Why You Need to Read: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood”

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

            “…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

            There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

            Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba). 

            2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.” 

            Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are. 

            The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them. 

            The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.  

            Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.

            The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author. 

            The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s. 

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Why You Need to Read: “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). 

An Update on My Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

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)

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf in the Whale”

By: Jordanna Max Brodsky                                                   

Published: January 29, 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Fantasy

  Garbed once more as a man, I entered the blood-soaked iglu. I sawed at my hair so it brushed the tops of my ears as a man’s should. I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack. The wolf in the whale had gone south. And so did I. (Chapter 22).

            When I first received the ARC for this book, I did not know what to expect from it; however, the description of the story caught my attention and I read it with an open mind. The Wolf in the Whaleis an interesting story about gender roles, family, survival, cultural differences, and religion. Expectations placed on the characters—and the gods—within the story drive the narrative as well. Readers will gain insight into the first inhabitants to reside in and the first travelers to North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

            The protagonist of this story is also our narrator, who is retelling the events of her life. Omat was born with her father’s spirit as a hunter and with her grandfather’s abilities as a shaman. Hence, Omat is raised and treated as a male by her aunt, her grandfather, and her tribesmen, and she is expected to become the next leader of the tribe much to her cousin’s, Kiasik, chagrin. At the same time, the gods of the world—particularly the Inuit and the Norse—fear the changes to come due to the rise of a new and powerful monotheistic god. Unbeknownst to her, the gods mark Omat as a “threat” for she is expected to bring forth Ragnarök, or the end of the world. The gods’ fear causes Omat’s family to suffer from starvation and isolation. However, anyone who is familiar with myths, legends, and prophecies know that the more anyone tries to prevent a prophecy or an event from happening, the more likely it will occur. Omat’s interaction with her family, other tribesmen, the Vikings, and the gods and the spirits shape her character as she transitions from adolescence to adult. 

            The plot of this novel is broken down into 3 parts: Omat’s bildungsroman, the gods’ fear of the end of their lifestyle and adoration, and the Viking exploration. All of these plots drive the story and provides some insight into how early settlers came to inhabit the Americas, and how the interactions—even brief ones—brought elements of cultural diffusion to Omat’s tribe. The Viking “visit” is based on historical and recorded events; yet, it is unknown as to why they did not remain in the Americas. As for the motives of the gods, anyone who is familiar with religion and myths—or, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and/or Rick Riordan’s books—know the gods depend on both the worship and the stories from the mouths of mortals and shamans for their existence. A new, single god could jeopardize the lives of the rest of the gods. Omat’s journey and growth to becoming a leader means learning from other leaders—the good, the bad, and the worst—meeting challenges from the environment and from other people. Omat manages to overcome these obstacles, but not without repercussions. At the same time, Omat does learn some things from each adversity, which ensures her survival. 

            The narrative is divided into 5 parts: Omat’s birth, family and growth into an angakkug—or shaman; Omat’s power and livelihood being threaten by a visiting tribe who only see Omat for her sex and not for her abilities regardless of her gender; Omat’s journey south in search of her cousin and meeting a Viking, and seeing other people live beyond her world; Omat’s captivity amongst the Vikings; and, Omat’s role in Ragnarök, and its aftermath. All the while, the gods are watching the events unfold and they make decisions for their interests, which do not consider the impact they will have on the mortals. Given the multiple subplots and the story, the later parts in the novel are told in real-time. While this is both appropriate and believable for the plot, it makes the story seem slow at times. Omat is retelling this story. These events already happened—she either was told, or she experienced them—and we are led to believe that this stream-of-consciousness narrative is reliable. 

            The author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, has a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. The Wolf in the Whaleis a historical fiction fantasy and folklore novel. This story is not only about the brief “meeting” between the Inuit and the Vikings—and other early settlers—but also a look into the folklore—a body of culture, traditions, tales, religion, etc. shared by a particular group of people—with fantasy elements (i.e. gods). The descriptions of the lifestyles of both the Inuit and the Vikings make the story more immersive. The cultural diffusion added by the author’s historical knowledge make the story more believable because the exchange of knowledge amongst various groups of people have been, and continue to be, a necessity for human survival and progression. This novel is a credible story of journey, survival and growth as seen in the author’s style. These elements add to the various dangers all of the characters face from the weather to each other. The realism makes the difference and it flourishes in this novel. 

            Readers who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy The Wolf in the Whale more than those who enjoy fantasy. This is because the historical and the anthropological aspects drive the story more than the appearances of the gods and the spirits. That is not to say fantasy fans won’t enjoy this book, they might not appreciate it as much as historical fiction fans. This is the author’s first standalone novel. So, readers who are curious about the author should read this novel. Fans of the TV show, Vikings, and/or the video game, Never Alone, should find The Wolf in the Whaleto be a well-structured story with the right amount of cultural elements that makes it more believable than the “what if” concept.

            The Wolf in the Whalecaught my attention due to its description about “clashing cultures and warring gods.” I was not sure what to expect from the novel besides shamans and Vikings. Being clueless, but open-minded about the novel allowed me to read the story as it is, and not what I thought it was going to be. The topics of sex and gender roles, culture, survival, interactions between different groups of people, and family drive the story as much as the history and the fantasy within it. There were times in which, some of the real-time events dragged the story. There were times in which, I wanted more from certain characters, but realized it would have diverted from the protagonist. Overall, The Wolf in the Whaleis a speculative fiction novel that is a hybrid of fantasy, folklore, history, and anthropology. I was immersed in the story from start to finish. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys an eclectic mix of genres in fiction. 

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