Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

What. A. Year. It was a great year for stories—not necessarily publication—but a terrible year for everything else. While the pandemic brought about more time for some readers, I did NOT fall into that category. If anything, then the pandemic had me being more occupied, which brought about less time for reading. Don’t get me wrong, I still met my reading goal (100 books), but I’m going to have to change the way I do these end-of-the-year lists. I didn’t get to read or to finish reading all the books I wanted to read this year (I lost some time because I no longer had a long commute), but I read just enough books to compile this list. These books were released and read—by me—in 2020. 

#15: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

            This novella didn’t get the same recognition similar novellas received, and that’s a shame because this standalone work is entertaining and brilliant from start to end. The story follows a troupe of thieves for hire who are completing a job when they are recognized and have to escape, with a nun following them. From there, several hijinks and revelations ensue until the big reveal at the end leaves readers wondering whether or not this book should be a standalone. 

#14: Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            This is a standalone novel, which serves as the English translated follow up to Vita Nostra. The story follows a DJ who saves a young girl from bullies, and by some hidden powers from the girl’s “family,” he becomes her legal guardian during her “stay” in “our world.” The girl is accompanied by a teddy bear and music strings, and her mission is to locate her missing brother while learning how to play the violin. However, the longer the girl stays, the stranger the world surrounding the DJ becomes until he is forced to behave like an adult—who is afraid of a teddy bear. 

#13: Wayward Children #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

            Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children sees the return of Jack, who has been betrayed by her twin sister, Jill. A few of the students embark on a quest—which is supposed to be forbidden—in order to save Jack from Jill. This story continues to look into how the children at the school continue to hope to return Home, while catching up with their former classmates who were able to do so. On top of this, the narration of present events continues to lay out the consequences to those who believe they can ignore the rules of the world. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

#12: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

            I didn’t know what to make of this debut novel. That is, until I read the first few chapters, and the title fits the story brilliantly. The story follows Michael Kingman, the younger son of David Kingman, who was executed for murdering the Crowned Prince. Living in exile with his older brother and sister, Michael is given the chance to reenter high society and to prove his father’s innocence. But, how is Michael going to complete these tasks when everyone is a liar, and several people want him dead?

#11: The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff

            Dr. Sarah Kozloff took her massive epic fantasy and gave it to readers as a quartet, so they could binge read the books without too long of a wait. The decision to present 4 “shorter” books instead of 1 huge one had me reflecting back to Tamora Pierce’s series. However, this series can be read by both teens and adults because the lead protagonist grows from girlhood (and exiled princess) to adulthood (and a queen). During the time, she has to learn how to fend for herself, avoid being recognized and captured, how to protect her kingdom by joining up with the rebel army, and using her “Talent” to reclaim the throne. The author gives an excellent balance between fantasy (magic) and reality (science) as readers are given a straightforward—as in no previous look back on what occurred in the last book—narration which allows for an enjoyable reading experience. 

#10: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

            Believe it or not, this is the first book by the author that I’ve read. Even though this book is a fantasy story, I will argue that the elements of magic realism make the story more realistic. The protagonist is a social worker who works for an agency that deals with “unusual” children. These children either have special abilities or are of a magical species, and our society deems that all of these children must be “registered” and “observed” so that they will grow up to be “productive adults.” The protagonist is given an assignment to observe a house where several “unusual” children reside. And, it is through this assignment that the protagonist begins to see the children as children and not just the nature of their species. This is a brilliant story about foster children, prejudice and family. 

#9: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

            What if you were caught in a precarious situation in another country? What if assassins and political powers were searching for you? What if you were the queen of your nation? How would you survive your ordeal? This book—a reprint of the author’s debut novel—presents readers with a realistic account of survival and being royal during a time of fragile establishment and foreign hostility. What happens when a queen is lured to another land only to be betrayed and left stranded there? It’s a good thing the queen knows how to use a sword.

#8: The Daevabad Trilogy #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

            Yes, this book is massive, but the story makes the pages go quicker. The last book in the trilogy takes place immediately where the last one leaves off. Nahri and Prince Ali find themselves far away from Daevabad as a rebellion and usurpation continues there. Under the rule of a new tyrant, Nahri and Ali must decide whether or not to save the empire and its magic. Meanwhile, Dara comes to terms with all of the decisions he’s made in his past and during his present as he determines whether or not loyalty outweighs being noble. This was a great ending to this Arabian Nightsinspired epic fantasy. 

#7: A Chorus of Dragons #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

            The 3rd book in this 5-book series—remember when I thought it was a trilogy? I’m so glad I was wrong!—has all of the characters from the first 2 books joining together in order to save the world from the “real threat.” All of the events from the previous books lead up to where all of the protagonists and the characters find themselves in, and the roles they are supposed to play in the near and the far future. Another prophecy is mentioned, another dragon is introduced, and ulterior motives are revealed. The question is—especially after THAT ending—what will the heroes do next? 

#6: The Black Iron Legacy #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

            I enjoyed this sequel to The Gutter Prayer—my #1 Favorite Speculative Fiction Book of 2019—and it’s an interesting book. One of the reasons for this is because of the new P.O.V. characters—and a few previous ones—the readers experience the events from. This book focuses on the aftermath of the end of the first book, and instead of magical forces, there are political conspiracies and familial backstabbing amongst all of the characters. Unfortunately, politics overshadow the real threat, which once again comes from the gods.

#5 (Tie): Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            This novella takes the history of a film which promoted racism—and revived the Ku Klux Klan—and added a supernatural element to it. There is the Klan, who terrorize Black Americans, and are human; and, there are the Ku Kluxes, supernatural beings who feed off of fear and hatred, and are only identified by those with the Sight. Because the Ku Kluxes look like White Americans, only the Black demon hunters are brave enough to fight them and to defend our world from them. However, what happens when the Ku Kluxes join the ranks of the KKK? 

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

            This novella presents the horrors and the consequences of institutional racism in Modern America. The story follows a sister and a brother who are “victims” of racism from their early childhood. After realizing that there is no avoiding becoming a “statistic,” the siblings have to decide on whether or not to use their gifts in order to change their world for the better. 

#3: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This standalone novel is the follow up to the author’s debut novel. This time, instead of one female protagonist, there are three sisters. After several years apart, they are reunited under circumstances and a cause—the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and, it’s not just about the right to vote, but the right to use magic. This historical fantasy presents a throwback to Camelot, fairy tales, spells and symbolism as well as practices which brought about the Women’s Vote, the (first) Civil Rights Movement, and Labor Laws. This is a fitting story to mark what was happening one hundred years ago.           

#2: Bethel #1: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

            This debut novel immersed my attention and had me completing the book within 24 hours! This dark fantasy story presents the protagonist who is her community’s reminder of past sins and upcoming retributions. The author gives readers an amazing take on the hypocrisy surrounding religion, family, race, sex and leadership. The ending to this book has me excited for the upcoming sequel, which we will be getting in 2021!

#1: Between Earth and Sky #1: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            There are times when the synopsis of a book isn’t enough to snag a reader’s interest, so the emphasis shifts to the book’s cover. And, what a cover! Even if you hadn’t read Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series—which is a dystopian urban fantasy series—then reading this series—which is dark fantasy—will introduce readers what a talented storyteller the author is to all who must become familiar with her books. The novel starts with the past, jumps forward to the last moment within the narration, and then jumps back to the aftermath of the opening chapter. Readers get are presented with several characters from different backgrounds and positions, and where the Winter Solstice is a date in which something is about to happen and decisions have to be made before the moment—and, once they’re made, there is no going back. This book begins and ends the way you believe it will, which makes it all the more shocking and entertaining. Book 2 is expected sometime in the future, which will answer the question: What will happen next? 

            There were so many books that came out in 2020—miraculously—I didn’t get to finish reading them all! I want to read all of the books I missed this year and in previous years, but I want to be able to read all of the upcoming books (in the new year) as well. I’ll find a way to pull it off! Hopefully, this pandemic will end within the next several months—I’m not holding my hopes or my expectations too high—so some normalcy can return. Otherwise, here’s to another great year in reading. Which books of 2020 were your favorites?

Why You Need to Read: “The Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Gutter Prayer”

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. 

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