Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

401

Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

                              -Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

            2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in which a few years after the establishment of Jamestown, a trade route was formed amongst 3 continents. Europe would travel to the Americas with colonists and supplies, the Americas would provide goods and resources that would be imported back to Europe. And, Africa would provide workers—I mean, slaves—to be relocated either to Europe, or to the Americas. This was the beginning of the colonies, the execution of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans. All the while, a new culture was being established in the Americas, a land that was always inhabited. Now, in the year 2020—a year of the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election—the world is witnessing non-stop protests and riots that are the result of this glossed over history. 

            2020 started promising with the world anticipating and dreading upcoming events: the Summer Olympics, the Euro Cup, E3 2020, the U.S. Elections, etc. However, a pandemic the living world has never experienced before consumed everything. The entire human population was at a standstill and there was no choice but to have everyone hunker down and wait for “normalcy” to return, knowing that “normal” would take on a new meaning for everyone. At first, it was amusing to see European politicians taking charge of the quarantined guidelines (i.e. walking the streets and cursing at anyone who didn’t remain indoors), and after the first panic wave, U.S. citizens became “adjusted” as well. Unfortunately, COVID-19 reminded people about the little things they used to enjoy and have taken for granted. Suddenly, going to the movies and getting a haircut became missed luxuries. At the same time, millions of Americans lost their jobs, but still had bills and rent to pay. Not to mention, several towns in rural America—where the number of cases were low—were eager to return to work and were ready to reopen schools and businesses. When this was denied to them, the locals stormed the State’s Capitol Building(s) armed with guns and other weapons. When this was presented on the news, many people were surprised that the protestors were all Caucasian. Where were the local minorities, and why weren’t they participating in the protests? Meanwhile, it became clear to minorities that societal practices were still being carried out regardless of a global pandemic. In addition to the lack of medical testing for Blacks, Latinx, and people of lower income, there were several attacks on Asians due to the growing prejudice from the fear of COVID-19. I say Asians because some of the victims were NOT Chinese, but were Japanese, Korean, and other Asian descent. It looked like the United States was starting to return to normalcy, and racism was the start of it. 

            By May 2020, after 2 months of endless reruns and news coverage of COVID-19, the U.S. had returned to harassing and to killing unarmed Black Americans. First, was the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot and killed by two White civilians while jogging in Georgia. The two gunmen stated that they were protecting the neighborhood from robbers. Next, was the shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Police in Kentucky. The police officers were conducting a drug raid when they entered the wrong house and shot Taylor 8 times, killing her. Then, there was the incident involving Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park. Amy Cooper was ignoring park guidelines when she was confronted by Christian Cooper. Ms. Cooper decided to play “the victim” and called the cops claiming she was “being threatened by a Black man.” Luckily for the Black man, the entire incident was caught on camera thanks to a smartphone. Last, there is the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officers. After a case of mistaken identity, Floyd was said to be cooperating with the police when one of the officers knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd yelled over and over again that he couldn’t breathe while witnesses—both White and Black—begged the officer to get off of him while recording the incident. Within one month, 4 different, but common, incidents of American racism captured the attention of people who’ve been living a stagnant life and searching for something to watch either on T.V. or online. Suddenly, people started looking into these incidents and realized that there were too many names to shift through. 3 months of emotions boiled over into nationwide protesting. And suddenly, COVID-19 was no longer the “top story” on the news, and people took to the streets to voice their concerns and their outrage. 

            Yes, some of the protests turned violent with riots and looting occurring. Yet, Internet videos presented the reality within these protests: many of those who lost their jobs joined the protests alongside racists and Antifa, trying to turn the peaceful protests into something else. Now, why would racists and Antifa participate in these protests? It’s because they know they can cause as much destruction and anarchy as they want and blame it on Black Lives Matter. And, for a while, it was working. However, witnesses, security cameras and police work demonstrated some truths: many of the vandals were Caucasian. That’s not to say that some of the looters were NOT Black (the looting I witnessed at my job was done by minorities), but it goes to show how racism continues to dominate everything in the U.S. 

            Now, if I asked you to name 5 Black comedians, would you be able to do it? How about 5 victims of racism and/or police brutality from the last 20 years? I bet you can name more comedians than victims, and hence we reached one of the many issues regarding these protests. You’ve heard the names and many excuses have been made for those who killed them, but you all claim you understand now why we’re angry. Sorry, but a lot of minorities don’t believe you because these incidents repeat over and over again. Then, older people claim that these protests remind them of the ones during the 1960s and the 1970s. Did they forget about the protests that occurred during the 1990s and the early 2000s? Let’s take a look at America’s racial protest history. 

            Emmett Till’s murder on August 28, 1955 was the spark of the Civil Rights Movement—Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells were some of the prominent figures from the movement during the 1920s. Yet, it seems modern American society wants to acknowledge only Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. due to his “non-violent policy,” which was influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. People forget that the non-violent protests were Dr. King’s way of presenting the brutality of White culture towards Coloreds; and, he made sure it was all caught on television. It seems that the efforts of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael were for naught, especially when the first two activists were assassinated before Dr. King. That’s right those three Civil Rights leaders were assassinated including the “peaceful” one. It was Dr. King’s death which saw the rise of the Black Panther Party led by both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panther Party scared Americans throughout the 1970s because they bought guns (and used them) in order to protect themselves. Ironically, this would lead to a change in the open carry law in California. 

Now, how many of those names were you familiar with? And no, Dr. King doesn’t count. While Dr. King does deserve the praise and the recognition, the issue lies in the fact that he receives all of the glory. Dr. King has so many printed biographies that some can be labelled as a poor resource in comparison to the other ones. And, his quotes are used and taken out of context so often that they’re starting to lose their meaning. Meanwhile, The Autobiography of Malcolm X continues to be removed from the curriculum in schools across the U.S. And, what about James Baldwin and Richard Wright? They’re books were instrumental during the Civil Rights Movement, but they have been moved to Black History readings and potential mentions on A.P. and I.B. examinations. It’s almost like Black Americans have to do the research themselves. Speaking of which, now that the majority of the current population now knows what “The Black Wallstreet Massacre” is thanks to WATCHMEN, then maybe now is a good time to watch the movie, Rosewood.

The same can be said about other “minorities” and their history in relation to American society. We should know who Che Guevara, Rigoberta Menchú, and the Mirabel Sisters are and their significance to the Latinx culture and history. We need to understand why the Cambodian genocide and the Rape of Nanking were just as horrific as The Holocaust and the Bombing of Guernica. And, we must learn why Africa continues to be a “hot spot” for large corporations even now. And, we cannot forget about Malala Yousafzai!

The last 30 years has had cases of police brutality caught on video in one format or another. The Rodney King video was, until recently, the most infamous recording of police brutality. Four police officers beat Rodney King—who was pulled over for a DUI—with batons, while someone just happened to be out with their camcorder and recorded the entire incident. The majority of Americans believed that the tape was enough proof of the tales surrounding police violence, until the verdict of “not guilty” was announced, and the Los Angeles Riots occurred in response and in reaction to that verdict. When Eric Garner was killed, the person who recorded the incident was arrested, but not the officer who was responsible for his death. Philando Castile’s death was streamed on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, and the officer was found not guilty. I’m not saying all police officers are racist. When I was 14 years-old, a White cop started following me in his patrol car. It happened more than once, and he even followed me to my (parents’) house—I dangled my keys in front of me show he could see that I lived there. The other Black students at my school and one teacher, who was White, took my fear of that police officer seriously. That teacher had me recount my tale to another police officer who was visiting my school. I told him where I lived and gave him the car number. His anger caught me off guard. The police officer, who was also White, knew who that other officer was, and he told me he would take care of it. He did, and I never saw that police officer in town (where I lived) again. In hindsight, that officer could have had any malicious intent. My point is that it took the efforts of another officer to put an end to my police harassment. Unfortunately, it seems that the good cops are in the same positions as Black Americans: helpless. 

One would like to believe that with the amount of attention this issue is getting we might see some progress. Then again, let me be straightforward and tell you that all of the media coverage is due to the fact that Americans have been dealing with a lack of purpose for months. That is not to say that there is a lack of compassion, just a knowledge that unless new laws, policies, and practices are put into place, nothing is going to change. And, I don’t mean the police. All American denizens need to admit and to accept that systematic racism is constant in our country. We allow White Americans to carry themselves however they want, but minorities have to have “The Talk” with their children when they’re as young as 6 years-old. Minorities are taught how to be “themselves” while conforming to White America’s standards, while White children are able to exploit their minority teachers and peers with racist taunts, names, and hand gestures. White children are labeled “sensitive” and minority children are labeled “difficult.” And, before you comment, it’s not all White children who are taught how to get away with these things—it was a bystander who recorded the chant of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma—but it is common knowledge. To make matters worse, society isn’t doing enough to implement change. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made it onto the American Library Association’s “Most Challenged Books” for the reason that the book is “anti-cop.” With recent events, will more parents and teachers read both that book and Dear Martin by Nic Stone? Will (book) publishers make more of an effort to publish more books by diverse authors about issues that affect them and those groups. While we all want “happy endings” both in stories and in reality, everyone should know better to believe it’ll fall into our laps. Work and awareness helps everyone deal with everything the world throws at us. 

So, let the media “care” about systematic oppression and let the sports moguls pretend to “acknowledge” racism in sports. But, unless actual change involving laws and societal practices come into play, I will remain skeptical. And, I believe it’s safe to say that many minorities feel the same way. In addition to violence against Black Americans, there have been prejudice and bigotry against the Latinx, the Asian, the Jewish, and the Muslim communities; not to mention, the few incidents involving Native Americans—remember “The Trail of Tears.” Recognition is appreciated, but we need acknowledgement and action before we know that things will begin to change. We’re just waiting to see whether or not the police officers involved in George Floyd’s death will receive a guilty verdict. We can only hope for so much, but we don’t allow our expectations to cloud the possibilities. Those who choose to remain ignorant are not allowed to be “shocked” when things don’t go as expected. 

It’s been 155 years since the emancipation of slaves, and oppression has evolved in order to maintain control over minorities. From slavery to Jim Crow to prison to systematic racism keeps us in fear, not in control. And, when the obvious gets ignored over and over again, the emotions shift from fear to anger. Anger can only be bottled up for so long before it becomes rage. And, a lot of people are ready to release their rage. While we don’t want that to happen, it looks as if the rage will burst sooner rather than later. I will continue to hope for the best with low expectations. 

Let us remember the following “known” victims of past lynchings (courtesy of BabyNames.com): 

Why You Need to Read: “The Stone Sky”

The Broken Earth 3: The Stone Sky

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 15, 2017

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Fantasy

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2018, Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2017, Winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel 2018*

            The job you “have” to do is the easier of the two, you think. Just catch the Moon. Seal the Yumenes Rifting. Reduce the current Season’s predicted impact from thousands or millions of years back down to something manageable—something the human race has a chance of surviving. End the Fifth Seasons for all time.

            The job you “want” to do, though? Find Nassun, your daughter. Take her back from the man who murdered your son and dragged her halfway across the world in the middle of the apocalypse, (1: you, in waking and dreaming). 

            N.K. Jemisin has done what very few authors have managed to do, present a good and believable ending to a series that leaves readers with a sense of both accomplishment and satisfaction. What started with The Fifth Season and continued through The Obelisk Gate ends with The Stone Sky, the third and final book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Readers and critics learn what must be done in order to put an end to an apocalypse. 

            The protagonists are once again Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, and two of the most powerful orogenes in the world right now. Both mother and daughter have made their choices regarding themselves: Essun decided to grow her powers to the fullest, and Nassun decided to identify herself as an orogene. And, both mother and daughter have to live with the consequences of their decisions—both physical and emotional. All that’s left is for the two orogenes to determine the path of the Moon. One orogene and her companions hope to save the world, while the other orogene is coaxed by her companions to destroy it. Mother and daughter will face off after they’re reunited. Essun just wants to know whether or not her 10-year-old daughter is traumatized, and Nassun wants the world to know that those with power can and will determine the ways of the world. The daughter has become as powerful as her mother, and her mother isn’t with her to provide guidance. 

            The plot of the story is a race to an underground network in order to restore “order” to the Earth. This can be achieved with orogeny and there are 2 orogenes who are powerful enough to restart it. So, who will get there first? And, what will happen once the obelisks are activated? Another plot of the story involves Essun and Nassun preparing for action when the Moon is closest to them in “orbit.” Essun has succeeded in activating the Gate while at the comm, and Nassun travels to one that’s been lost and forgotten to history. There are two subplots in this story which answers some of the remaining questions in the trilogy. The first subplot is the origin of the Stone Eaters, which leads to how the Seasons became so dangerous. The second subplot answers the question regarding the purpose of the Guardians and their relation to the Seasons. These subplots are necessary because they provide the bits of information required for the plot’s development and resolution.

            The narrative continues to shift between 1st, 2nd and 3rd points-of-view. And, the sequence falls back into flashbacks and present time. The flashbacks provide both background information and answers to the questions to how everything came to be and how it will all end. The streams-of-consciousness of all the characters make them all reliable narrators. Yes, not all of their motivations are morally good, but it’s understandable given the circumstances. These elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses for The Stone Sky tells that an end is coming. Now, whether or not that end is for the Seasons, or for the characters, or both is to be determined. But first, the author lets the audience know how the Seasons came about. At the same time, Jemisin lets her readers know that oppression of any form does not ensure safety and/or order within a society. Instead, fear and suppression take place, which can lead either to a life of secrecy or to a life full of anger. The mood in this story is one of readiness—the need to make it on time to save the world, to save the last surviving member of one’s family, and to finish preparations in order to survive the Seasons. The tone in the novel is dread due to the choices and consequences of saving the world and reuniting with estranged loved ones. However, if it came down to two possibilities, then which choice would you make? This is what the author has her characters do, they must make a choice and live, or die, with the consequences. 

             The appeal for The Stone Sky have been massive and monumental! Not only did this novel win the Nebula Award (2017) and the Locus Award (2018) for Best Novel, but also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2018)! This means that The Broken Earth Trilogy has won the Hugo Award in the same category in three consecutive years! N.K. Jemisin is the first author to accomplish this feat; and, it’s well-deserved! The Broken Earth Trilogy is not only a must read for readers of speculative fiction, but also is a magnificent work of literature overall. There have been people who’ve read this series and found it to be an excellent story regardless of its genre. The message of the cost and the resistance that results from oppression and the end-of-the-world is received—although it’s not practiced in our world, yet—and is the reality within the fiction. The Stone Sky completes this trilogy and is a must read within the canon of speculative fiction.

            The Stone Sky is a strong and powerful end to this ambitious trilogy. N.K. Jemisin has managed to raise the expectations and the standards of writing and presenting a work of speculative fiction. This book series is one of my all-time favorites. Not to mention, I’ll be re-reading and recommending these books for years to come! Everyone needs to read this amazing trilogy!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Obelisk Gate”

The Broken Earth 2: The Obelisk Gate

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 16, 2016

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2017*

            “We’re going somewhere you can be better,” he says gently. “Somewhere I heard of, where they can help you.” Make her a little girl again, and not…He turns away from this thought, too.

            She swallows, then nods and steps back, looking up at him. “Is Mama coming, too?”

            Something moves across Jija’s face, subtle as an earthquake. “No.”

            And Nassun, who was fully prepared to go off into the sunset with some lorist, relaxes at last. “Okay, Daddy,” she says, and heads to her room to pack.

            Jija gazes after her for a long, breath-held moment. He turns away from Uche again, gets his own things, and heads outside to hitch up the horse to the wagon. Within an hour they are away, headed south with the end of the world on their heels,” (1: Nassun, on the rocks).

            N.K. Jemisin presented a believable futuristic dystopian world by blending science and history—with a bit of magic—in The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. The book received tons of praise from both readers and critics alike; and, it even won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2017. The book’s characters, history, revelations and cliffhangers have readers wondering what would happen next. We get some answers in the second book in the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate.

            The protagonists in this book focuses on Essun and Nassun—mother and daughter—who are trying to survive the Fifth Season while trying to keep their orogene abilities discreet. Unfortunately, the latter is no longer an option because the secret has been exposed, with deadly consequences. Nassun, who is eight years-old, was fantasizing of a life away from her home, and her mother, when her actions led to her father learning the truth about his family, unintentionally. Nassun is whisked away by her father—who is relying on a fantasy for a return to “normalcy”—not realizing that she was safer with her mother than with her father. Yet, the further away father and daughter travel from their home, so does their relationship. Nassun starts to believe that something is wrong with her as her father starts and continues his physical abuse towards her. When they do arrive at the “haven,” Nassun learns the truth about her mother’s treatment of her and why her brother was killed. Not to mention, Nassun meets someone who once knew her mother, and he has plans for the daughter. All the while, Jija doesn’t appreciate being tricked a second time. How much pain and trauma can a little girl experience before lashing out at the world? Meanwhile, Essun’s journey to rescue her daughter has been halted by the change in the atmosphere due to the changing seasons and her running into someone else she believed to be dead. And, that person wants her to finish a task he started but is unable to continue. Along with her companions—both from the past and the present—Essun tries to figure out a way to do the impossible, which could save everyone. Both mother and daughter develop both as individuals and in their orogene abilities. Essun has to start where she left off 10 years ago and to determine for herself how powerful she really is; at the same time, Nassun learns of the life her mother was trying to protect her from. All she can do is protect herself by becoming smarter and more powerful in orogeny. Nassun is in survival mode and she refuses to let anyone, or anything, hurt her again. 

            The plot continues where it left off in the first book: a mother seeks her missing daughter and vengeance for her murdered son. Along the way, Essun’s past catches up with her and soon she realizes that she has to make peace with her past before any more harm can come to her daughter. In spite of that, Nassun does experience everything her mother did, but in a location unknown to other Guardians and with its own set of rules. While Nassun does prove to be very talented in orogeny—thanks to her mother—she doesn’t have the same fear of the Fulcrum as Essun did. Instead, Nassun’s fears are reserved for her father, who slowly realizes that there is no way to rid oneself of orogeny. There are two subplots in this story, which develop alongside the plots. The first is the life in a comm during a Season. While Essun and her companions figure out a way to accomplish their tasks, the members of the comm devise plans and methods for their survival of the Season. It is unclear how long the Season will last and who will survive (a lot of harsh decisions will be carried out), but everyone must work together to ensure their survival. The second subplot focuses on the Stone Eaters. The surviving orogenes—particularly the powerful ones—and the readers, learn more about them and their nature including their lifespans, their goals, and their need to protect the orogenes. This subplot is interesting because while the world knows of their existence, little is known about them. These subplots function as world-building elements as well. This is because to understand how and why a Season changes everything, an explanation of the world must be given to the readers. 

            The narrative in The Obelisk Gate is more straightforward. In The Fifth Season, the narrative jumps between two timelines in the past and two in the present. In the sequel, the sequence sticks with the present as it moves between the points-of-view of the protagonists. However, the P.O.V.s does shift between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person amongst ALL of the characters. Readers should be used to the changing P.O.V.s; and, if not, then they should know that these multiple P.O.V.s do provide the streams-of-consciousness from reliable narrators. Yes, even foes and children can be reliable narrators. These narrative methods allow readers to follow the story while understanding what is happening to the characters at the end-of-the-world.

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses in The Obelisk Gate combines science and communal survival during an emergency with the themes and the practices of systematic oppression and abuse on a group of individuals. All of the talks about the Moon, satellites and seismic activity is based on science. The practice of “harboring” people who are different in separate facilities and “training” them to be “useful” is a form of oppression. And, while differences should be ignored when a group of people are hunkered down and trying to survive, that doesn’t always occur. Old practices die hard and there are always victims. In fact, it is known for abuse to increase during such times and relationships change as well (and not for the better). The mood in this novel is preparation. The world has acknowledged that a Season has begun and everyone works and strives in order to survive it. That means a lot of harsh decisions and cruel practices are carried out, but it must be done in order to ensure survival. The tone relates to the idea that only the strong and the useful survive an apocalypse. We don’t want to admit this, but it’s the truth within the fiction. And, the author makes sure that we remember this truth regarding the survival of the fittest in a dystopian world. 

            The appeal for The Obelisk Gate adds to the praise of The Fifth Season. Not only has the second book achieved the same acclaim as the first book by critics and fans, but also was nominated for several speculative fiction awards and won the Hugo Award a year after the first book did, which is a rare achievement! The success of this series of far has brought readers of different genres to read this work of speculative fiction. And, with the cliffhanger at the end of the book, readers will be eager to learn how the story ends in The Stone Sky.

            The Obelisk Gate is a brilliant sequel to The Fifth Season. The development of the plot and the characters alongside the pacing continues to keep readers engaged in the story. The themes of family, survival, oppression and truth are found within the narrative as reminders that an apocalypse doesn’t always bring people together for the greater good. Survival is the key.

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)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Rage of Dragons”

The Burning #1: The Rage of Dragons

By: Evan Winters                                               Audiobook: 16 hours, 15 minutes

Published: July 16, 2019                                    Narrated by: Prentice Onayemi

Genre: Fantasy/Military/Historical Fiction/Folklore

            And if Tau didn’t feel better, it had to be because there was still so much to do. He needed to go to Kigambe and test to become an Ihashe. Then he’d have military status and the right to blood-duel anyone in the Chosen military. The old law was the only way a Lesser could kill a Noble with impunity, (Chapter Three, Fallen).

            2019 was an amazing year for debut authors, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Without listing all of the names of the authors who helped elevate the genre with their stories, some of them are using “older,” “classic,” and “overused” tropes in the genre. However, just like how other authors such as: George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Brandon Sanderson have written their stories mixing “classic” tropes with “unexpected, but believable” twists. Evan Winter is the latest author to incorporate this sort of narrative into his stories. The Rage of Dragons—the first book in The Burning Series—is an African-inspired epic fantasy story, which starts off with war, dragons and revenge, but grows into a rich tale with realistic characters, great world-building, and a believable society whose cultural and socioeconomical practices reflect those of our actual history. 

            Tau is the protagonist in this novel. He is an adolescent who is old enough to “Test” in order to enter the military of the Omehi, his tribe. He is the son of a High Common woman and a Lesser man (his mother ran off with Tau’s father, Aren, only to return to her family after Tau was born). Although tradition and status come from the mother—Tau’s surname is Tafari—Tau is raised and treated as his father’s son. Tau is very much aware of his place in life (servitude) and what his expectations are supposed to be (military life). However, Tau desires a simple life: land and a family with his crush, Zuri—a handmaiden. So, he comes up with a dangerous, yet practical way to gain those desires. Unfortunately, Tau never gets the chance to put his plan into action. Within one day, Tau loses all he holds dear to him and he must flee from his home before he is executed. From that day, Tau is consumed with anger and a new plan: to become an Ihashe warrior, the best one in living memory. After arriving in the capital—and barely surviving the Testing—Tau becomes an Ihashe Initiate and is placed in a Scale (or Unit) led by Umgondisi (Captain or General) Jayyed Ayim—a former adviser to the Guardian Council—who has a special interest in Tau and the other Initiates in his Scale. It is this moment when Tau decides to go by his father’s surname, Solarin. Throughout his training, Tau works harder than any other Initiate, honing his growing anger into his weapons training. He is not alone during the training. He is accompanied by: Hadith, who is known for his strategic planning; Uduak, a huge Initiate who is more aware of Tau’s anger than anyone else; and, Zuri, an Initiate of the Gifted—a female whose powers can call dragons. Throughout the novel, Tau becomes the warrior he wants to be and gets closer and closer to his goal towards vengeance. However, Tau’s anger remains within him and he lacks both an outlet and a support system for his grief and his anger. His companions keep him grounded, but how long will these characters stand with Tau knowing his anger can burst into a fit of rage at any moment? 

            The plot of this novel is Tau’s path to take revenge on those who left him with nothing. As much as this sounds like the trope of “the son getting revenge for his father’s death,” Tau neither finds a mentor nor finds companionship within his Scale. Instead, Tau isolates himself as much as possible from other people and focuses on his training instead of his raging emotions and how those could affect his fighting techniques while doing drills with his Scale. Some readers will notice that Tau’s method of dealing with his emotions can lead Tau to having a mental breakdown. There are two main subplots in this novel. The first one is Tau’s training. The author is not only writing a story about one’s path towards vengeance, but also a fantasy story which is influenced heavily in military history and strategy. As Tau goes through his training, both Tau and the readers learn about fighting stances, strategic planning and battle formations, all of which are practiced and exercised over and over throughout the narrative. This subplot serves as a device for time. It’s going to take years for Tau to become the warrior he wants to become, and the length of training all of the Initiates undergo makes the story more realistic. The second subplot is the division between the Omehi and the Xiddeen, and between the Nobles and the Lessers of the Omehi. For almost 200 years (and since the Omehi landed on the beach), both the Omehi and the Xiddeen have been at war. Recent events have caused rumors of a potential truce between the two warring tribes. However, after fighting for generations, what other lifestyle could await the armies? Will they lose their purpose? As for the division between the Nobles and the Lessers, Tau is proof that such unions are possible. Socioeconomic status is a constant universal issue and theme in human history and culture. When the truce promises to bring an end to the division between Lessers and Nobles, which group from which tribe will rebel and which one will comply? These subplots are necessary for the plot because they embellish the world-building in the story and remind readers of Tau’s initial reasons for joining the army. The plot develops at an appropriate pace; and, the subplots are necessary for the plot because they are “breaks” from the military aspect of the story which are as severe as the issues on the Homefront. 

            The narrative is told in first person point-of-view in present time. With the exception of the prologue, the epilogue, and a handful of chapters in between, the narrative is told from Tau’s viewpoint. Tau’s hardships, training and motivations are written in sequence with his stream-of-consciousness so that readers know what he is thinking and experiencing with his actions, concurrently. The change of characters’ P.O.V. demonstrate not only how Tau presents himself to those around him, but also presents the conflicts the other characters are dealing with at the same time (hint: they’re based on the subplots). While Tau is a ticking timebomb, he is a reliable narrator. The narrative is well-written—even with the jumps in the P.O.V.s—and they can be followed by the readers. 

            The style Evan Winter uses in his novel focuses on the history of violence between two conflicting sides. The use of power, strength and abilities in the author’s writing is part of his central theme of violence. Yes, this story is influenced by African history and folklore, but the violence and the emotions can originate from any individual throughout the world past and present. The military aspect of the story will remind readers that this is an epic military fantasy, not just a story containing traditional fantasy tropes. The mood in The Rage of Dragons is one of anger and warfare which is expressed and reflected amongst all of the characters in the author’s world. The tone is how the elements that make up the mood are dealt with by these characters; should they find a truce or submit to their unstable emotions and desires? The mood matches the tone in the themes of war, violence and division. 

            The appeal for The Rage of Dragons have been positive. The debut novel has been called “one of the best fantasy books of 2019” by several critics. And, it was one of my favorite speculative books of 2019! Any readers who are fans of world-building, magic and dragons will enjoy this book. Fans of military fantasy will enjoy this story, too. I listened to the audiobook of this novel and Prentice Onayemi’s performance and narration was the best choice for this book. This is because both his accent and his pronunciation of the words and the terminology made the story more realistic. It does take some getting used to, but the audiobook is worth listening to. There are some concerns by a few readers about the use of “worn out fantasy tropes.” My answer to that is Tau’s story starts down that route, but the focus shifts towards something else, which foreshadows future events forthcoming in the sequel, The Fires of Vengeance. Only Evan Winter knows which tropes he’ll stick with and which ones he’ll twist. 

            The Rage of Dragons is the latest work of fantasy that combines dragons with African influences. What starts off as a trope for one individual’s vengeance evolves into a military story about the struggles for power and the purpose of war. The idea that war can be used for world-building is nothing new. However, the emotional toll of the training and the fighting in a war within a corrupted society containing dragons will remind fantasy fans of one or two popular series. That being said, Evan Winter gifted fantasy fans with an action-packed military tale that should not be missed. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Kingdom of Copper”

The Daevabad Trilogy #2: The Kingdom of Copper

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: February 21, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            She shook her head. “Whatever the consequences, Dara acted to protect my daughter from a fate I fought for decades. I cannot fault him for that. And if you think Ghassan wasn’t looking for a reason to crack down on the Daevas the instant a Nahid and Afshin strolled through the gates of Daevabad, you clearly do not know him at all.” She gave them another sharp look. “Tearing each other apart is not why we are here,” (4, Dara). 

            As I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass, the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy, this is a series in which the characters and the world are influenced by Middle Eastern history, culture and folklore. Yet, the story of political power, corruption and struggle is a universal theme in stories and an issue within our world. The Kingdom of Copper expands both the influences and the themes in the magical world S.A. Chakraborty presents to us.

            The story takes place 5 years after Dara’s—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—death and resurrection, Nahri’s forced marriage to Prince Muntadhir, and Prince Alizayd’s—Muntadhir’s younger brother—exile to Am Gezira for plotting against his father, King Ghassan al Qahtani. Dara has been resurrected by Manizheh, Nahri’s mother—who faked her death in order to protect herself and her family—so that he can assist her in leading a rebellion against King Ghassan for his treachery and in order to reclaim the throne that was held by the Nahids—the ancestors and tribe of Nahri and Manizheh. Nahri is now wife to Muntadhir, the king’s son and heir, is the new Banu Nahid, or royal healer, and is trapped in the gilded cage of the palace with no one she can trust. She uses her healing gifts and her desire to be a physician in order to cope with her current scenario and unwanted status. Prince Ali has settled in a small community in an oasis in Am Gezira away from his father’s assassins and members of his mother’s family (who want him on the throne). During his exile he learns how to control the abilities gifted to him by the marid, water spirits, on the night he slew Dara. All three protagonists are in scenarios based on the poor choices they made 5 years ago. They all have to live with the consequences of their actions and find other methods to achieve their original goals. Dara, Nahri and Ali develop further into maturity and they must find a way to maneuver through the unrest between ruling classes and amongst the six tribes of the djinn. The complexity of their situations mirror the complexity of their characteristics. 

            The plot continues from where The City of Brass left off. King Ghassan continues to subdue his subjects—mostly the shafit (those of mixed human and djinn heritage)—to harsh treatment and brutal punishments for minor offenses. Ghassan believes with Ali exiled for his betrayal, the death of the last of the Afshins (a.k.a. Dara), and his dominance over Nahri and the supporters of the Nahids he’ll remain in control. However, the king’s enemies have learned how to work underground and soon of the king’s subjects will revolt against the descendants of the rebel who overthrew the Nahids from power. This plot was the subplot in the first book, and it proves how relevant it is to this story’s narrative. There are two main subplots. The first regards Dara and his failure to protect Nahri is the latest of his long list of failures. Due to his imprisonment before meeting Nahri, Dara hasn’t had time to deal with the consequences of his actions that led to the death of his family. Not to mention, Dara’s memories are becoming clearer and he’s starting to remember the events that led to his actions from centuries ago, and those memories are causing him to question whether or not his alliance with Manizheh will lead to similar consequences. The second subplot focuses on the concept of identity and what it means for both Nahri and Ali. Nahri knows she is descended from the Nahids, but she’s not sure what that means. She doesn’t trust anyone in Daevabad, so promises of better things to come by the priests and the other healers means nothing to her. At the same time, Nahri stumbles over information as to how and what her ancestors were really like during their reign in Daevabad and what the Daeva priests expect from her. Meanwhile, Ali learns that he has more abilities than the ones “gifted” to him by the marids. Once again, Ali must find a way to keep his family safe while protecting the denizens of Daevabad from his father’s tyranny. These subplots move along with the plot at an appropriate rate providing development of the plot and the characters, and a way to continue the world-building left off in the first book. 

            The narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali. Once again, the P.O.V.s are 3rd person limited narrative; meaning they know only what is happening around them at that moment, which means the narrative is told in real time. Readers are aware of each protagonist’s thoughts thanks to their stream-of-consciousness, and because there are moments when one protagonist knows more than the other two at random intervals. All three protagonists are reliable narrators and they provide readers with everything that is going on with all of the characters—including moments of foreshadowing—which, can be followed easily due to the narrative’s sequence.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses continues from The City of Brass to The Kingdom of Copper. The history and the folklore of the Middle East—during the Ottoman Rule—continues to influence the story, and the themes of tyrannical rule and rebellion and its endless cycle within the story. The mood in this book is one of tension brought on by corruption and mistreatment of people and the fighting amongst the tribes and the growth of that tension. The tone in this story is how someone should react when tensions are to the point where unrest is coming and how someone should prepare themselves for it regardless of how others want them to act. Trusting one’s instincts is the only way someone can hope to survive when unrest is inevitable. 

            The appeal towards The Kingdom of Copper buildup from the first book. Readers and critics alike praised the author for continuing her fantasy story using her method of storytelling, which led to compliments about the story’s structure by a few readers. Now that the stakes have been raised, fans can only hope for more from S.A. Chakraborty. The critical acclaim will keep the book in popularity and in the fantasy canon. And, fans will be eager to read the story’s conclusion in The Empire of Gold when it is released. 

             The Kingdom of Copper is a strong sequel in The Daevabad Trilogy. The pacing of the world-building and the conflicts go at a more appropriate rate this time, and the input of a realm’s forgotten history makes the story more realistic. The complexity of the characters make them all the more tragic, yet lovable. This novel makes the upcoming conclusion to this trilogy to be very promising. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

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

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Armour”

This is the episode everyone has been waiting for! Armour is the episode in which, the audience is introduced to Lee Scoresby—played by Lin-Manuel Miranda—and Iorek Byrnison—voiced by Joe Tandberg. These characters are not only essential to the story because of the roles they’ll play in the future, but also because they explain more about the existence of daemons for more clarity. Viewers of the 2007 movie will see these characters portrayed differently; and, readers will rejoice at this faithfulness to the books. 

            Lyra Belaqua and the Gyptians arrive North at a port in order to stock up on supplies for the journey and to contact the Witches—including one named Serafina Pekkala—to ask for their alliance in getting the children back from the Gobblers. These are the scenes in which the other characters, and the audience, witness how Lyra uses and reads the alethiometer. Lyra’s abilities to read the alethiometer and the truth of her parentage has started to catch the attention of Mrs. Coulter, the Gyptians, the Witches’ Council, and the Magisterium. The audience will recall that the Master of Jordan College discovered something about Lyra, and he was trying his best to keep her safe to the extent (and the extremes) of his status. 

            Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter continues to demonstrate her cunningness and her abilities as a power player within the Magisterium. She knows her previous actions went against their instructions and the law, but Mrs. Coulter manages to evade them because she’s already a few steps ahead of the Magisterium. She has made an alliance with the King of the Armoured Bears—yes, I’m using the British English spelling for this review—and they have someone both she, and the Magisterium, want.   

            Once again, these scenes are straight from the books with the exception of the bar fights. That scene was meant to present the demeanor and the skills Lee Scoresby has and what that means for the Gyptians as they continue their journey further North. Iorek Byrnison is presented to us as Armoured Bears are supposed to be; he’s a strong and fearless fighter, and he isn’t afraid to let everyone know. The Gyptians have the alliance of the Witches and Lyra manages to gain the alliance of both of these fighters for the rescue mission. The rescue party has assembled, and they are off to save the missing children. 

            Just like other media adaptations in recent years, we’ve seen actors transcend from one popular media series to another. So far, we’ve seen Narnia, X-Men, and Game of Thrones. This episode has a character from the Harry Potter movies. Do you know who it is? Did you recognize that individual in the role they were playing?  

My Rating: 10 out of 10