Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Grey Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Two: Grey Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 3, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Sequel

            “You’re powerful Nona, and you’ve come into your power at an early age. The understanding that power corrupts is an idea older than the language we repeat it in. All of us in positions that afford authority over others are susceptible, be we high priests, prime instigators, even abbesses.”

            “Or emperors,” Nona said.

            The abbess winced. “Some truths are better left implied, dear,” (Chapter 17).

            Sequels and other follow ups to their predecessors work well when the events that occurred beforehand are addressed AND the action picks up where it left off. In addition, both the plot development and the character development must continue to show growth in order for the story to remain realistic, and to keep the attention of the reader(s). Mark Lawrence achieves all of this in Grey Sister, the Second Book of the Ancestor.

            The second book in the trilogy has two protagonists: Nona Grey, who is now around 14 years-old and just reached Mystic Class; and Abbess Glass, the Reverend Mother and Headmistress at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. From these protagonists, readers are able to gain knowledge of the on goings of everything happening at the Convent. Nona is coming into her powers and her abilities and is dealing with the consequences of her actions from her time in Grey Class. At the same time, Abbess Glass continues her task of running the Convent and continuing her task of exposing corruption inside and outside of the Convent. More is at stake for both female protagonists as both the Emperor and the Inquisition continue to meddle in the affairs of the Church. All of the other novices: Ara, Darla, Ruli, Jula, and Zole, and the nuns: Wheel, Apple, Kettle, Pan, Rose, Tallow, and Rail know that more is happening outside of the Convent than the Emperor is willing to admit. And, once again, Nona meets up with a few of her former “cage mates,” who have grown into their abilities as well. Everyone is preparing for a war that is inevitable. Nona must endure the obstacles and the hardships in order to graduate from Mystic Class. Abbess Glass must use all of her wisdom and her connections to keep everyone safe, including the “Chosen One” and her “Shield.”

            The plot for Grey Sister is a continuation from Red Sister. Nona and her friends and classmates continue with their classes and the nuns continue their work inside and outside of the Convent. All of this occurs after the betrayals and the heartbreaks from the last two years. These events prompt the identity of the “Chosen One” to be revealed, which brings a motley crowd of zealots and doubters alike. At the same time, neither the noble families, nor the nuns have forgotten the efforts of one noble family’s continued plans to kill Nona. Nona is struggling with her classes due to the long-term “consequence” of the attack on her life. Through it all, Nona grows stronger and more powerful to the delight of her peers and to the horror of her enemies. If Nona wishes to remain at the Convent of Sweet Mercy and to stay alive, then she must find a way to navigate herself through her trials. The subplot of the “Chosen One” is growing and merging into the plot of Nona’s education and the significance of the 4 tribes that traveled to Abeth.

            Once again, the narrative is limited omniscient narration, meaning the readers and the protagonists know what is being experienced at that moment through the character’s point-of-view. Unlike Red Sister, the narrative in Grey Sister is told in real-time through the P.O.V.s of both Nona and Abbess Glass. Thus, these stream-of-consciousness narrations are reliable and can be followed by readers easily. It should be mentioned that the present narration of Grey Sister starts with Chapter 2. Chapter 1 picks up with the cliffhanger from Red Sister, and the Prologue provides a continuation of the action first introduced in the Prologue in Red Sister. Since Grey Sister’s narration is told in the present, any events of the past that is mentioned proves to be a revelation to both the characters and the readers. This is because what gets revealed demonstrates that everything that is, has been, and will continue to happen is bigger and more grievous than anyone at the Convent of Sweet Mercy could imagine. 

            The style Mark Lawrence uses in Grey Sister is a continuation of how prophecy is exploited through means of distraction. Those involved directly with the prophecy want nothing more than to be left alone and to live their lives as “normal” individuals. Some hopefuls wish for the “divine” powers of the “Chosen One” to work miracles for them only to be left disappointed with this notion. Then, there are those who use the prophecy as a way to fulfill their agendas, typically political ones. And, if the prophecy of the “Chosen One” is a distraction, then the political agendas of several noble families, including the Royal Family, serves as the knowledge that no one wants to admit is the issue: war is coming. In other words, religion is exploited in order to distract everyone from the politics of society. This is the mood found within Grey Sister; and, the tone is how the truth—surrounding both religion and politics—is revealed and the reactions and the consequences of it. There are neither winners, nor losers, yet everyone continues to believe whatever they want to believe in. 

            The appeal of Grey Sister is as positive as Red Sister. Fans of the first book had just as many praises for its sequel. This is because the sequel continues to build and to develop the characters, the plot, the world-building, and the action. Not only will readers want to re-read this book (to search for clues and Easter Eggs), but also to continue recommending this series to other readers, all while waiting to read Holy Sister, the third and final book in the series. 

            Grey Sister is an amazing sequel to Red Sister. This is because there is an expansion of the world and further development of both the plot and the characters. At the same time, the events and the revelations from the first book play a critical role that cannot be overlooked. The story is as immersive as the action is entertaining. Mark Lawrence’s novel is a must-read for fans of both fantasy and grimdark.

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

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: Kids of the Black Hole”

Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

            It’s the buildup to the final showdown and the kids decide to have fun before the big fight, which is during Christmas Break. Chester has gathered his posse at the house he has taken over and continues his torture, with Chico’s head still in the ice. Saya is able to track down Chester to his hideout, which he’s turned into a fortress. Chester is expecting a retaliation from Marcus and his friends for his actions. Marcus has been making plans in order to get revenge and to prove his conviction. 

            When Willie decides not to take any part of the upcoming showdown between Marcus and his former roommate, it’s a reminder to the audience that the characters do have a choice to their actions. Maria and Marcus made decisions because they believed they didn’t have a choice. Saya chooses her friends over the assignment Master Lin gives her. Willie does have a choice and his decision to leave is vital; at the same time, we know that Willie isn’t one to abandon his friends completely. 

            Meanwhile, Master Lin’s efforts to protect his family has reached its end. Yes, he didn’t want his daughter to have the same upbringing and lifestyle as his sister and Saya, but he underestimated the need for his family to be able to defend themselves. It is not clear who tipped off Chico’s father and the rest of the Cartel, but the cliché narrative about the consequences of secrets and making the decision that should have been made in the first place will play out in the season finale. 

            Kids of the Black Holegives viewers the title of the episode. The lifestyle of assassins sucks people into a vortex. And, when presented with the opportunity to avoid that vortex, the decision to either go in, or stay out can be a matter of life and death. And, like with every decision every character has made throughout this season, there will be consequences for all of those involved. 

Why You Need to Read: “Binti: The Complete Trilogy”

Binti: The Complete Trilogy                                                      

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published:  Binti(#1) released September 22, 2015

                 Binti: Sacred Fire(#1.5) released February 5, 2019

                 Binti: Home(#2) released January 31, 2017

                Binti: The Night Masquerade(#3) released January 16, 2018

                Binti: The Complete Trilogyreleased February 5, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Anthology  

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2015 & the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2016

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib (Binti).

            Every once in a while you hear about a story that is so unique and so captivating that it is suggested that everyone should read it regardless if it’s not from their preferred genre of literature. Bintiis a story about a young woman who leaves her home—without her family’s blessing—so that she can take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, Oomza Uni. She boards a spacecraft and it is traveling to a distant planet, and Binti has never been away from her home before. It seems like the story will pick up pace once the spacecraft arrives; only it is attacked by a “hostile” alien species. This is the first part of the first novella in the series by Nnedi Okorafor—which, won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for “Best Novella”—and, neither the action, nor the story ends with the first novella! Binti: The Complete Trilogycontains all of the author’s stories in one volume!

            Bintistarts off with a simple plot: a gifted young woman goes against her family’s expectations in order to attend an esteemed university. Readers are introduced to Binti’s intelligence for mathematics, abilities as a harmonizer, and Himba culture. At the same time, readers are reminded that human differences and alien versus human culture clashes exist in the future as well. One particular rivalry between the species quickly becomes the center of the story, quickly. Binti has to find a way to survive her new—and unexpected—predicament, which will be hard because the Meduse, the hostile alien species want her dead. 

            Binti is terrified to the point where it’s easier to blame herself for her current situation rather than realize how sheltered she was back on Earth. Binti soon realizes that she must rely on her abilities and her talent in order to understand the situation and escape with her life. However, Binti is not in control of either her abilities, or the tools she has with her. This means improvising. She soon realizes that her astrolabe allows her to communicate with the Meduse on the spacecraft. Binti is able to come up with a strategy to save herself, the lives at Oomza Uni, and the lives of the people on Earth, including her family. Even though she succeeds, the experience of Binti’s excursion to Oomza Uni changes her in more ways than one.

            Binti: Sacred Fireis the latest story written by the author in this series, but it serves as an interlude between the first and the second books in the series. This tale provides an appropriate look into Binti’s life as a student at the university she saved. She has become friends with one of the Meduse, Okwu, who is now a student at the university as well. Readers gain insight into Binti’s interactions with her classmates and her professors, and her family and friends back home (the ones who are willing to talk to her). 

            Unfortunately, Binti’s new life at Oomza Uni is not as smooth as she hopes. She is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from her voyage to the university and from the bullying from a few of the humans who happen to be from a feuding tribe from Earth. Although Binti is hailed as a hero for negotiating a truce, she feels as isolated at Oomza Uni as she did back home. Not to mention, Binti is still dealing with some personal “changes” to her being. 

            Even though Binti is traumatized and isolated, she is not alone. Her friends are with her as she works her way through her adjustments and her traumas. Binti knows that it’ll take a while to get used to her new lifestyle, but it seems like she’ll be getting the full university experience. 

            Binti: Homeis about what is in the title. Binti completes her first semester or year at Oomza Uni and decides to return home to visit her family and to participate in her tribe’s pilgrimage. Binti has made progress at the university: in her classes, in her therapy sessions, and in her reputation as a Master Harmonizer. However, returning home means traveling by spacecraft, and it’s the same one Binti traveled on to get to Oomza Uni.

            The spacecraft—known as The Third Fish—is a living thing that flies in outer space. Binti—who is still suffering from PTSD—decides to stay in the same room she stayed in during her first voyage in order to face her trauma. Throughout the voyage, Binti is able to make some progress of dealing with her panic attacks and flashbacks. However, Binti still has to face her fear of reuniting with her family. And, since she’s lived away from her home for a while, she’s forgotten some of her people’s more casual customs. Binti has changed in more ways than one because of her experiences. Unfortunately, her family and her tribe are static in their ways and are disgusted with Binti’s changes and growth. 

            The purpose of a pilgrimage is for an individual to seek growth through moral and spiritual growth. Oftentimes, that individual becomes enlightened and transformed by the end of their pilgrimage. This is what happens to Binti during her pilgrimage even if it isn’t the pilgrimage she was supposed to go on. The pilgrimage Binti goes on brings her to a new level of personal enlightenment. And, she is made aware of her own prejudices and slowly comes around to accepting the changes she’s been experiencing. At the same time, the prejudices surrounding three different clans have erupted, and Binti—once again—must rely on her skills as a harmonizer in order to diffuse the tensions before war breaks out. 

            Binti: The Night Masquerade starts where Binti: Homeleft off, with Binti rushing back to her family home after her pilgrimage in order to stop a war before it starts. The Night Masquerade is a personification of the coming of a “big change.” To Binti, she interprets it to mean a war is about to start. And, Binti plans on ending it before it can happen.

            Cultures clash, hidden history is revealed, and someone always gets betrayed. The POVs change so that the readers have a better understanding of what is happening during certain parts of the story. Within the conclusion to this series, readers realize that not everyone is willing to accept change, not everyone wants to interact with someone who is “different” from themselves, and not everyone is willing to admit he/she/it/they have flaws. Binti comes to terms with all of this as she returns to Oomza Uni just in time for the upcoming academic year. All of her experiences and changes within herself allow Binti to elevate herself beyond the status of Master Harmonizer. However, Binti wishes to continue her studies, for the time being. 

            It was thrilling to read Bintiagain. And, Binti: The Complete Trilogyallows readers to enjoy all of the Binti stories in tandem. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor and readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this series compilation as much as I did. Reading through Binti’s life as a university freshman reminded me of some of my experiences during my first year of college as well, including the changes in myself and the stagnancy of everything else. Bintiis a story about personal growth through experience and change, and how expectations depend on individual actions, not those of others. This coming-of-age story is pleasing to all readers and it should not be overlooked. And, readers can rejoice knowing that Nnedi Okorafor has plans to continue Binti’s story!