Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Need to Read: “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) 

Essential Reads: Books for Women’s History Month

In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. However, March 8this International Women’s Day. So, the entire planet acknowledges half of its population for one day. And, similar to Black History Month, we tend to recognize the same figures over and over. While this is not as problematic as with the figures from other demographics, it is easy to overlook women whose achievements get overshadowed by others.

            For this recommendation, I’m going to select a woman from each region throughout the world, and from ancient history to modern times. Some of these women are notable, some more obscure. In all, these women give insight to the challenges within the society and how they met them head on. You might not know all of their names, but you’ll know about their resilience against oppression. 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban(2012) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

            Everyone has heard of her, but do you know of the events that led to Malala Yousafzai’s shooting? Besides learning about the Yousafzai Family and their notion that everyone deserves to be educated, you’ll learn about the practices of Islam, the recent history of Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban. This book is a real-life cautionary tale surrounding political interference, terrorist groups, and human rights. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and her story about her life, her country, and her culture should be read by anyone who is interested in human rights. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China(1991) by Jung Chang

            This family saga follows three generations of women who survived the social norms and the social changes within China during the 20thCentury. Jung Change uses her family history to tell China’s narrative and how it affected not just her family, but families throughout the world. Jung’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine during the ending of the practice of foot-binding. Her mother experienced the Cultural Revolution, which brought communism to China. And, Jung Chang is the daughter of members of the Communist Elite and was a Red Guard until she was old enough to declare the life, she wanted for herself. Each generation is thrust into a situation she must work through in order to escape that lifestyle. While Chang wasn’t the only one whose family had to survive these social norms and changes, she provides enough details for witnesses, readers, and historians to comprehend for both empathy and compassion. 

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt(2018) by Kara Cooney

            Everyone is familiar with some of the culture surrounding Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, papyrus, gods, and curses usually come to mind when thinking about the ancient civilization; and, names such as Rameses, Amenhotep, Tutankhamun, and Khufu come to mind. But, what about the female rulers? Everyone has heard of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, and less are familiar with Hatshepsut and Tawosret. How many people know who Merneith and Neferusobek were? I’ve never heard of the last two until I picked up this book.

            Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, delves into the lives and the reigns of these six remarkable queens who would eventually become pharaohs in their own right. And, how and why their government betrayed them and sought to remove them for posterity. However, history is not so easy to eclipse. While Egypt was very much ahead of its time, it still became victimized to the notions of female rulers as did the rest of the world.

            When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egyptprovides historical facts about each of the pharaohs mentioned within the text. Both the introduction and the epilogue provide answers to those common questions. These queens ruled centuries before the notable female rulers of the last thousand years. In addition, you will wonder whether or not Ancient Egypt was the progressive civilization. 

            The next recommendations are duos. This is because the fictionalized variants are more ubiquitous than the available biographies. Yet, the fiction is noteworthy because they introduce readers (and academics) to whom these people were and what was happening during that era in their country. So, both the fiction and the biographies of these women’s lives will be recommended. 

In the Time of the Butterflies(1994) by Julia Alvarez; followed by Vivas en su jardín (Live in Your Garden)(2009) by Dedé Mirabal

            The Mirabal Sisters were some of the many opponents of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters were killed on Trujillo’s orders. In the Time of the Butterfliesis the fictionalized narrative about this family’s courage and resistance against a brutal dictator. And, while Julia Alvarez included suggested reads to learn more about the Mirabal Family and the Dominican Republic, Vivas en su jardínis Dedé Mirabal’s autobiography in which, she mentions her sisters and their political resistance. It is in Spanish, but that shouldn’t prevent one from learning more about these amazing women.

Pope Joan: A Novel(1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross; followed by Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff(2017) by Charles River Editors

            For centuries, there have been rumors of the Catholic Church having a female pope. Of course, there is limited information to confirm this due to both the era—the Middle Ages—and efforts by the Vatican to limit any knowledge about this possibility. Pope Joan was believed to have serve as “The Pope” for about one year. A few reports claim that Joan might have disguised herself as a man; and, there are a few reports which claim that Joan was elected Pope as an interim by the Papacy. It is difficult to determine what had happened. Pope Joan: A Novelby Donna Woolfolk Cross is a historical fiction novel which narrates what could have happened to Pope Joan during her life. In terms of an actual biography, so far, Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff, is the only one I came across that has believable information about Pope Joan. If you know of any actual and reliable titles, then please mention it in the comments below. I would appreciate it greatly. 

            The books on this list are about women you have heard of, but forgotten about, or about women you’ve never heard of before. However, it’s the moments in human history that allowed these women to demonstrate that they were more than what society wanted them to be. Instead, these women presented themselves as equals to their male counterparts to the point where the men either attacked them, or (tried to) erased them. These women survived and prevailed, and we can admire their achievements and be content knowing that we won’t permit them to fall into obscurity for posterity. These women rock! 

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)