And if Tau didn’t feel better, it had to be because there was still so much to do. He needed to go to Kigambe and test to become an Ihashe. Then he’d have military status and the right to blood-duel anyone in the Chosen military. The old law was the only way a Lesser could kill a Noble with impunity, (Chapter Three, Fallen).
2019 was an amazing year for debut authors, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Without listing all of the names of the authors who helped elevate the genre with their stories, some of them are using “older,” “classic,” and “overused” tropes in the genre. However, just like how other authors such as: George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Brandon Sanderson have written their stories mixing “classic” tropes with “unexpected, but believable” twists. Evan Winter is the latest author to incorporate this sort of narrative into his stories. The Rage of Dragons—the first book in The Burning Series—is an African-inspired epic fantasy story, which starts off with war, dragons and revenge, but grows into a rich tale with realistic characters, great world-building, and a believable society whose cultural and socioeconomical practices reflect those of our actual history.
Tau is the protagonist in this novel. He is an adolescent who is old enough to “Test” in order to enter the military of the Omehi, his tribe. He is the son of a High Common woman and a Lesser man (his mother ran off with Tau’s father, Aren, only to return to her family after Tau was born). Although tradition and status come from the mother—Tau’s surname is Tafari—Tau is raised and treated as his father’s son. Tau is very much aware of his place in life (servitude) and what his expectations are supposed to be (military life). However, Tau desires a simple life: land and a family with his crush, Zuri—a handmaiden. So, he comes up with a dangerous, yet practical way to gain those desires. Unfortunately, Tau never gets the chance to put his plan into action. Within one day, Tau loses all he holds dear to him and he must flee from his home before he is executed. From that day, Tau is consumed with anger and a new plan: to become an Ihashe warrior, the best one in living memory. After arriving in the capital—and barely surviving the Testing—Tau becomes an Ihashe Initiate and is placed in a Scale (or Unit) led by Umgondisi (Captain or General) Jayyed Ayim—a former adviser to the Guardian Council—who has a special interest in Tau and the other Initiates in his Scale. It is this moment when Tau decides to go by his father’s surname, Solarin. Throughout his training, Tau works harder than any other Initiate, honing his growing anger into his weapons training. He is not alone during the training. He is accompanied by: Hadith, who is known for his strategic planning; Uduak, a huge Initiate who is more aware of Tau’s anger than anyone else; and, Zuri, an Initiate of the Gifted—a female whose powers can call dragons. Throughout the novel, Tau becomes the warrior he wants to be and gets closer and closer to his goal towards vengeance. However, Tau’s anger remains within him and he lacks both an outlet and a support system for his grief and his anger. His companions keep him grounded, but how long will these characters stand with Tau knowing his anger can burst into a fit of rage at any moment?
The plot of this novel is Tau’s path to take revenge on those who left him with nothing. As much as this sounds like the trope of “the son getting revenge for his father’s death,” Tau neither finds a mentor nor finds companionship within his Scale. Instead, Tau isolates himself as much as possible from other people and focuses on his training instead of his raging emotions and how those could affect his fighting techniques while doing drills with his Scale. Some readers will notice that Tau’s method of dealing with his emotions can lead Tau to having a mental breakdown. There are two main subplots in this novel. The first one is Tau’s training. The author is not only writing a story about one’s path towards vengeance, but also a fantasy story which is influenced heavily in military history and strategy. As Tau goes through his training, both Tau and the readers learn about fighting stances, strategic planning and battle formations, all of which are practiced and exercised over and over throughout the narrative. This subplot serves as a device for time. It’s going to take years for Tau to become the warrior he wants to become, and the length of training all of the Initiates undergo makes the story more realistic. The second subplot is the division between the Omehi and the Xiddeen, and between the Nobles and the Lessers of the Omehi. For almost 200 years (and since the Omehi landed on the beach), both the Omehi and the Xiddeen have been at war. Recent events have caused rumors of a potential truce between the two warring tribes. However, after fighting for generations, what other lifestyle could await the armies? Will they lose their purpose? As for the division between the Nobles and the Lessers, Tau is proof that such unions are possible. Socioeconomic status is a constant universal issue and theme in human history and culture. When the truce promises to bring an end to the division between Lessers and Nobles, which group from which tribe will rebel and which one will comply? These subplots are necessary for the plot because they embellish the world-building in the story and remind readers of Tau’s initial reasons for joining the army. The plot develops at an appropriate pace; and, the subplots are necessary for the plot because they are “breaks” from the military aspect of the story which are as severe as the issues on the Homefront.
The narrative is told in first person point-of-view in present time. With the exception of the prologue, the epilogue, and a handful of chapters in between, the narrative is told from Tau’s viewpoint. Tau’s hardships, training and motivations are written in sequence with his stream-of-consciousness so that readers know what he is thinking and experiencing with his actions, concurrently. The change of characters’ P.O.V. demonstrate not only how Tau presents himself to those around him, but also presents the conflicts the other characters are dealing with at the same time (hint: they’re based on the subplots). While Tau is a ticking timebomb, he is a reliable narrator. The narrative is well-written—even with the jumps in the P.O.V.s—and they can be followed by the readers.
The style Evan Winter uses in his novel focuses on the history of violence between two conflicting sides. The use of power, strength and abilities in the author’s writing is part of his central theme of violence. Yes, this story is influenced by African history and folklore, but the violence and the emotions can originate from any individual throughout the world past and present. The military aspect of the story will remind readers that this is an epic military fantasy, not just a story containing traditional fantasy tropes. The mood in The Rage of Dragons is one of anger and warfare which is expressed and reflected amongst all of the characters in the author’s world. The tone is how the elements that make up the mood are dealt with by these characters; should they find a truce or submit to their unstable emotions and desires? The mood matches the tone in the themes of war, violence and division.
The appeal for The Rage of Dragons have been positive. The debut novel has been called “one of the best fantasy books of 2019” by several critics. And, it was one of my favorite speculative books of 2019! Any readers who are fans of world-building, magic and dragons will enjoy this book. Fans of military fantasy will enjoy this story, too. I listened to the audiobook of this novel and Prentice Onayemi’s performance and narration was the best choice for this book. This is because both his accent and his pronunciation of the words and the terminology made the story more realistic. It does take some getting used to, but the audiobook is worth listening to. There are some concerns by a few readers about the use of “worn out fantasy tropes.” My answer to that is Tau’s story starts down that route, but the focus shifts towards something else, which foreshadows future events forthcoming in the sequel, The Fires of Vengeance. Only Evan Winter knows which tropes he’ll stick with and which ones he’ll twist.
The Rage of Dragons is the latest work of fantasy that combines dragons with African influences. What starts off as a trope for one individual’s vengeance evolves into a military story about the struggles for power and the purpose of war. The idea that war can be used for world-building is nothing new. However, the emotional toll of the training and the fighting in a war within a corrupted society containing dragons will remind fantasy fans of one or two popular series. That being said, Evan Winter gifted fantasy fans with an action-packed military tale that should not be missed.
Binge reading. It’s something some readers will do when the time comes for it. If a book in a popular series is about to be released, then fans will not just re-read, but binge read those books. This happens a lot with readers of comics, graphic novels and manga, but it occurs amongst fans and readers of other genres of literature as well. Within the fantasy genre, readers have and continue to binge read their favorite series, and it happens when the series has enough books for fans to pass their time with while waiting for the next book (i.e. Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.,). Yet, every once in a while, an author will put out several of their books within a short time frame so that fans and readers can read them all at once and they won’t lose track of the events of the story. Brent Weeks did it with his The Night Angel Trilogy(from what I’ve read online); and now, Sarah Kozloff is doing the same with her debut series, The Nine Realms. All four books in the series will be released within four consecutive months so readers don’t have to wait too long to learn what happens next. A Queen in Hiding is the first book in the series.
The novel begins with the central protagonist, Princella Cerúlia, who is eight years-old, and her mother, Queen Cressa, on a visit to Chronicler Sewell, the royal scriber and historian, for Cerúlia’s Definition—the moment when the future queen’s Talent (magical ability) manifests, and then announced throughout the kingdom of Weirandale. Queen Cressa is an Enchanter whose Talent involves gaining the truth from other people and alternating someone’s memories, and her late mother, Queen Catreena was known as “The Strategist” for being able to strategize her movements several steps ahead of her opponents. While Queen Cressa worries about her daughter’s future, she is dealing with grievances from the realm of Oromondia—which is dealing with drought and poisoned water—who accuses the Queen and Weirandale of sending poisoned food to them, which they did not do. After an assassination attempt on the royal family, the queen spirits her daughter away to the region of Wyndton. There the princella is disguised as an orphaned peasant and hidden with a family who is loyal to the throne. Cerúlia goes by the alias, Wren, the adopted daughter of Wilim and Stahlia, and sister to Percia. This happens because Cressa learns that her Lord Steward, Matwyck, arranged the assassination attempt in order to rule as Lord Regent through her daughter and then imprison her once she comes of age to rule by herself. Meanwhile, Sumroth leads an army from Oromondo through the other realms in order to obtain food and resources for Oromondia’s survival. At the same time, Thalen, the son of a potter, is accepted into the Scolairíum (a university) in the Free States where he divides his time between studying the subjects Earth and Water, and History and Diplomacy. Throughout the narrative, Cerúlia/Wren and Thalen are the protagonists who develop the most; not only because they demonstrate growth through their learning and maturity, but also because it is obvious that their stories are the most relevant to the entire series (so far). There are several minor characters who are essential to the story in their own ways: those whose remain faithful to the Nargis Throne, those who sided with Matwyck and his treachery, and Cerúlia’s foster family who remain oblivious to Wren’s true identity. These characters are just as heartwarming and memorable as the protagonists.
The plot of A Queen in Hiding is one that will carry throughout the entire The Nine Realms series. The Queen of Weirandale fled her kingdom with her daughter so that the Nargis Throne could not be usurped by her traitorous council. However, she is killed before she can reclaim the throne, which forces the princella to remain in exile in order to avoid capture by those who usurped the throne in the first place. The main storyline narrates the occurrence of the before and the after of the usurpation, which follows Queen Cressa’s campaign to reclaim the throne, Princella Cerúlia’s upbringing while in hiding, and the “Regency” of Lord Matwyck and the lengths he goes to in order to maintain power. There are several subplots within this novel and they’re all necessary for the plot and its development. This first is the threat of Oromondia and its army. Due to the land not being able to sustain life, the leaders decide to invade the Free States for their survival. At the same time, the fire priests who travel with the army act as the Spanish Inquisition and punish the denizens stating that their “lack of faith” caused the land to become uninhabitable. The next subplot is Thalen’s education at the Scolairíum. Thalen (and the readers) learn how each of the realms operate, why the Oromondos are invading the other realms, and why the lack of a Weirandale ruler is upsetting the balance of the world. The last subplot is how the lower-class denizens of Weirandale are handling the brutal regency of Lord Matwyck and how they avoid detection from other nobles—and how they continue to track down the princella—as they continue to hope and to prepare for the return of the new Queen. All of the subplots go at an appropriate rate with the plot, and the pacing is believable because all of these campaigns and events would develop over the course of several years.
The narrative is told from several points-of-view from both the protagonists and the other characters in a chronological sequence. As all of the events unfold, the narrative moves from character and setting to character and setting. This allows readers to know everything that is going on from each of the characters’ 1st person P.O.V.s and their stream-of-consciousness. Because of this flow of narration from character to character, readers are able to keep track of everything that happens within the story. In addition, readers can determine for themselves which characters’ motivations and actions are justified.
The style Sarah Kozloff uses for A Queen in Hiding follows the tropes and the traditions of epic fantasy with elements of reality that make the story more believable to her audience. The elements of magic and religion with the use of science and knowledge lets readers know that the author does not want either her characters or her readers to become too reliable on one factor of knowledge over the other one. This is similar to our world; science doesn’t explain everything, and different realms have different governments and cultural practices. The author’s word choice and sentence structure reflects the age, the level of education, and the location of each P.O.V. character. The author’s style for her characters and settings enriches her world and her story; and, the inclusion of science and military strategy—knowledge we take for granted—demonstrate realism and familiarity for the readers and any potential foreshadowing in the next book(s). The mood in A Queen in Hiding is chaos. Weirandale is without a queen and at the mercy of a tyrant, Oromondia believes conquest will ensure their survival, and all of the scholars and the students at the Scolairíum lack common sense when it comes to preparing for and to fighting against an army of invaders. The tone in this novel is the consequences and the results of chaos across all realms regardless of conflict and government. I should mention that I read a digital ARC of this book and there were no maps to be found in my edition of the book. They’re not necessary, but they would have been helpful to have them in the book.
Fans of other epic fantasy series such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Daevabad Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and The Priory of the Orange Tree will enjoy this series the most. This is because A Queen in Hiding focuses on one main conflict and fantasy trope of “the missing heir” while exploring several other conflicts and world-building in other settings from the points-of-view of several other characters. And, there’s a bonus: each book will be released in consecutive months, so by April 2020, readers can read the entire quartet in one sitting! If the story moves at the same pace and uses the same style as in the first book, then the appeal for The Nine Realms will be a positive one. The time and the effort of the author to write this series and to convince the publisher, Tor, to release them all in consecutive months must be lauded because one, over 2,000 pages and God knows how many characters written and presented as one chronicle is an accomplishment all on its own; and two, I already plan (and want) to read the rest of the series, starting with Book 2, The Queen of Raiders.
A Queen in Hiding is a bold debut epic fantasy novel. Sarah Kozloff creates one world with nine realms and numerous characters and conflicts which are tethered in ways that keep the attention of the readers from beginning to end (of Book 1). By the time readers reach the end of this book, they will be pleased with the short waiting period for the next one, and the one after that, and the last one.
2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs.
This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).
All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.
#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it.
#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.
I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series.
#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang
I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best.
#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves.
One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.
I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.
One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!
#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019.
#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole
To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy.
#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!
2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!
How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds.
#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself.
#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy.
Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!
This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked!
In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied.
War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good.
The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author.
The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale.
#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang
This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book.
#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe
This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.
I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy.
The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment.
Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!
It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!
Book One of the Black Iron Legacy: The Gutter Prayer
By: Gareth Hanrahan
Audiobook: 16 hours 58 minutes
Narrated by: John Banks
Published: January 15, 2019
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been warned.
…the thieves—the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl…(Prologue).
All readers have at least this one thing in common—so many books and very little time to read them all. With so many books—in all genres—being released to the acclaim of both critics and readers, there are moments when a reader does not know which book to read next. Also, there are times when a reader wants to read a book but has to find a way to read it alongside the other books they are reading. In this case, I wanted to read The Gutter Prayer—a grimdark fantasy debut novel by Gareth Hanrahan—which, I have heard nothing but positive things about the book. However, I didn’t have time to read my eBook copy, and I did not want to wait until “later” to read it. So, the only option I had left was the audiobook. I bought it and I prayed that the narration would be as good as the story, and I was not disappointed in either one! The Gutter Prayer is one of the most creative and most entertaining debut novels I’ve read in a while; and, listening to the audiobook gave me a new respect and outlook on narrators.
This novel contains several characters. There are 3 protagonists: Carillon Thay, or Cari, a young woman who lived a nomadic life before becoming a thief for the Guild; Rat, a ghoul who is considered to be of a young age amongst other ghouls; and, Spar, a lifelong member of the Thieves’ Guild, who is also a Stone Man, suffering from a disease that slowly petrifies people. When we first meet this trio, they are breaking into a building to steal some documents as appointed by Heinreil, the Guild’s leader. After the job goes awry, we meet: Jere: a thief-taker (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who has a borderline obsession with the trio; Professor Ongent and his son, Miren, scholars with their own baggage and piqued interest in Cari; Eladora Duttin, Cari’s cousin whom she has not seen since they were children; and, Aleena, a woman with unusual ties to Cari. This motley band of characters are about to become acquainted with each other whether or not they want to be. All of the characters are rounded and complex and have down-to-Earth concerns, secrets, and ambitions. At first, readers assume these characters are static and are expected to adhere to the tropes, but the complexity and the connection these characters have demonstrate how each of them develop throughout the novel.
The plot of The Gutter Prayer is extremely intriguing: 3 thieves are betrayed by their leader, and as they plot their revenge they uncover not only political conspiracies, but also an ongoing war amongst gods, mages, and alchemists. All the while, Cari, Rat and Spar are linked to this war whether or not they want to be. However, if they want a chance at vengeance, then they must stop Armageddon from happening. Of course, this is easier said than done, but they are not alone. The subplots are interconnected with the plot. First, there are Cari and Eladora. Most of their relatives were killed in a massacre, in which neither Cari, nor Eladora were present. Cari ran away from home and became a thief, and Eladora settled in Guerdon to distance herself from her religious zealot mother. Professor Ongent and Miren take interests in them, but Cari can’t shake the feeling that the Professor has ulterior motives. Next, Spar struggles with the disease that will kill him eventually. At the same time, he knows it’s time to fight Heinreil in order to become the Head of the Thieves’ Guild. This is one of two promises Spar makes to Cari; the second one involves getting back an amulet Heinreil took from Cari. Last, Rat, the ghoul who spends as much time underground as he does above it, is very knowledgeable about the ongoing war between the gods and all of the mages. What the others don’t know is that Rat and the other ghouls have a role to play in the war as well. All of these subplots are necessary for the plot to go at an appropriate rate. This is because, as the plot continues, readers learn the hows and the whys all of these characters remain motivated to stop the mages from bringing destruction to the world.
The narrative follows a chronological sequence of events that are told from multiple points-of-view. From the botched robbery to the motives of all of the characters, the readers learn everything that is happening and why from all of the locations the characters find themselves in. Usually, in narratives like these, it is difficult to determine which of the characters are reliable. However, due to each of the protagonists’ stream-of-consciousness—which include flashbacks of important moments in their lives—readers are able to follow the narrative easily. In other words, readers learn where each protagonist is coming from and are able to understand them a lot more.
The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is very interesting, and it brings out the grimdark aspect within the fantasy. The author created a world where ghouls are NOT the threat, but mages, saints, and wax figures are working to prompt Armageddon. In addition, the use of word choice and figurative language—especially when it comes to describing bells and medallions—clues readers in as to what they should pay attention to. The mood of The Gutter Prayer is preventing the coming of the end of the world and the lengths people go to either to invoke it, or to prevent it. No one survives the coming or the prevention of the end-of-the-world unscathed, so the mood here would be the tension of the dilemma. And, while the author did this unknowingly (I asked him about it on social media), a lot of the action occurs on “Desiderata Street.” Anyone who is familiar with the poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, knows that it is a reminder to individuals to strive for high ideals and to respect others the way they want to be treated. This is the tone of the novel, and this “way of life,” is the philosophy (remember “Philosopher’s Street”?) which, is reflected in one of the protagonists. Yes, it sounds cliché, but the way this is used within the author’s style of writing doesn’t feel that way at all.
The appeal surrounding The Gutter Prayer have been beyond positive. While it’s obvious that grimdark fans will enjoy this book the most, this should NOT be missed by other fantasy fans and readers! This debut—yes, remember debut—novel is already considered to be one of the “Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2019” by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Social media fandoms kept raving about this book to the point where I knew I had to find a way to read it. So, I bought the audiobook. The narrator, John Banks, was perfect for voicing this book. The way he used his voice to convey each character and to describe the setting the way he did matched the story perfectly. I felt that John Banks’ narration embellished the story. And, while I hope to read The Shadow Saint, the upcoming sequel to The Gutter Prayer (to be released on January 9, 2020), I wouldn’t mind if John Banks narrated that book and any other ones in the series as well. It did not feel like I was listening to 17 hours of a novel, it felt like I was there!
The Gutter Prayer is a striking addition to the fantasy genre. It’s dark and twisted story will remind readers that fantasy is more than “knights in shining armor arriving to save the world.” The fact that it is a debut novel will leave fans craving for more from Gareth Hanrahan. If you’re a fan of fantasy and you want something both new and different, then look no further.
I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door).
Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).
January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her.
The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling.
The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s.
The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds.
This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!
My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!
This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.
List of Works Cited
Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
“…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.
There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.
Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba).
2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.”
Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are.
The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them.
The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.
Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.
The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s.
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy
“She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).
2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.
Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand.
The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved.
The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow.
The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.
The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon!
C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.