. The author created a world where ghouls are NOT the threat, but mages, saints, and wax figures are working to prompt Armageddon. In addition, the use of word choice and figurative language—especially when it comes to describing bells and medallions—clues readers in as to what they should pay attention to. The mood of The Gutter Prayer is preventing the coming of the end of the world and the lengths people go to either to invoke it, or to prevent it. No one survives the coming or the prevention of the end-of-the-world unscathed, so the mood here would be the tension of the dilemma. And, while the author did this unknowingly (I asked him about it on social media), a lot of the action occurs on “Desiderata Street.” Anyone who is familiar with the poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, knows that it is a reminder to individuals to strive for high ideals and to respect others the way they want to be treated. This is the tone of the novel, and this “way of life,” is the philosophy (remember “Philosopher’s Street”?) which, is reflected in one of the protagonists. Yes, it sounds cliché, but the way this is used within the author’s style of writing doesn’t feel that way at all. 

            The appeal surrounding The Gutter Prayer have been beyond positive. While it’s obvious that grimdark fans will enjoy this book the most, this should NOT be missed by other fantasy fans and readers! This debut—yes, remember debut—novel is already considered to be one of the “Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2019” by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Social media fandoms kept raving about this book to the point where I knew I had to find a way to read it. So, I bought the audiobook. The narrator, John Banks, was perfect for voicing this book. The way he used his voice to convey each character and to describe the setting the way he did matched the story perfectly. I felt that John Banks’ narration embellished the story. And, while I hope to read The Shadow Saint, the upcoming sequel to The Gutter Prayer (to be released on January 9, 2020), I wouldn’t mind if John Banks narrated that book and any other ones in the series as well. It did not feel like I was listening to 17 hours of a novel, it felt like I was there!

            The Gutter Prayer is a striking addition to the fantasy genre. It’s dark and twisted story will remind readers that fantasy is more than “knights in shining armor arriving to save the world.” The fact that it is a debut novel will leave fans craving for more from Gareth Hanrahan. If you’re a fan of fantasy and you want something both new and different, then look no further. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Dragon Republic”

The Poppy War: #2: The Dragon Republic

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: August 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Grimdark, Folklore, Military 

WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. You have been warned. 

            She didn’t care about anyone’s visions for the future. She’d stopped wanting to be great, to carve out her place in history, a long time ago. She’d since learned the cost, (Chapter 6).

            Books about war—whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction—attempts to include the horrors it brings along with it. In recent years, more fiction stories have included the “realities” of war as opposed to the “glories” of it, which usually make their way into the narratives. R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, re-establishes the “cost of war” and its aftermath in the sequel, The Dragon Republic.

            Runin “Rin” Fang is (still) reeling from her actions, which led to the end of the Third Poppy War and victory for the Empire. However, the victory has left Rin feeling hollow due to the deaths of her friends, her teachers, and her comrades. Everything she’d witnessed throughout the war: death, rape, starvation, mutilation, her lack of control as a shaman over a goddess, her addiction to opium, and the betrayal she and her Unit suffered towards the end of the war has left Rin in a depressive state of mind. As a soldier, Rin believes her only purpose lies in seeking revenge against those who betrayed her and the other denizens of the Empire. Lacking support, resources, and leadership skills, Rin leads the 13th Division to fight their remaining enemies. However, Rin and her soldiers are approached by Yin Vaisra—the Dragon Warlord, the Head of the House of Yin, and the father of one of her Sinegard classmates—and, he has a proposition for her: join up with him to form a “democratic” Republic amongst the now disbanded 12 Provinces and he will assist her with her vengeance. Rin—suspecting hidden motives and desiring to remain a soldier—agrees to the Dragon Warlord’s terms. As Rin works with her Unit and the Dragon Province, she is reunited with her former classmates who make their own decisions regarding the civil war that has broken out between the Empire and the Dragon Republic. This time, she has to determine her worth within this latest conflict. In order to do this, Rin develops from soldier to puppet to commander; it is a rough, but essential growth for Rin!

            Just like The Poppy WarThe Dragon Republic has three parts: the aftermath of war, the beginning of a civil war, and the fallout as a result of the civil war. Part I focuses on the Aftermath of the Third Poppy War, especially how the survivors—both military and civilian—are dealing with the damage that remains. Rin struggles with keeping her unit alive while avoiding the troops who would capture Rin in order to collect the bounty on her head. She makes a deal with the Dragon Warlord not only to achieve her goal of revenge and to have access of supplies for her troops, but also to maintain her purpose of being a soldier. All Rin knows is warfare and she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. She’s not alone in this because her friends and her comrades feel the same way. 

            Part II is the campaign launched by the Dragon Province. The mission: either to parlay, or to destroy the other 11 Provinces. The choice lies between siding with the Dragon Warlord or fighting against him. The reality of war is presented to readers again as war tactics, war strategy, and death becomes part of the plot. Decisions are the difference between life and death, and death always seems to prevail. Meanwhile, Rin is suffering from her lost abilities as a shaman and from the humiliating “testing” done to her by the Hesperians—an advanced civilization who promises to ally themselves with the Dragon Province towards the goal of a united republic with the promise of weapons as long as they: win the civil war, allow missionaries to assist with the refugees, and to “study” Rin. Rin has flashbacks to the same experiments done to her and Altan by the Mugenese and begins to wonder whether or not if more than her self-worth is on the line. At the same time, Rin learns how the Empress became so powerful and how the damage she inflicted on Rin can be skirted. For that to happen, Rin must learn more about the powers of a shaman. To do that she’ll have to learn from those who taught Jiang, her former Master of Lore. These two subplots are necessary for both the plot development, and the character development, especially Rin’s. 

            Part III unveils all of the revelations and the intentions of all of the characters. Everyone is involved with another oncoming war whether or not they want to be. The Empire and the Hinterlanders are on the brink of another civil war, and Rin and her Unit must decide who they are going to fight for when the war begins. Even Rin has intentions for this war, especially after she learns the truth about the Dragon Province, the Empress, and their “allies.” Amongst the death and the reunions Rin must determine if she is a soldier or a shaman. 

            Once again, the narrative is in 1stperson and stream-of-consciousness. With the exception of the Prologue, readers follow Rin’s experiences during the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. All of Rin’s thoughts and traumas are witnessed by both readers and other characters. It seems during the postbellum everyone sees Rin as a solder without purpose. She’s a terrible leader and her mistakes puts others in danger. Yet, she wants peace and prosperity (and revenge) just like the other survivors of the war. The scenes involving war, refugees, and previous events and memories are told in real time, so readers experience the anticipation, the suffering, and the confusion all of the characters experience. While it is long, the pacing of the narrative is appropriate for this military fantasy novel.    

            The style Kuang uses in The Dragon Republic is both similar and different from The Poppy Way. The conflict and the aftermath of war—based on the conflicts stirring in several countries before the beginning of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II—is found throughout the pages within this novel. The difference, or better yet the addition to the conflict, is the notion of imperialism. It is obvious that the Dragon Province is attempting to do this, but they are not the only ones fighting for control of a weaken empire. The mood of The Dragon Republic is death and suffering; just because (one) war is over doesn’t mean everything will get better soon. The tone in this novel is not only about the cost of war, but also about the price one is willing to pay for power. There are no innocent people left alive in this story. 

            The appeal surrounding The Dragon Republic have been positive. Fans of The Poppy War, other military fiction, and grimdark will enjoy this sequel. As the world expands, so does the world-building, which is found in the characters and the weapons, which are based on military history and Chinese culture and folklore. It must be mentioned that anyone who couldn’t finish The Poppy War and/or are triggered by real life acts of violence should NOT read this book! While not all readers are into military literature, actual events of war, such as rape, is mentioned in this novel. Otherwise, expect another well-written story by R.F. Kuang. 

            The Dragon Republic is an amazing sequel. The story picks up where The Poppy War left off and it is both creative and realistic for the type of grimdark and military fantasy the author is telling the readers. Parts of the plot and the narrative can drag on at times, but they are necessary for the story the author is telling everyone. I can’t wait for the next book, even though I must. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

Why You Need to Read: “Darkdawn”

The Nevernight Chronicle: #3: Darkdawn

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: September 3, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Historical Fantasy, Folklore

NOTE: This review contains spoilers from both Nevernight and Godsgrave.

            Goddess, if only we’d known what she’d become…(Chapter 33, Wellspring). 

            Darkdawn is the stunning conclusion to The Nevernight Chronicle. Jay Kristoff gives his readers a blood-soaked conclusion to his antiheroine that rivals “The Bride” from Kill Bill and Kratos from God of War. Mia Corvere and her vengeance concludes in Darkdawn, and the author delivers on everything he promised his readers and gives them even more.

            Mia Corvere has transformed from an assassin of the Red Church to a gladiator of the Falcons of Remus to the most infamous murderer in the Itreyan Republic. While she was killing her family’s enemies, she made a startling discovery and acted without thinking. Her brother, Jonnen, has been alive the entire time and has been raised as Consul Julius Scaeva’s son. More about Scaeva’s deception is revealed to Mia and she realizes that her identity was a lie as well. As she comes to terms with this new information, Mia learns that she has been chosen to “seek the Crown of the Moon.” It turns out the gods and the goddesses of the Itreyan Republic are as real as the magic in that world. Mia’s power of a darkin is strongest during Nevernight—which, is coming again soon—and, when the Mother Goddess—Niah, the Maw, the Mother of Night, and Our Lady of Blessed Murder—is strong enough to get her vengeance on Aa—the Father of Light, the Everseeing—her husband. Mia is powerful enough to assist the Maw with her path for revenge. However, Mia has accomplished her tasks and wishes to put as much distance between herself and the Itreyan Republic as possible. But first, Mia has to complete purging the Red Church who has sent ALL of their assassins after her. Meanwhile, Mercurio—Mia’s mentor and foster father—is a captive in the Red Church to use as bait to lure Mia Corvere to them. At the same time, Mercurio learns of the role he’s to play in the Mother’s plan, and it’s as shocking to the readers as it is to him! Throughout the story, we see Mia being split between keeping her brother and her friends safe and killing Consul Scaeva once and for all and following the path the Mother has laid before her. Mia deals with all of these revelations the only way an 18-year-old can…by lashing out; and, Mia’s method of lashing out involves killing a lot of people. Mia is now the most lethal assassin in the history of the Itreyan Republic and the true faith of the Maw expects Mia to fulfill her final task. Will Mia accept the task of the Mother? 

            The plot in Darkdawn is the conclusion to Mia’s life. Readers have known since Nevernight that Mia Corvere would die. The question was how and why. Mia’s quest for revenge now includes the Red Church and anyone Consul Scaeva sends after her. On top of that the Mother (darkness) and the Father (sunlight) are preparing to meet each other and to end their “spousal disagreement.” Mia has to battle gods and goddesses at the same time she is battling mortals. The plot develops as Mia and Mercurio learn more about the history of the Red Church and the darkin. As for the history of the gods and the goddesses, all of those footnotes throughout the trilogy was information as to what would occur eventually. The immortals—like all mythologies—have foresaw their Ragnarök and Mia is to play a very critical role in the end of the Itreyan Republic. Will the gods allow Mia to defeat them? Along with this subplot is the subplot of Mia’s reunion with Jonnen and the relationship she struggles to build with him. These subplots are crucial to the conclusion of The Nevernight Chronicle and they take over the plot of Darkdawn as the story continues. The plot starts with and ends with Mia Corvere. 

            The narrative in Darkdawn is a continuation of Nevernight and Godsgrave until the final part of Darkdawn (Book 4, The Ashes of Empires). From there, the story seems to follow a stream-of-consciousness in the present tense, until it shifts back to the 3rd limited point-of-view. This narration allows readers to follow the actions of Mia, Ashlinn, Jonnen, Mercurio, and other characters as all is revealed throughout the Itreyan Republic. Mia—even with her darkin abilities—cannot be everywhere at once, so readers get the chance to learn how all of these characters are feeling with their situation and what will come to pass. While readers might not like certain characters, their narratives are objective and essential to the story that is being told. The footnotes remain informative and hilarious but are just as vital to the story as the world-building. Everything converges within the narrative. 

            The style Jay Kristoff uses continues in the final book in this trilogy. The events of the past are told in italics, the darkin’s dialogue are told using various font sizes, and the footnotes continue to explain Itreya’s history and culture. That last part is crucial to the narrative because it can be argued that the history and the culture was the real story being told in The Nevernight Chronicle. For example, the “author” of the entire chronicle is revealed, and once readers get over their shock, they will realize that it makes a lot of sense. On top of that readers are reminded that books still enact a sense of fear whether or not it’s the reader or the people mentioned within it. Jay Kristoff reveals the actual story he is telling in his trilogy, the anger of a goddess and the revenge she is waiting to enact on her husband. Similar to how Mia wants vengeance for her family, Niah wants revenge against Aa. The clues were in the titles: Nevernight, Godsgrave, and Darkdawn. The author wasn’t only telling Mia’s story, but also creating his own mythology about the world he created: the gods and the goddesses, how they created the world, and the religion that came out of it as well. The mood in Darkdawn is the coming end of an empire, a cult and its followers, and the protagonist. Readers are familiar with the saying, “tear it all down and begin anew.” Usually this statement comes out of the mouth of a madman; however, in the case of the Itreyan Republic—similar to the Roman Empire—there is so much corruption and greed that the end was going to happen sooner or later (I’m not a historian). The tone of this novel follows the idiom: “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.” The actions of Mia and Jonnen’s parents are reaped by the siblings. At the same time, the actions of the gods affect the mortals who worship them. And yet, the same emotions are felt by mortals and by immortals alike. 

            The appeal surrounding Darkdawn will be a positive one. I received an ARC of this book and Jay Kristoff gives a satisfying ending to this creative and bloody trilogy. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy this story. Readers of historical fiction will appreciate the parallels (and the research) to the Roman Empire. And, folklore enthusiasts and experts will love how the author reminds his audience of the source of magic and faith found throughout the trilogy. Darkdawn concludes the way it does as mentioned in the beginning of Nevernight.

            Darkdawn is the action-driven end to a fast-paced trilogy. Mia Corvere’s life story ends as it began, with blood and death. Readers will cringe at the death count, will mourn the characters who die, and won’t be able to stop reading until the end. Fans will complete The Nevernight Chronicle and be more than satisfied with its conclusion. Mia Corvere is one of the best antiheroines I’ve ever read. Thank you Jay Kristoff for sharing her story with us! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Small Spaces”

Small Spaces: #1: Small Spaces

By: Katherine Arden

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Children, Paranormal, Horror, Folklore

            Ollie, poised on the edge of flight, said, “Tell me what?”

            “Avoid large places at night,” the woman breathed. “Keep to small.”

            “Small? That’s it?”

            “Small!” shrieked the woman. “Small spaces! Keep to small spaces or see what happens to you! Just see!” She burst into wild laughter, (Chapter 2).

            Katherine Arden, author of The Winternight Trilogy, has demonstrated her ability to branch out to a wider audience with her stories. This time, the author shares a story for young readers. Small Spaces will make you believe that you are reading a book from Goosebumps, a series that terrified me as a child. The difference here is the reality written within the story. Katherine Arden reminds her readers that folklore is ubiquitous. Every “story” has a dose of “truth” in it.  

            The protagonist is 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler and she is dealing with the recent death of her mother. After a bad day at school, Ollie rides her bike to the local river where she sees a woman standing at its edge screaming at a book she’s about to throw into the water. Ollie manages to steal the book believing “it’s just a book,” but the woman screams a warning not to read the book and to keep to “small spaces.” Just like anyone else, child or adult, Ollie believes the woman is crazy and sees no harm in reading the book. She reads about Beth Webster—a woman who had the affection of brothers Jonathan and Caleb. A few days later, Ollie’s class goes on a field trip to the farm, the same farm the book mentions. When the bus breaks down during the return ride, some of her classmates disappear. Ollie begins to wonder whether or not the story in the book is based on truth. Ollie has been withdrawn since her mother’s death. However, with all of the eerie coincidences and the same warning about “small spaces,” Ollie and two of her friends—Coco and Brian—must use the knowledge they have and their skills in order to survive the night and to save their classmates and teacher. Ollie is a complex character in that she is a child who lost her mother but must focus on surviving an urban legend. Her classmates are typical sidekicks, but they provide Ollie with the companionship she needs at the moment. 

            The plot is simple: a girl steals a book an adult is trying to destroy, the girl reads the book and soon realizes that what she thought was a story isn’t a story, and the girl must survive a supernatural force that is hunting her down. Before the field trip, Ollie is reading “Small Spaces” and about the people who are mentioned in it. At the same time, Ollie and her classmates learn about Smoke Hollow and its eerie history surrounding the family that owns the land, who happen to be the descendants of the people mentioned in Ollie’s book. Urban legends—tales based on rumors—are part of folklore, which are beliefs and cultural practices shared by a group of people that are passed from generation to generation. The story Ollie reads in her book and the tales she hears in class are examples of folklore, which is the subplot of the novel. These stories give Ollie just enough information to survive her upcoming ordeal. Both the information and the plot (and the subplot) are presented at an appropriate rate. Readers will forget this is a children’s book. 

            The narrative is told from Ollie’s point-of-view; and, given everything that has happened to her, she is a reliable narrator. The story is told in present time, with the exception of the events in Ollie’s book, which are presented as journal entries. Throughout the narrative, readers learn about Ollie and the choices she makes and why. All the while, readers are reminded that Ollie is just a kid. 

            Katherine Arden’s style remains as it was for her adult books, but the word choice and the sentence structure are written for children. The author presents another aspect of folklore to her fans and readers: legends and urban legends. Legends are unverified popular stories believed to be based on historical events that are passed from generation to generation. Ubiquitous examples are King Arthur and Atlantis. Urban legends are rumors of experiences that someone known to the storyteller—a friend of a friend—had. Urban legends involve creepy and/or supernatural stories such as: hitch hikers and haunted houses. The mood is the eeriness presented by these stories and urban legends. The tone is the notion that legends and other stories are “stories” until the truth in them emerges. In other words, don’t ignore any strange occurrences that happen around you!

            The appeal of Small Spaces have been positive. It is a horror book, so readers of any age will find it frightening at times, but it is an enjoyable read about an adventure in an individual’s small hometown. Remember, there are children who read and enjoy horror stories. As a 90’s kid, both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? were popular amongst kids my age (and both series gave me nightmares). Children who have watched Jordan Peele’s horror movies and/or the IT movie remakes will enjoy Small Spaces the most. In fact, the next book in the series, Dead Voices, comes out in August 2019. 

            Small Spaces is a strong introduction to young readers who enjoy believable haunted stories. Katherine Arden continues to use folklore in her stories in order to provide a sense of realism for her readers. As a fan of her adult fantasy, I was just as impressed with this book as with her other ones! Small Spaces is a fun read!

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

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

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: July 23, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Historical Fiction, Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019…So Far

We are halfway through 2019 and this year’s speculative fiction books have been both enjoyable and bountiful. Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been amazing, and I still have A LOT of books in my TBR pile to go through. Like you, I’m an ardent reader and I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on and has an interesting story. I’ve enjoyed novels, novellas, short stories across various genres of literature. If you’re interested in knowing some of the 51 books I’ve read between January 1stand June 30th2019, then please check out my Goodreads page here: https://www.goodreads.com/Misty306

            I’ve been trying to keep up with both ARCs, and the long list of nominations for this year’s Literary Awards as part of my Reading Award Challenge 2019. I knew it would be harder than it sounded, but I’ve read (and still reading) a lot of amazing books that I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. I suggest that you read a few of the numerous nominations for any of the 2019 SFF Awards. 

That being said, I wanted to point out some of speculative fiction books that were released in 2019 that I’ve enjoyed the most, so far. These are books I recommend you read, especially if you’re a fan of this genre of literature like I am. And, just so you know, these are books that I’ve read and finished between the 1sthalf of 2019. 

These are my Top Ten Picks in no particular order:

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

In An Absent Dream (Wayward Children #4) by Seanan McGuire

Uncanny Collateral (Valkyrie Collections #1) by Brian McClellan

Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher

Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

An Illusion of Thieves (Chimera #1) by Cate Glass

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Sisters of the Fire (Blood and Gold #2) by Kim Wilkins

Right now, I’m currently reading (released in 2019):

Broken Veil (Harbinger #5) by Jeff Wheeler

Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

One Word Kill (Impossible Times #1) by Mark Lawrence

Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

            Here are some of the MANY books I hope to read by the end of 2019 (many of these I received at Book Expo 2019!):  

            Those of my picks for the Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. I’m still aiming to read at least 100 books by the end of this year; and, I want to write as many reviews here, on Goodreads, on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you have any suggestions on what I should read, then please mention them in the Comments Section below. Please keep in mind that I might not be able to get access to certain books for various reasons (i.e. no $$$, waitlist at the library, etc.). Yet, I want to read as much as I can before 2019 ends (it’ll make my Award Reading Challenge 2020 much easier). 

            Which speculative fiction books released in 2019 have been your favorite so far?