Dodger was never going to be a linguist, any more than Roger was going to be a mathematician, but they could cope, which was more than some of their fellows ever learned. They balance each other, (Variation).
Seanan McGuire is an author whose books you’ve heard of, but you probably haven’t read, or maybe you have and didn’t know it. Known for her two urban fantasy series—October Daye and InCryptid—they are some of her most popular books. Under her pseudonym, Mira Grant, her paranormal horror stories—Newsflesh and Parasitology—brought more readers and fame to her. Once you start reading her books—the Wayward Children series is my favorite books by her—you become curious as to which books to read next by her. Middlegame is a standalone novel, which is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date, and is the story she claims she’s “been working on for years.” Well, the wait was worth it, and if there is any book to be read by this author, then look no further than Middlegame.
There are three protagonists in the novel. First, are the twins, Roger and Dodger, child prodigies who were “created” in a lab and separated to be raised separately so that their “abilities” can manifest apart from each other, and from those who created them for their purposes. Roger is adopted by a couple and is raised in Massachusetts. To him, words and languages come to him as easily as breathing, but don’t ask him for help with math. One day, when he is seven years-old, he is struggling with his math homework and he cannot come up with the answers as he can with his spelling. And then, he hears a voice in his head, which gives him the answers to the questions. The voice belongs to a girl named Dodger. She is the same age as Roger and she lives with her adopted parents in California. She’s a prodigy too, but math is her subject. The two children think nothing about their “ability” to speak to each other with their minds, and they help each other with their schoolwork. Unbeknownst to them, they’re twins who’ve been kept apart from the day they were born. They don’t know that they’re being watched by members of the Alchemical Congress, too. Dr. James Reed—our third protagonist—is the one who created the twins and monitor their “growth.” He is the former student, and “son,” of Asphodel Baker, and his goal is to finish the work of his mentor: seeking a way to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, to enter the Impossible City, and to harness the omniscient power that lies within it. So far, Reed has accomplished the first goal in the twins. As Roger and Dodger develop as characters and grow (up) as people, Reed’s goals and motivations develop and alter alongside them. While readers witness the harsh upbringing of the twins, they comprehend Reed’s goals and his reasons for achieving them. He is a monster and a mad scientist in one embodiment, but he earns some sympathy throughout the narrative; some. There are several other characters in the story, but Erin is the liaison between the twins and Reed. She is the most complex character in this story and one of the reasons is because she has a love-hate relationship with all three protagonists, which means her motivations are unknown to everyone, including the readers.
There are two plots in this story. The first one follows the growth and the development of Roger and Dodger from childhood to adulthood. Readers witness how the twins are raised as prodigies and the pressures that come with it; the pattern of their friendship, including all of the highs and the lows that match any other friendship; and, the development of their powers and what it means for them and those who have been observing them. The second plot follows James Reed and all of his actions over the years as all the “embodiments” of the Doctrine of Ethos develop, and what it means to him and all of his desires. Throughout the story, readers experience all of Reed’s failures and triumphs as he does everything in his power to keep his project going, while remaining one step ahead of the Alchemical Congress so that everything will come together the way he wants it to be. There are two subplots that go along with the plots at their own rate. The first is all of the events surrounding the Alchemical Congress from the council, to Reed and his “other” projects, to Erin’s actions and influences on the work and the legacy of Dr. Asphodel D. Baker and how all of her research is the catalyst of this story. Everything comes together as the story develops along with these plots. The second subplot focuses on Dr. Baker’s “research” and the lengths she went to in order to have her work “published.”
The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all of the main characters using 3rd person omniscient, which allows for everything to be witnessed by the readers from their streams-of-consciousness to their flashbacks. Given the narration and the P.O.V.s, all of the characters are reliable narrators (even though they’re not reliable individuals). While the narrative has a sequence that can be followed by the readers, it can get confusing at times, especially to those who are not familiar with elements of the metaphysical genre. There are jumps in the timeline, but they don’t happen randomly; otherwise, the narrative flows at a rate that matches the development of the characters and the plot.
The style of Seanan McGuire will be familiar to her fans and captivating to other readers. Her word choice and sentence structure reflect the jargon and the ongoings of the characters’ occupations. Math, science and literary technology are used at the given moments. In addition, the novel is an allusion to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (yes, The Wizard of Oz movies are based on books), and anyone who is familiar with those books will appreciate both the reference and the criticism of the series by the author. Other pop culture (i.e. movies) and literary (i.e. authors) references will be recognized by readers who will comprehend their usage. Another thing the author does is criticize the gender bias surrounding both child prodigies and female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workers. The sexism experienced by both Dodger and Dr. Asphodel D. Baker should not by overlooked. Instead, readers should be aware that such occurrences are still ongoing and have traumatic and long-term consequences. The mood in this novel is authority: who has it, who wants it, and who fights against it. The tone is the idea and the question of whether or not authority should be claimed at all. If an individual gains control of authority, then what would it mean for everyone else? Should authority be given to one person, even if they don’t deserve it? I want to point out that the theme of the creator being betrayed by their creation is well done here as well.
The appeal for Middlegame has been extremely positive. Not only have fans of the speculative fiction genre have had praise for the book, but also several critics have given their own positive feedback. NPR and Amazon called the book, “one of the best of 2019” and has received praises from other literary critics. It’s already getting hype for the upcoming literary awards. Middlegame is a recipient of the 2019 Alex Awards, which makes Seanan McGuire the first author to win this award three times! And, Middlegame was one of My Favorite Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books in 2019. In addition, fans of this book can expect, Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker, a companion book to this novel, which may or may not provide further insight into the fictional work referenced throughout the real one, in Fall 2020. Middlegame is a great addition to the canon and should be read by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. All of the pop culture and literary references will have readers of other genres picking up this book, too.
Middlegame is a brilliant work which combines all aspects of the speculative fiction genre into one story to be enjoyed by all readers. The plot, the characters, and the narrative are elements that fans of the genre will love, but the allusions to pop culture and other influences will pique the curiosity of readers of other genres as well. The book is a story about knowledge, ambition and failure, and the consequences of acceptance and perfection. These themes of the human heart are why Seanan McGuire continues to buildup her fandom with readers who love a good story about people and their desires.
When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun).
Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity.
There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community.
The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect.
The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.
The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well.
The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, The Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.
The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!
As some of you may or may not know, I decided to partake of this crazy reading challenge in which, I would read as many of the nominees of the largest book awards for speculative fiction I could by the time the winners were announced. Obviously, this was easier said than done, but I did read a lot of amazing books, and many of them did NOT win the awards. In addition, I learned of more awards that were given to these authors in different regions throughout the world—if anyone knows of an award given in Asia, then please let me know—and I learned more about authors I’ve read or haven’t read before.
I suggest that you go to the websites for these awards and take a look at all of the finalists because you might recognize the authors, their works and their other interested. Some of these authors only receive the recognition from these awards. And, I wouldn’t have known who Lauren C. Teffeau and Nick Clark Windo were without doing this project.
I did read a lot of the winners and the nominees, but only the winners of each award and category will be listed here. I haven’t written all of the reviews for some of the winners, yet; but, I hope to do so in the near future. Please read my reviews I’ve linked to the books, and let me know what you thought of the winners of these awards. And yes, I’m doing this again for 2020!
Recognizes the works of speculative fiction by Africans, defined as “science fiction, fantasy, stories of magic and traditional belief, alternative histories, horror and strange stuff that might not fit anywhere else,” awarded by the African Speculative Fiction Society.
Novel (The Ilube Award): Freshwater by Akweake Emezi
Novella: The Fire Bird by Nerine Dorman
Short Story: “The Witching Hour” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Started by Mark Lawrence, yes THAT one, with the purpose to “shines a light on self-published fantasy. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.” The contest starts with 300 books and it gradually narrows down to 10 finalists! The judges are readers who are bloggers and vloggers. Note: some of these authors gain a following and some even earn a publishing contract, so don’t ignore these books!
Winner: Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike
The Gods of Men by Barbara Kloss
The Purification Era Book One: Sowing by Angie Gricaliunas
We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson
Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon
The Anointed by Keith Ward
Conspiracy of Magic Book One: Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe
NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned.
“My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five).
In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it.
Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers.
The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi.
The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers.
Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!
The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.
Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.
2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs.
This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).
All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.
#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it.
#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.
I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series.
#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang
I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best.
#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves.
One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.
I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.
One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!
#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019.
#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole
To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy.
#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!
2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!
How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds.
#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself.
#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy.
Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!
This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked!
In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied.
War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good.
The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author.
The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale.
#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang
This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book.
#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe
This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.
I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy.
The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment.
Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!
It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!
This episode has three parts. The first part mirrors the 2007 movie. Lyra, the Gyptians, Lee Scoresby, and Iorek Byrnison are traveling further North to “The Station” where the missing children are being held by the Magisterium. Farder Corum meets with Serafina Pekkala to discuss both the Magisterium and their love affair. It’s Serafina who describes the importance, and the threat, of both Lord Asriel and Dust. Lyra reads her alethiometer again and learns more about The Station and about a “ghost” in a nearby village.
The identity of the “ghost” is the same individual as it was in the 2007 movie. However, this is NOT the case in the books. I believe the studio(s) kept this change in order for the same emotional reaction(s) from Lyra, Lee Scoresby, the Gyptians, and the audience. The answer to the question of “what” the Magisterium is doing to the children has been answered, but the question “why” has not been answered, yet. The brutality of the power of the Magisterium has been revealed in the most devastating and heartbreaking way.
The second part is a prequel to the events of The Subtle Knife, the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy. This is not too much of a spoiler because the series has already received a second season; and, the scenes of Will Parry and his mother are NOT in the books. The man from the Magisterium has been staking out the house where both Will and his mother lives. After his “talk” with the mother triggers an episode, Will has to be the adult and take care of his mother. These scenes between Will and his mother reflect the reality of what many people who know and/or live with someone with mental health issues experience on a regular basis.
Will’s mother tells him a bit about his father. The expedition he was on when he disappeared and whatever was written to her in the letters Will’s father sent her. And, while Will’s mother’s mental health is sad to watch, we—the audience—know that she’s not as crazy as everyone else believes her to be.
The third part is the further explanation about daemons and their importance to the humans in Lyra’s world. Daemons are souls which are manifested outside of the human body. There is a reason that many people place “the soul” in such high regard, and Philip Pullman—regardless of him being an atheist—makes sure that his audience, both readers and viewers, comprehend this information. Lee Scoresby tells Lyra his reason for the Magisterium performing “intercission,” but similar to our world, things are not always that simple. Then again, the Magisterium cannot be allowed to commit such atrocities and expect to get away with them.
In all, Lyra’s discovery about both the motives of the Magisterium not only makes her desire for rescuing the missing children more essential, but also sparks her interest in the relationship between Lord Asriel and the Magisterium. The introduction to Will Parry is a treat to book readers who wanted to learn of the events leading up to the beginning of The Subtle Knife. The last scene of the episode puts the last events of The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass in the order of the books, and not the 2007 movie. This climatic episode lets the audience know that the falling action is coming next.
I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible.
Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute.
The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors.
The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.
The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre.
Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!
Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions!