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

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Juice Like Wounds”

Wayward Children, #4.5: Juice Like Wounds

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: July 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Short Story

***This short story can be read for free here on Tor.com.

            They walked west, the three girls: Lundy with her knife, Mockery with her spear, and Moon with her sling. And when the trees loomed before them like the walls of heaven, they exchanged a look but not a word, ducked their heads, and stepped into the darkness.

            This short story is NOT an interlude, but an expansion on Lundy’s first “trip” to the Goblin Market. So, you need to read In An Absent Dream before reading this story. Juice Like Wounds explains why Lundy decided to return to her parents after her first trip to the Goblin Market. 

            Lundy is 8-years-old and is learning how the world of the Goblin Market operates. She has made a deal to stay with the Archivist, whose library Lundy has access to. This means Lundy has been able to read upon the world’s history. And, Lundy is hanging out with her new friends: Moon and Mockery. This is the first time Lundy has had friends, and she is about to lose one of them. Just like Lundy, Moon and Mockery are from other worlds who ended up in the Goblin Market and find themselves happy to be there. This trio of travelers decide to slay a monster in order to retrieve back what was once stolen. 

            The plot is simple: children go on an adventure so they can become heroes. Unfortunately, they are too young to understand adventures don’t always have happy endings. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first one is a further explanation of the world of the Goblin Market. There is more there than the Market, and Lundy and her friends want to learn more about it. The second subplot revolves around Mockery. Readers learn who she was, what happened to her, and her relevance to Lundy’s story. Both subplots are necessary for the plot, and the development of the characters. 

            The narrative in this short story is a continuation of Lundy’s first visit to the Goblin Market, which ended with blood and death. The points-of-view are those of Lundy, Moon and Mockery, and the Archivist, which makes it 3rd person omniscient. The sequence is of the past, and told in the past tense. Readers follow the streams-of-consciousness of the protagonists, and given what happens to them, it is fair to say the narrators are reliable.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses for Juice Like Wounds is a continuation of what she used in In An Absent Dream. The reference to Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti comes up again because the poem mentions a 3rd girl who died after buying and eating fruit from the goblins. Seanan McGuire goes further with her cautionary tale and mentions not only Mockery, but also Zorah—another young visitor to the Goblin Market who no longer lives there. This short story is the first of many cautionary tales about “fair value,” which goes over Lundy’s head. While the Wasp Queen could be a figure of foreshadowing, the story is about Lundy and the Archivist in equal measure. 

            Fans of Wayward Children will enjoy this short story. Juice Like Wounds lets readers know what Lundy was up to during her first visit to the Goblin Market and why she was so eager to return to her parents afterwards. It is unfortunate Lundy never understood the reason why Mockery died although hints were left throughout In An Absent Dream for her to pick up on—Lundy never forgot about Mockery; she just didn’t know what her death signified. 

            Juice Like Wounds is a short story which serves as a cautionary tale as readers travel back with Lundy to the Goblin Market. Seanan McGuire answers the question: who was Mockery? in this expansion of In An Absent Dream. I hope the author has similar stories for future releases because I have some questions about other characters I would enjoy reading in similar format. I know other fans of the Wayward Children series feel the same way.

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

Why You Need to Read: “In An Absent Dream”

Wayward Children, #4: In An Absent Dream

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            This, then, was Katherine Victoria Lundy: pretty and patient and practical. Not lonely, because she had never really considered any way of being other than alone. Not gregarious, nor sullen, but somewhere in the middle, happy to speak when spoken to, happy also to carry on in silence, keeping her thoughts tucked quietly away. She was ordinary. She was remarkable, (1: A Very Ordinary Garden). 

            We’ve all asked the question: ‘How did ‘x’ come to be in existence?’ In our world, we have history lessons and oral tradition to teach us about historic moments and events, and changes in technology. In other worlds—in works of fiction—the audience receives the history as the narration continues explaining the scenario, the characters’ backstories, and—in the case of speculative fiction—how the world came to be. Throughout the Wayward Children series, readers have learned about the various worlds the travelers visited, and how Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a haven for these travelers. It makes you wonder how those who returned to our world readjusted in society before these schools existed. In An Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series, provides one infamous case.

            The protagonist in this story is Lundy, whom we met in Every Heart A Doorway. Everyone already knows how her life ends, but we’re given a look into her life—both with her family and in the Goblin Market. Katherine Victoria Lundy is the middle child in her family’s household. She is 6-years-old at the beginning of the story. She has an older brother, Daniel, who is 6 years her senior; and, her mother is pregnant with her 3rd child, which will be Lundy’s younger sister, Diana. However, Lundy isn’t Lundy yet, she is Katherine; it’s her birthday, and none of Katherine’s classmates are celebrating with her. The reason for this is because Katherine’s father is the principal at the school, which goes unnoticed by both parents. For another 2 years, Katherine is a model student, which isolates her even more. One day, 8-year-old Katherine is walking home from school when she finds a Door with the words: BE SURE. Well, Katherine is sure and she enters the world of the Goblin Market. There, Katherine meets “the Archivist,” who explains the rules and the ways of the Goblin Market; and, “Moon,” a girl around Katherine’s age who is a resident at the Goblin Market, who has trouble following the rules. The first thing Katherine learns there is NOT to use her actual name, but either an attribute or a family name. Thus, Katherine chooses to go by her last name, Lundy; and, Lundy is told she is not the 1st visitor to go by that name. Throughout her “trips” to the Goblin Market, Lundy grows into the person she was denied to be in her world (the story starts in 1962). Meanwhile, Lundy’s family cannot understand why she would choose to be anywhere else but with them, especially Lundy’s father. So, what does Lundy’s family do to her? They find ways to keep her from leaving them, even succumbing to enact guilt. This move begins a rift in Lundy as she tries to figure out a way to find “fair value” before the curfew.   

            The plot is a look back into Lundy’s early life—who can be viewed as a “tragic” character—and her childhood and her time in the Goblin Market. This is an intriguing view into how a child survives in “another world” with minimal adult guidance, which could be one of the actual dilemmas Lundy had to deal with as well, while remaining divided on which Home was her real one. The sad thing is Lundy was thriving in the Goblin Market for reasons her family was too blind to notice. There are 2 subplots and they are essential to the plot (and, the entire series). The first subplot regards the concept and the importance of the rules in each world. Throughout the series, readers learn which students haven’t returned Home due to the rules they broke, but there wasn’t too much context in their stories—except for Kade. Lundy is the first character who has to admit her choices to break the rules led to her permanent punishment (unlike Jill). The second subplot presents how and why schools like Eleanor West’s—remember, there are several others throughout our world—became the much-needed havens and fellowships travelers, especially children, never knew they needed. Lundy knew of 2 other travelers: Moon, who was already a permanent citizen of the Goblin Market; and, Franklin Lundy, Lundy’s father, who does everything in his power to stop his daughter from returning to the Goblin Market. Neither friend nor parent can give the guidance Lundy needs so badly. It makes you wonder what could have been if a school existed during Lundy’s childhood. It is obvious both subplots are necessary for the plot to develop throughout the story.

            The narrative in this story is told from Lundy’s point-of-view, but in 3rd person omniscient. This is because there are moments when the P.O.V. shifts away from Lundy—usually to her father—in order to fill in the smaller details of the story. The sequence is broken down into the events leading up to Lundy’s “trips” to the Goblin Market, particularly her first 3 visits. Each visit leads Lundy to staying at the Goblin Market for longer periods of time. However, it is the visits before the curfew, which receives the most attention. Lundy’s “trips” become more frequent, but for shorter visits, almost like they match Lundy’s hesitation instead of her heart. The narrative is a look back at the past, so it is NOT a flashback. This means most of the narration is told from Lundy’s stream-of-consciousness. And, because the narration leads to the end readers know is coming, Lundy is a reliable narrator.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in In An Absent Dream is an intriguing one. The concept of the Goblin Market comes from the narrative poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti. The poem is about 2 sisters who meet goblins by the river encouraging all to “Come buy, come buy.” The synopsis of the poem is: one sister eats the fruit, while the other one does not. As time passes, the sister who ate the fruit begins to age unnaturally. This causes the other sister to go and buy some of the fruit to save her. The sister resists the temptation to eat the fruit, which saves her sister’s life. It is obvious the author took this children’s poem and retold it with the same dilemmas and the same morals. Seanan McGuire’s retelling of Goblin Market is easier to comprehend, but is just as much of a cautionary tale as the original poem. The mood in this story is the discord one’s desires can lead to within the individual, which is brought on by those closest to them. Once again, the illustrations done by Rovina Cai bring out the beauty in a world very few people know exist. 

            The appeal for In An Absent Dream have been positive. Not only was it nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2020, but also it is one of the highest rated books in the Wayward Children series by readers on Goodreads and on other social media and (book) retail websites. This novella is an excellent addition to both the book series and the fantasy canon. I should mention that anyone who did enjoy this book because of the world of the Goblin Market should read both Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti and The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner. The latter is a historical fantasy novel with allusions to Goblin Market. After reading those, fans can move on to the next book in the series, Come Tumbling Down

            In An Absent Dream is a story so beautiful and tragic readers will be torn between wanting it to be real and wanting it to be a dream. This is my favorite book in the series next to Every Heart A Doorway. There are several reasons for this: the believable characters, the beauty of the Goblin Market, the split between family and where you belong, and the heart-wrenching end everyone knows is coming but doesn’t want it to happen. Not to mention, the reason and the importance of schools like Eleanor West’s for travelers in similar scenarios. Now, readers have a complete understanding of what these children really need: the desire to choose without any guilt. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Wayward Children, #2: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: ALA Alex Award 2018, ALA RUSA Fantasy Award 2018

            It did not occur to Jill that Jack’s avoidance, like her own, had been born purely of parental desire and never of a sincere wanting. Their parents had done everything they could to blur the lines of twinhood, leaving Jack and Jill stuck in the middle, (6: The First Night of Safety). 

            Series of any kind—books, movies, TV shows (including anime), video games, etc.—remain intriguing. One of the many reasons series continue to fascinate everyone is due to the ways the elements—the story, the characters, the setting, etc.—keep us immersed within them. Another reason is because of the creators of these series. They have to come up with creative ways not only to keep our interest, but also find ways to make us want more from them. Not to mention, some of the creators find ways to expand on their world through their series. Series are not limited to any genre or any format, but it seems speculative fiction captivates our expectations when it comes to using series to expand on everyone’s desires, especially the creators’. And, series can be presented to the audience in any order the creator wants to present them. Seanan McGuire is such an author who presents her Wayward Children series across moments in time. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in the series, which takes place before the events in its predecessor, Every Heart A Doorway

            The protagonists in this story are Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott—also known as, and preferred to be called, Jack and Jill—identical twins with different personalities yet similar demeanors. Both girls had the unfortunate luck of being born to Chester and Serena Wolcott who believe having children would move them up the social ladder (and yes, such adults still exist, sadly). The parents take this notion to extreme levels by forcing their daughters into roles of binary femininity—the girly-girl, Jack; and, the tomboy, Jill. Unfortunately for the twins, the style of parenting forced upon them not only messes up their idea of what femininity is, but also causes a crescendo of sibling rivalry instead of sisterhood. Jacqueline, who always wore dresses she could never get dirty, wants to prove she knows more than what others let on—which she does. Jillian, who cannot decide whether or not her short hair and her boyish clothes make her a freak, wants nothing more than to have any sort of affection from anybody—which she deserves. It comes as no surprise their Door leads to the Moors, a place which reminds travelers of black-and-white monster movies (where monsters are “born”). Once there, the twins are separated—physically—for the first time, and will remain that way for the next 5 years, through most of their adolescence. Jack goes with Dr. Bleak to become his apprentice, which allows her to learn everything she could ever want; and, Jill goes with the Master—a real monster—who showers her with all of the affection and the attention she always craved. As the twins grow apart with their new parental figures, it comes as no surprise Jack and Jill develop a spectrum of psychopathic behavior, one way more extreme than the other. 

            The plot of this story revolves around the birth, the upbringings—remember, they each had 2—and the growth of the twins into what they become by their 17th birthday. Yes, the Moors cemented Jack and Jill into monsters; but, one could argue their parents put them on that path before their Door appeared. There are two subplots which develop alongside the plot and are essential to the story. The first subplot follows how the twins gain separate identities, something that was denied to them by their parents, but explored in the Moors. The second subplot delves into types of parenting, especially toxic parenting. There are 5 adults who “parent” Jack and Jill, and 3 of them would be labeled as “toxic.” These subplots and the plot are important to the story because readers get an understanding of the nurturing the twins endured throughout their entire childhood. Keeping this in mind, while Jack and Jill are not responsible for their adult role models, they are responsible for their decisions and their actions.

            The narrative in this novella isn’t a flashback, but a look into the past. The points-of-view is 3rd person omniscient, or a narration which moves between the P.O.V.s of multiple (main) characters. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first characters readers are introduced to are Jack and Jill’s parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Readers learn the reason why they decided to have children, why their parenting methods are viewed as “toxic,” and their “reactions” to their daughters’ disappearance and their return. Due to the narrative styles used in this book, the characters’ P.O.V.s are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness. In this case, the readers are able to empathize with (most of) the characters, especially Jack and Jill. This narration is straightforward and engrossing. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be argued as becoming “the villain.” I’m NOT an expert in psychology, but it has been mentioned by several experts that neglected and abused children often crave love and affection and are willing to do just about anything to get it. However, if those parents and/or adult role models are “toxic,” or are “parents who inflict ongoing trauma, abuse, and denigration on their children,” (Forward and Buck, 12). The author’s use of specific moments Chester and Serena and the Master inflicted the identities and the roles they wanted onto their daughters—throwing away gifts from Gemma Lou, murdering playmates, etc.—foreshadows the behaviors (i.e. Obsession Compulsive Disorder, or OCD) and the traits (i.e. eager-to-please) the twins will exhibit in the future. This story is NOT a parenting book, but a cautionary tale of children and how they are individuals, and NOT blank slates to force into a role of the adults’ choosing. The mood in this story is duality. Jacqueline and Jillian are identical twins—who are nicknamed after the nursery rhyme by everyone but their parents—who are forced into the false binary roles of femininity—girly and tomboy—by their parents, who are brought up separately in the Moors later on by 2 new “role models” as the mad scientist’s apprentice and the vampire’s daughter—two of the most notorious “monsters” in literature. This book is the first in the series to include illustrations—by the talented Rovina Cai—and they present the moments of “love” the twins experienced during their stay at the Moors. 

            The appeal for this book have been positive. It was nominated for the same literary awards as its predecessor. Yet, it was the American Library Association, or the ALA, who gave this novella its accolades winning both the Alex Award—given to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18—and, the ALA RUSA Award—an annual best-of-list comprised of 8 different fiction genres for adult readers—in Fantasy. These awards—given by librarians—demonstrate readers of most ages can read and appreciate this book. And, while this book takes place before the events of Every Heart A Doorway, you should read that book before reading this one. That way readers won’t get confused about the book’s context. After learning about the world Jack and Jill traveled to, who wouldn’t want to learn what happens in the next book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky?

            Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an engrossing follow up to its predecessor. Readers get a look into how the twins lived before finding their Door and living in a new world who embraced them for better and for worse. Seanan McGuire uses duality in order to give readers the beauty and the horror in everything from gender identity to parental figures. Which world will we travel to next?

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Forward, Susan, and Craig Buck. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.

e- book, Bantam, 2009. 

Why You Need to Listen to: “The Original”

The Original

By: Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal                Audiobook: 3 hours 24 minutes

Released: September 14, 2020                                                       Narrated by: Julia Whelan

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

            Have you ever listened to any audio story or audio narrative without the text or any visuals to follow along to? I believe the most familiar example of this would be Peter and the Wolf. This Russian “symphonic fairy tale” is presented with specific orchestra ensembles representing each of the characters with a narrator telling the rest of the story. There are audiobooks which are standalones (as in no written edition) and it relies on an excellent narration and an engaging story so that the audience’s attention is maintained from start to finish. The Original by both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal demonstrates a strong collaboration, but it is the talent of Julia Whelan that gives life to the story through her narration. 

            Holly is the protagonist. She wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there; and, her husband, Jonathan, isn’t with her. She is told by doctors and by Detective Skylar that she is a Clone of the “Original” Holly, and that she was created on the orders of a warrant because Holly murdered her husband. On top of that bit of news, Holly learns she is an “Edited Clone,” which means that changes were made to the body and the DNA that can make a Clone “better” than the “Original.” Finally, Holly is told one more thing: no one can locate the real Holly, and she has to find her and kill her in order to survive. Holly leaves the hospital with her mission to carry out with a set of skills her “Original” doesn’t have and didn’t ask for. The Clone Holly has to shift through shared memories, to survive attacks from people she doesn’t recognize, and to find her Original within 4 days or cease to exist. Does Holly want to live the life of her Original? Can she find her? And, if she does, then will she be able to kill her? 

            The plot is very interesting. A clone awakens, learns the reason for her creation, told her purpose, and is sent to carry it out. Of course, that’s the short version of it. Holly has less than 4 days to find her Original before she ceases to exist because a Clone and its Original cannot exist at the same time. Detective Skylar explains to Holly that after she finds and kills her Original she can live her life for the duration of hers. Meanwhile, Holly is trying to figure out what led her Original to kill Jonathan. She goes through her memories of her relationship and love for Jonathan, his occupation and hers, the last time they were together before the murder, and the murder itself. This leads to Holly having more questions than answers, but she decides that finding her Original and demanding to know why she killed her husband before killing her is how she is going to complete her mission. The subplot is the elements of world-building, many of which includes the idea behind clones and other scientific practices the society performs. In addition to clones, nanotechnology exists so that people can reverse aging and accelerate healing. Yet, Holly discovers that nanotechnology and clones are not wanted by everyone, including Jonathan. So, if Jonathan was against the idea of clones, then why is Holly being promised with a clone of Jonathan after she kills her Original? The subplot develops alongside the plot in which both the society and the conflict are explained further as the story continues. 

            The narrative follows the point-of-view of Clone Holly. This makes for an interesting P.O.V. experience because none of her past experiences are hers, and she cannot remember everything of her past before she was created. This is important to know because this means that when Holly remembers something, it is NOT a flashback! It is NOT amnesia! This is because, one, the memory isn’t hers; and two, Holly can’t remember all of the details surrounding those memories. Holly knows that she was created without all of her memories intentionally. This revelation does make Holly’s stream-of-consciousness very interesting because in between Holly’s confusion and exhaustion, the audience knows how frustrated Holly is throughout everything that is happening to her. This knowledge and the experience Holly goes through makes her a reliable narrator. As a clone, she is dependent on what is being told to her. It is obvious she is being manipulated, but it is not her fault. The audio presentation makes the narration easy to follow. 

            The style both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal used for The Original delves into two “traditional” conflicts: individual versus society, and science versus nature. Reiterating these conflicts within this story not only demonstrates the reality within the fiction, but also leaves the audience to question their identities as well. The word choice used throughout the narrative was done intentionally by the authors so that the audience can comprehend the story with the scientific terminology, which allows for a thought-provoking story without too much thought. The mood in the story is anxiety. Both the protagonist and the audience are anxious throughout the story as both the truth and the existence is at stake for a clone who isn’t sure whether or not she wants to live. The tone gives the vibe of a cautionary tale. This story serves as a warning against scientific advancements and government control over individuals within a society. 

            This audiobook was narrated by Julia Whelan, and I have to say that I am beyond impressed with how she presented this story. Her voice of the characters are easy to distinguish and her voice for the narrative is enough to keep the audience immersed in the story. If it weren’t for the chapters, then it would have been easy to get lost in the story until the very end. I’m looking forward to hearing her narrate other stories in the future. 

            The appeal for this audiobook have been positive. Many listeners seem to enjoy the story, but have mixed feelings of it being just an audiobook. I know many readers don’t always listen to audiobooks, but what makes The Original standout is that it’s only available as an audiobook. I was able to keep up with the story with the narrator’s pace, but I understand if other listeners did not feel the same way. That being said, both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal have confirmed during a livestream on YouTube that there is no hurry for a written edition of The Original. If an adaptation were to be done for this audiobook, then I could see it as a graphic novel—both the action sequences and the story’s tone is enough to visualize a graphic novel. Fans of science fiction and readers of novellas will enjoy this audiobook the most. In fact, anyone who is on a long commute and/or are doing household chores should listen to this audiobook. This is because by the time you’re done with the commute or with your chores, you should be done with the story and not have to worry about losing your place within the audiobook. 

            The Original is a brilliant collaboration between two bestselling authors of the speculative fiction genre. Do not be intimidated by the fact that this is an audiobook. If you’ve listened to Broadway musicals on audio, then you can handle a sci-fi thriller novella on audio. At least listen to the story for the second twist in this story! Did you really believe these authors would include only one twist? I’m not going to tell you what it is, so you’re going to have to listen to the story to find out what the other twist is, and it’s not what you think it is!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Ring Shout”

Ring Shout

By: P. Djèlí Clark

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Horror/Folklore/Supernatural/Historical Fiction

Thank you Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book.

            “The Birth of a Nation” had delivered all the souls they needed to stir up them old evil powers. Across the country, white folk who ain’t even heard of the Klans surrendered to the spell of them moving pictures. Got them believing the Klans the true heroes of the South, and colored people the monsters, (TWO). 

            They are one of the most infamous groups in modern society; yet, for some reason, American society fails to call them what they are: a hate group. The Ku Klux Klan emerged during the Reconstruction Era and sought destruction, especially against several Black American communities throughout the U.S., particularly in the South. While their white hoods presented and hid their identities, the freed slaves had a new fear, and they weren’t from their folklore, but from actual fears which manifested. P. Djèlí Clark combines two fears—the known and the unknown—into his latest novella, Ring Shout

            Maryse Boudreaux is a 25-year-old monster hunter. However, she and her companions have “The Sight” so that they can distinguish one monster—the Klan—from the other one—the Ku Kluxes. To everyone else, they are one and the same, but Maryse and the other monster hunters know better. There is Sadie, the best shooter in the group; and, Chef, a war veteran who has a talent for explosives. Nana Jean is a Gullah woman who uses her skills to offer protection from the Ku Kluxes. And, Michael George, the man who provides Maryse with reprieve from and motivation for fighting. Then, there are Aunties Jadine, Ondine and Margaret, “spirits” who guide Maryse on her quest to eradicate the Ku Kluxes, including gifting her with the sword she uses throughout the war against the supernatural threat. Maryse has her reasons for hunting the Ku Kluxes, but she cannot grasp how far these monsters are willing to go for domination. And, who is conjuring them? The revelation pushes her to make “deals” so that she and her companions have a chance to survive. Maryse is a fighter, but she knows all too well that she cannot do it alone. Her companions allow her to develop into the person she must become in order to defeat this threat. 

            The plot is straightforward. It is July 1922, 7 years after The Birth of a Nation was released, and 4 years since the Great War (a.k.a. World War I) ended; and, there is to be a re-release of the film in Stone Mountain, Georgia. What many people—White and Colored—do NOT know is that the movie is based on a book written by a sorcerer. The sorcerer uses moving pictures in order to conjure a spell so that evil beings can be summoned and walk amongst humanity. The cost: human souls. The Klan offered their souls and became Ku Kluxes, which go on to terrorize Colored people. So, monster hunters—consisting of a group of Colored people with “The Sight”—continue to fight them off after the Ku Kluxes make their return to power. The storyline within this plot is how the characters fight, live, and survive during these trying times where a force of evil—which is fueled by hatred—is unseen by almost everyone. It is the subplot that drives the plot in this book. The subplot focuses on the Black American Experience during the 1920s, and it is not an easy time for them. In addition to fighting the supernatural, the characters have to maintain their way of life while remaining segregated. Jim Crow laws and lynchings are a common and an everyday practice. Combined, both the subplot and the storyline allows for the plot to develop an appropriate rate. 

            The narrative is told from the point-of-view of Maryse. The sequence is a combination of stream-of-consciousness and flashback, which are necessary for the story. The events and the sequence occur in the present. However, it is the dialogue (and the dialect) of the characters that will keep the readers engaged throughout the narrative. 

            The style P. Djèlí Clark uses in Ring Shout includes allusion, history and folklore. The history is obvious to anyone who is familiar with (actual) American history and Southern culture. The allusion refers to historical moments such as: Prohibition, the reemergence of the KKK, the construction of the Panama Canal, the Black Wallstreet Massacre, etc. Yet, it is the folklore that influences the story. The mention of fairy tales as cautionary tales are mentioned throughout this book (i.e. Bruh Rabbit, eating strange food, sharing stories, etc.) and drive the story in a way so that both the characters and the readers are familiar with all of the story’s ongoings. Another factor the author wants his audience to consider are the similarities between Black American and Caribbean cultures, particularly the practices of the Gullah and the Obeah. The mood in Ring Shout is hatred; and, the tone within this book is manipulation (for power using hatred). Readers should know that the book’s cover is essential to the events which occur towards the end of the story. 

            The appeal for Ring Shout will be positive. This is because the author does a great job fusing fear and hatred with folklore and dark magic. The former are human emotions which often lead to harm, while the latter are elements of several cultures that are believed and are practiced. Fans of horror, paranormal and supernatural stories will enjoy this story. Fans of recent and related novellas such as The Deep by Rivers Solomon and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi will appreciate the continuation of the Black American experience being told blatantly and directly in the speculative fiction genre. However, Ring Shout will be canonized alongside The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson in the horror genre. This book can be read again and again, and it is a great addition to the genre. It should be mentioned that this book can be read and enjoyed by historians and folklorists as well due to the information written into the pages of the story.

             Ring Shout is a brilliant horror and supernatural story which will force you to recall all of the “stories” and the “magic” you’ve been exposed to throughout your life as you try to come up with an explanation for “the unknown.” Once again, P. Djèlí Clark has found a way to present readers with a story combining history and folklore into a believable, yet scary, tale that serves as a cautionary tale against hatred and sorcery. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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