Novella Series Speculative Fiction Readers Need to Read: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015-Present)

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

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

  • Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire (2016-Present)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of 2020 Releases I’m Looking Forward to Reading

By some miracle, we survived to the end of September (2020). It seems that books and video games have managed to remain constant throughout the year—as in some delays and/or minimal postponement. I’m still working my way through my TBR pile as it continues to grow. Fall 2020—September-December—continues the unceasing releases within the literary world (not that I’m complaining). Here are some of the books being released between October and December 2020 I’m excited to read. 

            Please note, I haven’t listed all of the speculative fiction books that will be released by the end of 2020, just the ones I’m hoping to read. If some books are missing, then it’s because either they are part of a series which I haven’t read yet, or I am unaware of their upcoming release. 

Books I’ve Read

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

            For those of you who haven’t read my review of this book, you should read the book as soon as it’s released because this book doesn’t stop until its end. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book, you’ll realize that there will be a sequel, which will leave you asking: what else can happen? 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            If The Deep looks into the possibilities of the events surrounding the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Riot Baby is the potential of the future surrounding current racial events, then Ring Shout presents a horror story of the consequences of hatred and violence within a society. Since this is based on U.S. History—a subject that continues to be glossed over—readers can expect Jim Crow Laws, and KKK rallies and attacks in this novella. 

Books I am Reading

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This is the second book by Alix E. Harrow. So far, it’s an amazing follow up to The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This time the story follows three sisters who use their magic to obtain the right to vote. So far, I can say that this is a clever look into how misogyny and sexist practices can lead to a small rebellion demanding equality by using unconventional methods, and magic. 

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

            Finally, I’m reading a book by this acclaimed author. In this book, the protagonist is a recently divorced woman who moves into her uncle’s “museum,” only to locate a hidden passage inside the house. However, the length of the passage doesn’t equate to the perimeter of the museum, making her (and us) question as to where the passage leads to and whether or not anyone else knows about it. 

Books To Be Read

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

            Anyone who has read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is excited for this book. This book is a companion to Middlegame in that this is the book mentioned throughout the novel. Over the Woodward Wall is the book written by A. Deborah Baker in “code” for anyone who is interested in reaching The Impossible City. Think of it as a fictionalized version of The Secret: A Treasure Hunt.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

            There’s the “age-old” story that serves as a cautionary tale: immortality can be a lonely life. However, what if on top of living forever, no one will remember meeting you? Eternal loneliness is the ultimate sadness, but what if—by some miracle—someone remembers you? That miracle can blossom into the hope the protagonist needs in her immortal life. 

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

            There are a lot of books about witches and their magic that have been released in 2020. This book by C.L. Polk is the latest of them, as well as the author’s first standalone novel. In a world where women have to choose between magic and marriage, the protagonist seeks a way to have both. 

Eventide by Sarah Goodman

            This historical fantasy focuses on the Orphan Train and the superstitions within a small town. Sisters Lilah and Verity struggle to stay together after the death of their parents. Unfortunately, their family history and the dark forces within the town seek to destroy the siblings like it destroyed their parents. This YA novel is the author’s debut book. 

The Hanged God Trilogy #1, Northern Wrath by Thilde Kold Holdt

            Norse mythology continues to be a source of new fantasy stories, and this debut novel by the author is no different. This epic fantasy occurs when Christianity and Norse folklore clash constantly for dominance. The book follows several characters as they go on a quest to save their gods and Midgard. 

The Burning #2, The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

            The Rage of Dragons started off as an African-inspired military fantasy became something even more by the time readers reached the last quarter of the book. Tau has lost everything he’s cared about at the same time he’s given a promotion that would make anyone else happy. Unfortunately, all Tau has left is his rage. And, although the queen needs his skills to end the war, it’ll take more than anger to get Tau motivated again. What will it take to get him to fight again?

War Girls #2, Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War Girls is the realistic dystopian YA novel about the cost of war and how it can affect children before, during and, after a war. Tochi Onyebuchi empathized the emotions felt by his readers throughout the book, especially the ending. Rebel Sisters takes place 5 years after the events of the first book, which sees Ify returning home to Earth. Those of us who read the first book already know to expect our emotions to pour out onto the pages, again. 

The Poppy War #3, The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

            After the release of The Dragon Republic, R.F Kuang announced who Rin, the protagonist, is supposed to represent in this historical military grimdark fantasy. Wow! And, with the way Book 2 ended and what that means for everyone who survived those events, I can only imagine how this trilogy is going to end. The title alone gives a hint as to what readers can expect from this finale. I hope I’m right about this assumption. 

The Graven #1, Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

            Hostile aliens, smart ships and humans can be found in this science fiction story. This debut novel follows the protagonist after he loses everything—literally—when his planet is destroyed. On a quest for vengeance, he travels to the home of those who destroyed his planet. Along the way, he learns more about the universe.  

The Tide Child #2, Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

            The Bone Ships was my surprise book of 2019; and, since I’ve finish it, I’ve been excited to read the sequel. I don’t know whether or not the sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first book, but I know that the subplot continues in this book and it’s going to be very interesting. More voyages ahead for the readers!

Poison Wars #2, Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

            City of Lies is a great book about political conspiracies, history and folklore, and poisonous plants. Now, with the return of magic within the Empire, will it lead to something positive or to more treachery for the protagonists? We’ll have to wait and read what happens next. 

            Now, will I complete all of these books by the end of this year? Probably not. Yet, I’m aiming to read as many of these books as I can by December 31, 2020. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll finish reading them in 2021! Which books are you excited to read by the end of 2020?

Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            This year, the solstice will be marked by the rarest of celestial occurrences. As the year divides into old and new, so also will the earth, sun, and moon align in the Convergence. Over our very heads, we will witness order move to chaos and back to order again. So it is with the heavens, so it will be with Tova. We will bear witness to the cycle of evil rising in darkness to be battled back by goodness and light when the sun prevails, (Chapter 9). 

            Remember when I said that I read Trail of Lightning, the first book in The Sixth World series, because I wanted to determine for myself whether or not the author was as big of a deal as the speculative fiction genre community made her out to be? And, that the author’s book was worth reading? Well, if Trail of Lightning was part of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut—the other being her award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”—then, Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, cements her status as one of the must-read authors within the genre. 

            There are four protagonists in this novel. First, is Serapio, the son of an Obregi Lord and a foreigner. The foreigner is his mother, Saaya, who along with three others, prepare Serapio towards his destiny of his transcendence to godhood. Second, is Xiala, a female sea captain and an exile from the Teek tribe. She is hired to bring cargo to Tova, one of whom is Serapio. The two exiles form a friendship during their journey to Tova. Along the way, Xiala learns about Serapio and realizes that his magic is just as powerful and as lethal as hers. Third, is Naranpa, one of the four priests in Tova—and, the head of the oracle society. On top of all of her responsibilities, she must deal with several political conspiracies all at once, including: several assassination attempts on her life, rumors surrounding the death of one of the matrons to one of the four tribes, prophecies surrounding the return of the crow god, rumors of what is to come on the winter solstice, talks of revenge for an event of the past, and the plot to have her removed from her seat of power. With all of these political conspiracies surrounding her, Naranpa doesn’t know who to trust. This includes Iktan—head of the knife society—one of the other four priests and Naranpa’s friend. The fourth and final protagonist is Okoa, the son of the Carrion Crow matron and future leader of the Shield, a military troop who serve as the matron’s bodyguards. After his mother’s death, Okoa rises to his role. During the transition, he uncovers two conspiracies. One is about his mother’s death, and the other is about the cultists from his tribe who believe their god can be raised and returned to them so that past wrongs can be paid back through divine retribution. All of these protagonists are complex people who find themselves being responsible for a group of people, and their choices affect those around them and everything they care about. As “The Day of Convergence” approaches, each of the protagonists develop into the individuals their roles demand of them to the point where not even the secondary characters can divert them from their path. 

            The plot of this novel involves the events that lead up to “The Day of Convergence,” which falls on the winter solstice. The plot develops through each of the protagonists as they uncover the mystery of what is to occur on that day, and whether or not it can be prevented. Serapio travels to Tova in order to fulfill his destiny of becoming a god, as per his mother’s actions. Naranpa is doing everything she can to remain the Sun Priest of the Celestial Tower while uncovering a plot of revenge against the Faith for a treacherous transgression from the past which left hundreds dead. Okoa is trying to unravel the events that led up to his mother’s death while trying to shake off the unwanted attention of his tribe’s cultist group. And, Xiala is trying to keep her powers in check while deciding whether or not to bring the apocalypse into Tova. While these appear to be four separate plots, they converge into one unforgettable moment when all of the protagonists must decide on acting on their destiny, or doing the right thing. There are two subplots within this novel which not only explains the plots, but also the motivations for the actions that take place at the novel’s end. The first one is vengeance. Vengeance, while mentioned from time-to-time, plays a large role in the story. Usually, the reason for an act of revenge depends on those who want it; but, in this case, everyone is expecting it. It all depends on who is involved and when the act will be carried out. The second subplot involves religion and magic. Similar to our world and other fantasy worlds, there are a few religions, each with its own rituals and practices. Some of this involves magic and how those in the out-group view that magic as opposed to their magic. Some of it is accepted, some are based in superstition, and a lot of it is forbidden; yet, it is all real and powerful, especially when done correctly. These subplots play a huge role in the plot development and must not be overlooked by the reader(s).

            The narratives are told from the points-of-view of the four protagonists. And, they are in third-person limited, which means readers know only what each protagonist is thinking and is experiencing at one time. Even when two characters are together, we are limited only to one character’s P.O.V. The sequence of the narration jumps back-and-forth from the start of Serapio’s transcendence to “The Day of Convergence” to the aftermath. While the sequence might come off as confusing, it is not because readers learn of all of the essential events leading up to the winter solstice from multiple P.O.V.s. So, while the narration moves from past to present, it follows a stream-of-consciousness of each protagonist so that we gain a better understanding of them, their culture, and their motivation of their actions. This presents the readers with a reliable narration (from each protagonist) that can be followed easily.

            The style Rebecca Roanhorse uses for her new series is amazing and informative. Once again, she draws on inspiration from her Native American heritage; but this time, the author draws on inspiration from Yucatec Mayan, Tewa, Polynesian and pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, many of which continues to be glossed over in school curriculums worldwide. Some of what I recall of ancient pre-Columbian societies (i.e. Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.) involve rituals and ceremonies to the gods, and their calendar, which was accurate. History and folklore aside, the use of foreshadowing and of characterization enhances the story to the point where readers known what is going to happen and why, and that there was no way to prevent the events from happening. By the time everything is revealed, the protagonists have made their decisions, and what is going to happen, happens. This leaves the reader(s) stunned, yet anticipating what will happen next during the aftermath of those events. It’s a shocking and an impressive move by the author. The mood in this novel is preparation. Everything that happens in this novel revolves on the winter solstice. To many, the day marks a celebration. To the protagonists and the other characters involved, it’s a day of dread, retribution, and change. The tone of the novel is fate. Without getting into too many spoilers, two of the protagonists were predestined to be part of “The Day of Convergence,” but an argument can be made that they could have chosen to resist that fate at any given time before that day. In fact, the choices of the other two protagonists should be noted as well because they all have no choice but to live with the decisions they make leading up to the winter solstice. I read an eARC of this book, and it did NOT come with any maps of the setting. Luckily, Rebecca Roanhorse provided some of the maps through Tor.com, which made picturing the mentioned towns and the distance between the cities easier.

            The appeal for Black Sun is already positive. So far, literary critics and other authors have praised Rebecca Roanhorse for the story she has written. Fans of the author’s urban fantasy series will be impressed with how the author can fuse her heritage into one story of the past and another story of the future. Not to mention that this book is an amazing addition to the fantasy canon, and will leave readers anticipating the second book in this series. Fans of historical and/or mythological fantasy—Tasha Suri, S.A. Chakraborty, Evan Winter and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—should read this book as soon as they are able to, they will enjoy it a lot.

            Black Sun is proof that Rebecca Roanhorse can weave her talent and her heritage into powerful stories over and over again. If you need a reason to read one of her books, or if you want to read a fantasy series that will take your expectations to another level, then you really should read this book. It has everything from magic and prophecies to political power struggle based on a moment in human history, in which it all could have happened, but its setting is a fantasy world. I don’t know about you, but while I’m waiting for Book 2 of this series, I’ll be reading Storm of Locusts, Book 2 in the author’s other series. Enjoy!      

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

Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

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

The Midpoint of 2020: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we made it to the halfway point of the year 2020, which will go down as one of the most pivotal (and the wackiest) years in living memory. Just like everyone else, I’ve been affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders which led to the international Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few things in my personal life. I managed to adapt and I’m starting to catch up on everything that’s been going on. I am managing to keep up with all of my reading while expanding on my blog and my other projects. So, while my WIP remain in that state, I’m glad to say that I’ve been branching out and checking out new YouTubers and following fellow bookbloggers; and, I want to thank those who have asked me to be guests on their channels and on their blogs. Last, I want to thank everyone for reading my posts that are not reviews, but are personal essays and deep dives into literature, pop culture, and current events. It feels good to know that there are people who are interested in what I post online.

            As for reading in 2020, I’m reading, but I’m reading more than speculative fiction. You can look at my Goodreads page and you’ll see what I mean. In terms of speculative fiction, I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed, and I’m getting back into paranormal and urban fantasy. I have a stack of graphic novels that I need to read, too; but, I’ll get to them eventually. How many of 2020’s Most Anticipated releases have you read so far?

            So, what does that mean for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2020, so far? Well, I haven’t finished reading 10 books that were released this year, yet; but, I can talk about at least 10 speculative fiction books in 2020 that I’m enjoying, and ones I’m excited to read. In other words, this list will be different from last year’s, but I hope you find this list of reads as interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable.

Books I’ve Finished:

The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding; The Queen of Raiders; A Broken Queen; The Cerulean Queen

     by Sarah Kozloff

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

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

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

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

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

Books I’m Currently Reading:

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

The Kingston Cycle, #2: Stormsong by C.L. Polk

Malus Domestica Trilogy, #1: Burn the Dark by S.A. Hunt

The Protectorate, #2: Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

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

The Reborn Empire, #1: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

The City, #1: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Murderbot Diaries, #5: The Network Effect by Martha Wells

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

Anasazi Series, #1: Between Earth and Sky by Rebecca Roanhorse

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab

Burningblade & Silvereye, #1: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

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

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rook and Ruin, #1: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

City of Sacrifice, #2: Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

The Burning, #2: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

Malus Domestica Trilogy: I Come with Knives and The Hellion by S.A. Hunt 

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Hanged God Trilogy, #1: Northern Wrath by Thilde Kold Holdt

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

            I hope to read 100 books by the end of the year, with at least 30 of them being speculative fiction books that were released this year. Which books will be on my Top 20 (or 25) Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2020? We’ll have to wait and see. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

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

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.

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