Why You Need to Read: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1: The Empire’s Ruin

By: Brian Staveley

Published: July 6, 2021

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            “But it can’t be coincidence, can it? The Annurians burn down the Purple Baths and then, the very next morning, these naked fools show up talking about an attacking army,” (5). 

            When an individual reads a work of fiction, it is said that the reader is transported to that world—either ours or a fantastic one—as they become immersed in the narrative. In addition, there are some stories which remind readers of other things ranging from emotions to music. These moments of empathy allows readers to gain some comprehension of what the author was expressing as they wrote the story. Now, there are moments when the interpretation by the audience is wrong, but whatever they concluded should be acknowledged by the creator(s). After I was convinced to read The Empire’s Ruin—the 1st book in the Ashes of the Unhewn Throne trilogy—by Brian Staveley by another bookblogger, immediately, I was sucked into the narrative, and the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky played on loop in my head as I read this epic fantasy. 

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel who are part of a large dramatis personae, all who are part of the events that start to unfold from the 1st chapter. The first protagonist is Gwenna Sharpe, the former Commander of the Kettral Wing. Why “former” Commander? It is because Gwenna’s reckless behavior and her ability to ignore direct orders led to the deaths of a few of her comrades, and the death of the last (known) kettral—large birds used by the Annurian military for battle and other missions. Emperor Adare hui’Malkeenian strips Gwenna of her rank, but orders her to go on a voyage to Menkiddoc—a mysterious continent with ties to the present day Annurian Empire—on an expedition to retrieve kettral eggs. Accompanying Gwenna is the Royal Chief Historian, Kiel, who has extensive knowledge of both Menkiddoc and the Csestriim—a race of individuals who were wiped out by the Annurians thousands of years ago; First Admiral Jonan lem Jonan is the commander of the fleet and the expedition—who serves as Gwenna’s foil as well; the legionaries, Cho Lu and Pattick, who are fans of Gwenna’s “heroics”; during the expedition, the party meets Bhurma Dhar—the former Captain of a Manjari ship; and, an orphaned girl who may or may not know that whereabouts of the current residents of Menkiddoc. The entire crew have a lot to lose on this voyage and everything is hanging on the victory of this mission. However, Gwenna Sharpe needs more than the Emperor’s orders for her to remember what her purpose is to the Annurian Empire. 

            The second protagonist is Ruc Lakatur Lan Luc, a priest of Eria—Lady of Love. Ruc was raised among the Vuo Ton—a race of people from Dombâng who live in the delta which is as dangerous as the Vuo Ton’s way of life—but, he left that life 15 years earlier. Now, as a priest who practices love and pacifism, Ruc finds himself worried that recent events—the attack by the Annurians—is starting to unravel the instincts of his past. The recent attack has led to violence and riots in the name of numerous religions within the city of Dombâng. The followers of Eria are few, but Ruc and the other priests and priestesses—including Bien Qui Nai, Ruc’s girlfriend—do all they can to practice and to keep their faith. During a beatdown, Ruc and Bien come across a naked man who preaches that his god is “the First” and will overtake all of the other ones. This encounter causes Ruc to return to the Vuo Tun to gain some possible answers. After Ruc’s suspicions are confirmed, he rushes back to Eira’s Temple to find followers of other faiths attacking it. Ruc and Bien barely escape only to be arrested on charges of heresy. Their “punishment” is to participate in the fighting at the Arena. Their trainer is Goatface, who pairs Ruc and Bien with a captured Annurian soldier as a trio. Theirs is not the only group Goatface trains; there is the trio made up of Mouse, Monster and Stupid, who don’t seem to mind fighting in the Arena. Ruc must re-educate himself on how to survive in a hostile environment as he clings to his faith. 

            The third protagonist is Akiil, a former thief and “former” Shin monk of Ashk’lan. In fact, Akiil studied with the monks alongside Kaden, the brother of the reigning Emperor of Annur, who was the Heir Apparent before his “death.” Akiil meets with the Emperor so that he can attempt to con her. He hopes to do this by providing the Emperor with information about the kenta—a practice developed by the Csestriim and taught among the Shin monks—and its gates. Akiil’s plan is to “teach” the Emperor how to use the kenta in order to gain riches for himself. The Emperor is interested in the kenta because she wasn’t taught how to use it because she wasn’t the (original) heir to the Empire. However, with her brother dead and she without the knowledge, the Emperor may have some use of Akiil. The question isn’t who can use the kenta, but why the 2 opposite individuals want to use it. It turns out that while Akiil’s plan started off with him being a thieving monk, a person from his past alters his reasons for doing the job; but, what about the Emperor’s conviction for the knowledge? Will that affect Akiil and his plans? 

            There are 3 plots in this novel, and they are as complex as the characters. The first plot surrounds the Kettral. The birds are extinct in Annur, so the Emperor arranges for an expedition to search for them elsewhere. The second plot focuses on the in-fighting in Dombâng about religion—which god or gods are the most powerful? Which faith “deserves” to be practiced? The third plot delves into the knowledge the Emperor seeks, which is offered to her by a “thieving monk.” It seems that neither the thieving monk nor the Emperor should have this knowledge, but this is the least of their problems. There are 3 subplots in this novel as well. The first subplot involves the Csestriim. Their race is extinct; and yet, for some reason, the knowledge of the Csestriim could help Annur—the Kettral and the kenta—from destruction. The second subplot delves into magic and abilities a few characters can use. Unfortunately, not only are these powers esoteric, but also the users are ostracized by the majority of the world’s denizens. Why is that? The third subplot focuses on the new faith that is starting to emerge in Dombâng (and in Annur). The followers claim their god is the most powerful, but something is off about the followers—which, is something all of the other religious groups agree on. 

            The narrative occurs in the present tense and is told from multiple points-of-view of the protagonists: Gwenna Sharpe, Ruc and Akiil. The narrative is in the 3rd person limited which limits the story to what each protagonist is experiencing (and their knowledge) through their streams-of-consciousness and their memories. All of their experiences, flaws and mistakes, emotions make all of the protagonists reliable narrators. And, as long as the narrative is, it can be followed by the reader(s) easily.

            The style Brian Staveley uses for The Empire’s Ruin enhances the epic fantasy experience for the reader(s). At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how this story had me humming the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. The reason for this is because the 1st chapter is a battle sequence, and Tchaikovsky’s musical piece is a tale about Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. What is an overture? An overture is defined as “an orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, suite, or other extended composition (in the 17th century).” And, that is what the author has written, an epic fantasy that is just the beginning of what will be an admirable opera (Note: I didn’t study music theory). All of the narratives are part of the bigger story to come, and Brian Staveley wrote this story in a way that it is not too long, but with enough details to capture the readers’ attention. The mood in this novel is pugnacious. All of the protagonists find themselves in atmospheres or in situations where they must be ready to fight. Even if they don’t want to, they don’t have a choice because their survival depends on it. The tone in this novel is diversion. All of the fighting throughout Annur and Dombâng is drawing attention away from the threats that have started to appear. In fact, the threats have made their “proclamations” known to certain crowds, but to no avail. It seems that the protagonists and their comrades know the severity of these threats. Also, if you need to, then you can consult the maps located at the beginning of the book. 

            The appeal for The Empire’s Ruin have been positive. So far, the 500+ ratings on Goodreads have 4- and 5-star reviews which make up 89% of the total ratings. Now, don’t be turned off by the quantity of the reviewers, but pay attention to the quality of those reviews. Regardless of the amount of reviews the book has so far, it can’t be overlooked that almost all of the readers keep raving about it. This book is not only the first in a new epic fantasy series, but also is part of the saga of the Annurian Empire which started with the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series—no, I haven’t read that series, yet. In other words, fans of Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Melissa Caruso will enjoy this book—and, the upcoming books in this series—the most. This series will continue the expansive world-building that started with the author’s previous books. There is something you should know about this novel. Brian Staveley rewrote this entire book after his agent told him that the first draft “wasn’t good enough.” I’m glad (and, so are several other readers) that the author listened to his agent (I wonder if it was the same agent who told V.E. Schwab to rewrite her draft of Vengeful?). Obviously, it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but this book is the result and that’s a good thing. Whenever the next book in this series is released, I will be reading it!

            The Empire’s Ruin is the first book in a new series that is an expansion of a fantasy world fans and other readers of the speculative fiction genre have praised for years. This novel is an excellent place for newcomers to start reading about the Annurian Empire. Brian Staveley has written one of the best (and one of the most underrated) books of the year. This novel is the 1st in what’s to come in this epic fantasy, which will remind readers of a musical overture. You don’t believe me? Then, read both the first and the last chapters in this book with the 1812 Overture playing in the background, and let me know what you think. 

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

Thank you to Tor (Books) and to Brian Staveley for sending me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Why You Need to Read: “The Gilded Ones”

The Gilded Ones, #1: The Gilded Ones

By: Namina Forna

Published: February 9, 2021

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains elements of rape, misogyny, familicide, dismemberment, human trafficking, and violence against females. Be advised.

            Confusion lines my face, and I frown at her. “An invitation for what?”

            “For you, Impure One. Emperor Gezo has decided to create an army of your kind. He invites you to join it and protect our beloved Otera from those that would oppose her will,” (3).

            Readers have become familiar with genre-blending—the blending of at least 2 distinguished genres and/or subgenres within a book or a book series—but, every now and then there are books which are “crossovers” for the audience. For example, consider which books you had to read in secondary school for your literature class. You know many of those books were written for adults, right? And yet, many adolescents have at least 1 book from school that they remembered reading, and some even enjoyed the story. There are several examples of books written for adults that should NOT be read by younger readers—The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff—but, there are several young adult books containing numerous adult themes that should be read both by adolescents and by adults as well. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is the latest book to tackle how the “adult world” influences the youth negatively and why certain societal practices continue to exist through posterity. 

            The protagonist is Deka. She is 16 years-old and is about to undergo the “Ritual of Purity,” a rite to see if a female’s blood runs red or gold. If a girl’s blood runs red, then she is declared a woman and becomes a member of the village they reside in. Deka has become even more terrified of the Ritual since her mother’s death 3 months earlier; her father is the last family member she has left. However, she has 2 close friends who she envisions remaining close to after she passes the Ritual. Unfortunately, 2 events occur on the day of the Ritual that changes Deka’s life. First, her village is attacked by creatures known as Deathshrieks who kill several people. Second, her blood runs gold—the blood of the Impure—and she is ordered to be “cleanse…” that is until a figure—a woman with white hands—arrives with an offer to reclaim her identity: join the emperor’s army of Impure women to defeat the Deathshrieks for good, or be sentenced to death. Almost immediately, Deka leaves her fanatical village for a chance at “absolution.” Along the way, Deka meets and befriends Britta from the Northern Province. Once at the compound, she meets twin sisters, Adwapa and Asha from the Southern Province; Belcalis from the Western Province; and, Gazal and Jeneba their “Honored Elder or Senior Bloodsisters” who help the girls with their training and to become acclimated with their new life. Then, there is Keita, an uruni—(human) men partnered with each of the girls to work together with (and to spy on) the women as they fight against the Deathshrieks. Last, is White Hands, the Impure woman who brought Deka and Britta to the compound for a chance at absolution; but, she has a close relationship with the Emperor, and she has an interest in Deka, and Deka doesn’t know why. All of these characters help Deka accept her new life and her purpose as she becomes stronger—physically, mentally and emotionally—and determined to protect Otera. 

            The plot of this novel has several parts. First, is Deka’s journey towards absolution after her blood classifies her as a demon. Second, is the explanation of the “Infinite Wisdoms,” the religious mandate practiced in most of the provinces in Otera, which limits the roles of females to their families and their households; but, an army of Impure Ones has existed for some time. Last, is the world-building that occurs throughout the narrative including the various provinces of Otera, the history of Otera—including the goddesses and the Infinite Father. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first is about the Deathshrieks. What are they? Why have they been attacking villages? Why have their numbers continued to grow? The second subplot is about the “Impure Ones,” or “demons” who are descended from the Gilded Ones—the goddesses who founded Otera. It seems that there are some unknown benefits to being “impure,” which are known by those who are “impure.” In addition, why are all the “Impure Ones” female? What about males? These subplots are essential to the plots as the reader(s) learn more about the characters and the world through them and their conflicts. The plots and the subplots go at an appropriate rate as the story reveals everything that will happen in it.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Deka’s point-of-view. And, the narrative is presented in the present tense. This means that the reader experiences everything and learns about everything through Deka’s P.O.V. and her stream-of-consciousness. Deka’s growth from devout outcast to lead warrior—including some revelations about herself—make her a reliable narrator. A reminder that the narrative is intended for young adult readers, and it can be followed easily by both YA and adult readers. 

            The style Namina Forna uses for The Gilded Ones is NOT new, but it is one of the most candid seen in (YA) literature for some time. The author wanted to examine the idea of the patriarchy—how and why it is practiced—and how religion continues to influence this societal practice. Namina Forna is from Sierra Leone and—when she moved to the U.S.—she saw no difference in the practice of patriarchy between Africa and America. And, given what many of us know about similar practices in the rest of our world (i.e. Asia, the Middle East, etc.), this book is a commentary on how females continue to be treated throughout the world. Feminism and misogyny are international themes and issues that continue to permeate into individuals worldwide. Personally, I believe that one of the reasons “change” and “equality” haven’t happened for women yet is because every region of the world acts like gender equality is “better” where they are; and that is a HUGE lie. Namina Forna presents the harsh reality females—especially young ones—face because some males desire to express their dominance over them. Regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or ethnicity, this book speaks volumes of what girls and women experience throughout their lives. The mood in this novel is domination. The females are dominated by the males and their religion, even the “Impure Ones” are oppressed by men. The tone in this novel is belligerence. The “Impure Ones” are trained to fight their foes, but are they limited to the Deathshrieks? There is a map of Otera at the front of the book and it should be used by the reader(s) whenever they need to consult it. 

            The appeal for The Gilded Ones have been mostly positive with 75% of the ratings on Goodreads being 4- and 5-stars. One thing that needs to be mentioned is the book’s publication. This book’s release was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. That being said, the hype surrounding the author’s debut novel made the wait worth it (I read an eARC of this book). This book is described as being for fans of Children of Blood and Bone, Shadow and Bone, Legendborn and Raybearer. I would describe The Gilded Ones as a combination of The Year of the Witching and Speak. Once again, this book is written for YA readers containing “adult” themes they know exist in our world. Not everyone will view this book for what it is, and that’s all right because it means that the book wasn’t written for them. The next book in this series—The Merciless Ones, which releases in April 2022—continues Deka’s journey to discovering her role within the Impure Ones and warring against those who want her dead.

            The Gilded Ones is the book young girls crave and adult women wished they had as children. Namina Forna found a way to present the truth within the fiction for adolescent readers, but made it alluring for adult readers as well. While this book should NOT be read by everyone, it should NOT be missed by anyone. Go and read one of the best (debut) novels of this year!

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

Reading Check-In: July 17, 2021

A brief update about my readings.

But first, not that this should be a goal of mine, but I decided to reduce this year’s Goodreads (yes, I have a Storygraph account) reading goal from 100 books to 50 books. At the beginning of this year, I knew there I shouldn’t have pushed my limits this year due to other life factors (read my midyear post), but I decided to push my limits. Halfway through 2021, I knew that it would be better if I focused on finishing the books I was reading without worrying about how many I was reading. Honestly, I just want to read the books because I want to not because I’m worried about a number.

What book have you finished recently?

Both the plot development and the world-building were brilliant! And, we have a cover for the final book in this series! Both the cover and the finale are going to be EPIC!!!

What are you reading currently?

I’m about halfway through both of these books. And, I can tell you right now, you need to read both of them!

What will you read next?

I started reading these books when I received them as ARCs, but as you all know, I had to halt my reading to focus on other priorities. These books have been out for some time and I want to finish reading them before the end of the year.

As for recent releases and other ARCs, you’ll know which one(s) I start reading when I do.

Yes, I know that these are all fantasy books! You can read my recent sci-fi reviews in my previous posts!

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Shard Daughter”

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter

By: Andrea Stewart

Published: September 8, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I knew who I was. I was Lin. I was the Emperor’s daughter. I shouted the words in my head, but I didn’t say them. Unlike my father, I kept my face neutral, my thoughts hidden. Sometimes he liked it when I stood up for myself, but this was not one of those times. It never was, when it came to my past, (1: Lin: Imperial Island).

            Pace is an interesting concept; all of our lives we’ve been told about “pacing” ourselves when it comes to doing everything from completing everyday tasks to taking a test to reading books. Pace is referred to in storytelling; the “pace” of the story can keep the reader either engaged or lost. The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in The Drowning EmpireTrilogy and the debut novel of the author, Andrea Stewart, was written in a way that the story’s pace kept me engaged to where I read the entire book within a week!

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel. The first protagonist, is Lin, the daughter of the Emperor. Although she should be the heir apparent, she hasn’t earned that title for 2 reasons. One, she lost many of her memories due to an illness she had as a child. Her father gives her tests daily to determine what Lin can remember, which isn’t a lot. Two, Lin has been falling behind on her bone constructs, which has put her foster brother, Bayan, ahead of her. If Lin cannot recall what she has forgotten and doesn’t pick up her work on bone constructs, then she’ll lose her position to Bayan. The second protagonist, is Jovis, a merchant turned pirate. Jovis went from merchant to smuggler after his wife, Emahla, disappeared from their home several years earlier. Since then, Jovis has been searching for leads on his wife while avoiding capture by the Emperor’s soldiers and some individuals he owes money. However, the closer Jovis gets to solving the mystery surrounding his wife, the closer he gets to uncovering a dark truth. The last protagonist, is Phalue, the daughter of a governor. Phalue is in an interesting situation, she understands that her father’s political policies doesn’t make him a popular governor, which is something her girlfriend, Ranami, reminds her over and over again. Phalue has to figure out the type of leader she wants to become before she gets caught up in a potential uprising against her father. All of these protagonists (and the other characters they interact with) are complex individuals who have to maneuver their way through politics and matters of the heart so they can become the people they want to be. 

            There are 2 main plots in this novel. The first plot surrounds bone shards, which are collected from the citizens of the Empire as children—known as ‘the Tithing’—as  ordered by the Emperor. Eventually, these bone shards are used by the Emperor as part of his magic to create bone constructs, which are used to protect both the Empire and the Emperor, so says the Emperor. The second plot delves into the political atmosphere which lead to rebellions. There is no such thing as a perfect government system, but it seems that each setting presents an inevitable uprising. There is one subplot in this novel, and it surrounds the cost of magic. Lin and Jovis know from experience the cost of bone shard magic. And yet, they continue to carry on their personal campaigns because they don’t know what else to do. But, how long can they ignore the “bigger” problem? 

            The narrative is told from multiple points-of-view in the present tense. The narratives are told from Lin’s and Jovis’ P.O.V. in the 1st person, and from Phalue’s P.O.V. in the 3rd person limited. It is from their narratives that the readers learn about the world and the societies they inhabit. Their streams-of-consciousness (and some memories) make these characters reliable narrators whose narrations can be followed easily. Not to mention, any additional P.O.V. characters should NOT be overlooked throughout the narrative. 

            The style Andrea Stewart uses in The Bone Shard Daughter is a combination of dark magic and political corruption. In similar dark fantasy stories, the two go hand-in-hand often, but it’s not the case in this novel. There is enough occurring that the two corruptions overlap each other while still remaining 2 separate threats. The mood in this novel is mystery. Why are bone shards collected? Is there an actual threat? Why are the Emperor and the politicians unaware of their citizens’ plights? The tone in this novel is rebellion. It is obvious that both Lin and Phalue are rebelling against their families (and committing treason), but Jovis’ rebellion is against the entire Empire. How long will their rebellions last before their actions catch up to them? In fact, shouldn’t they be focused on “bigger” things? 

            The appeal for The Bone Shard Daughter have been positive. Several readers have given this book 4- and 5-star ratings! This novel is one of the latest in Asian-inspired fantasy and is an excellent addition to the speculative fiction canon. As I mentioned earlier, I read this book in a week (and, I participated in a livestream with the author)! One of the reasons for this is because the story is very engaging, and the last 50 pages will have you waiting to read the book’s sequel, The Bone Shard Emperor, when it releases later this year!

            The Bone Shard Daughter is an amazing and an engaging debut novel that is a blend of anime and older horror stories. This Asian-inspired dark fantasy gives readers some from all familiar tropes and more. Andrea Stewart presents a story with characters who drive the narrative, who live in oppressive societies controlled by magic, and whose rebellions can trigger the change or the destruction that is needed.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Fugitive Telemetry”

The Murderbot Diaries, #6: Fugitive Telemetry

By: Martha Wells

Published: April 27, 2021

Genre: Science Fiction

            But whatever, now I just needed intel for threat assessment so I could figure out if GrayCris had killed the dead human or not and go back to my happy boring life on Preservation Fucking Station, (Chapter Three).

            I LOVE MURDERBOT! And, I’m so happy that both Martha Wells and TorDotCom continue to write and to release stories about this snarky, astute and loyal rogue SecUnit. Following up on the success of the Murderbot novel, Network Effect—which, I haven’t read yet—fans get to read, Fugitive Telemetry, the next novella in the series, whose story takes place AFTER the events in Exit Strategy and BEFORE the events in Network Effect

            Murderbot, the rogue Security Unit, is starting its new life on Preservation Station after rescuing Dr. Mensah from GrayCris. However, that is easily said than done. Dr. Mensah is experiencing P.T.S.D., certain members of her team still don’t trust Murderbot—for example, it can’t use its name because it might scare everyone off—and, oh right, there was a murder of human and Station Security is trying to figure out what happened. Murderbot is worried that GrayCris might have something to do with it and decides it’s going to investigate the scene so it can go back to adapting to its new life. Whether or not it wants to admit it, Murderbot wants to continue protecting Dr. Mensah and her team. It would never admit it, but it feels both welcomed and needed by them.

            The plot in this novella focuses on the murder mystery at Preservation Station. Who was the dead human? Who wanted him dead? Is there a connection between the dead human and GrayCris? Regardless, Murderbot is willing to work with Station Security—through its own methods and strategies—to put its humans at ease. The subplot in this novella is Murderbot becoming acclimated with its new life. While it is no longer a SecUnit for hire, Murderbot is not one to relax—although it wants to very much. In order to adapt to its new life, Murderbot has to compromise with Station Security, Dr. Mensah, and its instincts. 

            The narrative is told from Murderbot’s point-of-view in the past tense. The name of the series is more than a hint as to how the narrative is presented, which is in the format of a report that recounts all of the events after they occurred. Given that Murderbot is an A.I., the narrative includes the sequence of events based on its stream-of-consciousness, which makes it a reliable narrator. This brilliant narrative technique presents a straightforward and hilarious narrative that can be followed by readers easily.

            The style Martha Wells continues to use in her Murderbot series reminds us that diaries are private for a reason. Murderbot keeps track of his actions and activities in a way sci-fi fans believe an A.I. would when necessary. And honestly, if all reports were written the way the author has written for her protagonist, then they all would be just as entertaining to read. The mood in this novella reflects a dark comedy—or, a style of comedy that points out a subject matter that is too serious to present straightforward. There is a “dead human” and Murderbot has no intention of using euphemisms because everyone else is “upset” about it. The tone reflects agency, especially Murderbot’s. Say whatever you want about it, but Murderbot knows A LOT about humans, which is why it is so reliable to its allies. 

            So far, the appeal for Fugitive Telemetry have been positive. Several other readers and fans have given this novella 4- and 5-star reviews. This latest novella is an excellent addition to the series and the science fiction canon. And, with Network Effect winning this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel, fans can relax because they are not the only ones who love this series. In fact, we can expect at least 3 more Murderbot books in the future. Where will those books fall within the series? We’ll have to wait and see.

            Fugitive Telemetry is a humorous murder mystery story that happens to be about a prickly A.I. who refuses to admit that it cares about humans. Fans can rest easy because neither the author nor her protagonist have lost their spark in this latest entry. Newcomers to the series have no idea what they’re in for and they should be prepared to binge read the series, and then wait for the next book with the rest of us. Now, I have to read Network Effect!

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

Thank you TorDotCom for sending me an eARC of this book!

Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

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

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!

Current Speculative Fiction Series I Need to Complete

The Poppy War, #3: The Burning God (2020) by R.F. Kuang

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been meaning to read this final book in this bloody and brilliant historical grimdark trilogy. I did read the first couple of chapters, so I know that this story begins immediately where The Dragon Republic left off. And, that Prologue! I’m familiar enough with this subgenre of fantasy to know how this story could end, but I’ll have to read it to find out! If you haven’t start this series yet, then you’re missing out. Remember to start with The Poppy War.

Blood and Gold, #3: Queens of the Sea (2019) by Kim Wilkins

This series is unknown outside of Australia, and I had to order a copy of the 3rd and final book in this trilogy from a bookstore in the Down Under. The first book in this trilogy is Daughters of the Storm, and the premise of the book is about 5 royal sisters who go on a journey to save their father, the king, from a mysterious illness. Meanwhile, their stepbrother seeks the throne, and goes out of his way to expose the secrets each of the sisters are hiding from each other. The second book in the trilogy, Sisters of the Fire, takes place 5 years later, and it delves into the oncoming threats heading towards the kingdom, and the aftermath of the fallout amongst the 5 princesses. Queens of the Sea takes place 5 years after the end of the second book, and I’m still excited to read it!

Mistborn: Era 1 (2006-8) by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, I started one of Brandon Sanderson’s series! It was a few years ago; and yes, I remember what happened where I left off (in the 2nd book)! Tor was kind enough to gift me these books from one of their (previous) sweepstakes, and I started reading the books immediately. However, I stopped halfway through The Well of Ascension (around the point where the pace slows down) and I haven’t had time to finish reading this trilogy. Interestingly, the only other book by Brandon Sanderson I’ve read was The Original (the audiobook he co-wrote with Mary Robinette Kowal). I own some of the author’s other books (including The Starlight Archive), but I guess I want to complete one series before starting another one.

Rosewater Trilogy (2017-19) by Tade Thompson

I read and reviewed Rosewater, and I was very excited to read the rest of the trilogy. And then, I read the author’s Molly Southbourne series instead. I should hurry up and read the rest of this Africanfuturism trilogy! If you’re a fan of both Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi and P. Djeli Clark, then you need to start reading this series!

The Wicked + The Divine (2014-19) by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie (Illustrations), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Clayton Cowles

I’ve been getting back into graphic novels. I was reading this series until around Volume 3, and then I just stopped. I kept buying them, but I haven’t finished the series yet. With this series, I’m going to start from the beginning and read them all straight through.

This series is about how 12 immortals are reincarnated as teenagers, who get their live as pop idols with all of the fame and recognition. However, there is a catch: after 2 years, they die. So, what will this generation of reincarnated gods do with 2 years left to live?

Knowing my schedule, I probably won’t get to these books until the summer. Not to mention, I have A LOT of other books to get through from my TBR pile. What will I read next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Which series do you still need to finish reading?

Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

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