Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “The Cave”

This episode opens up with Lyra crossing over into another world—our world—to learn more about Dust and about the similarities between her Oxford and Will’s Oxford. Unfortunately, Lyra has to learn how to adapt to this “new” world as she experiences technology—the scene with the car is straight from the books—and people without daemons, poor Pantalaimon.

            Will warns Lyra that people are looking for them and they have to do everything they can to blend in and stay hidden. Alas, Lyra is still young enough to be naïve as she makes her way through Will’s Oxford. She hasn’t figured out that there are a few individuals from her world who’ve made their way into hers a long time ago. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium deals with the death of Cardinal Sturrock—due to the witches’ attack and the motivations of both Father MacPhail and Mrs. Coulter—and an election for a new leader must occur before their plans can continue to move forward. At the same time, the witches convene in order to further their plans, before they receive retribution for their actions. The “testimony” provided by Dr. Martin Lanselius delves into the culture of the witches, which reveals why the Magisterium is afraid of them. “Rituals are not secret.” However, does the Magisterium fear the witches, their knowledge, or both? 

            Will’s story continues to develop further in this media adaptation. There are some hints in the books that Will’s father made arrangements for his family just in case something happened to him. Will learns he has living (paternal) grandparents, but soon realizes why his family is estranged from them. Not to mention, they are working with the authorities in the investigation about Will’s father. This scene embellishes Will’s fear of people looking for him. 

            Lyra’s search into what Dust is and her meeting with Dr. Mary Malone is from the books, precisely. Everything from Lyra using the alethiometer to her using Dr. Malone’s equipment, which confirms that both Dust and Dark Matter are the same thing. In my opinion, Dr. Malone’s research about Dust—known as Dark Matter to us—is explained better in the TV series than in the books. This could be because I read the books when I was in high school, and while I’ve heard of Dark Matter, I didn’t know enough about it to grasp the explanation of it in the books. 

            Lyra and Will share a heart-to-heart about their experiences, their situations, and their families. From there, they decide on what they have to do next. At the same time, a new Cardinal has been elected, and someone else has pinned-pointed Lyra’s location. And, the witches’ decision about war is made for them by their adversaries. 

            In all, The Cave was a better and a stronger episode than the previous one. Now, that all of the characters have a better understanding of themselves through their interactions with each other, they know what they have to do and are ready to follow up on those choices. War has been declared, the existence of worlds are starting to become recognized, and actions are about to be taken as the story continues. What will happen in the next episode?  

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Why You Need to Read: “Harrow the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir                                                                    Audiobook 19 hours and 51 minutes

Published: August 4, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Horror/Gothic/Dark Fantasy

            The Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus ought to have been the 311th Reverend Mother of her line. She was the eighty-seventh “Nona” of her House; she was the first Harrowhark. She was named for her father, who was named for his mother, who was named for some unsmiling extramural penitent sworn into the silent marriage bed of the Locked Tomb. This had been common. Drearburh had never practiced Resurrection purity. Their only aim was to keep the necromantic lineage of the tomb keepers unbroken. Now all its remnant blood was Harrow; she was the last necromancer, and the last of her line left alive, (3).

            Series are an interesting concept. They allow for the continuation of a story either with the same characters from the previous story, or with new characters, or both within the same world. At the same time, the plot (and, at times, the subplot(s)) continues to develop so that both the audience and the characters know what has to happen and what will happen by the end of this part of the story. Harrow the Ninth—the sequel to Gideon the Ninth—by Tamsyn Muir follows Harrowhawk after she achieves Lyctorhood and what it means to serve the Emperor. 

            Harrowhark Nonagesimus has achieved her goal (at 17 years-old). She has become a Lyctor and the Ninth Saint to serve the King Undying. However, she learns quickly that there are conditions for serving the Emperor; one of them is that Harrowhark cannot return home to the Ninth House. This means that her goal of restoring her House can no longer happen. Not to mention, Harrow must start training and using her abilities as a Lyctor as well as learn the responsibilities of her new role. The main one is protecting the Emperor from all threats. She learns about these threats as well, and Harrow is astonished to learn what they are. Overnight, Harrowhark goes from being in charge and knowing almost everything to finding herself at the bottom of the pyramid and answering to those who believe Harrow became a Lyctor at too young of an age. In addition, Harrow begins to suffer from hallucinations and memory loss. This puts Harrowhark in an even more vulnerable position than she is used to. Then again, it seems that Harrow was expecting this because she left several letters to herself so that she could remind herself of everything that led up to her current predicament. But, is it enough? Accompanying Harrow with her Lyctor training are: the Emperor, Augustine, Mercymorn, Ortus and Ianthe—all are the surviving Lyctors who train Harrow while serving the Emperor. Harrow is a very complex characters who develops throughout the story. 

            The plot is jumbled and confusing, but it does develop as the story is presented. The story is Harrowhark’s training as a Lyctor, which will remind readers of a combination of military boot camp and pledging for a fraternity or a sorority. While this form of training is brutal, it is the sort of training Harrow needs in order to survive her “work” for the Emperor. The plot of the story are the events which lead to the murder of the Emperor. The King Undying has reigned for 10,000 years; so, why and how would the Emperor meet his end? There are two subplots which are the main focus in this book. The first one focuses on the ongoings within the First House. This includes Harrow’s training, her missions, and the interactions amongst all of the Lyctors and the Emperor, which are essential due to Harrow’s memory loss. The second subplot is about the mysterious individual who is lurking throughout the First House. The individual seems to know of everything that is going on, but manages to remain unseen by everyone except for another mystery person who is unknown as well. The subplots are necessary for the plot, and the story will keep the reader(s) engaged, but neither one helps with the plot development. In fact, it is not until the end of Act Four where all of these plot devices come together into something more coherent.

            The narrative in Harrow the Ninth is very difficult to follow, but it’s supposed to be that way. This is because the sequence jumps from streams-of-consciousness and flashbacks (amongst more than one character) as well the points-of-view moving amongst 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. All the while, the reader(s) are attempting to figure out who the other narrators are besides Harrowhark. One of the narrators is someone readers did not expect to appear, but—in my opinion—the character’s revelation took too long to be confirmed by the author. I mentioned that the narrative is difficult to follow, but it is supposed to represent everything that is happening to Harrowhark. The narrative represents memory, trauma, and life, which are not always coherent, even to the individual experiencing it. In other words, Harrowhark is not a reliable narrator, but the other ones are; and, they take over whenever Harrow’s narrative begins to falter. 

            The style Tamsyn Muir uses in Harrow the Ninth is similar, yet different from the one she used in Gideon the Ninth. While the author continues writing her story following Gothic elements, she includes horror and science fiction in order to expand the world she has created. I mentioned Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my review of Gideon the Ninth as one of the books that fall under the Gothic genre. I’m mentioning this book again because some aspects from that book can be found in this one. Another Gothic horror story that the author was influenced by as well is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story is familiar to many people, but the book contains more of the reality of what was happening within the community and not just the “relationship” between the two “men.” Once you read both stories, then it should make (some) sense. The mood in this novel is one of anxiety. While it is clear Harrowhark suffers from anxiety, she is not the only one who is dreading the outcome of a potential end. The tone in this novel is a blueprint. Every character within this story was planning something; and they all carried it out. Whether or not the results came into fruition has yet to be determined. 

            Once again, I listened to the audiobook. Moira Quirk returns as the narrator and her performance and her pronunciation of the characters and the names were amazing and a huge help. It needs to be said that while the audiobook helped me with following along with the story, I still had to open the book (which was given to me by a friend) and reread portions so that I knew that I was keeping up with the story. So, in this case, I needed both the book and the audiobook in order to read this story. 

            The appeal for Harrow the Ninth have been mixed. Many fans who enjoyed Gideon the Ninth, loved the sequel. At the same time, other fans found themselves either torn or confused with how they were supposed to feel about the narrative. While everything falls into place by the story’s end, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the readers have more questions than answers. Hopefully, these questions will be answered in the third and final book, Alecto the Ninth. It should be mentioned that this book is a great addition to the horror and the Gothic canon. Harrow the Ninth should be reread so that the readers can group everything that happened in the book. 

            Harrow the Ninth is a rollercoaster reading experience. There are several moments when your head jumbles and your thoughts move in loops, but once you reach the end, you are left with an unforgettable experience. I found this narrative to be confusing and incomplete compared to the first book, but the story kept my interest until the end. Everything starts to make sense towards the end, so I suggest that you don’t ignore everything leading up to that point. Other than all of that, my curiosity remains piqued. So yes, I will be reading the final book in this series. 

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Uprooted”

Uprooted

By: Naomi Novik

Published: May 19, 2015

Genre: Fantasy/Fractured Fairy Tale or Fairy Tale Retelling/Coming-of-Age Story

            The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one, somehow: if there was one girl who was far and away the prettiest, or the most bright, or the best dancer, or especially kind, somehow he always picked her out, even though he scarcely exchanged a word with the girls before he made his choice, (Chapter 1).

            I remember what led me to read this book. The ebook was on sale and I saw the promotion for its upcoming companion novel, Spinning Silver. Then, I attended BookCon in 2018. I had read an excerpt of the author’s upcoming novel, Spinning Silver, and I wanted to meet her and have her sign copies of her books. Yes, books, because in addition to Spinning Silver, I picked up Naomi Novik’s other books, His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire Book 1—which, I still haven’t read, yet—and Uprooted, which I had already read. I reviewed Spinning Silver first. Both books are similar in themes and tropes, but they stand out well as individual standalone novels. 

            Agnieszka is 17-years-old and lives with her parents in the village, Dvernik, near the corrupted Wood’s border. A wizard, known only as “the Dragon” to the villagers, protects the village from the Wood, which is his task set to him from the royal court. As part of the Dragon’s tribute, he takes one girl from the village for 10 years of service. No one knows what the service entails except the girls return as women, but “changed,” and leave the village for city life shortly after. Agnieszka is tall, clumsy and awkward, and she’s one of the girls who is of the age for the Dragon to choose from for his next tribute. However, Agnieszka knows she won’t be chosen, but her friend, Kasia, will be the one chosen. Kasia is beautiful and talented in almost everything she does, and Agnieszka and the entire village knows the Dragon will choose her. Only, he doesn’t. To everyone’s shock, Agnieszka is selected to serve the Dragon. Now, Agnieszka has to learn what is expected of her for the next 10 years. And, this includes filling in for the Dragon when he cannot attend court. Agnieszka learns about the Dragon and his service, why she was chosen over the other girls, and how the Wood became so corrupted. Agnieszka develops as a character and as a person as she learns about the outside world, which she has been sheltered from her entire life, and about the dark forces that make the Wood so dangerous. Agnieszka is accompanied by the Dragon, but as she learns more about what is expected from her, she refuses to lose contact with her family and her friends. Agnieszka grows up in an unusual way under unusual circumstances, and she manages in her own way.

            The plot is divided into two parts. The first part regards Agnieszka’s “services” to the Dragon, which is easier said than done. While Agnieszka shows promise with the more “difficult” tasks, she is awkward when it comes to completing the “easier” ones, which makes for a very entertaining “education.” The second plot revolves around the Wood and how it continues to grow stronger and more aggressive. After the Dragon is injured during a confrontation with the Wood, Agnieszka must travel to the royal court in his place in order to request reinforcements. Once there, Agnieszka meets the royal family and other individuals like the Dragon. It is here when the subplot develops: the Dragon’s relationship with the court, and the court’s connection to the Wood. The subplot explains the two plots of the novel as they all go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative is told from Agnieszka’s point-of-view in first-person in the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness. Everything the readers learn, is from Agnieszka’s perspective. If she is not where the action is taking place, then she learns about it afterwards from someone else (and, so do the readers). The fact that Agnieszka can only account for her actions and her experiences make her a reliable narrator. All of these elements make the narrative easy to follow.

            The style Naomi Novik uses for Uprooted follows both a fairy tale retelling and a fractured fairy tale. A fairy tale retelling is when a known fairy tale is retold with components that alter either the setting or the characters. A fractured fairy tale is when a smaller, yet popular part of a fairy tale is kept while the rest of the story changes. In this case, elements of the story, “Beauty and the Beast” can be found throughout the narrative, but the author presents a new story from the few parts she fractured and used. The mood in this novel is anticipation. All of the characters in the story are anxious or excited about an upcoming event, or dreading a threat that cannot be stopped. The tone of the novel focuses on how all of the characters remain resilient during such difficult times and how they handle themselves. The last two literary elements of style will make you forget about the fractured fairy tale and focus on the fantasy story.

            The appeal for Uprooted have been noteworthy. Besides receiving critical and popular acclaim, this novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2016. However, it seems that since the release of Spinning Silver, Uprooted has fallen a bit behind on the popularity, but I can assure you, if you enjoyed the former, then you will enjoy the latter. Uprooted remains a great addition to the fantasy canon, and fans of Katherine Arden, S.A. Chakraborty, and Rena Rossner will enjoy this book the most. There hasn’t been any announcements on whether or not we should expect another novel similar to this one, but I am willing to wait for as long as it takes, especially since the rumor is that both books are set in the same universe. Uprooted can be reread; in fact, older adolescents can read and enjoy this book as well (regardless of some of the adult content). 

            Uprooted is an entertaining coming-of-age story about identity and magic of all sorts. All of the familiar fairy tale tropes are twisted from what you know of them, and that makes the story more enjoyable. If you read and loved Spinning Silver, and you haven’t read Uprooted yet, then don’t wait any longer. If you want to read a fantasy story that uproots the expectations of the readers, then this is the book for you.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

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

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 Stone Sky”

The Broken Earth 3: The Stone Sky

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 15, 2017

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Fantasy

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2018, Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2017, Winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel 2018*

            The job you “have” to do is the easier of the two, you think. Just catch the Moon. Seal the Yumenes Rifting. Reduce the current Season’s predicted impact from thousands or millions of years back down to something manageable—something the human race has a chance of surviving. End the Fifth Seasons for all time.

            The job you “want” to do, though? Find Nassun, your daughter. Take her back from the man who murdered your son and dragged her halfway across the world in the middle of the apocalypse, (1: you, in waking and dreaming). 

            N.K. Jemisin has done what very few authors have managed to do, present a good and believable ending to a series that leaves readers with a sense of both accomplishment and satisfaction. What started with The Fifth Season and continued through The Obelisk Gate ends with The Stone Sky, the third and final book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Readers and critics learn what must be done in order to put an end to an apocalypse. 

            The protagonists are once again Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, and two of the most powerful orogenes in the world right now. Both mother and daughter have made their choices regarding themselves: Essun decided to grow her powers to the fullest, and Nassun decided to identify herself as an orogene. And, both mother and daughter have to live with the consequences of their decisions—both physical and emotional. All that’s left is for the two orogenes to determine the path of the Moon. One orogene and her companions hope to save the world, while the other orogene is coaxed by her companions to destroy it. Mother and daughter will face off after they’re reunited. Essun just wants to know whether or not her 10-year-old daughter is traumatized, and Nassun wants the world to know that those with power can and will determine the ways of the world. The daughter has become as powerful as her mother, and her mother isn’t with her to provide guidance. 

            The plot of the story is a race to an underground network in order to restore “order” to the Earth. This can be achieved with orogeny and there are 2 orogenes who are powerful enough to restart it. So, who will get there first? And, what will happen once the obelisks are activated? Another plot of the story involves Essun and Nassun preparing for action when the Moon is closest to them in “orbit.” Essun has succeeded in activating the Gate while at the comm, and Nassun travels to one that’s been lost and forgotten to history. There are two subplots in this story which answers some of the remaining questions in the trilogy. The first subplot is the origin of the Stone Eaters, which leads to how the Seasons became so dangerous. The second subplot answers the question regarding the purpose of the Guardians and their relation to the Seasons. These subplots are necessary because they provide the bits of information required for the plot’s development and resolution.

            The narrative continues to shift between 1st, 2nd and 3rd points-of-view. And, the sequence falls back into flashbacks and present time. The flashbacks provide both background information and answers to the questions to how everything came to be and how it will all end. The streams-of-consciousness of all the characters make them all reliable narrators. Yes, not all of their motivations are morally good, but it’s understandable given the circumstances. These elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses for The Stone Sky tells that an end is coming. Now, whether or not that end is for the Seasons, or for the characters, or both is to be determined. But first, the author lets the audience know how the Seasons came about. At the same time, Jemisin lets her readers know that oppression of any form does not ensure safety and/or order within a society. Instead, fear and suppression take place, which can lead either to a life of secrecy or to a life full of anger. The mood in this story is one of readiness—the need to make it on time to save the world, to save the last surviving member of one’s family, and to finish preparations in order to survive the Seasons. The tone in the novel is dread due to the choices and consequences of saving the world and reuniting with estranged loved ones. However, if it came down to two possibilities, then which choice would you make? This is what the author has her characters do, they must make a choice and live, or die, with the consequences. 

             The appeal for The Stone Sky have been massive and monumental! Not only did this novel win the Nebula Award (2017) and the Locus Award (2018) for Best Novel, but also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2018)! This means that The Broken Earth Trilogy has won the Hugo Award in the same category in three consecutive years! N.K. Jemisin is the first author to accomplish this feat; and, it’s well-deserved! The Broken Earth Trilogy is not only a must read for readers of speculative fiction, but also is a magnificent work of literature overall. There have been people who’ve read this series and found it to be an excellent story regardless of its genre. The message of the cost and the resistance that results from oppression and the end-of-the-world is received—although it’s not practiced in our world, yet—and is the reality within the fiction. The Stone Sky completes this trilogy and is a must read within the canon of speculative fiction.

            The Stone Sky is a strong and powerful end to this ambitious trilogy. N.K. Jemisin has managed to raise the expectations and the standards of writing and presenting a work of speculative fiction. This book series is one of my all-time favorites. Not to mention, I’ll be re-reading and recommending these books for years to come! Everyone needs to read this amazing trilogy!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Shadow Saint”

The Black Iron Legacy: Book 2: The Shadow Saint

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            Ten months ago, at the height of what some call the Crisis and others the Gutter Miracle, a new city exploded into being within Guerdon, (Chapter 2).

            When you read a book that becomes one of your favorite books of all-time, you’re left with a sense of satisfaction. When you learn that book is part of a series, you become anxious. This is because you’re hoping the next book in the series is just as good as the current one while dreading the possibility that it’s not. Well, that’s not the case here! Gareth Hanrahan found a way to go beyond readers’ expectations and gifted us with The Shadow Saint, a strong sequel to The Gutter Prayer—his debut novel. The sequel takes place several months after the events in the first book, but a new conflict is the focus in this story.

            There are 3 new protagonists: Eladora Duttin, Carillon Thay’s cousin, who is struggling to strive and to survive in the New City; Terevant Erevesic, the second son of House Erevesic and (failed) Lieutenant of the Ninth Rifles; and, a spy, who goes by many aliases, whose latest assignment has him traveling into the New City. As the protagonists converge in the city formerly known as Guerdon, other characters are introduced in order to present the protagonists as complex and rounded with desires, regrets and failures, and a sense of responsibility. First, there is Effro Kelkin, the “Chair of the Emergency Committee and de Facto Ruler of Guerdon” and Eladora’s boss, whose biggest concern is the Parliament Election. Next, there is Olthic Erevesic, the Haith Ambassador and Terevant’s older brother, whose main concern is another election, one that puts him at odds with his wife, Lyssada. Last, there is Emlin, the “task” assigned to the spy and the chosen saint of the Fate Spider, a deity worshipped in both Severant and Ishmere. Not to mention, one or two relations to Eladora makes an appearance as well. While the protagonists might come off as “weaker” than the characters they interact with, it is the minor characters who present the protagonists as relatable, as they are forced to develop into themselves as a result of these interactions. 

            The plot in The Shadow Saint delves into the aftermath of a crisis. “The Gutter Miracle” has turned Guerdon into a hotspot for power-hungry politicians and religious leaders. For the politicians, two upcoming elections will determine both the dominance of one party and the directions Guerdon will go in. For the religious leaders, Guerdon is one of the last neutral territories in the Godswar. While some of these leaders try to form alliances with the politicians, others search the streets of Guerdon for a weapon that is rumored to have the power to destroy a god. The subplot focuses on the protagonists, who are victims of being used and abused by other people, including members of their families. All of these protagonists have been taken advantage of by others, but it’s how they manage to move on from those traumatic experiences—whether or not it’s through forgiveness, forgetfulness or vengeance—and deal with what’s happening in the present. This subplot is necessary for the plot because the protagonists find themselves thrust into the spotlight and they must decide whether or not they want to remain as “tools” for those who want to control them. The plot develops at an appropriate rate and it’s due to the subplot. 

            Once again, the narrative follows a chronological sequence of events which are told from multiple points-of-view. The flaws and the mistakes made by the protagonists and their ability to overcome them—and proving that it’s not as easy as it sounds—make them reliable narrators. The narrative explores the protagonists’ streams-of-consciousness—which include some flashback scenes—through 3rd person limited. This means that the P.O.V. character knows what’s happening where they are at that moment in the story, but the readers know everything that is occurring to everyone at the same time. Both the narrative and the emotions are easy to follow.

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is divided into world-building fantasy and political reality. Because Guerdon was saved, everyone is showing interest in it. Those people come from other places that have their own religion and reasons for gaining control of Guerdon. However, in order to understand why, world-building is required. The various cultures and religions as well as the events of the Godswar is presented through the world-building by the author. The politics struggling for power demonstrates the reality within the fantasy by using numerous events throughout human history as a source. The mood in the story is chaos. The city of Guerdon was saved, but that has led to more conflicts and even more conspiracies involving gods, saints, war, and elections. The tone here is resilience; which of the characters demonstrate it and why they do so. If the story wasn’t identical to current events, then this could almost be a satire. 

            The appeal for The Shadow Saint have been positive. Fans of The Gutter Prayer and/or grimdark will appreciate the direction the author decided to go for in the sequel. Readers who are curious, yet unsure whether or not to read the sequel should know that the difference is the characters and their P.O.V.s. This means that everything fans and readers enjoyed in the first book is in this one, too. The sequel is not only a great addition to the grimdark and fantasy canon, but also cements Gareth Hanrahan as an accomplished author. And, based on the ending and the revelations at the end of this book, readers will be eager to reader the 3rd book in the series, when it comes out. Please note: According to the author, there will be 4 books in this series.

            The Shadow Saint is a sequel which demonstrates the triumph accomplished by the author who delivers on the expectations of the fans, the readers and the critics. The shift from thieves to forgotten relatives proves that the characters are just as well-written as the story and its world. If you haven’t already done so, then start reading this series! You won’t regret it!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Velocity Weapon”

The Protectorate: Book 1: Velocity Weapon                          

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                        Audiobook: 18 hours 22 minutes

Published: June 11, 2019                                  Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

I am called “The Light of Berossus,” the voice said, (Chapter 1, The Aftermath of the Battle of Dralee). 

For every individual in a fandom, there is the moment, in which they were hooked, thus beginning their membership. For me and science fiction, it was my parents’ love for the two Star Trek shows which aired during the 1990s: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine—yes, Star Wars was part of my introduction to the genre, too. From there, I started reading science fiction novels, until I stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a fan of the genre, but I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to (there were plenty of movies, TV shows and video games, but that’s for another time). Sometime later I got back into the science fiction by reading the recent releases by different authors which had my exploring the genre again. Yet, it was Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe which kept my interest to the point where I bought the audiobook so that I could know what happened after my “stop point” in reading the print book. This space opera reintroduced me to the science fiction genre and reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place!

There are 3 protagonists in this novel, who narrate the events over the course of several years from 3 different settings. First, there is Sanda Greeve. She is a sergeant for the Ada Prime System, and the last thing she remembers is being shot by the Icarions before her evac pod allowed her to escape, onto an enemy ship—an A.I. Smartship. When she wakes up she learns is the only living being on the ship—The Light of Berossus, or Bero—and, when she asks how and why this is possible, she learns that it’s been 230 years since her ship was shot down. Sanda processes this shocking bit of news as she figures out a way to survive in space with a smartship for company. Next, there is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother, who has just graduated from the academy at the top of his class. This means that Biran will become a Keeper—a member of the Protectorate who leads Ada Prime and is one of the “keepers” of secrets and knowledge of the Star Systems, which are embedded in a chip that gets implanted inside their skull. However, as Biran is giving his speech, the Battle of Dralee—the same battle his older sister ends up fighting in—breaks out. Biran must behave as a Keeper before his indoctrination and before he can wonder whether or not his sister survived the battle. Last, there is Jules, a thief. During the latest heist with her crew, Jules and the others stumble upon two things: a dead body and a room filled with test tubes. There are other characters who interact with these protagonists throughout the story: Lolla and Harlan, Tomas Cepko, Anaia, and Callie Mera; and, they all help the protagonists develop into the people they need to be given their circumstances. Then, there is Bero, who is more than a smartship. It is aware of what’s going on more than its letting on to everyone else. 

The plot of this novel is an interesting one. The Battle of Dralee in the Prime Standard Year 3541 starts the story and the plot emerges from there, from the Greeve siblings. Biran must step up into his role as Keeper, while he breaks protocol in order to search for his missing sister. Sanda is drifting towards another Star System injured and alone on a damaged smartship. She must rely on her training and instincts, and on Bero to survive her situation. There are two subplots, which are related to the plot. The first one is the secret, in which Jules and her crew stumble across and what it could mean for them, for Icarion and for Ada Prime. The second one focuses on Bero and his motivations. Why is an enemy smartship drifting in the middle of Space? And, why did he rescue Sergeant Sanda Greeve? The plot and the subplots develop alongside the characters and the world-building at an appropriate rate, which make it impossible for the readers to lose track of everything that is going on in the story. 

The narrative jumps across 3 different years from 3 different locations from the points-of-view of several characters. All of the narratives are told in first person from the protagonists and the other characters perspectives. Readers must pay attention to the sequence of the narrative because while the narrative is the present for one character, it may be occurring in the past or the future for another character. The sequence of the narrative starts off with puzzlement for both the readers and the characters, but the events within the sequence keep the narrative in one constant motion where it can be followed by the readers and the audience. The characters’ streams-of-consciousness allow readers to know the thoughts of the characters and the reasons they make the decisions and perform the actions they do. There are moments of flashbacks within the narrative, and they provide clues of the bigger story that is being told. 

The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Velocity Weapon consists of the jargon of science fiction, the colloquialism of the armed forces, and the terminology for the world of space she cultivated for this series. The idea that two-star systems have been at war with each other for hundreds, or thousands, of years, with Earth as the potential beacon for the establishments for these star systems is an interesting factor to consider for the sort of story the author is presenting to her readers. The author is not presenting a science fiction story about two warring nations, she is writing a space opera—”a space story involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful technologies and abilities on a very large scale”—and about the consequences of hidden technology, which is the tone of this novel. The mood is hostility, including what it entails and how it is dealt with. While it is not that different from other space operas, it’s the way the author writes it that makes it very engaging.

The appeal for Velocity Weapon has been positive for sci-fi fans—which is good—but, minimal for the rest of the speculative fiction community. And, what I mean by that is that it is a great story that seems to be limited to one part of the literary fandom. There is enough of the same themes and ideas found in other works of science fiction and in fantasy fiction, yet it seems that more people would read this book and others like it if given the chance to learn about this story. There is a reason why this book was one of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. When I wasn’t able to continue reading this story, I finished it by listening to the audiobook. Joe Jameson’s performance of the characters make them easy for listeners to make out which character is speaking and narrating the story; and, his narration and voice is appropriate for the story that is being read by the listeners. The next book in The Protectorate series, Chaos Vector, will be released in July 2020. Fans of the first book are waiting eagerly to learn what happens next.

Velocity Weapon is an entertaining space opera about family, government conspiracies, A.I. ships, and an ongoing military campaign between nations that will keep readers’ interests from beginning to end. Megan E. O’Keefe demonstrates her abilities for writing engaging stories across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Sci-fi fans should consider adding it to theirs. This book is a reminder that space is a fascinating frontier!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

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).