Why You Need to Read: “Middlegame”

Middlegame

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Metaphysical

            Dodger was never going to be a linguist, any more than Roger was going to be a mathematician, but they could cope, which was more than some of their fellows ever learned. They balance each other, (Variation). 

            Seanan McGuire is an author whose books you’ve heard of, but you probably haven’t read, or maybe you have and didn’t know it. Known for her two urban fantasy series—October Daye and InCryptid—they are some of her most popular books. Under her pseudonym, Mira Grant, her paranormal horror stories—Newsflesh and Parasitology—brought more readers and fame to her. Once you start reading her books—the Wayward Children series is my favorite books by her—you become curious as to which books to read next by her. Middlegame is a standalone novel, which is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date, and is the story she claims she’s “been working on for years.” Well, the wait was worth it, and if there is any book to be read by this author, then look no further than Middlegame

            There are three protagonists in the novel. First, are the twins, Roger and Dodger, child prodigies who were “created” in a lab and separated to be raised separately so that their “abilities” can manifest apart from each other, and from those who created them for their purposes. Roger is adopted by a couple and is raised in Massachusetts. To him, words and languages come to him as easily as breathing, but don’t ask him for help with math. One day, when he is seven years-old, he is struggling with his math homework and he cannot come up with the answers as he can with his spelling. And then, he hears a voice in his head, which gives him the answers to the questions. The voice belongs to a girl named Dodger. She is the same age as Roger and she lives with her adopted parents in California. She’s a prodigy too, but math is her subject. The two children think nothing about their “ability” to speak to each other with their minds, and they help each other with their schoolwork. Unbeknownst to them, they’re twins who’ve been kept apart from the day they were born. They don’t know that they’re being watched by members of the Alchemical Congress, too. Dr. James Reed—our third protagonist—is the one who created the twins and monitor their “growth.” He is the former student, and “son,” of Asphodel Baker, and his goal is to finish the work of his mentor: seeking a way to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, to enter the Impossible City, and to harness the omniscient power that lies within it. So far, Reed has accomplished the first goal in the twins. As Roger and Dodger develop as characters and grow (up) as people, Reed’s goals and motivations develop and alter alongside them. While readers witness the harsh upbringing of the twins, they comprehend Reed’s goals and his reasons for achieving them. He is a monster and a mad scientist in one embodiment, but he earns some sympathy throughout the narrative; some. There are several other characters in the story, but Erin is the liaison between the twins and Reed. She is the most complex character in this story and one of the reasons is because she has a love-hate relationship with all three protagonists, which means her motivations are unknown to everyone, including the readers. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first one follows the growth and the development of Roger and Dodger from childhood to adulthood. Readers witness how the twins are raised as prodigies and the pressures that come with it; the pattern of their friendship, including all of the highs and the lows that match any other friendship; and, the development of their powers and what it means for them and those who have been observing them. The second plot follows James Reed and all of his actions over the years as all the “embodiments” of the Doctrine of Ethos develop, and what it means to him and all of his desires. Throughout the story, readers experience all of Reed’s failures and triumphs as he does everything in his power to keep his project going, while remaining one step ahead of the Alchemical Congress so that everything will come together the way he wants it to be. There are two subplots that go along with the plots at their own rate. The first is all of the events surrounding the Alchemical Congress from the council, to Reed and his “other” projects, to Erin’s actions and influences on the work and the legacy of Dr. Asphodel D. Baker and how all of her research is the catalyst of this story. Everything comes together as the story develops along with these plots. The second subplot focuses on Dr. Baker’s “research” and the lengths she went to in order to have her work “published.” 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all of the main characters using 3rd person omniscient, which allows for everything to be witnessed by the readers from their streams-of-consciousness to their flashbacks. Given the narration and the P.O.V.s, all of the characters are reliable narrators (even though they’re not reliable individuals). While the narrative has a sequence that can be followed by the readers, it can get confusing at times, especially to those who are not familiar with elements of the metaphysical genre. There are jumps in the timeline, but they don’t happen randomly; otherwise, the narrative flows at a rate that matches the development of the characters and the plot. 

            The style of Seanan McGuire will be familiar to her fans and captivating to other readers. Her word choice and sentence structure reflect the jargon and the ongoings of the characters’ occupations. Math, science and literary technology are used at the given moments. In addition, the novel is an allusion to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (yes, The Wizard of Oz movies are based on books), and anyone who is familiar with those books will appreciate both the reference and the criticism of the series by the author. Other pop culture (i.e. movies) and literary (i.e. authors) references will be recognized by readers who will comprehend their usage. Another thing the author does is criticize the gender bias surrounding both child prodigies and female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workers. The sexism experienced by both Dodger and Dr. Asphodel D. Baker should not by overlooked. Instead, readers should be aware that such occurrences are still ongoing and have traumatic and long-term consequences. The mood in this novel is authority: who has it, who wants it, and who fights against it. The tone is the idea and the question of whether or not authority should be claimed at all. If an individual gains control of authority, then what would it mean for everyone else? Should authority be given to one person, even if they don’t deserve it? I want to point out that the theme of the creator being betrayed by their creation is well done here as well.

            The appeal for Middlegame has been extremely positive. Not only have fans of the speculative fiction genre have had praise for the book, but also several critics have given their own positive feedback. NPR and Amazon called the book, “one of the best of 2019” and has received praises from other literary critics. It’s already getting hype for the upcoming literary awards. Middlegame is a recipient of the 2019 Alex Awards, which makes Seanan McGuire the first author to win this award three times! And, Middlegame was one of My Favorite Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books in 2019. In addition, fans of this book can expect, Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker, a companion book to this novel, which may or may not provide further insight into the fictional work referenced throughout the real one, in Fall 2020. Middlegame is a great addition to the canon and should be read by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. All of the pop culture and literary references will have readers of other genres picking up this book, too. 

            Middlegame is a brilliant work which combines all aspects of the speculative fiction genre into one story to be enjoyed by all readers. The plot, the characters, and the narrative are elements that fans of the genre will love, but the allusions to pop culture and other influences will pique the curiosity of readers of other genres as well. The book is a story about knowledge, ambition and failure, and the consequences of acceptance and perfection. These themes of the human heart are why Seanan McGuire continues to buildup her fandom with readers who love a good story about people and their desires.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Ships”

The Tide Child #1: The Bone Ships

By: R.J. Barker

Published: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            Joron sat opposite the man who had made sure he was condemned to a ship of the dead, and, in so doing, he heard of the miracle that would make him part of a legend, (12: To All Who Serve, Comes A-Calling).

            The speculative fiction genre has gone from limited to selective, and because of this fans have only so much time to read all of the books published by all of the authors. R.J. Barker is one of the many authors whose books I’ve been struggling to make time to read. I’ve heard great things about the author’s trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom, and it’s in my TBR pile. Then, I won an early publication of The Bone Ships, the first book in The Tide Child Trilogy. I was excited, yet skeptical of what to expect from this book besides pirates. Then, the author told me on social media that I should expect, “a different story than other ones I’ve read before.” He was not exaggerating. This book is a fantasy adventure about pirates and warfare, and most of the action and the story occurs at sea, and it’s engrossing, not boring!

            The story follows Joron Twiner, who is about to lose his position of “shipwife,” or master and commander of a ship—“Tide Child,” to Meas Gilbryn, or as many others refer to her, “Lucky” Meas. Meas has a reputation of being one of the “most decorated, the bravest, the fiercest shipwife the Hundred Isles had ever seen,” (p.7). And, she was recently sent to a “ship of the dead”—the “Tide Child”—as a death sentence for a criminal act. “Ships of the dead,” which are typically made of the black bones of an arakeesian—a giant whale as big as a dragon, are operated by “criminal crews.” The crew consist of criminals who’ve committed a crime of some sort and are sentenced to a “black ship” to serve their term until death. In this case, a life of piracy, which will lead to one’s death at sea, at some point in the future. Joron, who starts as a wishy-washy sailor, and Meas, one of the best shipwives of the Hundred Isles, are the last people you would expect to be on a black ship, but they are. And, Meas just won a duel against Joron, which makes her the new shipwife, and Joron’s demoted to “deckkeeper,” or second-in-command. It turns out, Joron losing the duel is the best thing to happen to “Tide Child” because Meas immediately takes control of the crew and slowly transforms them into a presentable crew. Throughout the story, Meas remains a flat character, but she forces the other characters, especially Joron, to develop into the people they are meant to be. 

            The plot of The Bone Ships centers on the reconfiguration of the crew of the “Tide Child.” After Meas becomes shipwife, she makes numerous, but essential, changes within the crew. She reassigns roles, teaches them how to fight, and involve them in sea battle in order to improve their experience and their morale. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, so this training and refashioning take up the majority of the story. There are two subplots. The first focuses on the shift of the “Tide Child’s” goals from protecting the kidnapping of children to tracking down the first arakeesian spotted on the seas in centuries. A race ensues amongst all ships and their crews into locating the arakeesian, sailing as far as the uncharted waters. The second subplot, clues into society and the rules of the setting, which are relevant because they explain how both Joron and Meas ended up on a black ship. Joron’s reason is straightforward; Meas’ reason is more complicated. Both subplots are necessary for the development of both the plot and the characters. 

            The narrative in this novel is told in a sequence of an account told by the protagonist. The story is told from Joron Twiner’s P.O.V. in first person in the past tense. Although the narrative follows the events of Joron after they occur, readers get the stream-of-consciousness and an account of the events he witnessed. There are no passages or chapters of Mea’s account of the events, or any from any of the other characters or the crew. This makes the narrative more engaging (and maybe believable) because an individual’s account of events is based on what feelings they experienced at the location(s) they were at at that time. This type of narration make Joron a reliable narrator, and his account can be followed by the readers. 

            The style R.J. Barker uses in The Bone Ships is split between world-building and naval terminology. The word choice and the language used throughout the narrative presents life in hierarchical society, or at sea. The terminology included in the story is a lesson in sailing and ship maintenance which enhances the narrative and make it more realistic, and it’s based on knowledge, words and maintenance of ships in our world. For someone who knows nothing about sailing or boats (such as myself), this was very informative and helpful to understanding the narrative. In addition, the description of the battles transports readers into the middle of the action, swords, blood and all. The mood of this novel is stormy. Life in the Hundred Isles is attainable through strength, the weak bring down everyone and they have no place in the world. The tone is the competition for survival and recognition amongst those in society, a story that follows Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” to a teed. All of the characters are competing for survival in order to survive in their harsh environment, and strength is the coveted trait. All of the elements used by the author transport the readers to the sea. 

            The appeal surrounding The Bone Ships have been mixed. This is because readers of the author’s first trilogy probably weren’t expecting this change in story type from him. Then, there are readers who are not interested, or were confused by a book about life on a ship. For clarification, I’ll use The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Fans of the series have stated that that book was their least favorite one because they found the story to be “slow” and “uninteresting.” Not everyone is interested in stories about sailing, and I believe this is why there were some negative reviews from some of the readers. I didn’t mind this story because all of the terminology was explained and action occurred both on land and on sea. The elements of world-building kept my attention as well. Readers who are fans of pirates, Moby Dick and/or sailing will enjoy this book the most. For those who did enjoy The Bone Ships will be pleased to know that Book 2, Call of the Bone Ships, will be released in September 2020. I’m looking forward to reading what happens next. 

            The Bone Ships is a fantasy adventure about pirates and the tracking of a “legendary” whale. The novel is a different experience from what fantasy readers are used to, but the characters and the world-building will hook them into the story and wheel them in the end. R.J. Barker illustrates what life on the seas is really like and why some people are better off staying on land. But, if sentenced to a black ship, then it is the “Tide Child” you’ll want to be on!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: "A Broken Queen"

The Nine Realms #3: A Broken Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: March 24, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

NOTE: There are minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. You have been warned. 

            …sure that she was dying with her task unfulfilled, her people condemned to suffering, and the line of Nargis Queens judging her harshly, (Chapter Nine, “Aboard Island Dreamer”). 

            All great stories and storytellers know how to present the events and the plot to the audience. And, in the age of online streaming services, modern audiences started to forget what it’s like to have a cliffhanger and it being drawn out to where one wants their suspicions to be either confirmed or debunked. The Queen of Raiders—Book 2 in The Nine Realms—ended with this type of cliffhanger. Readers suspected that the protagonist did not meet her end, but the mystery of “what happened” and “what is going to happen” is addressed in A Broken Queen, Book 3 in The Nine Realms

            Thalen, Skylark and the Raiders have defeated the Oros in Oromondo. Unfortunately, Skylark is injured during the escape, falls into and is lost to the sea. Believing Skylark is dead, Thalen and the Raiders return to the Free States in order to lift the siege and to end the occupation of the Oros. Meanwhile, Gustie and Hartling do all they can to keep the Resistance going until the Oro army leaves; Matwyck has become drunk on power, finally, and has taken on interfering with the blossoming romance of his son, Marcot; and, the Spirits are becoming more active in their influence on the affairs of their Agents and the other mortals. All the while, Cerúlia—now using the alias, Phénix—ends up in Salubriton in the Realm of Wyeland, which is on the other side of Ennea Món. It is there Cerúlia is able to heal from both her injuries and her traumas. Even though Thalen and all of the denizens of the Free States now have to deal with the aftermath of the war and the occupation, and Matwyck becomes more and more devious with his “regency,” it is Cerúlia who develops the most in this book. This time, she learns empathy through her interactions with the other patients at the recovery house as they heal from ailments that plague the body, the mind, and the soul. At the same time, the Spirits present themselves to being as petty as stagnant as any other divine being. Then again, the conflicts of the Spirits are just as complex as their worshippers! 

            The plot in A Broken Queen is Cerúlia’s determination to reclaim the Nargis Throne after being hidden and in exile for 15 years. Once again, she’s shocked to learn of the lengths Matwyck goes to in order to prevent her return. But first, Cerúlia must regain her strength and come up with a plan for seizing control of Weirandale from the usurpers. There are several subplots as well, and they tie into the plot. First, there is the occupation of the Oromondo army in the Free States. Even though the war is over with a victory for the Free States, the Oros have no plans to leave the place where there is no famine or poisoned water. The war did not resolve the reason for the invasion, which is now becoming the dilemma to be solved by both the Free States and the Oros. Second, is the “Regency” of Matwyck and the toll its taking on the remaining citizens of Weirandale. With more arrests and disappearances, those who remain secretly plan on what to do when the Queen does return to Cascada. At the same time, Matwyck is losing control over his Council as they show themselves to being just as greedy and deceptive as him. This leads him into trying to maintain his last bit of control he has, which he believes is his son. Last, the Spirits—who are upset by the recent events involving Cerúlia—are arguing with each other over grudges of the past and the present. And, they have gone from using their Agents to act on their wills and behalves to overreaching into each other’s Realms: fires and tornadoes, sea storms and lightning, earthquakes, etc. All of these subplots go back to the plot of the Nargis Throne, which remains in chaos because of Matwyck and the other usurpers. It all traces back to what happened at the very beginning of the story. 

            Once again, the narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view. This is a chronological sequence told in first-person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of these reliable narrators. Readers will know what is going on everywhere all at once. It should be mentioned that attention should be placed on the characters Cerúlia meets during her recovery in Wyeland because it represents the reality that injury and trauma are not always obtained on a battlefield. And, there are two cases in which readers will see manipulation as an act of desperation to maintain control over what cannot be controlled. Desperate individuals do desperate things. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in A Broken Queen focuses on both the recovery of the injured from the traumas of war and other unspeakable events, and the growing instability amongst the Divine. Although the main focus shifts back to Cerúlia, she’s not the only one who learns empathy through her interaction with other people (and animals). Thalen, Gunnit and Marcot learn how individuals don’t overcome their traumas overnight. Time is essential for recovery, and there are some who never recover. In addition, the reason one country would invade another one is readdressed here and it cannot be overlooked. All of their issues and themes reflect the reality of life as mentioned in history and in journals (both personal and professional/academic) by: soldiers, doctors, nurses, civilians, psychologists and survivors. The mood is somber and bittersweet. This is because while the war is over, the survivors have to deal with the traumas and the aftermath of everything that happened to them and rebuild their lives knowing it’ll never be the same. The tone is resilience and recovery, especially how all of the characters go through the process of becoming whole again. The maps—which were not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist readers in keeping track of who’s who and where all of the characters are throughout the narrative. 

            The appeal for A Broken Queen will be positive. This is because it is in this book in which the story reaches its climax and some of the plots and the storylines are wrapping up. Fans and readers of The Nine Realms must continue reading the series because the pacing and the narration do not stop and we need to know what happens to our favorite characters. And, while it’ll be sad and difficult to say goodbye once The Cerulean Queen is released, we will all need the closure to the end of the author’s story.

            A Broken Queen continues the adventures and the turmoil wroth throughout The Nine Realms. Only this time it’s not only politicians and armies at work. The characters have grown into who they are and what they have to become given the circumstances. Emotions and trauma are the focus in the book, but the author incorporates them in a way which works with the story instead of it dragging it down. I’m already counting down the days for when I can read The Cerulean Queen! Luckily, we all don’t have to wait too long!

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

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)!!!