The Midpoint of 2020: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we made it to the halfway point of the year 2020, which will go down as one of the most pivotal (and the wackiest) years in living memory. Just like everyone else, I’ve been affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders which led to the international Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few things in my personal life. I managed to adapt and I’m starting to catch up on everything that’s been going on. I am managing to keep up with all of my reading while expanding on my blog and my other projects. So, while my WIP remain in that state, I’m glad to say that I’ve been branching out and checking out new YouTubers and following fellow bookbloggers; and, I want to thank those who have asked me to be guests on their channels and on their blogs. Last, I want to thank everyone for reading my posts that are not reviews, but are personal essays and deep dives into literature, pop culture, and current events. It feels good to know that there are people who are interested in what I post online.

            As for reading in 2020, I’m reading, but I’m reading more than speculative fiction. You can look at my Goodreads page and you’ll see what I mean. In terms of speculative fiction, I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed, and I’m getting back into paranormal and urban fantasy. I have a stack of graphic novels that I need to read, too; but, I’ll get to them eventually. How many of 2020’s Most Anticipated releases have you read so far?

            So, what does that mean for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2020, so far? Well, I haven’t finished reading 10 books that were released this year, yet; but, I can talk about at least 10 speculative fiction books in 2020 that I’m enjoying, and ones I’m excited to read. In other words, this list will be different from last year’s, but I hope you find this list of reads as interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable.

Books I’ve Finished:

The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding; The Queen of Raiders; A Broken Queen; The Cerulean Queen

     by Sarah Kozloff

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

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

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

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

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

Books I’m Currently Reading:

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

The Kingston Cycle, #2: Stormsong by C.L. Polk

Malus Domestica Trilogy, #1: Burn the Dark by S.A. Hunt

The Protectorate, #2: Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

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

The Reborn Empire, #1: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

The City, #1: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Murderbot Diaries, #5: The Network Effect by Martha Wells

The Poppy War, #3: The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

Anasazi Series, #1: Between Earth and Sky by Rebecca Roanhorse

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab

Burningblade & Silvereye, #1: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

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

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rook and Ruin, #1: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

City of Sacrifice, #2: Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

The Burning, #2: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

Malus Domestica Trilogy: I Come with Knives and The Hellion by S.A. Hunt 

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Hanged God Trilogy, #1: Northern Wrath by Thilde Kold Holdt

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

            I hope to read 100 books by the end of the year, with at least 30 of them being speculative fiction books that were released this year. Which books will be on my Top 20 (or 25) Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2020? We’ll have to wait and see. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Name of All Things”

A Chorus of Dragons #2: The Name of All Things

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       Audiobook: 25 hours 46 minutes

Published: October 29, 2019                                        Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld, Dan

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                   Bittner, Lauren Fortgang

                                                      

            In the twentieth year of the hawk and the lion, beneath the silver sword, the sleeping beast’s prison shatters. The dragon of swords devours demon falls as night takes the land, (61: Under The Waters). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting method of maintaining the attention of an audience, etc. Narratives in all formats—oral stories, books, movies, TV shows, and video games—continue to use this method of storytelling in order to let the audience know when one part of the story ends and when another begins, or to continue the action and/or the pacing of a story where it left off. In the case of Jenn Lyon’s A Chorus of Dragons series (not a trilogy, but will be 5 books), readers get both and so much more in Book 2: The Name of All Things.

            The protagonist in this story is Janel Theranon, a noblewoman from Jorat (a dominion in the Quuros Empire). She has been looking for Kihrin D’Mon since their first meeting, which was during the events involving Kihrin, his family, and the Emperor. Unfortunately, Kihrin doesn’t remember meeting Janel—with good reason—but, Janel doesn’t hold that against him. Ironically, the two outlaw nobles have been searching for each other without knowing where to locate the other one. Janel had lived a simple life as the granddaughter and heir of Count Jarin of Tolamer. She identifies herself as a “stallion,” or a Joratese whose gender—not sex—and gender expression is male. After an attack on her home and the citizens, Janel masquerades as “The Black Knight” in order to bring the culprits to justice. Instead, Janel’s true identity is revealed and she is sent on a quest to find a mystical spear so she can kill a dragon. Accompanying Janel is her friend, Brother Qown, who is a chronicler. The two friends have a long and arduous journey in locating Kihrin and the spear. Janel is from Jorat, a dominion known for its horses, and she was raised to become the next Count of Tolamer. Janel is smart, headstrong and combative, and she is known for her fighting skills and her willingness to protect her people. 

            The plot in The Name of All Things has four parts. Part I introduces Kihrin (and readers) to Janel’s life as a Count and the first of the events which caused her to leave Tolamer. Part II has Janel learning about her heritage, her abilities, and about “The Name of All Things,” another one of the eight Cornerstones. Not to mention, Janel meets and puts up with Relos Var. Part III has Janel reciting prophecies while surviving captivity without her abilities and while “conforming” to her opposing gender. Part IV brings all of the events back to the present and has Kihrin and Janel fulfilling prophecies whether or not they want to do so. The plot delves into Janel’s life, especially after it’s been uprooted, which takes place at the same time Kihrin’s life was upended. This is essential to know because this lets the protagonists (and the readers) know that more was happening throughout the Quuros Empire, and it seems that Relos Var is the central figure. The subplots include Armageddon, and the quest for magical artifacts and mystical weapons, which is familiar to readers. Another subplot is the idea of gender and its practices in Jorat. While gender is binary amongst the Joratese (and in our reality), it is NOT determined based on genitalia, but on the societal role and how each individual expresses their gender. These subplots are necessary in order to keep the plot going at an appropriate rate and they keep the narrative going as well. Just like Kihrin, Janel has a role to carryout for a prophecy, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. 

            Once again, the narrative jumps between the past and the present, with 3 different narrators. Kihrin serves as the narrator for the present mostly because he’s the person everyone is looking for. The flashbacks of events are told from the points-of-view of both Janel Theranon and Brother Qown. It is important to know while both of these characters are recounting the experiences to Kihrin, Brother Qown is a chronicler, so most of his recounts have been written down already (probably). This means he’s writing down Janel’s experiences as they overlap his in order to provide a complete story. Remember, someone else is reading this completed chronicle. The world-building comes from Janel’s P.O.V. as she explains Joratese culture, magic, and the events that occurred while Kihrin was with the Black Brotherhood, and there is a lot. We learn more about Relos Var, and about a few recurring characters both new and old. The narrative can be followed and this is because the audience (remember the reader) knows the narrator(s) is reliable. Given everything that’s happened so far, it seems to be the only choice.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Name of All Things follows the method of chronicles. Early written narratives were written down in order to include as many details as possible. In other words, whatever was said by the oral storyteller was written down by a chronicler. Early epic stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid were told orally and then written down, so however the length of the story was determined by the oral variant. A recent example of this style within a fantasy novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A chronicler is writing the story of the protagonist as it is being told to him, so the length is determined by how much the storyteller is willing to say to the chronicler. The mood in The Name of All Things is hostility and chaos. The former is due to the demons and the dragons set loose within the Empire, and the latter is due to how and why Kihrin had to flee the Capital. The tone is motivation after enduring traumatic events. We know Kihrin’s story and we learn Janel’s. Both leave us with questions and admiration for them being able to continue living their lives, even if it is as fugitives. Please note: the maps, the Foreword, and the Appendices are essential for the reading of this book.  

            The appeal for this book have been positive. There are many readers who enjoyed The Name of All Things just as much or more than The Ruin of Kings. This series continues to explore the tropes of prophecies and the ideas and the origins regarding them. Plus, Jenn Lyons does an excellent job incorporating the themes of gender—not sex and sexual orientation—into her story. This is a reflection of the reality in fiction in that the concept of gender is more complex and more fluid than it being binary. The world-building is done in a way where readers know another character from a different region within the same country/empire is the focus. Not to mention, we get an update on what happened to some of the minor characters from the first book. Once again, I listened to the audiobook, and this time, there were 3 new narrators. It took some time getting used to the “new voice” for Kihrin, but after telling myself that Kihrin is supposed to sound “more mature,” it made the listening experience go smoothly. Saskia Maarleveld, Dan Bittner, and Lauren Fortgang keeps the narrative going at a good pace, and keeps the listeners engaged in the story. The cliffhanger at the end will have fans excited for The Memory of Souls, which is the third book in a 5-book series and NOT the third and final book in a trilogy as I stated in my review for The Ruin of Kings. Remember, authors will answer your questions. The Memory of Souls will be released in August 2020.

            The Name of All Things is an achievement in world-building and in overlapping narratives. The characters remain as engaging as before, the dragons and the magic remain deadly, and the immortals are in it for themselves. Not to mention, the world won’t end due to just one prophecy. I’m looking forward to reading what happens in the next book, and I know the chaos will continue to grow.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Cerulean Queen”

The Nine Realms #4: The Cerulean Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I am Cerúlia, the daughter of the late, brave Queen Cressa the Enchanter and the heroic Lord Ambrice. 

            I. Am. Your. Queen, (Chapter Five).

            When the end of a story draws near, there lies a range of emotion from sadness to anxiousness. It is sad when a great story comes to an end, but there is anticipation in that the story will have a great ending. Many series that were well-received and started out well do have great endings, but there are a few that have excellent endings, and some whose endings fall short on everything. Sarah Kozloff delivers an excellent ending in The Nine Realms with the fourth and final book, The Cerulean Queen

            Cerúlia—once Wren, Kestrel, Skylark and finally, Phénix—has returned to Weirandale in order to claim her birthright, the Nargis Throne. Unfortunately, arriving in Cascada was the easy part. Cerúlia still has to get into the throne room, get Dedicated, seize control back from Matwyck, liberate the captured citizens, and begin her reign. All of this is easier said than done. Especially since Lord Matwyck, General Yurgn, and others have no intention of allowing Cerúlia to become queen. General Sumroth of Oromondo seeks power and vengeance towards the Nargis Queen for crimes new and forgotten. In fact, with some divine guidance, an alliance is made in order to destroy Weirandale. Meanwhile, Thalen, the Raiders, and the rest of the denizens in the Free States start to rebuild after the Oros had left their land after war and occupation. Thalen and the Raiders travel to the Scolairíum in order to resolve the remaining dilemma concerning Oromondo, the famine and the cause of it. In this part of the story, Queen Cerúlia presents the most development. She is no longer a child, but Cerúlia has neither knowledge nor experience with being a monarch; and, part of that lies in the fact that she spent more time with the common people instead of nobles. However, Cerúlia has always known who she is and what she would become, so she rises to all of the challenges of being a ruler and, she won’t have to do it alone. 

            The plot in The Cerulean Queen is Cerúlia’s rise to Queen amidst all of the threats a monarch has to put up with. Cerúlia has enemies in and beyond Weirandale who do all they can to stop her reign before order can be maintained. Not only must she gain control of all of the affairs of Weirandale, but also demonstrate her diplomatic abilities and desires for maintaining peace with the other realms. Cerúlia has the Nargis Throne and she must begin to consider the future of her kingdom. There are two subplots that coincide with the plot. First, is the divine intervention that continues to occur in Weirandale, especially now that Cerúlia is Queen. A few of the Spirits desire an end to the Nargis Line and they use both their Agents and the mortals to carry out those desires (with others opposing them at the same time). Second, is the consequences surrounding Cerúlia’s revelation to her friends, her allies and her foster family. Cerúlia’s true identity is shocking, but other secrets have yet to be revealed and the fallout begins once everything is known. The plot and the subplots develop alongside the narrative in order to start wrapping up the rest of the story. In addition, readers start saying goodbye to all of the characters as the plot(s) and the subplots are resolved. 

            The narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view; however, much of the narration focuses on Cerúlia. Readers do experience the on goings of the other realms from the other characters, but Cerúlia’s reign is the subject of the Spirits and all Nine Realms, so more attention is given to her. That being said, the narrative is in a chronological sequence told in 1st person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of reliable narrators. Most of the narration focuses on Cerúlia’s reign at its beginning. This means that she’ll have “challenges” to her status as Queen, leaving her to demonstrate her ability to rule. Readers should pay attention to the characters who support and who oppose her rule and why. Some of the characters are justified in their beliefs, others not so much. Some of Cerúlia’s opponents are not corrupt or greedy, they believe in their ambitions, and some of it is understandable. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Cerulean Queen focuses on the politics that comes with a monarchy with familiar fantasy tropes. Cerúlia becomes Queen, but still must weed out all of those responsible for Matwyck’s usurpation and tyranny while forming peace and alliances with the other realms and her subjects. Cerúlia and her allies know that changes must be made so that history doesn’t repeat itself; and, they have to determine when to be ruthless and when to be merciful. Towards the end of the book, fantasy tropes emerge, and they will remind readers of books by J.R.R. Tolkien and Tamora Pierce. The final battle, magic and the divine will playout in this book. It’s cliché, but it works well within this story. The mood is hope and all that comes with it. Even though Cerúlia is Queen, that was one factor of hope. The denizens of Weirandale are hoping for a peaceful reign, but all they can do is hope for a better future. The tone is strength and determination demonstrated by all of the protagonists and the main characters throughout the narrative. Cerúlia is not the only one with something to prove to everyone. The maps—not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist the readers with keeping track of all of the characters and the locations mentioned throughout the story. 

            The appeal for The Cerulean Queen will be positive. Not only has Sarah Kozloff presented readers with a fulfilling ending to this epic fantasy series, but also managed to pull it off by convincing the publisher—Tor Books—to release these books in consecutive months in order to keep the interests of the readers. And, this proves that reading an epic fantasy series is doable—there are several standalone books and series to choose from—and it should no longer be seen as a daunting experience. I believe The Nine Realms will remain in the fantasy canon because of the world-building and countless female characters presented throughout the series. I hope we’ll see more stories by the author in the future. 

            The Cerulean Queen is the novel that wraps up The Nine Realms saga; and, the author does a great job delivering an appropriate conclusion to the story and the characters. It is sad to see this series reach its end, but readers will not deny that they found the experience enjoyable and magical. Sarah Kozloff should be proud of what she has accomplished! And, when the anniversary omnibus edition is released, I’ll be purchasing a copy as well!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Rage of Dragons”

The Burning #1: The Rage of Dragons

By: Evan Winters                                               Audiobook: 16 hours, 15 minutes

Published: July 16, 2019                                    Narrated by: Prentice Onayemi

Genre: Fantasy/Military/Historical Fiction/Folklore

            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. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “A Queen in Hiding”

The Nine Realms #1: A Queen in Hiding

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Coming-of-Age/Military Fantasy

            Though dusty sits the Nargis Throne

            While tyrants befoul and bluster;

            Though citizens do their yoke bemoan,

            And the Fountain’s lost its luster:

            Someday the drought shall be broken,

            And the wondrous Waters course clean,

            One dawn the words shall be spoken,

            As the long-lost heir becomes queen,

                                                                        (Epilogue, Cascada).

            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.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Seven Blades in Black”

The Grave of Empires: Book One: Seven Blades in Black

By: Sam Sykes

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            “Galta the Thorn. Riccu the Knock. Zanze the Beast. Taltho the Scourge. Kresh the Tempest. Vraki the Gate. Jindu the Blade. Seven names. Seven out of thirty-three. It might have seemed small, maybe. But there was another name on my list that had taken a lot of bullets, a lot of blood, and a lot of bodies so that I could finally cross it out. I would have killed for one name. For seven? I’d burn the world to cinders,”(Nine: Lowstaff). 

            This novel only takes the idiom, “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned,” to the zenith, but it also puts revenge tales on the same level as Quentin Tarantino’s,Kill Billmovies. Sal the Cacophony is one angry woman and she’s on a journey to make sure those who have made her this way pay with their lives. She has a list with 33 names on it. The first book in The Grave of Empirestrilogy (or series?) focuses on seven of those names.

            Sal the Cacophony is a Vagrant—a mage who no longer fights for the Imperium—who is imprisoned and awaiting execution by the Revolution—a group of non-mages who oppose the dominance of the mages. She is questioned by Governor-Militant Tretta—a figure who is only concerned with earning a promotion so that she’ll become more noticeable to her superiors—who demands an explanation surrounding the disappearance of Revolutionary Low Sergeant Cavric Proud and the attack on one of the towns within the region known as “The Scar.” Sal accepts both the (multiple) charges and her fate and tells the Governor-Militant the recent events, which led to the disappearance of the Low Sergeant. Tretta—and readers—learn of all the events right up to Sal’s arrest. Sal tells of her last bounty job, which turned into the hunt for the names on her list, which uncovered a conspiracy, which became a rescue mission, which turned into a massacre, which led to her arrest. Along the way, we learn what happened to the devout Revolutionary Sergeant Cavric, and Sal’s girlfriend, Liette, who is a mage. Sal is a woman with many aliases, abandonment issues, and a lot of anger. And, it is ALL justified!

            The plot, as mentioned earlier, focuses on Sal’s revenge against those who wronged her. However, we learn of 7 of the 33 names and why she goes after those particular people first. Like many revenge tales, we follow the person who has been wronged while wondering whether or not the ends justifies the means. In the case of Sal the Cacophony, she has been wronged and she has every reason to be angry to the point where you can understand her murder streak. Yet, you wonder about the “after.” What will Sal do if she does cross out all the names on her list? How will this journey change Sal? The subplots include the world-building and the world’s history, which is mentioned by Sal through her story. Since Sal is retelling the events that led to her arrest, the plot moves very quickly, which is a good thing because a lot happens and we want to know what happens next, and we don’t need all the little details in order to get to the heart of the story. 

            The narrative is told in flashback from Sal’s point-of-view; and, given the state of Sal’s situation, it could be argued that Sal is an objective narrator, yet Sal is a character that allows for both Tretta and the reader to be empathetic towards Sal. Sal does admit to all of the crimes—and the heroics—she’s done, recently; but it isn’t until the novel’s end that you realize how truthful Sal has been to the Governor-Militant, to her friends, and to herself. Each chapter is labelled with the setting where each event occurs. This makes it easy to follow the narrative because the sequence of events follows Sal’s destructive path towards vengeance. The narrative clues you in to what happens next.

            The author, Sam Sykes, sets the tone of this humorous epic fantasy tale by giving his readers a cynical protagonist who drinks, curses and kills as a coping mechanism. Both the tone and the mood setup the grittiness of the location known as, “The Scar.” Sal’s exploits illustrate how everything can go wrong while accomplishing a task but completing it anyway. Readers have no choice but to laugh as each event occurs because you have no choice but to laugh. Sykes does an amazing job teasing some of the common fantasy and revenge story tropes in his dark comedy novel.

            The appeal surrounding Seven Blades in Blackwill introduce SFF readers who haven’t read Sam Sykes’ books before to him. The description surrounding this novel as a “blend of Kill Billand Final Fantasy” is very accurate. Fans of George R.R. Martin and Brian McClellan will enjoy this new series, too! Readers of epic fantasy will enjoy this story and appreciate the effort the author makes in clarifying both The Scar and Sal’s character. This has been one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a long time, and I’m already anticipating Book 2! Seven Blades in Blackis a welcomed addition to the speculative fiction genre. One more thing, if there was to be an adaptation, then an anime-styled animated series would be the way to go!

            I’m glad I received an ARC of Seven Blades in Blackbecause not only did it allow me to read a book by an author I had never heard of before, but also it allowed me to appreciate epic fantasy by providing a 704-page novel and leave me begging the author for a potential release date for Book 2! The protagonist is one who deserves our sympathy and will leave you hoping that she does accomplish her goals without destroying herself. I want to know what happens next!

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