Why You Need to Read: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

The House in the Cerulean Sea

By: T.J. Klune

Published: March 17, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of the 2021 ALA Alex Award*

            It was set up a hill on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked as if it were at least a hundred years old. It was made of brick and had a large turret of all things set right in the middle of the roof. The side of the house facing Linus was covered in green ivy, growing around multiple white window frames. He thought he could see the outline of a gazebo set off next to the house and wondered if there was a garden. He would like that very much. He could walk through it, smelling the salt in the air and—

            He shook his head. He wasn’t here for such things. There would be no time for frivolities. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it right, (FIVE). 

            It’s amazing how a reader comes across a book. In this case, after receiving an eARC, I received a print copy of this book from a giveaway. At the time of this book’s release, the reviews were all about how great and how beautiful the story is, and how everyone should read this book. And, when I started reading the book, I realized the description didn’t do it justice to the story as a whole. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune is a poignant story about family and identity.

            The protagonist is Linus Baker, a middle-aged caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (best described as social services for “magical” children). He is the stereotypical vapid and lonesome adult who lives alone—with his cat, Calliope—and focuses on his job, in which he is very good at. In fact, Linus is so good at his job, he receives a summons from Extremely Upper Management to take part in a highly classified assignment: investigate an orphanage on the distant island, Marsyas; report and determine whether or not it should remain open; and, check the well-being of 6 “magically dangerous” children and their caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. It doesn’t sound too bad, until Linus reads the files for each child. That is when Linus realizes this assignment is unlike the other ones he’s had before, and why the files are classified. Linus reads up on the files of the children: Lucy, Talia, Theodore, Chauncey, Sal and Phee. But, he waits to read Arthur’s file because Linus believes it isn’t relevant to the assignment. In addition to the children and Arthur, there is Zoë Chapelwhite, the “Caretaker of Marsyas Island,” and the mentor to one of the children. Each of the children are as unique as their files make them out to be, and Linus is able to see them all as children and NOT the magical beings they are. While Linus has no issues with writing up his reports and bonding with the children, he is puzzled by Arthur’s demeanor, especially when it comes to the humans who reside on the island. Arthur is a complex character, but it is through him that Linus develops as both a character and an individual throughout the story. 

            Although the plot appears to be cliché, it is less straightforward and more complex than presented in the first chapter. In this world, humans and magical beings coexist in society, but they remain segregated from each other. The obvious reason for this is the fear between both groups. Humans fear what they don’t know, and the magical beings fear for their safety (from humans). Linus believes he’s investigating the Marsyas Orphanage because of his ability to “do things by the book.” However, Linus learns quickly about the true intentions of Extremely Upper Management and of Arthur’s reasons for becoming the guardian for these particular children. There are two subplots in this book. The first one surrounds foster care. Just about everyone has heard of (or knows someone who went through or works within) the foster care system—which, includes orphanages and children’s homes—and, the numerous stories—both true and false—about the ongoings that occur within them. This includes visits from caseworkers and social workers. I’m not saying that this book provides “accurate” information—I wouldn’t know—but, there is enough familiarity in this book that brings out the reality within the fantasy. The second subplot involves trauma and fear, and how it is handled. Approximately, half of the characters are dealing with their personal fears and traumas, and they all deal with them in their own way. However, there are positive and negative methods to overcome them, which are explored in this story. These subplots are necessary because they provide more depth and development to both the plot and the characters.

            The narrative follows Linus’ point-of-view in the present, and is told in 3rd person limited narration. This means that the readers know what is happening from Linus’ experiences, and what is told to him by the other characters. This use of narration is essential for the story because of Linus’ role as a case worker. He must be able to understand the children, Zoë and Arthur while maintaining his identity as a human; especially, when Linus is told of the traumas the children have gone through. This makes Linus a reliable narrator. 

            The style T.J. Klune uses for The House in the Cerulean Sea is first and foremost a commentary on stereotypes, especially those placed on children. Ironically, this book was released during the year the world was forced to observe how they operated, and how their societal practices led to social turmoil. In addition, it is children who are taught how the world will perceive them based on these societal norms and practices; and, how it can get better, or worse (usually worse), as they reach adulthood. Earlier, I mentioned foster care systems, but there are several allusions to magical beings across folklore and speculative fiction, including the “smaller details” to what some of us suspected about those magical beings. The mood in this book is paradise. Linus arrives on the island and he is awed instantly by its beauty: the weather, the colors, and the appeal. However, each literary paradise contains its own underlining issue. The tone in this book is the dismantlement of stereotypes and appearances. All of the characters have something within themselves they need to overcome so that they can continue living their lives. 

            The appeal for The House in the Cerulean Sea have been immensely positive. Several readers and critics have had nothing but great things to say about this book. In addition, this novel was named “One of the Best (SFF) Books” of 2020 by everyone from Goodreads to Amazon. This book is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon and it should be read by all fans of the genre, especially for its lighter tone. Recently, this book became one of the recipients of the American Library Association’s (a.k.a. ALA) 2021 Alex Award. And, I’m going to say that this is the first of many accolades this book will receive. 

            The House in the Cerulean Sea is the magical book readers and fans didn’t know they needed. T.J. Klune presents a story about stereotypes surrounding identity, youth, family and appearances; and, it provides a bit of magic to it in order to present it as realistic, and it works. If you are looking for a fantasy story that will make you smile, then look no further. 

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

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: “The Empire of Gold”

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold

By: S.A. Chakraborty 

Published: June 30, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

            Daevabad, in all its glory and infamy. The mighty brass walls embellished with the facades of its founders, her ancestors. The crush of ziggurats and minarets, temples and stupas; the dizzying array of clashing architecture and eras—each group, each voice leaving its defiant mark on the city of djinn. The shafit stolen from Persepolis and Timbuktu, the wandering scholars and warrior-poets from every corner of the world. The laborers who, when their work was left unacknowledged in official chronicles, had instead emblazoned their names in graffiti. The women who, after erecting universities and libraries and mosques, were kept silent because of “respectability,” had stamped their presence on the cityscape itself, (42: Nahri).

            It still amazes me how I almost missed this series. When a book’s title and/or cover captures your attention, make time to read it because you might enjoy it to the point where it becomes one of your new favorite books. The Daevabad Trilogy has been a different reading experience and its due to the influence based on Middle Eastern culture and the classic story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The series started with The City of Brass and continued with The Kingdom of Copper, which had an ending that left readers stunned. The Empire of Gold is the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy, and it begins where the last book left off.  

            The story begins with the antagonist, Manizheh—the former Banu Nahid and mother to both Nahri and Jamshid—as she looks over Daevabad after the almost successful usurpation of the kingdom and its ruler, King Ghassan. The rebellion was “almost successful” because Manizheh failed to retrieve Suleiman’s Seal. Instead, Nahri and Prince Alizayd beat her to the ring. And, just as Nahri and Ali are confronted by Manizheh, they jumped into the lake to get away from her only to find themselves transported to Cairo. Meanwhile, because the ring has been taken out of Daevabad, magic has vanished. Now, Manizheh is left without her magic and with hostile forces who are either trying to gain more independence or regrouping to take her down and reclaim the kingdom. Manizheh descends into madness as she struggles to maintain control of Daevabad. There is only one individual who has magic in Daevabad and it’s Darayavahoush e-Afshin. Dara is fighting a war within himself. He’s struggling to display his loyalty to Manizheh while trying to reach a truce with all of the 6 Tribes, the surviving members of the royal family, and the shafit. In addition, all of the trauma Dara experienced during the last war, which led to the deaths of his family has been resurfacing. It doesn’t take long for Dara to realize that history is repeating itself, and he’s the only one who comprehends what the war could lead to for everyone in Daevabad. This causes Dara to do everything he can to achieve a truce even if it means betraying his Nahid. Thousands of miles away, Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo with no clue as to how or why they ended up there. Ali wants to return to Daevabad immediately, but Nahri needs some convincing. The last 5 years haven’t been kind neither to the prince nor to the Banu Nahid, but it is the former’s surviving family members who remain at risk. After a lot of consideration, Nahri agrees to save Daevabad from Manizheh. Unfortunately, the journey back to Daevabad is even more perilous than Nahri’s first journey there with Dara. Not to mention, it turns out EVERYONE is searching for Nahri and Ali, and not just their families. Numerous “outsiders” hope to collect the bounty, and several mystical beings demand the payments of their ancestors’ “debts.” Why does everyone know about Nahri’s heritage except her? And, what other “debts” does Ali have to pay on behalf of both his maternal and his paternal ancestors? Throughout the story Nahri, Ali and Dara develop as characters as they find ways to overcome their traumas as they fight to save their home and to restore magic. It is essential to understand that the horrors and the traumas these protagonists face do not motivate their actions, they allow them to make “reasonable” decisions as they strive to change their world for the better. 

            The plot in this story picks up where The Kingdom of Copper ended. King Ghassan’s tyrannical rule is over, but Banu Manizheh proves quickly to be more ruthless and more paranoid than her former oppressor. And, Manizheh didn’t factor in losing Suleiman’s Seal or magic. Now, she feels powerless and she is forced to depend on Dara to complete her tasks. Meanwhile, Dara doesn’t wish to lose his independence, so he works against Manizheh secretly in order to keep everyone alive. Another plot in this story is Ali and Nahri’s journey back to Daevabad, which is full of physical and emotional turmoil. Ali has to decide whether or not to go through with his plans or that of his family’s. Nahri is dealing with what was revealed to her about her family and whether or not it’s true. The 2 friends need a plan to retake Daevabad and to defeat Manizheh, but it looks like they’ll have to make bargains of their own. There is one subplot in this novel and it relates to family. Ali, Nahri and Dara have struggled with family expectations—yes, even Nahri—and they’ve had an impact on all 3 of them. Ali has been a dutiful prince, but clashed against his father’s rule and his mother’s ambitions. Nahri was told what was expected of her due to her heritage even though she believed her relatives were all dead. Dara did everything that was expected of him by both his family and the (then) ruling family—the Nahids—only to witness his family’s deaths and the Nahids being overthrown. All 3 protagonists attempt to go against their family’s expectations as they strive to make their own decisions and what is best for themselves. This subplot is necessary for the plots of the story because readers can relate to some of the struggles the protagonists are experiencing and why they make certain choices throughout the story. 

            Once again, the narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali—with one chapter told in Manizheh’s P.O.V. The narrative is told in real-time and are in 3rd person limited narrative—the characters know only what is happening around them and to them at the moment. All 3 protagonists are reliable narrators because each of them provide everything that is happening to them, including the mistakes they make. The narrative follows the streams-of-consciousness of all of the protagonists. Yet, keep in mind these characters experience both flashbacks and memories. It is important to know the two are not the same thing, and the narrative is able to present this distinction.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses for The Empire of Gold is a continuation of what readers received from the previous books in the trilogy. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern culture are major influences in this book, and there are allusions to the Ottomans and the Napoleonic Wars as well. Now, instead of an impending rebellion, civil war has broken out after the ruler has been overthrown, and the person who claims she is in charge does not know how to maintain control and cannot solve the kingdom’s biggest dilemma, which is the loss of magic. The mood in this novel is discord. All over the world, magic is gone and everyone is dealing with the ramifications, including the civil war in Daevabad. The tone in this novel is resilience and which of the characters, including the protagonists, are able to withstand all of the incoming challenges. Readers should refer to the maps and the appendices as they read this book so that they can keep track of the Tribes and the world-building.

            The appeal for The Empire of Gold have been positive. Several fans and readers have lauded the author for providing a strong conclusion to this trilogy. Yes, this book is over 700 pages long, but any fantasy fan will appreciate all of the world-building the author has put into her books. Not only does this series belong in the fantasy canon, but also is a great addition to the historical fantasy and the Middle Eastern fantasy subgenres. Even George R.R. Martin has praised this series. And, fans can expect a new series from the author in 2022!

            The Empire of Gold is a gratifying end to The Daevabad Trilogy. The plots answer all of the questions readers have about the characters, and the author provides appropriate endings for all of them. Do not be intimidated by the book’s size because you will finish reading it before you know it. Fans of Tasha Suri, Sabaa Tahir, Egyptian mythology, and Scheherazade will enjoy this series the most. This book is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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). 

Why You Need to Read: “Harrow the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir                                                                    Audiobook 19 hours and 51 minutes

Published: August 4, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Horror/Gothic/Dark Fantasy

            The Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus ought to have been the 311th Reverend Mother of her line. She was the eighty-seventh “Nona” of her House; she was the first Harrowhark. She was named for her father, who was named for his mother, who was named for some unsmiling extramural penitent sworn into the silent marriage bed of the Locked Tomb. This had been common. Drearburh had never practiced Resurrection purity. Their only aim was to keep the necromantic lineage of the tomb keepers unbroken. Now all its remnant blood was Harrow; she was the last necromancer, and the last of her line left alive, (3).

            Series are an interesting concept. They allow for the continuation of a story either with the same characters from the previous story, or with new characters, or both within the same world. At the same time, the plot (and, at times, the subplot(s)) continues to develop so that both the audience and the characters know what has to happen and what will happen by the end of this part of the story. Harrow the Ninth—the sequel to Gideon the Ninth—by Tamsyn Muir follows Harrowhawk after she achieves Lyctorhood and what it means to serve the Emperor. 

            Harrowhark Nonagesimus has achieved her goal (at 17 years-old). She has become a Lyctor and the Ninth Saint to serve the King Undying. However, she learns quickly that there are conditions for serving the Emperor; one of them is that Harrowhark cannot return home to the Ninth House. This means that her goal of restoring her House can no longer happen. Not to mention, Harrow must start training and using her abilities as a Lyctor as well as learn the responsibilities of her new role. The main one is protecting the Emperor from all threats. She learns about these threats as well, and Harrow is astonished to learn what they are. Overnight, Harrowhark goes from being in charge and knowing almost everything to finding herself at the bottom of the pyramid and answering to those who believe Harrow became a Lyctor at too young of an age. In addition, Harrow begins to suffer from hallucinations and memory loss. This puts Harrowhark in an even more vulnerable position than she is used to. Then again, it seems that Harrow was expecting this because she left several letters to herself so that she could remind herself of everything that led up to her current predicament. But, is it enough? Accompanying Harrow with her Lyctor training are: the Emperor, Augustine, Mercymorn, Ortus and Ianthe—all are the surviving Lyctors who train Harrow while serving the Emperor. Harrow is a very complex characters who develops throughout the story. 

            The plot is jumbled and confusing, but it does develop as the story is presented. The story is Harrowhark’s training as a Lyctor, which will remind readers of a combination of military boot camp and pledging for a fraternity or a sorority. While this form of training is brutal, it is the sort of training Harrow needs in order to survive her “work” for the Emperor. The plot of the story are the events which lead to the murder of the Emperor. The King Undying has reigned for 10,000 years; so, why and how would the Emperor meet his end? There are two subplots which are the main focus in this book. The first one focuses on the ongoings within the First House. This includes Harrow’s training, her missions, and the interactions amongst all of the Lyctors and the Emperor, which are essential due to Harrow’s memory loss. The second subplot is about the mysterious individual who is lurking throughout the First House. The individual seems to know of everything that is going on, but manages to remain unseen by everyone except for another mystery person who is unknown as well. The subplots are necessary for the plot, and the story will keep the reader(s) engaged, but neither one helps with the plot development. In fact, it is not until the end of Act Four where all of these plot devices come together into something more coherent.

            The narrative in Harrow the Ninth is very difficult to follow, but it’s supposed to be that way. This is because the sequence jumps from streams-of-consciousness and flashbacks (amongst more than one character) as well the points-of-view moving amongst 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. All the while, the reader(s) are attempting to figure out who the other narrators are besides Harrowhark. One of the narrators is someone readers did not expect to appear, but—in my opinion—the character’s revelation took too long to be confirmed by the author. I mentioned that the narrative is difficult to follow, but it is supposed to represent everything that is happening to Harrowhark. The narrative represents memory, trauma, and life, which are not always coherent, even to the individual experiencing it. In other words, Harrowhark is not a reliable narrator, but the other ones are; and, they take over whenever Harrow’s narrative begins to falter. 

            The style Tamsyn Muir uses in Harrow the Ninth is similar, yet different from the one she used in Gideon the Ninth. While the author continues writing her story following Gothic elements, she includes horror and science fiction in order to expand the world she has created. I mentioned Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my review of Gideon the Ninth as one of the books that fall under the Gothic genre. I’m mentioning this book again because some aspects from that book can be found in this one. Another Gothic horror story that the author was influenced by as well is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story is familiar to many people, but the book contains more of the reality of what was happening within the community and not just the “relationship” between the two “men.” Once you read both stories, then it should make (some) sense. The mood in this novel is one of anxiety. While it is clear Harrowhark suffers from anxiety, she is not the only one who is dreading the outcome of a potential end. The tone in this novel is a blueprint. Every character within this story was planning something; and they all carried it out. Whether or not the results came into fruition has yet to be determined. 

            Once again, I listened to the audiobook. Moira Quirk returns as the narrator and her performance and her pronunciation of the characters and the names were amazing and a huge help. It needs to be said that while the audiobook helped me with following along with the story, I still had to open the book (which was given to me by a friend) and reread portions so that I knew that I was keeping up with the story. So, in this case, I needed both the book and the audiobook in order to read this story. 

            The appeal for Harrow the Ninth have been mixed. Many fans who enjoyed Gideon the Ninth, loved the sequel. At the same time, other fans found themselves either torn or confused with how they were supposed to feel about the narrative. While everything falls into place by the story’s end, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the readers have more questions than answers. Hopefully, these questions will be answered in the third and final book, Alecto the Ninth. It should be mentioned that this book is a great addition to the horror and the Gothic canon. Harrow the Ninth should be reread so that the readers can group everything that happened in the book. 

            Harrow the Ninth is a rollercoaster reading experience. There are several moments when your head jumbles and your thoughts move in loops, but once you reach the end, you are left with an unforgettable experience. I found this narrative to be confusing and incomplete compared to the first book, but the story kept my interest until the end. Everything starts to make sense towards the end, so I suggest that you don’t ignore everything leading up to that point. Other than all of that, my curiosity remains piqued. So yes, I will be reading the final book in this series. 

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Vengeful”

Villains, #2: Vengeful

By: V.E. Schwab

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Superheroes

            “Most Eos are the result of accidents,” he said, studying the snow. “But Eli and I were different. We set out to find a way to effect the change. Incidentally, it’s remarkable difficult to do. Dying with intent, reviving with control. Finding a way to end a life but keep it in arm’s reach, and all without rendering the body unusable. On top of that, you need a method that strips enough control from the subject to make them afraid, because you need the chemical properties induced by fear and adrenaline to trigger a somatic change.”

 –1: Resurrection, VIII: Three Years Ago: Capital City

            Authors and creators have many works which demonstrate the change and the divergence their careers have taken them through time. Each “period” of the artist presents both the influence and the expression of the artist(s) at that time. This is essential to know because the audience will have their favorite “periods” and/or their favorite work(s) from each “period.” This is relevant because the creator will work with either different mediums and/or different themes, while the author will write several stories of various genres for different readers. V.E. Schwab has written several books for children and young adults readers; however, it is her stories for adults in which fans and readers notice both the talent and the desire found within the narrative in that we all get the story we want so badly. V.E. Schwab does it twice, as we see in Vengeful, the sequel to Vicious, the second book in the Villains series. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this novel. The first 3 are familiar: Victor Vale, Eli Ever and Sydney Clarke. Readers meet up with them following the events at the end of Vicious. However, that end was just an end of those set of problems as new ones emerge. All three protagonists have experienced the wonders of their EO abilities, but now are understanding the consequences that come with them. Victor and Eli experience more physical pain now compared to all of the emotional pain they felt before they became EOs. Sydney’s difficulties are more long-term and obvious, but she experiences more loneliness after the death of her sister, Serena. Being an “Extra Ordinary” is wonderful and life-changing, until reality sets in. This truth transforms all three of these protagonists into vulnerable beings. And, while Sydney is no stranger to being vulnerable—she is 13-years-old at the beginning of this novel—both Eli and Victor are not. These “powerful” males are struggling to regain control over both their abilities and their lives. All the while, a new EO rises to become ‘The Villain.’ Marcella Riggins is the 4th protagonist, the newest EO, and the next villain to be dealt with in this series. The novel opens with her life, her death, her rebirth, and her EO abilities, which put her on the same level as Victor Vale and Eli Ever. The latter are examples of toxic masculinity, but Marcella Riggins is a perfect example of “a woman scorned.” When all 4 of these protagonists meet up—for 3 of them, it’s a dangerous reunion—chaos will ensue and A LOT of people will die. 

            There are several plots within this novel and it’s because there are so many protagonists, with different conflicts in the story. First, there is Marcella Riggins. Her life and her death are mentioned as they influence the EO she becomes. Readers have no choice but to sympathize with her, even when Marcella becomes drunk on power and seeks to seize control of the city her late husband would not. Eli Ever is in prison serving multiple life sentences for all of his crimes. However, he is kept in a “special” high secured prison where Eli becomes the obsession of physician whose toxic masculinity makes Eli’s (and Victor’s) look “normal.” Readers actually feel bad for Eli once his experiences at the prison, and in his life before he met Victor, are revealed. Victor Vale is enjoying his life as a free man, yet again. Only, his EO ability isn’t what it used to be. Not used to being not in control of his life, Victor seeks help for his EO ability in his way, which usually ends up with people dying. As for Sydney Clarke, she continues to hone her EO ability, which continues to strengthen. This is significant because Sydney’s ability grows while her body seem to remain the same. There are two subplots which help to enhance the story. The first is the introduction to other EOs who help with the development of who EOs are, their understanding of their abilities, how they use it and why, and who knows about EOs. The second subplot delves right back into the concept of negative emotions and how they are expressed. This subplot is a repeated one, but whereas males were observed in Vicious, females act out on them in Vengeful. And, there are just as many angry females as there are males. The subplots are necessary because not only do they enhance the story, but also they expand on the concept of EOs and their world which is hidden from most of the remaining population. Meanwhile, the plots develop as several individual rising actions are working their way towards a climax amongst the protagonists, which promises the reader(s) that something big is about to happen. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all 4 protagonists across a 5-year time frame, which jumps across various moments in time. While the novel starts with Marcella Riggins’ P.O.V., the narrative jumps back to what happened to Victor Vale 5 years ago—the ending of Vicious. From that point and for the duration of this novel, the time sequence goes from the present to one moment in the past to another moment in the past. This is not so much of a flashback sequence, but a narrative frame in order to explain to the reader(s) what is happening to a certain protagonist at a certain time, and then jump ahead to the consequences of those past actions. While it may sound confusing, it isn’t because as the past is explained so are the actions and the motivations of the characters. The points-of-view are in 3rd person limited (or, subjective). This means that during one character’s P.O.V. chapter, neither the readers nor that character knows the thoughts of another character. For the reader, the thoughts of the other character may or may not get revealed to them in another chapter. The characters will never know what the other ones are thinking (just like in real life). 

            The style V.E. Schwab uses in Vengeful is a continuation from what she did in Vicious. The characters had to lose something in order to become EOs; and yet, they continue to lose parts of themselves as they become more powerful. Similar to related themes found in comic books and superhero stories, the characters lose more of their humanity as they continue on the path to become separate entities. The mood in this novel is dread. From Marcella Riggins’ death and rebirth, a new sensation of awe and fear emerges and no one knows what will come from it, but it won’t be anything good. The tone in this novel is the preparation. The upcoming showdown that is foreseen due to the rise of Marcella Riggins will keep EOs (and readers) in anticipation. Readers know that Eli Ever and Victor Vale must reunite, but the reason for it remains unknown to all, even to the two former friends. If Vicious was the origins story, then Vengeful is the action movie sequel!

            The appeal for Vengeful have been positive. Fans of both V.E. Schwab’s other books, including Vicious, have claimed it is one of her best stories, yet. In addition to gaining (more) new readers, myself included, Vengeful has reminded readers not only of comic books and superheroes, but also of (great) action movies. V.E. Schwab is a huge fan of the John Wick movies (just like I am), and she has said more than once that both the fight scenes and the world-building were influences for her Villains series. And no, I have not located the John Wick Easter Egg in Vengeful, yet (DO NOT TELL ME WHERE IT IS!), it is obvious that the climactic scene was influenced by it A LOT! The author has promised her fans at least one more book in this series, with a publication date as early as 2023 (she takes 5 years to write each book). With at least 2 more John Wick movies scheduled to be released in between Vengeful and Book 3, I can only imagine the story that will emerge from V.E. Schwab’s imagination in response to those movies.

            Vengeful is the beautiful yet dark and twisted sequel to the story about the reality of the metaphysical. Fans and readers are reminded why possessing such powers and desiring to become extraordinary should remain restricted. Not only are there long-term consequences to gaining such powers, but also not everyone should possess such abilities. There was a reason this book made my list of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018! If I still enjoy this book now as I did then, then you will love it, too!

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