NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned.
“My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five).
In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it.
Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers.
The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi.
The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers.
Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!
The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.
Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.
2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs.
This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).
All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.
#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it.
#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.
I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series.
#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang
I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best.
#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves.
One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.
I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.
One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!
#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019.
#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole
To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy.
#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!
2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!
How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds.
#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself.
#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy.
Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!
This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked!
In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied.
War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good.
The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author.
The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale.
#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang
This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book.
#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe
This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.
I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy.
The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment.
Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!
It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!
The Emperor’s hatred had not grown suddenly, as Mehr had so foolishly believed when Maryam had warned her of his messages to his nobles. His hatred was a storm that had grown ever larger by feeding on itself, and Mehr had been protected from the full weight of it by the shelter of her privilege and of the very Ambhan walls that so stifled her. Now the storm was too great for even Mehr to ignore. Her status as the Governor’s daughter couldn’t protect her forever. She had Amrithi blood, and the Amrithi were being erased, (Chapter Two).
I’ll repeat what I’ve said about the speculative fiction released in 2018: it was the best year yet! There were many debut novels that gained the acclaim of fans and critics alike. In addition, there seemed to be a debut novel that represented each region of our world. Tasha Suri is one of many whose novel takes place in a historical fictionalized Middle East. Empire of Sand reflects on the notions of “old magic” and the oppression of the users that comes with it from those with political power.
Mehr, who is 18 years-old, is the eldest illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Mehr and her younger sister, Arwa, who is 9 years-old, live with their father and their stepmother, Maryam, at the Governor’s home. As daughters of a nobleman, the sisters live sheltered lives of luxury; as daughters of an Amrithi woman, the sisters have magic in their blood. Mehr is old enough to remember their mother and has accepted the customs of her mother’s people. Arwa is too young to remember their mother, but Maryam has no issue with raising and molding Arwa into an Ambhan noblewoman. Obviously, Mehr and Maryam are at odds with each other and it seems that the girls’ father is unaware of the relationship between his wife and his daughters. As paranoid as Maryam is, it turns out that she is right to be worried about Mehr’s rebellious behavior. When Mehr defies her family’s wishes and her mother’s cultural paranoia, she is married off and sent away to become a “tool” of the Empire. She is married to Amun, a full-blooded Amrithi who has been a captive of the Maha—mystics of the Religious Order—since he was a child. Married, isolated, and far from home, Mehr has to figure out how to survive her new life, to stay alive, to determine who is trustworthy, and to determine how much magic she has and what that means for her. Throughout the novel, Mehr grows into a powerful woman who embraces both her magic and her culture as she interprets the use of her power for the good of everything she cares about.
The plot of the story follows the culture and the traditions of South Asia, along with its dark side based on historical events. “The rule of law and rule of faith are tied together. One cannot exist without the other,” (p.76). The Maha—the one in charge of the mystics—founded the Empire, so the Emperor and all of the Ambhan are “blessed” with their fortunes and lifestyles because of them. However, when angered, or demand something and are denied, the Maha can become anyone’s worse enemy. And, Mehr has alerted the Maha of her presence and her heritage. The mystics demand that she serves “for the Maha and the Empire.” Mehr knows that this goes against the practices of the nobles and her father threatens to rebel. Mehr gives into the demands in order to protect her family, especially Arwa. The plot develops as Mehr grows into herself and she learns more about the Maha and the Empire. She learns the reasons why her mother left her father, and her father’s neglect to teach her what she needed to know about herself and the Empire. Mehr soon realizes that power is determined based on who wields it. And, if the Emperor looks to the Maha for power, then does that mean the Maha hold the power? The subplot here is family and the bonds that come with it. Mehr sees herself as her mother’s daughter to the horror of her stepmother. Maryam, who has not been able to have children of her own, claims Arwa as hers and does everything in her power to keep the sisters apart. While her abuse of Mehr and harsh upbringing of Arwa is disturbing, her paranoia is justified when the Maha demand Mehr to be delivered to them. At the same time, Mehr learns more about her mother and father’s relationship as well as the decisions they made together and separately. This subplot is essential to the plot in that all of Mehr’s decisions are based on what’s best for her family.
The novel is told in real-time from the point-of-view of Mehr. With the exception of 3 chapters from 3 minor characters, the narrative is told in 3rd person free indirect discourse. In other words, readers are aware of all of Mehr’s thoughts, impressions, and perceptions—a.k.a. stream-of-consciousness—and, given the mistakes Mehr makes throughout the story and her known flaws, she is a reliable narrator.
The style Tasha Suri uses in her novel presents the various lifestyles people of different classes and faiths have even in modern South Asia. The descriptions of the different homes and clothes display the distinction between cultures and social classes. The word choice and the figurative language that illustrates the lands and the dances gives the beauty of the two to the readers. The mood in this story is the beauty of the Empire, which the Gods created. Yet, the tone in the novel is the balance of the world and the consequences of any unbalance in the world whether or not it’s from divine intervention, societal expectations, or parental influence. In all, the style presents how beauty in the world can remain if there is a balance.
The appeal surrounding Empire of Sand have been immensely positive. The novel has received positive reviews from critics, readers, and other authors. The novel has been nominated for several awards including the Locus Award; and, it won the Brave New Words Award in 2019! This fantasy novel is a beautiful debut and a wonderful addition to the speculative fiction genre. Fans will want to re-read Empire of Sand, especially before the sequel, Realm of Ash, is released in November 2019. I should warn readers that in addition to familial abuse and neglect, there is a scene in the story that contains non-consensual sex, and scenes of torture and murder. Other than those scenes of trauma, the novel is worth reading and the follow-up looks to be very promising, too.
Empire of Sand is a beautiful debut novel about the history of an empire that struggles to maintain control of everything and how the bonds of love and family can help an individual endure suffering. Even though there were some flaws surrounding the pacing of the novel, my love of the characters is what kept me reading this novel. Empire of Sand was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018, and I’m really excited for the next book in the series, and any future books by the author!
NOTE: This review contains spoilers from both Nevernight and Godsgrave.
Goddess, if only we’d known what she’d become…(Chapter 33, Wellspring).
Darkdawn is the stunning conclusion to The Nevernight Chronicle. Jay Kristoff gives his readers a blood-soaked conclusion to his antiheroine that rivals “The Bride” from Kill Bill and Kratos from God of War. Mia Corvere and her vengeance concludes in Darkdawn, and the author delivers on everything he promised his readers and gives them even more.
Mia Corvere has transformed from an assassin of the Red Church to a gladiator of the Falcons of Remus to the most infamous murderer in the Itreyan Republic. While she was killing her family’s enemies, she made a startling discovery and acted without thinking. Her brother, Jonnen, has been alive the entire time and has been raised as Consul Julius Scaeva’s son. More about Scaeva’s deception is revealed to Mia and she realizes that her identity was a lie as well. As she comes to terms with this new information, Mia learns that she has been chosen to “seek the Crown of the Moon.” It turns out the gods and the goddesses of the Itreyan Republic are as real as the magic in that world. Mia’s power of a darkin is strongest during Nevernight—which, is coming again soon—and, when the Mother Goddess—Niah, the Maw, the Mother of Night, and Our Lady of Blessed Murder—is strong enough to get her vengeance on Aa—the Father of Light, the Everseeing—her husband. Mia is powerful enough to assist the Maw with her path for revenge. However, Mia has accomplished her tasks and wishes to put as much distance between herself and the Itreyan Republic as possible. But first, Mia has to complete purging the Red Church who has sent ALL of their assassins after her. Meanwhile, Mercurio—Mia’s mentor and foster father—is a captive in the Red Church to use as bait to lure Mia Corvere to them. At the same time, Mercurio learns of the role he’s to play in the Mother’s plan, and it’s as shocking to the readers as it is to him! Throughout the story, we see Mia being split between keeping her brother and her friends safe and killing Consul Scaeva once and for all and following the path the Mother has laid before her. Mia deals with all of these revelations the only way an 18-year-old can…by lashing out; and, Mia’s method of lashing out involves killing a lot of people. Mia is now the most lethal assassin in the history of the Itreyan Republic and the true faith of the Maw expects Mia to fulfill her final task. Will Mia accept the task of the Mother?
The plot in Darkdawn is the conclusion to Mia’s life. Readers have known since Nevernight that Mia Corvere would die. The question was how and why. Mia’s quest for revenge now includes the Red Church and anyone Consul Scaeva sends after her. On top of that the Mother (darkness) and the Father (sunlight) are preparing to meet each other and to end their “spousal disagreement.” Mia has to battle gods and goddesses at the same time she is battling mortals. The plot develops as Mia and Mercurio learn more about the history of the Red Church and the darkin. As for the history of the gods and the goddesses, all of those footnotes throughout the trilogy was information as to what would occur eventually. The immortals—like all mythologies—have foresaw their Ragnarök and Mia is to play a very critical role in the end of the Itreyan Republic. Will the gods allow Mia to defeat them? Along with this subplot is the subplot of Mia’s reunion with Jonnen and the relationship she struggles to build with him. These subplots are crucial to the conclusion of The Nevernight Chronicle and they take over the plot of Darkdawn as the story continues. The plot starts with and ends with Mia Corvere.
The narrative in Darkdawn is a continuation of Nevernight and Godsgrave until the final part of Darkdawn (Book 4, The Ashes of Empires). From there, the story seems to follow a stream-of-consciousness in the present tense, until it shifts back to the 3rd limited point-of-view. This narration allows readers to follow the actions of Mia, Ashlinn, Jonnen, Mercurio, and other characters as all is revealed throughout the Itreyan Republic. Mia—even with her darkin abilities—cannot be everywhere at once, so readers get the chance to learn how all of these characters are feeling with their situation and what will come to pass. While readers might not like certain characters, their narratives are objective and essential to the story that is being told. The footnotes remain informative and hilarious but are just as vital to the story as the world-building. Everything converges within the narrative.
The style Jay Kristoff uses continues in the final book in this trilogy. The events of the past are told in italics, the darkin’s dialogue are told using various font sizes, and the footnotes continue to explain Itreya’s history and culture. That last part is crucial to the narrative because it can be argued that the history and the culture was the real story being told in The Nevernight Chronicle. For example, the “author” of the entire chronicle is revealed, and once readers get over their shock, they will realize that it makes a lot of sense. On top of that readers are reminded that books still enact a sense of fear whether or not it’s the reader or the people mentioned within it. Jay Kristoff reveals the actual story he is telling in his trilogy, the anger of a goddess and the revenge she is waiting to enact on her husband. Similar to how Mia wants vengeance for her family, Niah wants revenge against Aa. The clues were in the titles: Nevernight, Godsgrave, and Darkdawn. The author wasn’t only telling Mia’s story, but also creating his own mythology about the world he created: the gods and the goddesses, how they created the world, and the religion that came out of it as well. The mood in Darkdawn is the coming end of an empire, a cult and its followers, and the protagonist. Readers are familiar with the saying, “tear it all down and begin anew.” Usually this statement comes out of the mouth of a madman; however, in the case of the Itreyan Republic—similar to the Roman Empire—there is so much corruption and greed that the end was going to happen sooner or later (I’m not a historian). The tone of this novel follows the idiom: “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.” The actions of Mia and Jonnen’s parents are reaped by the siblings. At the same time, the actions of the gods affect the mortals who worship them. And yet, the same emotions are felt by mortals and by immortals alike.
The appeal surrounding Darkdawn will be a positive one. I received an ARC of this book and Jay Kristoff gives a satisfying ending to this creative and bloody trilogy. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy this story. Readers of historical fiction will appreciate the parallels (and the research) to the Roman Empire. And, folklore enthusiasts and experts will love how the author reminds his audience of the source of magic and faith found throughout the trilogy. Darkdawn concludes the way it does as mentioned in the beginning of Nevernight.
Darkdawn is the action-driven end to a fast-paced trilogy. Mia Corvere’s life story ends as it began, with blood and death. Readers will cringe at the death count, will mourn the characters who die, and won’t be able to stop reading until the end. Fans will complete The Nevernight Chronicle and be more than satisfied with its conclusion. Mia Corvere is one of the best antiheroines I’ve ever read. Thank you Jay Kristoff for sharing her story with us!
Molly Southbourne #2: The Survival of Molly Southbourne
By: Tade Thompson
Published: July 9, 2019
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Sequel
WARNING: Spoilers from The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne. You have been warned.
Molly Southbourne was a freak whose blood grew genetically identical duplicates of her. One drop of blood, and a new molly popped up, but it wasn’t cute. It wanted to kill her. Molly spent her whole life killing her duplicates just to survive, (Chapter One).
Similar to many of the recent sequels in speculative fiction, The Survival of Molly Southbourne starts where its predecessor, The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off. In the sequel, Tade Thompson answers the questions Molly Southbourne (and readers) have had about herself. And, like other works of sci-fi horror (i.e. Alien), there are more eerie forces at work than anyone else knows.
Molly Southbourne is a protagonist who is “a fish out of water” because she has no identity and no purpose to her life. Molly Southbourne—the one who survived both the attacks and the fire—is now Molly Southbourne and is living as Molly Southbourne whether or not she wants to. While Molly is a duplicate of Molly “Prime,” as she calls her, she is NOT Molly Southbourne. She lacks both the knowledge, and the skills Molly Prime had. In addition, Molly does NOT have the same problem with bleeding like Molly Prime did (“hemoclones”). All Molly has are the looks and the memories of someone who is dead. Unfortunately, the new Molly Southbourne is the only one who knows, and it’s driving her crazy, literally.
The plot in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is how the new Molly Southbourne is adjusting to life as a 27-year-old woman who is supposed to be living as someone else. Molly has more questions about herself than Molly Prime did; and, unlike Molly Prime, Molly decides to get answers to those questions. To say that Molly’s discoveries come straight from a spy novel—complete with multiple conspiracies—would be an understatement. After she gets some answers to her questions from “several” people, Molly must decide how she is going to survive. She doesn’t have to become Molly Southbourne, but she cannot get rid of that part of herself. There is a subplot, and its focus is about a minor character from the first book who was intimate with Molly Prime. In this book, that character attempts to fight the fate Molly Prime left him with unknowingly. Will the efforts be successful? Will Molly be able to help him?
The narrative in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an interesting one. While Molly is the protagonist, and the story of the aftermath is told from her point-of-view (1stperson), the sequence is a combination of Molly’s actions and daily life—told in present time—with the memories of Molly Prime—also her memories—bombarding her. The combination of the flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness, and the present gives readers insight to the adaption and the chaos that is Molly Southbourne. Her struggles and her inexperience make the narrative reliable and believable. As discombobulated as it sounds, the narrative is easy to follow.
The style Tade Thompson uses in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is the same as it was in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. The author continues with telling this story using tropes and style based on previous sci-fi horror stories. However, it is the mood—apathetic—and the tone—bizarre—that have changed in the sequel. Molly is making sense of everything that is happening around her, only this time those involved behave as it’s not a big deal. Molly is neither unique, nor lethal as Molly Prime was, but she manages to survive and to adapt to her life as we see through the author’s style. Readers will be pleased with this (continued) style of storytelling.
So far, the appeal to The Survival of Molly Southbourne have been positive. Released a month ago (at the time of this posting), readers who were curious as to how Molly’s story would continue is answered. The mysteries and the conspiracies are addressed, and the continuation of the characters from the previous book lets readers know that neither Molly Southbourne, nor Tade Thompson have forgotten about them. Both novellas can be read and enjoyed in one reading. Fans and readers of sci-fi horror need to read these books.
The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an amazing follow-up to its prequel. While the narrative and the perspective have changed from what came before, the story is as fast paced and as haunting as The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tade Thompson does an excellent job in bringing Molly Southbourne’s story the resolution it needs.
Molly Southbourne #1: The Murders of Molly Southbourne
By: Tade Thompson
Published: October 3, 2017
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Winner of the Nommo Award for Best Novella 2018
The rules are simple.
“If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.
If you find a hole, find your parents.”
Molly recites the lines to herself many times. She finds herself many times. She finds herself repeating them without intending to when she is bored, (Two).
The Murders of Molloy Southbourne is an homage to classic horror and science fiction stories such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. To say that Molly Southbourne makes the best of her situation through survival is a HUGE understatement. If Tade Thompson’s Rosewater didn’t capture your attention, then his novella will!
Our first introduction to Molly Southbourne is from the perspective of the person she has shackled in her basement. After a few interesting interactions, Molly Southbourne tells the person her life story. From there, the person—and the reader—learns about the unusual upbringing and life of this tragic individual. Molly Southbourne grew up on a farm with her parents. And, due to an unusual condition, she is home-schooled. In between learning about literature, languages, and mathematics, Molly learns hand-to-hand combat, different types of bleach, and pyromantics. These lessons are essential because whenever Molly bleeds, a clone of her appears; and, whenever a “molly” appears, that “molly” attacks Molly. In order to keep Molly’s condition a secret, Molly is taught how to fight, to kill, to butcher, and to dispose “herself.” As eerie as it sounds, Molly proves to be an intelligent and a resilient individual. Unfortunately, life gets more complicated as she grows into adulthood and attempts to live a “normal” life. Molly continues to grow as a person, but she can neither keep her condition a secret, nor cope with what her condition could lead to. As much as Molly wants to be “normal,” she cannot.
The plot of the story is Molly Southbourne’s life right up to the prisoner in her basement, and it follows a traditional sci-fi/horror storyline. Molly’s entire life has been stringent due to her “condition,” and as the plot develops, so does Molly, and we all realize Molly can only endure her situation for so long. At the same time, the subplots—Molly’s prisoner, and the root of Molly’s “condition”—are developing. To say both subplots will remind you of a spy thriller would be an understatement. By the time Molly discovers the “truth” of her existence, both the plot and, the subplots converge, and Molly’s character development reaches its end.
The narrative starts off in the first-person of Molly Southbourne’s prisoner. The prisoner is disoriented and has no memory of how and why Molly is doing what she is doing. Chapters 2 and 3 are told in flashback by Molly Southbourne and she refers to herself in the third-person. In the last chapter, the narrative switches back to the prisoner’s point-of-view, which is in the present. While it is easy for readers to view the prisoner as a reliable narrator, it is difficult to perceive Molly Southbourne as one. Yes, the narrative is vital to both the plot development and the character development, and it can be followed, but—by the end—both the prisoner and the readers are left with more questions than answers. It is safe to say that Molly Southbourne feels the same way, but she doesn’t know what else to do.
The style Tade Thompson presents in this novella is a throwback to the earliest horror stories we now view as classics. The word choice and the sentence structure alerts readers that the author wants your attention. Both the mood—bizarre—and, the tone—apathetic—are obvious as soon as you begin reading the story. The author makes sure that the actions and the skills of his protagonist come across as “normal” and that the condition of Molly Southbourne is “unusual.” Tade Thompson allows readers to determine whether or not Molly’s story is believable. At the same time, the author uses pivotal moments of Molly Southbourne’s life—her first menstrual period, her first boyfriend, etc.—to remind his audience over and over that Molly Southbourne is unique and lethal in her own right. Tade Thompson’s style of writing leaves the story with an open ending; just like the classic horror stories.
The appeal surrounding The Murders of Molly Southbourne have been positive. The book won the “Nommo Award for Best Novella” in 2018; and, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award. The Tor.com eBook Club selected this novella as its June 2019 selection (free ebook!). Readers and critics enjoyed it enough that its sequel, The Survival of Molly Southbourne, is an anticipated follow-up (published July 9, 2019)! The Murders of Molly Southbourne is an amazing addition to the horror (and science fiction) genre and demonstrates Tade Thompson’s talent as a storyteller. This novella is enjoyable to the point where it can be read over and over again; and, readers might find an additional clue surrounding Molly Southbourne’s life during one of their many re-reads (I did!). I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series.
The Murders of Molly Southbourne is the perfect story for readers who enjoy horror stories. All of the events that lead to the actions performed by Molly Southbourne and those she loves reminds readers that living with any condition is bearable as long as that individual is willing to bear it. Tade Thompson knows how to present a realistic horror story.
“…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.
There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.
Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba).
2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.”
Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are.
The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them.
The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.
Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.
The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s.