Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Books to Lookout For: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)!!!

Essential Reads: Books for Women’s History Month

In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. However, March 8this International Women’s Day. So, the entire planet acknowledges half of its population for one day. And, similar to Black History Month, we tend to recognize the same figures over and over. While this is not as problematic as with the figures from other demographics, it is easy to overlook women whose achievements get overshadowed by others.

            For this recommendation, I’m going to select a woman from each region throughout the world, and from ancient history to modern times. Some of these women are notable, some more obscure. In all, these women give insight to the challenges within the society and how they met them head on. You might not know all of their names, but you’ll know about their resilience against oppression. 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban(2012) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

            Everyone has heard of her, but do you know of the events that led to Malala Yousafzai’s shooting? Besides learning about the Yousafzai Family and their notion that everyone deserves to be educated, you’ll learn about the practices of Islam, the recent history of Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban. This book is a real-life cautionary tale surrounding political interference, terrorist groups, and human rights. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and her story about her life, her country, and her culture should be read by anyone who is interested in human rights. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China(1991) by Jung Chang

            This family saga follows three generations of women who survived the social norms and the social changes within China during the 20thCentury. Jung Change uses her family history to tell China’s narrative and how it affected not just her family, but families throughout the world. Jung’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine during the ending of the practice of foot-binding. Her mother experienced the Cultural Revolution, which brought communism to China. And, Jung Chang is the daughter of members of the Communist Elite and was a Red Guard until she was old enough to declare the life, she wanted for herself. Each generation is thrust into a situation she must work through in order to escape that lifestyle. While Chang wasn’t the only one whose family had to survive these social norms and changes, she provides enough details for witnesses, readers, and historians to comprehend for both empathy and compassion. 

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt(2018) by Kara Cooney

            Everyone is familiar with some of the culture surrounding Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, papyrus, gods, and curses usually come to mind when thinking about the ancient civilization; and, names such as Rameses, Amenhotep, Tutankhamun, and Khufu come to mind. But, what about the female rulers? Everyone has heard of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, and less are familiar with Hatshepsut and Tawosret. How many people know who Merneith and Neferusobek were? I’ve never heard of the last two until I picked up this book.

            Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, delves into the lives and the reigns of these six remarkable queens who would eventually become pharaohs in their own right. And, how and why their government betrayed them and sought to remove them for posterity. However, history is not so easy to eclipse. While Egypt was very much ahead of its time, it still became victimized to the notions of female rulers as did the rest of the world.

            When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egyptprovides historical facts about each of the pharaohs mentioned within the text. Both the introduction and the epilogue provide answers to those common questions. These queens ruled centuries before the notable female rulers of the last thousand years. In addition, you will wonder whether or not Ancient Egypt was the progressive civilization. 

            The next recommendations are duos. This is because the fictionalized variants are more ubiquitous than the available biographies. Yet, the fiction is noteworthy because they introduce readers (and academics) to whom these people were and what was happening during that era in their country. So, both the fiction and the biographies of these women’s lives will be recommended. 

In the Time of the Butterflies(1994) by Julia Alvarez; followed by Vivas en su jardín (Live in Your Garden)(2009) by Dedé Mirabal

            The Mirabal Sisters were some of the many opponents of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters were killed on Trujillo’s orders. In the Time of the Butterfliesis the fictionalized narrative about this family’s courage and resistance against a brutal dictator. And, while Julia Alvarez included suggested reads to learn more about the Mirabal Family and the Dominican Republic, Vivas en su jardínis Dedé Mirabal’s autobiography in which, she mentions her sisters and their political resistance. It is in Spanish, but that shouldn’t prevent one from learning more about these amazing women.

Pope Joan: A Novel(1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross; followed by Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff(2017) by Charles River Editors

            For centuries, there have been rumors of the Catholic Church having a female pope. Of course, there is limited information to confirm this due to both the era—the Middle Ages—and efforts by the Vatican to limit any knowledge about this possibility. Pope Joan was believed to have serve as “The Pope” for about one year. A few reports claim that Joan might have disguised herself as a man; and, there are a few reports which claim that Joan was elected Pope as an interim by the Papacy. It is difficult to determine what had happened. Pope Joan: A Novelby Donna Woolfolk Cross is a historical fiction novel which narrates what could have happened to Pope Joan during her life. In terms of an actual biography, so far, Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff, is the only one I came across that has believable information about Pope Joan. If you know of any actual and reliable titles, then please mention it in the comments below. I would appreciate it greatly. 

            The books on this list are about women you have heard of, but forgotten about, or about women you’ve never heard of before. However, it’s the moments in human history that allowed these women to demonstrate that they were more than what society wanted them to be. Instead, these women presented themselves as equals to their male counterparts to the point where the men either attacked them, or (tried to) erased them. These women survived and prevailed, and we can admire their achievements and be content knowing that we won’t permit them to fall into obscurity for posterity. These women rock!