Why You Need to Read: “The Dragon Republic”

The Poppy War: #2: The Dragon Republic

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: August 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

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

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

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

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “The Survival of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #2: The Survival of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: July 9, 2019

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Sequel 

WARNING: Spoilers from The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne. You have been warned.

            Molly Southbourne was a freak whose blood grew genetically identical duplicates of her. One drop of blood, and a new molly popped up, but it wasn’t cute. It wanted to kill her. Molly spent her whole life killing her duplicates just to survive, (Chapter One).

            Similar to many of the recent sequels in speculative fiction, The Survival of Molly Southbourne starts where its predecessor, The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off. In the sequel, Tade Thompson answers the questions Molly Southbourne (and readers) have had about herself. And, like other works of sci-fi horror (i.e. Alien), there are more eerie forces at work than anyone else knows. 

            Molly Southbourne is a protagonist who is “a fish out of water” because she has no identity and no purpose to her life. Molly Southbourne—the one who survived both the attacks and the fire—is now Molly Southbourne and is living as Molly Southbourne whether or not she wants to. While Molly is a duplicate of Molly “Prime,” as she calls her, she is NOT Molly Southbourne. She lacks both the knowledge, and the skills Molly Prime had. In addition, Molly does NOT have the same problem with bleeding like Molly Prime did (“hemoclones”). All Molly has are the looks and the memories of someone who is dead. Unfortunately, the new Molly Southbourne is the only one who knows, and it’s driving her crazy, literally. 

            The plot in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is how the new Molly Southbourne is adjusting to life as a 27-year-old woman who is supposed to be living as someone else. Molly has more questions about herself than Molly Prime did; and, unlike Molly Prime, Molly decides to get answers to those questions. To say that Molly’s discoveries come straight from a spy novel—complete with multiple conspiracies—would be an understatement. After she gets some answers to her questions from “several” people, Molly must decide how she is going to survive. She doesn’t have to become Molly Southbourne, but she cannot get rid of that part of herself. There is a subplot, and its focus is about a minor character from the first book who was intimate with Molly Prime. In this book, that character attempts to fight the fate Molly Prime left him with unknowingly. Will the efforts be successful? Will Molly be able to help him?

            The narrative in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an interesting one. While Molly is the protagonist, and the story of the aftermath is told from her point-of-view (1stperson), the sequence is a combination of Molly’s actions and daily life—told in present time—with the memories of Molly Prime—also her memories—bombarding her. The combination of the flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness, and the present gives readers insight to the adaption and the chaos that is Molly Southbourne. Her struggles and her inexperience make the narrative reliable and believable. As discombobulated as it sounds, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style Tade Thompson uses in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is the same as it was in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. The author continues with telling this story using tropes and style based on previous sci-fi horror stories. However, it is the mood—apathetic—and the tone—bizarre—that have changed in the sequel. Molly is making sense of everything that is happening around her, only this time those involved behave as it’s not a big deal. Molly is neither unique, nor lethal as Molly Prime was, but she manages to survive and to adapt to her life as we see through the author’s style. Readers will be pleased with this (continued) style of storytelling. 

            So far, the appeal to The Survival of Molly Southbourne have been positive. Released a month ago (at the time of this posting), readers who were curious as to how Molly’s story would continue is answered. The mysteries and the conspiracies are addressed, and the continuation of the characters from the previous book lets readers know that neither Molly Southbourne, nor Tade Thompson have forgotten about them. Both novellas can be read and enjoyed in one reading. Fans and readers of sci-fi horror need to read these books.

            The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an amazing follow-up to its prequel. While the narrative and the perspective have changed from what came before, the story is as fast paced and as haunting as The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tade Thompson does an excellent job in bringing Molly Southbourne’s story the resolution it needs. 

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

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

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

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

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

These are my Top Ten Picks in no particular order:

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

The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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

Uncanny Collateral (Valkyrie Collections #1) by Brian McClellan

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

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

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

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

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

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

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

Broken Veil (Harbinger #5) by Jeff Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Murders of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #1: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: October 3, 2017

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Winner of the Nommo Award for Best Novella 2018

            The rules are simple.

            “If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.

            Don’t bleed.

            If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.

            If you find a hole, find your parents.”

            Molly recites the lines to herself many times. She finds herself many times. She finds herself repeating them without intending to when she is bored, (Two).

            The Murders of Molloy Southbourne is an homage to classic horror and science fiction stories such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. To say that Molly Southbourne makes the best of her situation through survival is a HUGE understatement. If Tade Thompson’s Rosewater didn’t capture your attention, then his novella will!

            Our first introduction to Molly Southbourne is from the perspective of the person she has shackled in her basement. After a few interesting interactions, Molly Southbourne tells the person her life story. From there, the person—and the reader—learns about the unusual upbringing and life of this tragic individual. Molly Southbourne grew up on a farm with her parents. And, due to an unusual condition, she is home-schooled. In between learning about literature, languages, and mathematics, Molly learns hand-to-hand combat, different types of bleach, and pyromantics. These lessons are essential because whenever Molly bleeds, a clone of her appears; and, whenever a “molly” appears, that “molly” attacks Molly. In order to keep Molly’s condition a secret, Molly is taught how to fight, to kill, to butcher, and to dispose “herself.” As eerie as it sounds, Molly proves to be an intelligent and a resilient individual. Unfortunately, life gets more complicated as she grows into adulthood and attempts to live a “normal” life. Molly continues to grow as a person, but she can neither keep her condition a secret, nor cope with what her condition could lead to. As much as Molly wants to be “normal,” she cannot.

            The plot of the story is Molly Southbourne’s life right up to the prisoner in her basement, and it follows a traditional sci-fi/horror storyline. Molly’s entire life has been stringent due to her “condition,” and as the plot develops, so does Molly, and we all realize Molly can only endure her situation for so long. At the same time, the subplots—Molly’s prisoner, and the root of Molly’s “condition”—are developing. To say both subplots will remind you of a spy thriller would be an understatement. By the time Molly discovers the “truth” of her existence, both the plot and, the subplots converge, and Molly’s character development reaches its end. 

            The narrative starts off in the first-person of Molly Southbourne’s prisoner. The prisoner is disoriented and has no memory of how and why Molly is doing what she is doing. Chapters 2 and 3 are told in flashback by Molly Southbourne and she refers to herself in the third-person. In the last chapter, the narrative switches back to the prisoner’s point-of-view, which is in the present. While it is easy for readers to view the prisoner as a reliable narrator, it is difficult to perceive Molly Southbourne as one. Yes, the narrative is vital to both the plot development and the character development, and it can be followed, but—by the end—both the prisoner and the readers are left with more questions than answers. It is safe to say that Molly Southbourne feels the same way, but she doesn’t know what else to do. 

            The style Tade Thompson presents in this novella is a throwback to the earliest horror stories we now view as classics. The word choice and the sentence structure alerts readers that the author wants your attention. Both the mood—bizarre—and, the tone—apathetic—are obvious as soon as you begin reading the story. The author makes sure that the actions and the skills of his protagonist come across as “normal” and that the condition of Molly Southbourne is “unusual.” Tade Thompson allows readers to determine whether or not Molly’s story is believable. At the same time, the author uses pivotal moments of Molly Southbourne’s life—her first menstrual period, her first boyfriend, etc.—to remind his audience over and over that Molly Southbourne is unique and lethal in her own right. Tade Thompson’s style of writing leaves the story with an open ending; just like the classic horror stories.

            The appeal surrounding The Murders of Molly Southbourne have been positive. The book won the “Nommo Award for Best Novella” in 2018; and, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award. The Tor.com eBook Club selected this novella as its June 2019 selection (free ebook!). Readers and critics enjoyed it enough that its sequel, The Survival of Molly Southbourne, is an anticipated follow-up (published July 9, 2019)! The Murders of Molly Southbourne is an amazing addition to the horror (and science fiction) genre and demonstrates Tade Thompson’s talent as a storyteller. This novella is enjoyable to the point where it can be read over and over again; and, readers might find an additional clue surrounding Molly Southbourne’s life during one of their many re-reads (I did!). I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series. 

            The Murders of Molly Southbourne is the perfect story for readers who enjoy horror stories. All of the events that lead to the actions performed by Molly Southbourne and those she loves reminds readers that living with any condition is bearable as long as that individual is willing to bear it. Tade Thompson knows how to present a realistic horror story.

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

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

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)!