Why You Need to Read: “Over the Woodward Wall”

The Up-and-Under, #1: Over the Woodward Wall

By: A. Deborah Baker

Published: October 6, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Children’s Literature

            Because of their houses, Avery’s and Zib’s both, were on the side of the street where the forest loomed, there were no corners: they lived, unwittingly, only three doors down from one another. But across the street from them was another road, right between the one where Avery walked to school and the one where Zib walked to school. They approached it, Avery walking with quick, precise steps, Zib skipping and strolling and sometimes outright running, and they reached their respective corners at the same time, (One: The Same Ordinary Town). 

            Creativity and imagination are used interchangeably when fiction writers—especially genre fiction—are praised for their stories. The stories presented by these authors remind us how infinite creativity and imagination are to everyone else. The range of such talent goes from authors who devote their entire lives constructing 1 world with 1 extensive timeline, to authors who can juggle multiple worlds with their own set of characters, timelines, and—at times—rules about magic. Seanan McGuire is an example of the latter, and this time she is writing as A. Deborah Baker with Over the Woodward Wall, the first book in The Up-and-Under series, which is mentioned in her novel, Middlegame.

            The protagonists are 2 children—a boy and a girl—who are the same age and live 3 doors down from each other, but whose paths have crossed barely until now. Hepzibah, or Zib, lives with her “eccentric” parents, and Avery (Alexander Grey) lives with his “efficient” parents. One day, at the same time for the same reason, both children take a detour to school, come across a wall, climb over it, and find themselves in a new world. Avery and Zib—who focus more on their differences over their similarities—must travel to the Impossible City on the Improbable Road so they can return home. During their journey they meet: a crow, an owl, a queen, a page, and a king. Throughout their journey, both Avery and Zib must learn about each other, learn how to get along with each other (they are young children), and learn about the Up-and-Under—the world they entered unknowingly. The protagonists are as resilient as children can be, but they cling on to the rules of our world as they move away further from it. Avery and Zib are not complex, but the other characters are, which makes the protagonists more intriguing. 

            The plot of this book is straightforward in its own way. Two children stumble into a world that isn’t familiar to them (or, to us), and in order to return to our world, they must meet with the ruler who lives in the center of it. Hence, their adventure begins. Along the way, Avery and Zib meet the inhabitants of the Up-and-Under. Each meeting with each denizen is a subplot within the story. During these encounters, the children learn more about the world and its rules. Each subplot develops alongside the plot as the children travel closer to the heart of the world they stumbled into by accident.

            The narrative is presented from the points-of-view of both Zib and Avery in the present. In addition, the story is told in 3rd person omniscient which is relevant to how the story is being told. Given that the protagonists are young children, it would make sense for the narration to be from a figure who knows more about what is happening because otherwise, the story would be confusing for everyone. Not to mention, this type of narration makes Zib and Avery reliable narrators. Their streams-of-consciousness—and, the narrator’s—allows the story to be followed easily. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses as A. Deborah Baker is both an allusion and a tribute to classic children’s literature, particularly adventure stories. The word choice and the sentence structure expands the audience of readers (children to adults), while the story itself will remind other readers of books written by Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Holly Black, and others. However, this book tells its story in a way that is can be distinguished from the series by the authors mentioned. The mood in this book is improbable—which comes directly from the book. All of the events throughout this adventure should be unlikely, but occur because the Up-and-Under follows the rules of its world. The tone in this book is eccentric. From when we first meet the protagonists to the end of this book, EVERYTHING deviates from the norm from the protagonists’ actions to the Improbable Road.

            The appeal for Over the Woodward Wall have been positive. That being said, there has been some confusion about The Up-and-Under series. According to the author, this series is mentioned in Middlegame, but there is NO (direct) connection or tie-ins between the 2 series. This means that both series can be read and enjoyed separately. So far, this series belongs in both the speculative fiction and the children’s literature canons. Fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Oz series, and The Spiderwick Chronicles should read this series because they will enjoy it the most. The next book in this series, Along the Saltwise Sea—which will be released later this year, will pick up where the first book ended.

            Over the Woodward Wall is a brilliant series based on the Hugo nominated book, but you don’t have to read Middlegame to enjoy this story. A. Deborah Baker presents a story that is familiar to readers, yet it manages to stand on its own. Fans of the genre shouldn’t hesitate to read this book, and fans of Seanan McGuire should not wait any longer to read this book. The story is a delightful throwback to children’s (fantasy) adventure books. Seanan McGuire’s talent for storytelling is as lengthy as The Improbable Road.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            This year, the solstice will be marked by the rarest of celestial occurrences. As the year divides into old and new, so also will the earth, sun, and moon align in the Convergence. Over our very heads, we will witness order move to chaos and back to order again. So it is with the heavens, so it will be with Tova. We will bear witness to the cycle of evil rising in darkness to be battled back by goodness and light when the sun prevails, (Chapter 9). 

            Remember when I said that I read Trail of Lightning, the first book in The Sixth World series, because I wanted to determine for myself whether or not the author was as big of a deal as the speculative fiction genre community made her out to be? And, that the author’s book was worth reading? Well, if Trail of Lightning was part of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut—the other being her award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”—then, Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, cements her status as one of the must-read authors within the genre. 

            There are four protagonists in this novel. First, is Serapio, the son of an Obregi Lord and a foreigner. The foreigner is his mother, Saaya, who along with three others, prepare Serapio towards his destiny of his transcendence to godhood. Second, is Xiala, a female sea captain and an exile from the Teek tribe. She is hired to bring cargo to Tova, one of whom is Serapio. The two exiles form a friendship during their journey to Tova. Along the way, Xiala learns about Serapio and realizes that his magic is just as powerful and as lethal as hers. Third, is Naranpa, one of the four priests in Tova—and, the head of the oracle society. On top of all of her responsibilities, she must deal with several political conspiracies all at once, including: several assassination attempts on her life, rumors surrounding the death of one of the matrons to one of the four tribes, prophecies surrounding the return of the crow god, rumors of what is to come on the winter solstice, talks of revenge for an event of the past, and the plot to have her removed from her seat of power. With all of these political conspiracies surrounding her, Naranpa doesn’t know who to trust. This includes Iktan—head of the knife society—one of the other four priests and Naranpa’s friend. The fourth and final protagonist is Okoa, the son of the Carrion Crow matron and future leader of the Shield, a military troop who serve as the matron’s bodyguards. After his mother’s death, Okoa rises to his role. During the transition, he uncovers two conspiracies. One is about his mother’s death, and the other is about the cultists from his tribe who believe their god can be raised and returned to them so that past wrongs can be paid back through divine retribution. All of these protagonists are complex people who find themselves being responsible for a group of people, and their choices affect those around them and everything they care about. As “The Day of Convergence” approaches, each of the protagonists develop into the individuals their roles demand of them to the point where not even the secondary characters can divert them from their path. 

            The plot of this novel involves the events that lead up to “The Day of Convergence,” which falls on the winter solstice. The plot develops through each of the protagonists as they uncover the mystery of what is to occur on that day, and whether or not it can be prevented. Serapio travels to Tova in order to fulfill his destiny of becoming a god, as per his mother’s actions. Naranpa is doing everything she can to remain the Sun Priest of the Celestial Tower while uncovering a plot of revenge against the Faith for a treacherous transgression from the past which left hundreds dead. Okoa is trying to unravel the events that led up to his mother’s death while trying to shake off the unwanted attention of his tribe’s cultist group. And, Xiala is trying to keep her powers in check while deciding whether or not to bring the apocalypse into Tova. While these appear to be four separate plots, they converge into one unforgettable moment when all of the protagonists must decide on acting on their destiny, or doing the right thing. There are two subplots within this novel which not only explains the plots, but also the motivations for the actions that take place at the novel’s end. The first one is vengeance. Vengeance, while mentioned from time-to-time, plays a large role in the story. Usually, the reason for an act of revenge depends on those who want it; but, in this case, everyone is expecting it. It all depends on who is involved and when the act will be carried out. The second subplot involves religion and magic. Similar to our world and other fantasy worlds, there are a few religions, each with its own rituals and practices. Some of this involves magic and how those in the out-group view that magic as opposed to their magic. Some of it is accepted, some are based in superstition, and a lot of it is forbidden; yet, it is all real and powerful, especially when done correctly. These subplots play a huge role in the plot development and must not be overlooked by the reader(s).

            The narratives are told from the points-of-view of the four protagonists. And, they are in third-person limited, which means readers know only what each protagonist is thinking and is experiencing at one time. Even when two characters are together, we are limited only to one character’s P.O.V. The sequence of the narration jumps back-and-forth from the start of Serapio’s transcendence to “The Day of Convergence” to the aftermath. While the sequence might come off as confusing, it is not because readers learn of all of the essential events leading up to the winter solstice from multiple P.O.V.s. So, while the narration moves from past to present, it follows a stream-of-consciousness of each protagonist so that we gain a better understanding of them, their culture, and their motivation of their actions. This presents the readers with a reliable narration (from each protagonist) that can be followed easily.

            The style Rebecca Roanhorse uses for her new series is amazing and informative. Once again, she draws on inspiration from her Native American heritage; but this time, the author draws on inspiration from Yucatec Mayan, Tewa, Polynesian and pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, many of which continues to be glossed over in school curriculums worldwide. Some of what I recall of ancient pre-Columbian societies (i.e. Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.) involve rituals and ceremonies to the gods, and their calendar, which was accurate. History and folklore aside, the use of foreshadowing and of characterization enhances the story to the point where readers known what is going to happen and why, and that there was no way to prevent the events from happening. By the time everything is revealed, the protagonists have made their decisions, and what is going to happen, happens. This leaves the reader(s) stunned, yet anticipating what will happen next during the aftermath of those events. It’s a shocking and an impressive move by the author. The mood in this novel is preparation. Everything that happens in this novel revolves on the winter solstice. To many, the day marks a celebration. To the protagonists and the other characters involved, it’s a day of dread, retribution, and change. The tone of the novel is fate. Without getting into too many spoilers, two of the protagonists were predestined to be part of “The Day of Convergence,” but an argument can be made that they could have chosen to resist that fate at any given time before that day. In fact, the choices of the other two protagonists should be noted as well because they all have no choice but to live with the decisions they make leading up to the winter solstice. I read an eARC of this book, and it did NOT come with any maps of the setting. Luckily, Rebecca Roanhorse provided some of the maps through Tor.com, which made picturing the mentioned towns and the distance between the cities easier.

            The appeal for Black Sun is already positive. So far, literary critics and other authors have praised Rebecca Roanhorse for the story she has written. Fans of the author’s urban fantasy series will be impressed with how the author can fuse her heritage into one story of the past and another story of the future. Not to mention that this book is an amazing addition to the fantasy canon, and will leave readers anticipating the second book in this series. Fans of historical and/or mythological fantasy—Tasha Suri, S.A. Chakraborty, Evan Winter and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—should read this book as soon as they are able to, they will enjoy it a lot.

            Black Sun is proof that Rebecca Roanhorse can weave her talent and her heritage into powerful stories over and over again. If you need a reason to read one of her books, or if you want to read a fantasy series that will take your expectations to another level, then you really should read this book. It has everything from magic and prophecies to political power struggle based on a moment in human history, in which it all could have happened, but its setting is a fantasy world. I don’t know about you, but while I’m waiting for Book 2 of this series, I’ll be reading Storm of Locusts, Book 2 in the author’s other series. Enjoy!      

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