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)!!!

TBRcon21: Another Success for Virtual Cons

It’s 2021, the pandemic is ongoing, and it still sucks. Fortunately, we’ve gotten better at entertaining ourselves through our hobbies and interests. Readers and bookbloggers have been able to make the most of lockdown by reading (or, trying to read) our TBR piles and helping authors and publishers with promoting any books we get our hands on! Technology continues to be a lifesaver as we all continue to find ways to keep up with news surrounding our favorite authors and any upcoming book releases.

            David Walters—a.k.a. FanFiAddict—impressed everyone last spring with last year’s “MayDayCon2020” where he hosted 7 panels and 7 live readings in 14 hours! This time around, FanFiAddict reached out to a few of his fellow bookbloggers—Beth Tabler, Travis Tippens (from The Fantasy Inn), and Jason, a.k.a. Traveling Cloak—to assist with “TBRcon2021.” This virtual Con had 17 panels across 6 days, with several of our favorite speculative fiction authors participating in the panels discussing numerous topics within the genre, and about writing in general. In fact, I’m going to say that it was because of the “Writerly Advice—NOT” panel that led to #writingadvice trending on Twitter (with some “interesting” responses).

            Without listing all of the authors, this virtual con had authors ranging from debut to indie to “established” ones across the speculative fiction genre—epic fantasy, grimdark, space operas, historical fantasy, etc.—and, all of the S.P.F.B.O. finalists were there too, with the Con ending with a round of Dungeons & Dragons. So, what made this virtual Con so memorable? First, as I mentioned before, was the authors. Just about all of the subgenres and genres were represented by the participants—whom were from diverse backgrounds and from around the world (i.e. Australia)! Next, were the topics discussed on each panel. Topics from world-building to history to the future of the genre were talked about, and it was interesting to hear what each author had to say about them. Last, was the schedule. While it was impressive how David managed to host the first Con in a day by himself, how he managed to get even more authors to participate in 1 or more panels for a 6-day event is beyond laudable. Yes, this virtual Con was free, and could be viewed on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, but I would argue that this is further proof that these virtual Cons are worthy fillers for all author events while the pandemic continues (yes, I want it to end, too).

            “TBRcon21” had something for everyone, and you can rewatch these panels online. Another reason I’m discussing virtual Cons again is because of what I believe fans are getting out of them. Although several Cons have moved to virtual, not all of them are accessible for everyone. Everyone who is interested has to register for tickets, and there are times when they sell out. It is too early to tell what will happen to virtual Cons whenever “normalcy” returns, but I don’t believe they will go away. This Con is proof authors are interested in interacting with fans and readers, and those fans and readers will find ways to attend these events. I hope agents, marketers and publishers are paying attention because it looks like bookbloggers have found a way to bridge themselves between the publishing industry and the readers who Google whether or not they should read a particular book. And before you ask, I’m not excluding BookTubers. In fact, if these virtual Cons were to become more ubiquitous, then I believe some BookTubers could give us a hand with certain panels. While we’re on the subject, I know some podcasters who would be interested in participating as well. 

            “TBRcon21” is another accomplishment by FanFiAddict, and it is proof the publishing industry is paying attention to us, and authors are willing to communicate with their fans and vice versa, and will find ways to keep at it no matter what it takes. So, what shall we do as we all decompress from this event? Well, Virginia McClain will be hosting “QuaranCon2021” this spring, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see more participants (and authors) at that event this year! I hope to see you all there participating in the live chats!

Why You Need to Read: “The Memory of Souls”

A Chorus of Dragons, #3: The Memory of Souls

By: Jenn Lyons

Published: August 25, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Thank you Tor Books for sending me an eARC of this book! And, thank you for your patience on waiting for my review.

Note: There are a few spoilers from the first two books in A Chorus of Dragons series. 

            “The more I remember, the more I hate being able to remember,” Janel said. “It feels like another person taking over my mind. Someone else’s thoughts intruding on my own. I’m not…those people anymore,” (74: Who They Used to Be).

            The cast has been introduced. The conflict has been revealed. So, the story can continue, right? Many readers of any genre understand both stories and real life are more complex than they first appear to be. Fans of epics, sagas and (space) operas know to expect more from such stories, but they never know which direction the story will move throughout the narrative. The Memory of Souls, the third book in A Chorus of Dragons series, is the latest epic fantasy to provide more plot devices as the story reaches its climax. 

            All of the characters (and, I mean all of them) from the first two books in the series—The Ruin of Kings and The Name of All Things—are back as they all continue with their roles pertaining to the end-of-the-world. The protagonists include: Kihrin D’Mon—the man who murdered the last emperor of Quur; Janel Thernanon—the Black Knight; Thurvishar D’Lorus—the son of the last emperor of Quur, who was also an infamous necromancer; and, Tereath—a member of the Black Brotherhood. These protagonists were saved and are tasked by the gods to convince the vané—the last race of immortal beings—to perform a sacred ritual. Unfortunately, there are a few parties who attempt to stop this quest, but the reasons vary between each group. One group is the parents of the protagonists: Therin D’Mon and Khaeriel—Kihrin’s parents; Terindel—Tereath’s father; and, Tya—Janel’s mother, work to assist their kids with the strength of their abilities. Another group involves more relations to the protagonists: Khaemezra—Tereath’s mother; and, Relos Var—Thurvishar’s grandfather, are some of the antagonists in this story, but they are neither working together nor working towards the same goal. Then, there are the characters who are working towards their own goals. First, is Senera who is still working with Relos Var (blindly), and who still possesses ‘The Name of All Things.’ Second, is Suless, one of the immortal wizards who seeks vengeance on those who kept her captive. Last, is Talea who was the former slave girl Kihrin failed to save, but she appears to have gain her freedom. After the events in The Name of All Things, all of the protagonists and the characters realize the “actual threat” wasn’t Relos Var, but someone who is more ancient and more powerful than him. There are more characters, old and new, who appear throughout the story who either try to hinder or try to help the “heroes” save the world. Throughout this story, the protagonists develop as they journey on their quest(s) and learn more about themselves through each other. Granted some of the protagonists’ revelations are just as shocking to them as they are for us, but the way the protagonists handle them allow them to make the decisions they know are coming their way, and they won’t have to do the fighting alone. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first plot revolves around the “newest” threat to Quur, Vol Karoth, who after having one of his tethers cut loose by Kihrin (who was tricked into doing it by Relos Var) is closer to being freed from his prison. The second plot concerns ‘The Ritual of Night.’ Kihrin, Janel, Tereath and Thurvishar must convince the vané to perform the ritual so that Vol Karoth will be reimprisoned. The catch is the race who performs the ritual will lose their immortality, which is something the vané are not giving up willingly. So, how will the “heroes” convince the vané Vol Karoth is a threat who should not be unleashed onto the Quur Empire? There are two subplots in this novel, and both of them embellish and develop alongside the plots in this story. The first subplot concerns the mysterious character known as Grizzst. He is a famous wizard whose magic may or may not have saved Quur from destruction. And yet, so few people know who he is and what he’s done, so why is everyone searching for him now? The second subplot involves memories and past lives. There are the vane—who are immortal—and, the god-kings—immortal wizards—then, there is reincarnation. That’s right, on top of gashes and soul swapping, there is the reincarnation of souls. However, how often do you hear of people remembering their past lives? There were a few examples in The Ruin of Kings, but it’s happening a lot more in this book. In fact, some of what the characters are starting to remember might contain clues as to how to stop both Vol Karoth and Relos Var. These subplots are necessary because they refer back to the plots, which allows them to develop and to go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative in this book is slightly different from the narratives in the first two books in the series. Unlike the first two books in the series—where the narration and the points-of-view go back-and-forth among 2-3 characters—this book follows the narratives of several characters—some old and some new. Similar to the previous books, all of the narrations are being compiled into a single chronicle which presents all of the events in the “chronological order” they occurred in. Most of the P.O.V.s are told in 3rd person omniscient with one narration told in 1st person. In terms of how the narration is present, pay attention to the title. This means the narration goes from stream-of-consciousness to memories—NOT flashbacks! Without giving away too many spoilers, these memories are essential to the narration because it provides even more insight into the world the author created and the actions several of the characters performed as well. Not to mention, the events of the past influence the decisions some of the characters make in the present for the future. Believe it or not, all of the characters are reliable narrators, and the narrative can be followed easily by the readers. 

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Memory of Souls continues with the chronicler. Unlike the first two books, there is only one oral speaker recounting events. All of the other characters have written their “experiences” and “gave” them to the chronicler to compile. In this book, readers witness the “arrangement” of all of the “participants” into one coherent text. And, let me say the chronicler (and the author) make it look easy. The mood in this novel is crusade. All of the parties go their separate ways in order to engage in a campaign either personal or divine. However, many of these campaigns go against (one or more of) the other one(s). When that is the case and the parties involved meet up, discord occurs—which is the tone in this novel. Readers should refer to the map, the glossary, the family tree, and the timeline throughout their reading of this book. The series is at the point where these references provide enough information and backstory without having to refer back to the previous books.

            The appeal for The Memory of Souls have been mostly positive. While most of the readers enjoyed this book, there were a few who either found the story to be confusing, or thought the series was “getting too long” (not my words). That being said, those readers might want to look up the difference between fantasy and epic fantasy. Not all fantasy series are trilogies! I’ve made this assumption with this series and other ones before the authors corrected me! This book and the previous books in A Chorus of Dragons belong in the (epic) fantasy canon. Fans who have stayed with this series this long can look forward to reading the next book in the series, The House of Always, when it is released (in 2021); especially with those cliffhangers, we all need to know what happens next. 

            The Memory of Souls is the climax of A Chorus of Dragons series, which will leave fans and readers with the (grimdark) question: does the ends justify the means? While the story doesn’t omit any of the detail, it does leave readers with several more questions about the direction the author seems to be moving it in. No one is expected to survive the end of this series, but we’ll have to read in order to find out who will live.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Come Tumbling Down”

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Horror

            “Everyone who comes here becomes a monster: you, me, your sister, everyone,” said Mary, voice low and fast and urgent. “The doors only open for the monsters in waiting. But you made the right choice when you left this castle, because you would have been the worst monster of them all if you had grown up in a vampire’s care.”

            “I know,” said Jack… (13: The Broken Crown).

            Responsibility is a trait which marks the coming of adulthood. The older we get, the more responsibility we get whether or not we want it. The concept of being responsible follows the practice of being reliable to others and being held accountable for your actions both good and bad. Even adults don’t always know who is reliable and who isn’t. Children and adolescents are given the benefit of the doubt due to their youth. However, once society deems the youth as “old enough to know better,” society expects the youth to follow the rules and obey the laws, or face the consequences. The Wayward Children series is about children and adolescents who traveled to other worlds for various reasons, and there are those who were kicked out of those worlds because they broke the rules. But, what happens when a traveler believes the rules shouldn’t apply to them? Fans of the series know of one example thanks to the past events in In An Absent Dream, but the author presents readers with an example occurring in the present in Come Tumbling Down.

            Readers catch up with the misfits at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children: Christopher, who traveled to Mariposa; Cora, a Drowned Girl; Kade, a hero of Fairyland and headmaster-in-training; and Sumi, who—thanks to the events in Beneath the Sugar Sky—is alive and her old self again. It seems like an ordinary day at school, until lightning strikes the basement and a Door appears, but none of the students recognize it as theirs. This is because the Door swings inward revealing a large girl carrying a smaller one in her arms. No one recognizes the first girl, but the other girl is one of the Wolcott twins, but which one? It turns out that it’s Jack, but she’s in Jill’s body. Jack didn’t give her consent for the body swap; not to mention, Jack and Jill aren’t identical twins anymore since Jill’s death and resurrection. Jill’s death was one of two punishments she was dealt as consequence for breaking the rules in the Moors. Jill either had to remain in her world, or return after dying where she can no longer become a vampire. The problem was Jill proved to be as ruthless in our world as she is in the Moors, forcing Jack to make a decision to save her sister from herself. Unfortunately, everything blows up in Jack’s face, and Jill and her Master have decided to wreak havoc on the Moors, prompting a war between mad scientist and vampire, and between identical twin sisters. Jack flees the Moors with her fiancé, Alexis, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children so she can get help with getting her body back from Jill and save her Home. Throughout the story, readers learn more about Jack: what she’s been up to since returning to the Moors, and her future plans there with Dr. Bleak and Alexis. Jack is able to open herself up more to her former schoolmates than she was able to while staying at the school, which is a huge development for her character—and, as a (fictional) individual. Another character who develops in this story is Cora, but not in the “traditional” way. Cora—like the other students—hopes to return Home. However, it seems Cora has a deeper connection to the Drowned Worlds than everyone realizes, including Cora. 

            The plot in this story is sibling rivalry to extreme levels. Jack and Jill were kicked out of the Moors for Jill’s crimes (in Down Among the Sticks and Bones) and Jack made the decision to “change” Jill so both of them could return Home (in Every Heart A Doorway). Unfortunately for Jack, Jill views her twin’s actions as NOT “saving” her, but as “stealing eternity away from her.” Jill sees getting Jack’s body as a way to get everything she wants and damn the consequences. There are 2 main problems with this nonconsensual body swap. First, is that Jill and her Master believe they have found a loophole in the order of the Moors, but the rules in the Moors are strict and valid, and those in charge will NOT allow these transgressions to continue. Second, is Jack has OCD and she cannot cope with being in Jill’s body because of what the Master did to it; and, Jack has no intention of becoming a vampire, so she has to get her body back before the next full moon. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first is the concept of Death within some of these worlds. Just like in Confection, death isn’t permanent in the Moors. However, there are setbacks to being resurrected in the Moors—the body loses its function after each one—and time is of the essence. The second is the continued world-building of the Moors. We learn—through the other characters—how vast the world of the Moors is and about the Powers who run the Moors making sure ALL rules are followed. The subplots are necessary because they develop alongside the plot. Plus, everyone learns quickly how much trouble Jill is in for going against the order of the Moors. 

            The narrative follows a present sequence with moments of recounting the past (which is not the same as a flashback). It is presented in 3rd person omniscient from the points-of-view of Christopher, Cora and Jack. Readers learn how the Moors affect these characters who either reside in the Moors, or traveled to worlds similar to them—the Trenches and Mariposa. The streams-of-consciousness of the characters allow for the readers to experience Jack’s OCD, Cora’s attraction to the Drowned Worlds, and Christopher’s admiration and creepiness for the Moors make them all reliable narrators. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Come Tumbling Down is a return to the concept of duality. However, unlike the idea of binary—which, was explored in Down Among the Sticks and Bones—the concept of oppositions is the focus. Identical twins find themselves on opposing sides of a challenge, which could evolve into a war, and their mentors are based on 2 of the most popular classic literary books and film characters: Frankenstein and Dracula. The allusions to both Vincent Price and the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, lets readers know there has to be a victor. The realization Jack admits about Jill make it obvious as to what must happen. The mood in the story is one of urgency. Everything in the Moors from the residents’ safety to Jack’s sanity is on the verge of being destroyed and Jack and her companions have 3 days to set things right. The tone in this story revolves around the outcome based on the urgency to answer the challenge. Jack and Jill are on opposing sides and the victor will determine the outcome of the balance within the Moors. There is more at stake than a stolen body, but one side doesn’t seem to care as long as they get what they want. Rovina Cai’s illustrations provide the extra context to the story as required. 

            The appeal for Come Tumbling Down have been positive. Fans of the Wayward Children series enjoyed this latest installment in the series as they travel with the students on another quest—remember, it’s against the rules to go on quests. And, while this portal-quest fantasy novella is a great addition to the fantasy canon, fans of horror will enjoy this book, too. The next book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields, will bring readers back to the past.

            Come Tumbling Down is a fun story which balances adventure and rule-breaking as the characters and the readers return to the Moors. While it seems like this is the end of Jack and Jill’s story (for now?), I have an inkling we could return to the Moors. It might not be anytime soon, but readers will be satisfied with the ending, until the next adventure.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Wayward Children, #2: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: ALA Alex Award 2018, ALA RUSA Fantasy Award 2018

            It did not occur to Jill that Jack’s avoidance, like her own, had been born purely of parental desire and never of a sincere wanting. Their parents had done everything they could to blur the lines of twinhood, leaving Jack and Jill stuck in the middle, (6: The First Night of Safety). 

            Series of any kind—books, movies, TV shows (including anime), video games, etc.—remain intriguing. One of the many reasons series continue to fascinate everyone is due to the ways the elements—the story, the characters, the setting, etc.—keep us immersed within them. Another reason is because of the creators of these series. They have to come up with creative ways not only to keep our interest, but also find ways to make us want more from them. Not to mention, some of the creators find ways to expand on their world through their series. Series are not limited to any genre or any format, but it seems speculative fiction captivates our expectations when it comes to using series to expand on everyone’s desires, especially the creators’. And, series can be presented to the audience in any order the creator wants to present them. Seanan McGuire is such an author who presents her Wayward Children series across moments in time. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in the series, which takes place before the events in its predecessor, Every Heart A Doorway

            The protagonists in this story are Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott—also known as, and preferred to be called, Jack and Jill—identical twins with different personalities yet similar demeanors. Both girls had the unfortunate luck of being born to Chester and Serena Wolcott who believe having children would move them up the social ladder (and yes, such adults still exist, sadly). The parents take this notion to extreme levels by forcing their daughters into roles of binary femininity—the girly-girl, Jack; and, the tomboy, Jill. Unfortunately for the twins, the style of parenting forced upon them not only messes up their idea of what femininity is, but also causes a crescendo of sibling rivalry instead of sisterhood. Jacqueline, who always wore dresses she could never get dirty, wants to prove she knows more than what others let on—which she does. Jillian, who cannot decide whether or not her short hair and her boyish clothes make her a freak, wants nothing more than to have any sort of affection from anybody—which she deserves. It comes as no surprise their Door leads to the Moors, a place which reminds travelers of black-and-white monster movies (where monsters are “born”). Once there, the twins are separated—physically—for the first time, and will remain that way for the next 5 years, through most of their adolescence. Jack goes with Dr. Bleak to become his apprentice, which allows her to learn everything she could ever want; and, Jill goes with the Master—a real monster—who showers her with all of the affection and the attention she always craved. As the twins grow apart with their new parental figures, it comes as no surprise Jack and Jill develop a spectrum of psychopathic behavior, one way more extreme than the other. 

            The plot of this story revolves around the birth, the upbringings—remember, they each had 2—and the growth of the twins into what they become by their 17th birthday. Yes, the Moors cemented Jack and Jill into monsters; but, one could argue their parents put them on that path before their Door appeared. There are two subplots which develop alongside the plot and are essential to the story. The first subplot follows how the twins gain separate identities, something that was denied to them by their parents, but explored in the Moors. The second subplot delves into types of parenting, especially toxic parenting. There are 5 adults who “parent” Jack and Jill, and 3 of them would be labeled as “toxic.” These subplots and the plot are important to the story because readers get an understanding of the nurturing the twins endured throughout their entire childhood. Keeping this in mind, while Jack and Jill are not responsible for their adult role models, they are responsible for their decisions and their actions.

            The narrative in this novella isn’t a flashback, but a look into the past. The points-of-view is 3rd person omniscient, or a narration which moves between the P.O.V.s of multiple (main) characters. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first characters readers are introduced to are Jack and Jill’s parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Readers learn the reason why they decided to have children, why their parenting methods are viewed as “toxic,” and their “reactions” to their daughters’ disappearance and their return. Due to the narrative styles used in this book, the characters’ P.O.V.s are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness. In this case, the readers are able to empathize with (most of) the characters, especially Jack and Jill. This narration is straightforward and engrossing. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be argued as becoming “the villain.” I’m NOT an expert in psychology, but it has been mentioned by several experts that neglected and abused children often crave love and affection and are willing to do just about anything to get it. However, if those parents and/or adult role models are “toxic,” or are “parents who inflict ongoing trauma, abuse, and denigration on their children,” (Forward and Buck, 12). The author’s use of specific moments Chester and Serena and the Master inflicted the identities and the roles they wanted onto their daughters—throwing away gifts from Gemma Lou, murdering playmates, etc.—foreshadows the behaviors (i.e. Obsession Compulsive Disorder, or OCD) and the traits (i.e. eager-to-please) the twins will exhibit in the future. This story is NOT a parenting book, but a cautionary tale of children and how they are individuals, and NOT blank slates to force into a role of the adults’ choosing. The mood in this story is duality. Jacqueline and Jillian are identical twins—who are nicknamed after the nursery rhyme by everyone but their parents—who are forced into the false binary roles of femininity—girly and tomboy—by their parents, who are brought up separately in the Moors later on by 2 new “role models” as the mad scientist’s apprentice and the vampire’s daughter—two of the most notorious “monsters” in literature. This book is the first in the series to include illustrations—by the talented Rovina Cai—and they present the moments of “love” the twins experienced during their stay at the Moors. 

            The appeal for this book have been positive. It was nominated for the same literary awards as its predecessor. Yet, it was the American Library Association, or the ALA, who gave this novella its accolades winning both the Alex Award—given to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18—and, the ALA RUSA Award—an annual best-of-list comprised of 8 different fiction genres for adult readers—in Fantasy. These awards—given by librarians—demonstrate readers of most ages can read and appreciate this book. And, while this book takes place before the events of Every Heart A Doorway, you should read that book before reading this one. That way readers won’t get confused about the book’s context. After learning about the world Jack and Jill traveled to, who wouldn’t want to learn what happens in the next book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky?

            Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an engrossing follow up to its predecessor. Readers get a look into how the twins lived before finding their Door and living in a new world who embraced them for better and for worse. Seanan McGuire uses duality in order to give readers the beauty and the horror in everything from gender identity to parental figures. Which world will we travel to next?

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Forward, Susan, and Craig Buck. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.

e- book, Bantam, 2009. 

Why You Need to Read: “Every Heart A Doorway”

Wayward Children, #1: Every Heart A Doorway

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: April 5, 2016

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: Hugo Award for Best Novella 2017, Nebula Award for Best Novella 2016, Locus Award for Best Novella 2017, ALA Alex Award 2017

            …the wanting. You want to go back, and so you hold on to the habits you learned while you were traveling, because it’s better than admitting the journey’s over. We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on, (3: Birds of a Feather). 

            Anyone who is a fan of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, and authors who write similar stories MUST READ THIS SERIES!!! The Wayward Children books are a portal fantasy series which asks the question: what happens when those who are “spirited away” return to our world? Seanan McGuire answers this question in her series. While it is obvious which stories inspired and influenced the author, the originality will draw readers into this series. It mentions how a combination of Time and Desire can lead to a portal to another world. And, there are many worlds which we are familiar with whether or not we realize it. They are allusions to other portal fantasy and adventure books and readers have to recall all of them in order to comprehend the series. 

            While there are several characters in this book—the students and the (resident) teachers are “travelers”—the protagonist is Nancy, the newest arrival at Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests. She is 17-years-old and was “gone” for six months in the Halls of the Dead before the Lord of the Dead returned Nancy to our world so that she can “Be Sure” before making her choice to stay there forever. It’s been “seven weeks, four days” and counting, and Nancy is waiting for her Door to reappear. Nancy is like many of the students at the school, she wants to return Home, but knows there is a slim chance of it happening. Nancy’s parents send her to this school so she can “get better,” but Nancy learns quickly that the school is a haven for other children like her who want nothing more than to return to their Homes. There’s Sumi—Nancy’s roommate—who traveled to Confection and cannot sit still long enough to hold a conversation. Kade—a relative of Eleanor’s—who was kicked out of Fairyland and is in charge of managing everyone’s “preferred” wardrobe. Jacqueline and Jillian—known as Jack and Jill—are identical twins whose adventures in the Moors is something out of a black-and-white horror movie. And, Christopher who traveled to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” similar to the holiday, Día de los Muertos. The adults in charge consist of Eleanor West, the headmistress, whose Door is still open; and, Lundy, the school’s therapist, who is aging in reverse as punishment for breaking the rules of the High Logic, High Wicked world she “visited.” Unlike Eleanor, Lundy knows she can never return to her Home, and so she projects her bitterness on to the students. All of the residents at the school want to go Home, but they all have to settle on having to learn how to readapt in our world. And yet, many of the students refuse to believe their Doors are lost to them forever. 

            There are 2 plots in Every Heart A Doorway. The first is learning how the school operates and how Eleanor recruits students while keeping them safe. The second is the construction of the “Great Compass.” Eleanor, Lundy and Kade spend their free time compiling a book of the descriptions and the characteristics of each world. The most common “directions” are: Nonsense, Virtue, Logic and Wicked; then, there are several “minor” compass directions such as Rhyme and Linearity. These plots are continuous throughout the series, and it is fascinating to learn how the school is managed, and it’s intriguing to learn which worlds are “connected” to one another. However, it is the subplots that keep the readers engaged, and there are two of them. The first concerns the murders of some of the school’s residents. Who is killing them and why? The second subplot follows the worlds each traveler visited and the “stereotypes” surrounding each one. For example, who’s to decide on whether or not a world of rainbows is “good” over the world with skeleton people? All worlds whether or not they exist in reality contain both beauty and danger.

            The narrative in this story follow’s Nancy’s point-of-view; but, she does not remain as the only P.O.V. character in this story. There are times when the P.O.V. switches to other characters, even for a paragraph. So, this narration is presented using 3rd person limited omniscience. Due to the style of narration, the protagonist—and, the other P.O.V. characters—are reliable narrators. Not to mention, readers get the characters’ streams-of-consciousness throughout the story. It should be mentioned whenever the characters are talking about their Homes—both their worlds and their families—they are as memories, NOT flashbacks! This is because the characters are describing their experiences as they remember them; and, some of those recollections are unreliable because they are from their perspectives, which are biased. 

            The style Seanan McGuire presents is a twist on portal and quest fantasies. Farah Mendlesohn defines “Portal-Quest Fantasy” as: “In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not ‘have’ to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are,” (Mendlesohn, 1). McGuire asks the question: what happens if the ‘hero’ or the ‘traveler’ returns to our world? On the one hand, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland goes back to Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass before returning to our world for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Dorothy from the Oz series traveled to Oz so often, she, her aunt and her uncle, and Toto move there permanently. So, why did one stay in our world while the other one didn’t? Would Alice have stayed in Wonderland if she was given a choice? And, the characters from McGuire’s story, what would they give to return Home? The author asks these questions as these children return from their travels changed, and are suffering—NOT from PTSD—but from struggling to return to their mundane existence. The allusions to all of the stories and their authors mentioned are informative and valid. Instead of the “familiar” fantasy stories and fairy tales we believe we know, readers receive the dark lore and the styles from other variants of folklore and fantasy stories. And, it’s the reality check fantasy readers didn’t know they needed. The mood in Every Heart A Doorway is a haven for all of the travelers. The tone in this story is how each character struggles to accept their current predicament. Some have accepted it and others continue to search for their Doors.  

            The appeal for Every Heart A Doorway were and continue to be multitudinous. Not only did this novella win several awards—including the Hugo and the Nebula—but also gain numerous readers who were introduced to the author and her other books, including myself! This book and the other ones in the Wayward Children series belong in the speculative fiction canon, and have lasting appeal because of the characters and their stories. The fact this continues to be an ongoing series will have fans rereading this book over and over again. In fact, Tor.com announced fans and readers can expect the series to have at least 4 more books, bringing the current total to 10 books!

            Every Heart A Doorway is an amazing and unique look into how diversified fantasy is based on all of the worlds the characters have traveled to, and why all of the authors who wrote similar stories believed their characters were better off returning whence they came from instead of remaining where they were the happiest. Fans of both traditional and twisted fantasy stories should read this book. This novella will have you searching for your Door.

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan, 2008.

Why You Need to Read…My Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2021

How many books will I read in 2021? Let me rephrase the question: how many books coming in 2021 will I get to read in 2021? I ask this question because I’m still going through all of the books I didn’t get to read last year—including all of the books that came out in 2020. Yet, I can’t help myself because I’m so excited for all of the books coming out in 2021! These are just some of the numerous books I hope I get to read this year. Will I get to read them all in 2021? Probably not, but I’m going to aim to read these books at some point!

#1: Wayward Children #6: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire –> January 12th

            This next book in this fantasy series follows a girl who travels to a world where every horse creature resides. However, what happens there and whether or not the Visitor wishes to stay or leave has to wait until the book is released. Note: We’re getting 4 more books in this series!

#2: The Black Iron Legacy #3: The Broken God by Gareth Hanrahan –> May 20th

            It seems like we’re going to follow Carillon Thay’s adventures outside of Guerdon, which is probably for the best given what happened during the events in The Shadow Saint. Speaking of what’s going to happen to the city after all of the political and the divine betrayals? Looks like the world needs to be saved, again.  

#3: Bethel #2: The Dawn of the Coven by Alexis Henderson –> August 31st

            I was surprised and excited when I learned there would be a sequel to The Year of the Witching. I believe the story will focus on the aftermath of the events which occurred at the end of the first book. However, this is a dark fantasy series about witches and priests, so anyone can become powerful or die at any time. 

#4: A Chorus of Dragons #4: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons –> May 11th

            The way The Memory of Souls ended makes readers wonder how the author will continue her saga. What will the “heroes” do next to thwart the plans of the “threat”? And, is the House a place or an individual? 

#5: Magic of the Lost #1: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark –> March 23rd

            This is the first book in a new trilogy and it focuses on two young women. One is a soldier who was stolen from her home as a child. When her company has been sent back to her home to stop a rebellion, she doesn’t know which side she should be on. The other is a princess whose uncle has taken the throne which was meant for her. She needs a turncoat who is willing to balance treason and orders for what she sees as peace. All is fair in love and war. 

#6: Deathless #1: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna –> February 9th

            This debut novel—which I believe was delayed due to the pandemic—follows 16-year-old Deka, who is about to be tested. If her blood runs red—normalcy—then she can carry on with her life. If her blood runs gold—impurity—then she faces a consequence worse than death. When Deka’s blood runs gold, she is given a choice: stay in her village to die, or leave and join the emperor’s army of girls—alaki, near immortals with rare gifts—like her to fight. Knowing she can find acceptance by serving the emperor, Deka leaves her home for the capital, where she learns that nothing is what it seems. Sounds like a great combination of Red Queen and The Old Guard

#7: Burning Kingdoms #1: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri –> June 8th

            I LOVED the Books of Ambha Duology, so it should come as no surprise that I’m looking forward to reading Tasha Suri’s next book in her new series. A princess who is imprisoned by her dictator brother befriends one of the maidservants. When the princess discovers her maidservant’s secret, they join forces to get what they want—the former the throne and the latter her family. 

#8: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall –> June 22nd

            For several months, the author of The Border Keeper has been teasing her upcoming debut novel, and it cannot come soon enough. This book follows a female whose power must be preserved as ordered by her order. However, in order to preserve the magical bloodline, these women must give birth to the next generation, and the pregnancy kills these women. The protagonist is desperate for an escape, and she is granted the opportunity. All she has to do is spy on the highest ranks of her Order and learn their secrets. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right? 

#9: The Radiant Emperor #1: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan –> July 20th

            This debut novel is described as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles…(the) reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.” That description alone should be enough to grasp the attention of any fan of historical fiction and fantasy. The year is 1345, China is under the rule of the Mongols. The story follows the second daughter in a Chinese family, who was given the fate of nothingness, while one of her brothers—Zhu— was given the fate of greatness. After Zhu dies, the daughter decides to use her brother’s identity to escape her fate and enters a monastery as a young male novice. After the monastery is destroyed by Mongolian forces, Zhu decides to claim the future that was meant for her brother. This is story is going to be EPIC!!!

#10: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff –> September 14th (in the U.S.)

            This upcoming series by the Australian author combines vampires with the legend of the Holy Grail. The protagonist is imprisoned not only for murdering the Vampiric King, but also for unknowingly destroying the holy order—The Silversaints—he served. Recounting his life and the events which led him to his current predicament, readers will learn first and foremost that the Holy Grail was a person, a teenager. Please Note: This series is NOT YA!!!       

#11: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner –> April 13th

            This historical fantasy is a retelling of Rabbi Isaac and his family, particularly his three gifted daughters. After an accusation of witchcraft forces the Rabbi and his family into exile, they learn of a dark force making its way across Europe. The sisters must choose whether or not to face the threat. This book is the author’s follow up to The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and fans of Alix E. Harrow, Katherine Arden and Constance Sayers will enjoy this book the most. 

#12: The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec –> February 9th

            2021 continues the Norse-inspired books fantasy fans get to experience. This debut novel is a reimagination of Loki’s children as told by the woman who bore them and loved Loki—the witch, Angrboda. The story begins with Angrboda being burned by Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future—which Odin gains another way. After escaping and fleeing to the end of the world(s), Angrboda encounters Loki and fall for each other. Anyone who is familiar with Norse mythology recalls the role Loki’s children play in Ragnarök. Will Angrboda allow fate to happen, or attempt to change the future? 

#13: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace –> May 4th

            I learned about this book from author C.S.E. Cooney, and she had nothing but positive things to say about it. After reading the synopsis, I’m excited to read this book, too! The best way to describe this book is part 1984, part War Girls,and part Ready Player One. If you’re interest isn’t piqued after reading that, then I don’t know what else to tell you. 

#14: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara –> April 6th

            I didn’t get to read Docile in 2020 (but, I will this year!), but I’m just as excited for the author’s second novel. The plot of this book sounds like it was supposed to start off as an RPG, but the quest ended before it could start. I’m curious to read what happens to the characters in this book. 

#15: The First Argentines Series by Jeff Wheeler –> Book 1: Knight’s Ransom release on January 26th

I got to read an eARC of Knight’s Ransom (click here to watch my first livestream Q&A panel with the author) and it’s an amazing beginning to a new series. Set about 400 years before the events in The Queen’s Poisoner, readers learn about the struggles the Argentine Family had when they first became the rulers of Kingfountain. The story is told from the perspective of one of the knights, Ransom, who witnessed many political and familial feuds as the Argentines commit to gain control over the entire realm, and survive. 

#16: Rook and Rose #1: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick –> January 21

            This debut novel—written by a duo—presents a story of a con artist who hopes to secure a fortune and a future—for herself and her sister—by robbing a noble house. However, as this woman gets more involved with the family, she learns more about the aristocratic society, and the games they like to play. Soon, the protagonist has to choose between saving herself or saving an entire city. 

#17: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune –> September 21st

            After reading the beautiful book that is The House in the Cerulean Sea—I hope to read The Extraordinaries this year—I had to find out what the author’s next book is going to be. This book takes a page from Greek mythology as the subplot of the story. The plot is about a recently deceased man who isn’t ready to cross over to the afterlife, so he resides with the ferryman at his tea shop for 7 days. Question: who is the artist of the cover art? I know it’s the same one who did the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea

#18: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #2: The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell –> March 23rd

            This sequel to the author’s debut novel will focus on the aftermath of the events that occurred in The Kingdom of Liars. I curious to learn whether or not the queen really is two-faced. And, does she know what really happened to her father and her brother?  

#19: Wings of Ebony by J. Elle –> January 26th

            I won a copy of this book in a giveaway—which, will arrive on the book’s release day (an early birthday present for me!)—and I’m looking forward to reading it. This book focuses on a teenaged girl who is separated from her sister after their mother’s death to live on an island with her father and to learn about the heritage she never knew about. To me, this book sounds like a combination of Legendborn, Empire of Sand, and Percy Jackson, and I’m not complaining at all. 

#20: Wilderwood #1: For the Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten –> June 15th

            This retelling of the tales of Little Red Riding Hood and (Norse? or Greek?) mythology is the author’s debut novel. Red is the first Second Daughter born in centuries. This isn’t an issue for her family because while her older sister will get the Throne, Red is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood so he’ll return the world’s captured gods. Unfortunately, legends are not what they seem. The Wolf isn’t a monster, he is a man; and, Red isn’t a damsel, she has magic that she has to learn how to control in order to save her world. 

Additional Books to Lookout For: 

The Murderbot Diaries #6: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells –> April 27th

The Tide Child #3: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker –> September 28th

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers –> March 23rd

The Up-and-Under #2: Across the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker –> October 12th

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell –> February 2nd

The Bloodsworn Trilogy #1: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne –> May 4th

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1: The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley –> July 6th

The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett –> August 3rd

The Protectorate #3: Catalyst Gate by Megan E. O’Keefe –> July 13th

Small Spaces #3: Dark Waters by Katherine Arden –> August 3rd

            As I mentioned earlier, this is some of the several books being released in 2021. Which books did I miss? What are you excited to read the most in 2021? Any debuts and/or new series others and I should look out for? Let me know! Happy New Year!

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

What. A. Year. It was a great year for stories—not necessarily publication—but a terrible year for everything else. While the pandemic brought about more time for some readers, I did NOT fall into that category. If anything, then the pandemic had me being more occupied, which brought about less time for reading. Don’t get me wrong, I still met my reading goal (100 books), but I’m going to have to change the way I do these end-of-the-year lists. I didn’t get to read or to finish reading all the books I wanted to read this year (I lost some time because I no longer had a long commute), but I read just enough books to compile this list. These books were released and read—by me—in 2020. 

#15: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

            This novella didn’t get the same recognition similar novellas received, and that’s a shame because this standalone work is entertaining and brilliant from start to end. The story follows a troupe of thieves for hire who are completing a job when they are recognized and have to escape, with a nun following them. From there, several hijinks and revelations ensue until the big reveal at the end leaves readers wondering whether or not this book should be a standalone. 

#14: Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            This is a standalone novel, which serves as the English translated follow up to Vita Nostra. The story follows a DJ who saves a young girl from bullies, and by some hidden powers from the girl’s “family,” he becomes her legal guardian during her “stay” in “our world.” The girl is accompanied by a teddy bear and music strings, and her mission is to locate her missing brother while learning how to play the violin. However, the longer the girl stays, the stranger the world surrounding the DJ becomes until he is forced to behave like an adult—who is afraid of a teddy bear. 

#13: Wayward Children #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

            Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children sees the return of Jack, who has been betrayed by her twin sister, Jill. A few of the students embark on a quest—which is supposed to be forbidden—in order to save Jack from Jill. This story continues to look into how the children at the school continue to hope to return Home, while catching up with their former classmates who were able to do so. On top of this, the narration of present events continues to lay out the consequences to those who believe they can ignore the rules of the world. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

#12: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

            I didn’t know what to make of this debut novel. That is, until I read the first few chapters, and the title fits the story brilliantly. The story follows Michael Kingman, the younger son of David Kingman, who was executed for murdering the Crowned Prince. Living in exile with his older brother and sister, Michael is given the chance to reenter high society and to prove his father’s innocence. But, how is Michael going to complete these tasks when everyone is a liar, and several people want him dead?

#11: The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff

            Dr. Sarah Kozloff took her massive epic fantasy and gave it to readers as a quartet, so they could binge read the books without too long of a wait. The decision to present 4 “shorter” books instead of 1 huge one had me reflecting back to Tamora Pierce’s series. However, this series can be read by both teens and adults because the lead protagonist grows from girlhood (and exiled princess) to adulthood (and a queen). During the time, she has to learn how to fend for herself, avoid being recognized and captured, how to protect her kingdom by joining up with the rebel army, and using her “Talent” to reclaim the throne. The author gives an excellent balance between fantasy (magic) and reality (science) as readers are given a straightforward—as in no previous look back on what occurred in the last book—narration which allows for an enjoyable reading experience. 

#10: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

            Believe it or not, this is the first book by the author that I’ve read. Even though this book is a fantasy story, I will argue that the elements of magic realism make the story more realistic. The protagonist is a social worker who works for an agency that deals with “unusual” children. These children either have special abilities or are of a magical species, and our society deems that all of these children must be “registered” and “observed” so that they will grow up to be “productive adults.” The protagonist is given an assignment to observe a house where several “unusual” children reside. And, it is through this assignment that the protagonist begins to see the children as children and not just the nature of their species. This is a brilliant story about foster children, prejudice and family. 

#9: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

            What if you were caught in a precarious situation in another country? What if assassins and political powers were searching for you? What if you were the queen of your nation? How would you survive your ordeal? This book—a reprint of the author’s debut novel—presents readers with a realistic account of survival and being royal during a time of fragile establishment and foreign hostility. What happens when a queen is lured to another land only to be betrayed and left stranded there? It’s a good thing the queen knows how to use a sword.

#8: The Daevabad Trilogy #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

            Yes, this book is massive, but the story makes the pages go quicker. The last book in the trilogy takes place immediately where the last one leaves off. Nahri and Prince Ali find themselves far away from Daevabad as a rebellion and usurpation continues there. Under the rule of a new tyrant, Nahri and Ali must decide whether or not to save the empire and its magic. Meanwhile, Dara comes to terms with all of the decisions he’s made in his past and during his present as he determines whether or not loyalty outweighs being noble. This was a great ending to this Arabian Nightsinspired epic fantasy. 

#7: A Chorus of Dragons #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

            The 3rd book in this 5-book series—remember when I thought it was a trilogy? I’m so glad I was wrong!—has all of the characters from the first 2 books joining together in order to save the world from the “real threat.” All of the events from the previous books lead up to where all of the protagonists and the characters find themselves in, and the roles they are supposed to play in the near and the far future. Another prophecy is mentioned, another dragon is introduced, and ulterior motives are revealed. The question is—especially after THAT ending—what will the heroes do next? 

#6: The Black Iron Legacy #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

            I enjoyed this sequel to The Gutter Prayer—my #1 Favorite Speculative Fiction Book of 2019—and it’s an interesting book. One of the reasons for this is because of the new P.O.V. characters—and a few previous ones—the readers experience the events from. This book focuses on the aftermath of the end of the first book, and instead of magical forces, there are political conspiracies and familial backstabbing amongst all of the characters. Unfortunately, politics overshadow the real threat, which once again comes from the gods.

#5 (Tie): Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            This novella takes the history of a film which promoted racism—and revived the Ku Klux Klan—and added a supernatural element to it. There is the Klan, who terrorize Black Americans, and are human; and, there are the Ku Kluxes, supernatural beings who feed off of fear and hatred, and are only identified by those with the Sight. Because the Ku Kluxes look like White Americans, only the Black demon hunters are brave enough to fight them and to defend our world from them. However, what happens when the Ku Kluxes join the ranks of the KKK? 

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

            This novella presents the horrors and the consequences of institutional racism in Modern America. The story follows a sister and a brother who are “victims” of racism from their early childhood. After realizing that there is no avoiding becoming a “statistic,” the siblings have to decide on whether or not to use their gifts in order to change their world for the better. 

#3: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This standalone novel is the follow up to the author’s debut novel. This time, instead of one female protagonist, there are three sisters. After several years apart, they are reunited under circumstances and a cause—the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and, it’s not just about the right to vote, but the right to use magic. This historical fantasy presents a throwback to Camelot, fairy tales, spells and symbolism as well as practices which brought about the Women’s Vote, the (first) Civil Rights Movement, and Labor Laws. This is a fitting story to mark what was happening one hundred years ago.           

#2: Bethel #1: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

            This debut novel immersed my attention and had me completing the book within 24 hours! This dark fantasy story presents the protagonist who is her community’s reminder of past sins and upcoming retributions. The author gives readers an amazing take on the hypocrisy surrounding religion, family, race, sex and leadership. The ending to this book has me excited for the upcoming sequel, which we will be getting in 2021!

#1: Between Earth and Sky #1: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            There are times when the synopsis of a book isn’t enough to snag a reader’s interest, so the emphasis shifts to the book’s cover. And, what a cover! Even if you hadn’t read Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series—which is a dystopian urban fantasy series—then reading this series—which is dark fantasy—will introduce readers what a talented storyteller the author is to all who must become familiar with her books. The novel starts with the past, jumps forward to the last moment within the narration, and then jumps back to the aftermath of the opening chapter. Readers get are presented with several characters from different backgrounds and positions, and where the Winter Solstice is a date in which something is about to happen and decisions have to be made before the moment—and, once they’re made, there is no going back. This book begins and ends the way you believe it will, which makes it all the more shocking and entertaining. Book 2 is expected sometime in the future, which will answer the question: What will happen next? 

            There were so many books that came out in 2020—miraculously—I didn’t get to finish reading them all! I want to read all of the books I missed this year and in previous years, but I want to be able to read all of the upcoming books (in the new year) as well. I’ll find a way to pull it off! Hopefully, this pandemic will end within the next several months—I’m not holding my hopes or my expectations too high—so some normalcy can return. Otherwise, here’s to another great year in reading. Which books of 2020 were your favorites?

Novella Series Speculative Fiction Readers Need to Read: Part I

Novellas are stories which range from 17,500 to 40,000 words, and they can be read within one sitting. Novellas—along with novelettes and short stories—continue to be written, published and read by all within the publishing industry and the reading community. While novellas are written for all literary genres, in recent years, more of them have been published and read for speculative fiction. That’s NOT to say that they weren’t available, just that there are more available to read now. While Tor.com appears to be dominating the market with novellas—which is NOT a bad thing—there are many novellas from Saga Press, Harper Voyager, DAW Books, and all of the magazines that publish them. There are numerous standalone novellas for speculative fiction fans to read, and there are series—some of which are ongoing—that are worth reading as well. Yes, all of these novellas on this list were released by Tor.com originally, but this is the first list of many that I’m compiling and presenting. It just so happens that one publisher releases more novellas than other ones (for now). 

  • Tensorate by Neon (formerly known as J.Y.) Yang (2017-19)

This series was my introduction into silkpunk. Asian influence aside the story follows the lives of the Royal Family of Protectorate, particularly Protector Sanao—The Empress—and her youngest children—twins, Mokoya and Akeha—as they struggle to maintain control over the Empire as a rebellion grows more ruthless to match the Protector’s cruelty. However, it isn’t just the family saga or the politics that will intrigue readers, but the concept of biological sex and gender fluidity which is a mundane cultural practice in that world. I have read comparisons of this series to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (I haven’t read it, yet). Regardless, this quartet is worth reading.

The subplot of prophecy versus fate versus free will runs its course throughout the series, too. And yes, all of the books come full circle in the end, which will leave you emitting empathy for all of the protagonists. Not to mention, the last few chapters in the fourth book will stay with you for a long time. 

I love it when authors write stories across genres. After reading Rosewater, The Murders of Molly Southbourne intrigued me with its plot: when a young woman bleeds, clones are created. So, not only does Molly have to prevent herself from bleeding, but also learn how to fight, to kill, and to dispose of these clones. So, how does Molly live her life with this “unusual ‘medical’ condition”? Is there a way to stop it? Is there a cure? Even the second book leaves Molly (and readers) with more questions than answers. Hopefully, the next book will let us know what Molly will do next. 

This is a sci-fi horror/thriller series about the lengths a family will go to in order to protect their secret, and what an individual is willing to do in order to maintain their identity. Even if you’re not into sci-fi or horror or thriller, then you should still read this series because readers receive the point-of-view of the victim who never stood a chance for a “normal” life. 

  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015-Present)

This Africanfuturistic series will remind readers that with space exploration, xenophobia will continue to be an issue, and only choosing to understand those who are different from themselves will resolve conflict. The series follows Binti as she decides to break one of her culture’s traditions to leave her home to study at the most prestigious universities in the galaxy. However, during the voyage, the ship is attacked by a race of aliens claiming something was stolen from them. When Binti finds herself to be the lone survivor of the attack, she realizes that her skills as a harmonizer will ensure her survival.

The rest of the series deals with both the aftermath and the consequences of Binti’s actions. Readers follow Binti’s first year at the university as she learns to overcome her classes, her PTSD, and her reunion with her family (amongst other things). Binti manages to overcome all of the obstacles she faces while attempting to maintain peace amongst various races and cultures in the galaxy. I’m looking forward to the TV adaptation of this series! 

  • Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire (2016-Present)

This series takes everything you know about portal world fantasy and gives it a dose of reality with multiple worlds existing next to ours. The series centers on a school for children who went “missing” only to return “changed” from their “ordeal.” Their parents believe they are sending their children to a school for therapy; but, the school is a haven for the “visitors” to meet others like themselves who hope to return “home.”

The series alternates between the present and the past allowing readers to learn about the ongoings at the school—and its students—as well as all of the worlds the students reside in, and where they were able to become their true selves. The fact that some of these students might never be able to return “home” adds the reality to the situation that leaves you feeling emotionally twisted as to what our world does to all of us. 

Murderbot is my favorite robot/A.I. of all-time (sorry R2-D2)! I don’t know what else I can say about this snarky and depressed A.I. who performs its tasks so it has more time to watch its favorite TV show?! Murderbot has more empathy for humans than it’s willing to admit, and that’s what makes the series so relatable and engaging. Throughout the first four novellas in this series, Murderbot performs its latest task with a group of scientists, discovers corruption, then decides to travel to various planets to collect evidence of the crime. 

While Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel gave Murderbot the novel length adventure the A.I. deserved (I haven’t read it yet, I’m sorry), Murderbot will return to novellas when the next book in the series, Fugitive Telemetry is released in 2021. I hope the author continues to delight her fans and her readers with this series. And, I want to read an episode of Sanctuary Moon

This is just a starter list of novellas all readers should read. Readers who either want a quick read, or who want to meet their reading goal by the end of the year should check out these books. As for other novella series, I hope to include Impossible Times by Mark Lawrence, Valkyrie Collections by Brian McClellan, Finna by Nino Cipri, others in a future post. As for standalone novellas, I hope to compile a list of them in the near future!

“Best of” Lists: The Greatest, the Essential and Personal Favorites

So, TIME Magazine is the latest publication to release its list of “The Best Fantasy Novels of All Time.” The magazine even went further than Forbes and known fan sites (and critics) and had a panel consisting of leading fantasy authors to form, to vote, and to finalize their “selections.” While this list is impressive with selections ranging across centuries, age groups and cultures, you are left wondering whether or not this list is more of the panel’s “favorites” and/or “suggestions” than the “best of all time.” Now, I’m NOT insulting the panel! In fact, this panel did an excellent job with including books that were released within the last decade by P.O.C. authors; not to mention, some of the books on the list are meant for readers “of a certain age” (children and young adult), but can be read and enjoyed by fans and readers of all ages. So, why are so many fantasy fans upset with this list? And, why do I feel that this list is still lacking some other great books? This is my opinion, but I’m impressed and perplexed by this list, and other ones from recent years. 

            What do I mean by this? First and foremost, it seems that some of the same titles and/or authors do appear on all of these lists (i.e. Forbes, Unbound Worlds, etc.). This is a good thing because it means certain books have the same level of merit across fans, readers, authors and critics. However, certain titles end up on certain lists which makes you wonder how they made that list. And then, there are titles (and even certain subgenres and formats) that are omitted from those lists, which leaves you wondering whether or not those titles were considered (or read) by those on the panel. Once this realization is made, these lists become nothing more than a “how many have you read?” list.

            Then, there is another question: is this supposed to be a list of “essential” reads? In this case, the answer is NO. There are lists of “essential fantasy books ‘every fan’ should read” and lists of recommendations. Note the difference between the former and the latter. The former is a list of books fans “should have” read, almost like assigned school readings. The latter is a list of books you may or may not enjoy, but should consider reading anyway. And, that’s the issue surrounding all of these lists. When you look over all of these lists and note which books continue to make them, you wonder whether or not those books are “essential” to the genre. When you read the history of the genre (and, there are several books on them, some of which I own and I have read), many of those books played a huge role in formulating the fantasy genre. Yet, fantasy, like imagination, is not a “fixed” concept. Eventually, readers decide to write “new” fantasy stories that allow for new worlds to be presented and for new fans to emerge. In fact, one of the things I like about TIME Magazine’s list is that 63 of the books were published and released within the last 30 years. That’s right, the list is in chronological order, so you can see how much the genre has changed and expanded during the last 3 decades. It’s an interesting homage to how quickly the genre has expanded. Then again, some titles are left off the list.

            As a bookblogger, I read and I review books encouraging other readers to read them. There are so many books to read. And, while I don’t always get to finish reading certain books when I want to, and I read faster than I write, I take the time to mention all of the positives and the negatives within a book review. Meanwhile, I read reviews and I watch videos about books by other bookbloggers and Booktubers so I can learn whether or not books on my list should be read sooner rather than later, and whether or not we have the same thoughts for the same books. At the same time, these reviews are recommendations for other fans and readers. I don’t expect readers to enjoy the same books I do, and I’m not insisting that they should. This doesn’t mean I don’t look into books other fans and readers suggest, it’s how I ended up reading certain books no matter its genre. 

            Some of those books were not mentioned in TIME Magazine’s list. No graphic novels and no novellas or short stories were on the list. And, the grimdark and the witches subgenres were omitted. I’m not sure if any of those titles made the initial list, but it does make me wonder if we’re starting to limit what consists of “good” fantasy books. Yes, a few translated books made it on to TIME Magazine’s list, but I’m going to say that some works written by either Australian or indie authors should have been considered as well. Are we slowly becoming like Tom Shippey and Robert Silverberg (which is sort of scary)? So, are all books within the fantasy genre being considered? Should we be reading more of what is available BEFORE compiling such a list?

            Obviously, one cannot read all of the books within a genre, but all titles and all formats should be considered for a “best of all time” list. Yes, some titles will always end up on the list, but what about the other books? Think about your favorite books. Now, think about your favorite fantasy books. If we were to compare our lists, then we would expect to have some similar and some different books. In fact, my list is always changing. Some books will always be appealing to me, and others will fall off of that list. Who is to say that within the next 5-10 years this list will be exactly the same? If fantasy continues to expand as a genre, then I hope the list does alter, continuously, overtime. 

            In 2018, V.E. Schwab delivered the 6th annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. Her lecture titled—“In Search of Doors”—she mentioned (and, I’m paraphrasing here) that just because one author made you a reader doesn’t mean that book should become “required reading.” Everyone has that one book which made them a reader; but, they’ve read more than one book, right? V.E. Schwab discusses what led her to write the stories she’s written, too; and, it’s simple. She was sick of reading the same sort of fantasy story over and over again. And, that’s what makes TIME Magazine’s list stand out from previous ones. Several of these stories move away from familiar fantasy tropes and are still amazing and well-written stories, which should be read. However, if any of those books don’t capture your attention enough to want to read them, then don’t feel obligated to do so. 

            I’m not going to nit-pick the genre or this list because I don’t have the time to start all of the never-ending debates that would come from it. Also, I still haven’t read all of the books on this list! For now, like the rest of the fandom, I’ll consider what should be included or excluded from the “best fantasy books of all time” list. I’ll keep reading the books as they are released, and I will offer my critical thoughts on each book. And, hopefully, whoever does the next list considers including me on the panel. I believe I could shake things up. Which books should you read next? Well, tell me the sort of story you enjoy and I will give you a suggestion or two (or three)!