Why You Need to Read: “The Burning God”

The Poppy War Trilogy, #3: The Burning God

By: R.F. Kuang                                                                       Audiobook: 23 hours 47 minutes

Published: November 17, 2020                                              Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Grimdark, Military Fantasy, Folklore

            What was wrong with her? She’d started and ended wars. She’d buried a god. She’d incinerated a country. There wasn’t an entity on the planet that could face her in a fair fight and win. She was certain of her own strength; she’d sacrificed everything to make sure she never felt powerless again. 

            So why was she so afraid? (Chapter Eight). 

            History presents war with selections to choose from; some wars are revolutions, some wars are civil, some wars are invasions, and so on and so forth. The surface of war may be simple, but the layers run so deep it’s difficult to determine the alliances and the motivations for it. Not to mention, war affects EVERYONE and EVERYTHING. The Burning God—the third and final book in The Poppy War Trilogy—by R.F. Kuang, delves into the power and the warfare of a war that doesn’t seem to end. 

            Fang Runin “Rin” is still alive, but she’s without her troops, her allies, and her hand. Betrayed again by those who wanted to use her powers as a shaman for their goals, Rin decides to return to her home province in the south in order to liberate them from both the Dragon Republic and the Hesperians. There, she learns that her past actions have turned her into a living legend amongst the common people. And, they want to fight with her. Rin’s friends are Kitay, her friend from Sinegard, and Venka, her classmate and her former rival turned ally. Then, there’s Nezha, the son of the Dragon Lord, who is serving his family’s cause instead of Rin’s. While Nezha is Rin’s opponent, he isn’t the only antagonist Rin has to kill in order to liberate Nikan. However, will her new alliances led to more betrayal? Rin continues to develop in a way so that we can still root for her while trying to overlook the numerous atrocities she commits for liberation and for revenge. In Rin’s case, you can’t have one without the other. 

            Similar to the first 2 books in the trilogy, there are 3 parts in The Burning God; and, each part focuses on the antagonist(s) Rin must defeat to claim victory once and for all. Part I has Rin, Kitay, Venka, and what remains of their army marching into the Southern Provinces to liberate them from the Dragon Republic. Rin returns to Tikany for the first time since she left for Sinegard, and what she discovers there strengthens her conviction to transform Nikan into an independent nation. Rin’s new army consists of the common people and those who rebelled against the Dragon Republic. From them, Rin and her army are taught about elements of war that they didn’t learn at Sinegard. It turns out, guerilla warfare works for revolutionary purposes. But, what about against an invading nation? 

            Part II has Rin betrayed (again) and separated from her friends. From here, Rin makes an uneasy alliance with one of the last individuals she expected to see again. However, Rin knows this alliance this the only way to defeat both the Dragon Lord—Yin Vaisra, Nezha’s father—and the Hesperian fleet. During the march to regroup Rin’s troops and to rescue her friends, Rin learns the truth about her shaman powers and the Trifecta. Now, Rin has to decide where and who her loyalty lies with, and whether or not the end justifies the means.

            Part III has Rin and her army at full force. Rin, Kitay and Venka defeat all of their enemies and have liberated Nikan. However, the end of the war isn’t over until all hostile forces either surrender or die. In addition, Nikan has been ravaged by war for so long that there is no short-term plan for the survivors to carry on living. On top of that, Rin has the power and the recognition she always wanted, but like each war leader in (our) history, Rin struggles to maintain power and control for herself. All Rin has to do is weed out the remnants of her enemies—including Nezha—and find a resource to make Nikan self-sufficient in the years to come. Unfortunately, war is NOT a game, and it doesn’t end until all of the foes from one side are dead. 

            In addition to the plots in each Part in the novel, there are several subplots which enhance both the narrative and the character development. Some of the subplots include: the destruction of Speer, the fragility of the Trifecta, the Yin Family, Rin’s return to Tikany, and shamanism. All of the subplots tie in the plots of this story as it reaches its end. The characters’ story arcs end in ways that match the mood of the series, which is a combination of shocking and appropriate. Not only do these subplots wrap up the plots going back to the first book in the series, but also presents the conflicts all of the characters face throughout (and before) it. 

            The narrative is in 3rd person limited, which means readers learn everything going on from Rin’s point-of-view and from her stream-of-consciousness. The latter is essential because readers are able to understand why Rin makes the choices—both good and bad—throughout the narrative. It should be mentioned that there are a Prologue, an Epilogue, and 2 Chapters which are not told from Rin’s P.O.V. These serve as memory sequences which enhance the story and the conflicts, and lets readers know what Rin is up against. The narrative is what drives the story; it is well-written, and it can be followed by the readers easily. 

            The style R.F. Kuang uses in The Burning God brings The Poppy War Trilogy to a full circle. As the author ends the series, she reintroduces everything from The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic in order to remind her readers about the cost and the effect of war. In addition, this finale presents grimdark through a historical lens. After the release of The Dragon Republic, Kuang announced the historical figure Rin was supposed to represent. Anyone who is familiar with what happened in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), knows what Rin’s victory could mean for Nikan. The mood in this novel is puissance; it is a non-stop power struggle from start to end. The tone in this novel is the evanescence of power; the effects of war last much longer than an individual’s power and influence. 

            The appeal for The Burning God have been positive. Fans and readers who have stuck with this series will not be disappointed with the story’s conclusion. Fans of historical fantasy, military fiction and revenge stories—The Priory of the Orange Tree, The Rage of Dragons and Nevernight, respectively—will enjoy this book (and series) the most. There have been criticism of this book due to the realistic violence portrayed throughout the trilogy. However, this portrayal of warfare and of violence is the reality within the fiction, sadly. As I mentioned in a previous post, this series is the most similar to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—and, maybe Joe Abercrombie’s books (I haven’t read them yet, but I will very soon)—so, his fans might enjoy this series as well. I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, and the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, did an amazing job.

            The Burning God is a blazing finale to a series that started off as a school fantasy, transformed into a military historical fantasy, and ends as a grimdark series. R.F. Kuang delivers a powerful end to a series with Asian roots and influence. Do not wait as long as I did to read this book, you have no idea on what you’re missing out on. 

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

P.S. Thank you Sasha for getting me to finish this trilogy through out buddy read!

Why You Need to Read: “Catalyst Gate”

The Protectorate: Book 3: Catalyst Gate

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                                           Audiobook: 20 hours 49 minutes

Published: June 22, 2021                                                        Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera

            Rainier Lavaux had threatened everything and everyone Sanda had ever loved. Sanda had felt that loss once. And she’d burn the bitch to the ground rather than suffer through that pain all over again, (Chapter 1: Hello, Spy).

            Space operas remain popular in modern society, and there are 2 reasons for this popularity. One, the idea of traveling in space enraptures everyone’s imagination. Two, we all want to see fights within space with spaceships and blasters. Many movies and TV shows emphasis both of these—especially, the latter; however, like other narratives, the conflict must be addressed and be resolved before the resolution. In books of this genre, more emphasis is placed on the characters and the world-building because it is through their points-of-view that we learn more about the conflict, which is at an intergalactic level, literally. Catalyst Gate—the 3rd book in The Protectorate Trilogy by Megan E. O’Keefe—delivers on the characters’ story arcs, the conflicts, the world-building, and, of course, the space fights. 

            The same 4 protagonists have returned, and they’re all going after Rainier Lavaux, the entity set on destroying all of humanity. First, Commander Sanda Greeve has Bero, Grippy and her crew—made up of Arden, Nox, Conway, Knuth, Dr. Liao, and Tomas—are racing to stay steps ahead of Rainier as she searches the galaxy for the “keys” she needs to finalize her plans. Second, Director Keeper Biran Greeve is on a mission to “purge” those who “fell under” Rainier’s “influence.” Some are close to his job while others are with the Icarions. Third, Tomas Cepko has learned what he is in relation to Rainier and has decided to join the Greeve siblings on their mission to stop her. Last, Jules Valentine has committed numerous atrocities to keep her friend, Lolla, alive. This puts her at an advantage because she’s figured out how to stop Rainier once and for all. All of the protagonists and their companions are resolved to stopping Rainier, but first they have to confront how her actions in the past has led to this upcoming showdown. The war forces all of them to develop into the “heroes” they have to become; yet, their ordeals won’t be straightforward. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel, and they continue from the first 2 books in the series. The first plot revolves around stopping Rainier Lavaux, who is the mastermind behind all of the events and the incidents involving the protagonists, the Icarions, and Ada Prime. Obviously, there is more to Rainier than even the Keepers know, so where do all of the parties travel to in order to learn the entire story? How far back into the past does Rainier’s plans go? The second plot delves into Atrux, the planet where Jules once called home and where her life changed for the worse. Everything for Jules had started in the Grotta, which means Rainier’s plans might have started there, too. Jules’ search to cure Lolla could lead to answers on how to stop Rainier. There are a few subplots in this novel as well, and they wrap up the remaining plot holes in the series. Everything mentioned from the first book: the Chip, the Gates, the Icarions, the agent, etc., are reiterated so that the answers can be revealed, and so that the plots can conclude. 

            There is a difference in this narrative compared to the ones in the previous books; there are NO Interludes. This means the narrative occurs in the present—Prime Standard Year 3543—without flashbacks to the past; yet, we learn whose memories they belonged to and their relevance to the series. Once again, all of the narratives are from the points-of-view of all of the protagonists, and they are told in 3rd person limited through their streams-of-consciousness. It is through the protagonists’ P.O.V. that we learn all of the events that led to everything happening now, and the possibility of it all working out for them all. The truths and the revelations uncovered by the protagonists make all of them reliable narrators. 

            The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Catalyst Gate continues from the previous 2 books; only this time, the timeline is complete. Space operas are science fiction stories about galaxies with complex plots which take place in “near-future” Earth. Well, Earth is mentioned, but it is not from the “near-past.” The conflict goes back millennia—even before Prime Standard—which, influenced the events leading up to the present war in the narrative (sound familiar?) Mistakes were made in the past because of human error and alien technology; and now, posterity is paying the price for it. This is no longer a complex political conspiracy, but a war to preserve humanity; and, not everyone makes it out unscathed or healed. The mood in this novel is combative. All of the protagonists, the other characters, the antagonists, and the villain have been fighting. Only now, the war has begun. The tone in this novel is sacrifice. Each of the protagonists have a conviction and they are willing to defend those convictions at the cost of their lives.

            The appeal for Catalyst Gate have been positive. What started with a shocking start to this space opera trilogy concludes with a satisfying conclusion with several action sequences along the way. Fans of the first 2 books will be satisfied with the last book in this trilogy. Fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Martha Wells should consider reading this series. Fans of the space opera subgenre will appreciate this series, too. I listened to the audiobook for this book—actually, the entire trilogy—and, Joe Jameson’s performance was well done and very entertaining. I’m glad he did the narration for this trilogy.

            Catalyst Gate is an action-filled conclusion to an entertaining space opera trilogy. The characters and the plots sucked me into the story and kept me there after its end. The Protectorate Trilogy reintroduced me to space operas and reminded me why they are so much fun. Megan E. O’Keefe’s trilogy needs to be read by all sci-fi fans because they don’t know what they are missing.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).  

Why You Need to Read: “The Gilded Ones”

The Gilded Ones, #1: The Gilded Ones

By: Namina Forna

Published: February 9, 2021

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains elements of rape, misogyny, familicide, dismemberment, human trafficking, and violence against females. Be advised.

            Confusion lines my face, and I frown at her. “An invitation for what?”

            “For you, Impure One. Emperor Gezo has decided to create an army of your kind. He invites you to join it and protect our beloved Otera from those that would oppose her will,” (3).

            Readers have become familiar with genre-blending—the blending of at least 2 distinguished genres and/or subgenres within a book or a book series—but, every now and then there are books which are “crossovers” for the audience. For example, consider which books you had to read in secondary school for your literature class. You know many of those books were written for adults, right? And yet, many adolescents have at least 1 book from school that they remembered reading, and some even enjoyed the story. There are several examples of books written for adults that should NOT be read by younger readers—The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff—but, there are several young adult books containing numerous adult themes that should be read both by adolescents and by adults as well. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is the latest book to tackle how the “adult world” influences the youth negatively and why certain societal practices continue to exist through posterity. 

            The protagonist is Deka. She is 16 years-old and is about to undergo the “Ritual of Purity,” a rite to see if a female’s blood runs red or gold. If a girl’s blood runs red, then she is declared a woman and becomes a member of the village they reside in. Deka has become even more terrified of the Ritual since her mother’s death 3 months earlier; her father is the last family member she has left. However, she has 2 close friends who she envisions remaining close to after she passes the Ritual. Unfortunately, 2 events occur on the day of the Ritual that changes Deka’s life. First, her village is attacked by creatures known as Deathshrieks who kill several people. Second, her blood runs gold—the blood of the Impure—and she is ordered to be “cleanse…” that is until a figure—a woman with white hands—arrives with an offer to reclaim her identity: join the emperor’s army of Impure women to defeat the Deathshrieks for good, or be sentenced to death. Almost immediately, Deka leaves her fanatical village for a chance at “absolution.” Along the way, Deka meets and befriends Britta from the Northern Province. Once at the compound, she meets twin sisters, Adwapa and Asha from the Southern Province; Belcalis from the Western Province; and, Gazal and Jeneba their “Honored Elder or Senior Bloodsisters” who help the girls with their training and to become acclimated with their new life. Then, there is Keita, an uruni—(human) men partnered with each of the girls to work together with (and to spy on) the women as they fight against the Deathshrieks. Last, is White Hands, the Impure woman who brought Deka and Britta to the compound for a chance at absolution; but, she has a close relationship with the Emperor, and she has an interest in Deka, and Deka doesn’t know why. All of these characters help Deka accept her new life and her purpose as she becomes stronger—physically, mentally and emotionally—and determined to protect Otera. 

            The plot of this novel has several parts. First, is Deka’s journey towards absolution after her blood classifies her as a demon. Second, is the explanation of the “Infinite Wisdoms,” the religious mandate practiced in most of the provinces in Otera, which limits the roles of females to their families and their households; but, an army of Impure Ones has existed for some time. Last, is the world-building that occurs throughout the narrative including the various provinces of Otera, the history of Otera—including the goddesses and the Infinite Father. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first is about the Deathshrieks. What are they? Why have they been attacking villages? Why have their numbers continued to grow? The second subplot is about the “Impure Ones,” or “demons” who are descended from the Gilded Ones—the goddesses who founded Otera. It seems that there are some unknown benefits to being “impure,” which are known by those who are “impure.” In addition, why are all the “Impure Ones” female? What about males? These subplots are essential to the plots as the reader(s) learn more about the characters and the world through them and their conflicts. The plots and the subplots go at an appropriate rate as the story reveals everything that will happen in it.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Deka’s point-of-view. And, the narrative is presented in the present tense. This means that the reader experiences everything and learns about everything through Deka’s P.O.V. and her stream-of-consciousness. Deka’s growth from devout outcast to lead warrior—including some revelations about herself—make her a reliable narrator. A reminder that the narrative is intended for young adult readers, and it can be followed easily by both YA and adult readers. 

            The style Namina Forna uses for The Gilded Ones is NOT new, but it is one of the most candid seen in (YA) literature for some time. The author wanted to examine the idea of the patriarchy—how and why it is practiced—and how religion continues to influence this societal practice. Namina Forna is from Sierra Leone and—when she moved to the U.S.—she saw no difference in the practice of patriarchy between Africa and America. And, given what many of us know about similar practices in the rest of our world (i.e. Asia, the Middle East, etc.), this book is a commentary on how females continue to be treated throughout the world. Feminism and misogyny are international themes and issues that continue to permeate into individuals worldwide. Personally, I believe that one of the reasons “change” and “equality” haven’t happened for women yet is because every region of the world acts like gender equality is “better” where they are; and that is a HUGE lie. Namina Forna presents the harsh reality females—especially young ones—face because some males desire to express their dominance over them. Regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or ethnicity, this book speaks volumes of what girls and women experience throughout their lives. The mood in this novel is domination. The females are dominated by the males and their religion, even the “Impure Ones” are oppressed by men. The tone in this novel is belligerence. The “Impure Ones” are trained to fight their foes, but are they limited to the Deathshrieks? There is a map of Otera at the front of the book and it should be used by the reader(s) whenever they need to consult it. 

            The appeal for The Gilded Ones have been mostly positive with 75% of the ratings on Goodreads being 4- and 5-stars. One thing that needs to be mentioned is the book’s publication. This book’s release was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. That being said, the hype surrounding the author’s debut novel made the wait worth it (I read an eARC of this book). This book is described as being for fans of Children of Blood and Bone, Shadow and Bone, Legendborn and Raybearer. I would describe The Gilded Ones as a combination of The Year of the Witching and Speak. Once again, this book is written for YA readers containing “adult” themes they know exist in our world. Not everyone will view this book for what it is, and that’s all right because it means that the book wasn’t written for them. The next book in this series—The Merciless Ones, which releases in April 2022—continues Deka’s journey to discovering her role within the Impure Ones and warring against those who want her dead.

            The Gilded Ones is the book young girls crave and adult women wished they had as children. Namina Forna found a way to present the truth within the fiction for adolescent readers, but made it alluring for adult readers as well. While this book should NOT be read by everyone, it should NOT be missed by anyone. Go and read one of the best (debut) novels of this year!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The House of Always”

A Chorus of Dragons, #4: The House of Always

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       

Published: May 11, 2021                                                        

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                             

Thank you Tor for sending me an eARC of this book. I listened to excerpts of the audiobook, too.

Note: There are a few spoilers from the first three books in A Chorus of Dragons series. 

            After I have my answers. Time moves differently here. Only seconds will have passed when we return. There’s no need to hurry. There’s no point, (3: Secret Plans, Teraeth’s reaction).

            The beginning of the end has begun in this series. The climax occurred at the end of the last book—The Memory of Souls—yet the consequences of the actions and the choices in the previous chronicle must play out before the story can reach its conclusion. The House of Always is that book in A Chorus of Dragons; and A LOT happens before the story can begin to end. 

            If you believed the Dramatis Personae was long in the previous book, then be ready for even more callbacks in this one. Thanks to Senera, Kihrin D’Mon, Janel Thernanon, Tereath and Thurvishar D’Lorus reunite with Galen and Sheloran D’Mon, Qown, Kalindra Milligreest, Talea, Xivan and Talon. They all “meet up” after the battle that took place in the previous book in order to discuss their recent activities, the latest threat to Quur, and the upcoming threat(s) to the entire world. The last, of course, involves both Relos Var and Vol Karoth; so, what’s the plan? Each character has been busy with their own tasks, then—through magic—they find themselves inside an unusual place where they have a lot of time to sought through all of their thoughts—and those of their adversaries. 

            There are 2 plots in this story, and they involve 2 current conflicts. The first plot involves Kihrin’s “plans” for confronting Vol Karoth, which is easier said than done. The second plot delves into the current threat to Quur, which is something none of the protagonists or the main characters know anything about; or, do they? These plots are linked due to the most obvious reason, that 1 dilemma has to be resolved before the other one can be confronted. Meanwhile, there are several subplots within the story, and they are ALL relevant and essential to the plots of the story. All of the missions, the tasks, and the memories of ALL of the characters are linked to the ongoings throughout the rest of the Quuros Empire and the potential way to save it. 

            Once again, the narrative in this book is different from the narratives in the previous books. That being said, by now readers of this series should be familiar with the author’s narrative style. There are 2 Parts in this book; and, while the 1st 2 chapters in Part I and all of Part II are told in the present, the remainder of the narrative jumps back-and-forth amongst memories, flashbacks, previous lives, and streams-of-consciousness of ALL of the characters! In fact, a handful of other characters reemerge in this book. Which ones, and why? There are numerous P.O.V. chapters and passages which follows ALL of the characters. However, Kihrin’s point-of-view is the only one told in 1st person. The rest of the characters’ P.O.V.s are in 3rd person limited. There is a reason for this narration, and it is presented as it progresses. This narrative style allows for further development of the plots, the characters, and the world-building. And, believe it or not, the characters are reliable narrators, and their narratives can be followed easily. 

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The House of Always can be argued as it being an additional buildup before the finale in the last book in this series. The final battle in the war is approaching, and the Dramatis Personae must decide which side they are on. Unfortunately, neutrality is no longer an option, so a decision has to be made. Not to mention, “the plan” must be finalized and agreed upon by EVERYONE. The style presented by the author reminds the readers what is at stake as the series approaches its end. The mood in this novel is ominous. All of the characters know what’s coming, and they must remain vigilant—which is the tone in this novel—as the final battle draws near. Once again, the readers can refer to the maps, the glossary, and the appendices for whenever they need to consult any information.     

            The appeal for The House of Always have been positive. Readers and fans who read through this book in the series gave it high ratings (4- & 5-stars). This is the book in which all of the pieces and the subplots from the previous books reemerge in this one, right before the series reaches its dénouement. This epic fantasy series continues to be compared to ones written by George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and other authors who write similar books in this subgenre. To fantasy fans and readers who are still indecisive on whether or not to read this series, DO IT! If you’re worried about remembering all of the characters, then know that their stories continue throughout the series. If you’re concerned about all of the plots and the subplots, then take notes (I do). If you’re worried about forgetting what happens in all of the books leading up to the last book in the series—The Discord of Gods—then, now is the time either to re-read the previous books in the series, or to join (or to create) a group for a read along of this series! You are running out of reasons for NOT reading this series!

            The House of Always is a unique story that gears up readers for the series’ conclusion. You might wonder as to whether or not the narrative style leads to an essential part of the plot, and it does that and so much more. All of the elements within this series begins to end as the story and the characters’ fates gets closer to it. Now, we must wait until 2022 to learn who survives the apocalypse. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

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)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Memory of Souls”

A Chorus of Dragons, #3: The Memory of Souls

By: Jenn Lyons

Published: August 25, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Thank you Tor Books for sending me an eARC of this book! And, thank you for your patience on waiting for my review.

Note: There are a few spoilers from the first two books in A Chorus of Dragons series. 

            “The more I remember, the more I hate being able to remember,” Janel said. “It feels like another person taking over my mind. Someone else’s thoughts intruding on my own. I’m not…those people anymore,” (74: Who They Used to Be).

            The cast has been introduced. The conflict has been revealed. So, the story can continue, right? Many readers of any genre understand both stories and real life are more complex than they first appear to be. Fans of epics, sagas and (space) operas know to expect more from such stories, but they never know which direction the story will move throughout the narrative. The Memory of Souls, the third book in A Chorus of Dragons series, is the latest epic fantasy to provide more plot devices as the story reaches its climax. 

            All of the characters (and, I mean all of them) from the first two books in the series—The Ruin of Kings and The Name of All Things—are back as they all continue with their roles pertaining to the end-of-the-world. The protagonists include: Kihrin D’Mon—the man who murdered the last emperor of Quur; Janel Thernanon—the Black Knight; Thurvishar D’Lorus—the son of the last emperor of Quur, who was also an infamous necromancer; and, Tereath—a member of the Black Brotherhood. These protagonists were saved and are tasked by the gods to convince the vané—the last race of immortal beings—to perform a sacred ritual. Unfortunately, there are a few parties who attempt to stop this quest, but the reasons vary between each group. One group is the parents of the protagonists: Therin D’Mon and Khaeriel—Kihrin’s parents; Terindel—Tereath’s father; and, Tya—Janel’s mother, work to assist their kids with the strength of their abilities. Another group involves more relations to the protagonists: Khaemezra—Tereath’s mother; and, Relos Var—Thurvishar’s grandfather, are some of the antagonists in this story, but they are neither working together nor working towards the same goal. Then, there are the characters who are working towards their own goals. First, is Senera who is still working with Relos Var (blindly), and who still possesses ‘The Name of All Things.’ Second, is Suless, one of the immortal wizards who seeks vengeance on those who kept her captive. Last, is Talea who was the former slave girl Kihrin failed to save, but she appears to have gain her freedom. After the events in The Name of All Things, all of the protagonists and the characters realize the “actual threat” wasn’t Relos Var, but someone who is more ancient and more powerful than him. There are more characters, old and new, who appear throughout the story who either try to hinder or try to help the “heroes” save the world. Throughout this story, the protagonists develop as they journey on their quest(s) and learn more about themselves through each other. Granted some of the protagonists’ revelations are just as shocking to them as they are for us, but the way the protagonists handle them allow them to make the decisions they know are coming their way, and they won’t have to do the fighting alone. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first plot revolves around the “newest” threat to Quur, Vol Karoth, who after having one of his tethers cut loose by Kihrin (who was tricked into doing it by Relos Var) is closer to being freed from his prison. The second plot concerns ‘The Ritual of Night.’ Kihrin, Janel, Tereath and Thurvishar must convince the vané to perform the ritual so that Vol Karoth will be reimprisoned. The catch is the race who performs the ritual will lose their immortality, which is something the vané are not giving up willingly. So, how will the “heroes” convince the vané Vol Karoth is a threat who should not be unleashed onto the Quur Empire? There are two subplots in this novel, and both of them embellish and develop alongside the plots in this story. The first subplot concerns the mysterious character known as Grizzst. He is a famous wizard whose magic may or may not have saved Quur from destruction. And yet, so few people know who he is and what he’s done, so why is everyone searching for him now? The second subplot involves memories and past lives. There are the vane—who are immortal—and, the god-kings—immortal wizards—then, there is reincarnation. That’s right, on top of gashes and soul swapping, there is the reincarnation of souls. However, how often do you hear of people remembering their past lives? There were a few examples in The Ruin of Kings, but it’s happening a lot more in this book. In fact, some of what the characters are starting to remember might contain clues as to how to stop both Vol Karoth and Relos Var. These subplots are necessary because they refer back to the plots, which allows them to develop and to go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative in this book is slightly different from the narratives in the first two books in the series. Unlike the first two books in the series—where the narration and the points-of-view go back-and-forth among 2-3 characters—this book follows the narratives of several characters—some old and some new. Similar to the previous books, all of the narrations are being compiled into a single chronicle which presents all of the events in the “chronological order” they occurred in. Most of the P.O.V.s are told in 3rd person omniscient with one narration told in 1st person. In terms of how the narration is present, pay attention to the title. This means the narration goes from stream-of-consciousness to memories—NOT flashbacks! Without giving away too many spoilers, these memories are essential to the narration because it provides even more insight into the world the author created and the actions several of the characters performed as well. Not to mention, the events of the past influence the decisions some of the characters make in the present for the future. Believe it or not, all of the characters are reliable narrators, and the narrative can be followed easily by the readers. 

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Memory of Souls continues with the chronicler. Unlike the first two books, there is only one oral speaker recounting events. All of the other characters have written their “experiences” and “gave” them to the chronicler to compile. In this book, readers witness the “arrangement” of all of the “participants” into one coherent text. And, let me say the chronicler (and the author) make it look easy. The mood in this novel is crusade. All of the parties go their separate ways in order to engage in a campaign either personal or divine. However, many of these campaigns go against (one or more of) the other one(s). When that is the case and the parties involved meet up, discord occurs—which is the tone in this novel. Readers should refer to the map, the glossary, the family tree, and the timeline throughout their reading of this book. The series is at the point where these references provide enough information and backstory without having to refer back to the previous books.

            The appeal for The Memory of Souls have been mostly positive. While most of the readers enjoyed this book, there were a few who either found the story to be confusing, or thought the series was “getting too long” (not my words). That being said, those readers might want to look up the difference between fantasy and epic fantasy. Not all fantasy series are trilogies! I’ve made this assumption with this series and other ones before the authors corrected me! This book and the previous books in A Chorus of Dragons belong in the (epic) fantasy canon. Fans who have stayed with this series this long can look forward to reading the next book in the series, The House of Always, when it is released (in 2021); especially with those cliffhangers, we all need to know what happens next. 

            The Memory of Souls is the climax of A Chorus of Dragons series, which will leave fans and readers with the (grimdark) question: does the ends justify the means? While the story doesn’t omit any of the detail, it does leave readers with several more questions about the direction the author seems to be moving it in. No one is expected to survive the end of this series, but we’ll have to read in order to find out who will live.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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: “City of Lies”

Poison Wars, #1: City of Lies

By: Sam Hawke                                                                      Audiobook: 18 hours 16 minutes

Published: July 3, 2018                                                          Narrated by: Rosa Coduri, Dan Genre: Fantasy                                                                                                         Morgan

                        I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me, (1: Jovan).

            “The Land Down Under,” is also known as the continent, Australia. Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania make up the region with its own flora, fauna and culture. Before The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Australia was known for famous people such as Steve Irwin and Huge Jackman, but there have been some notable speculative fiction authors from the continent, too. Both Garth Nix and Juliet Marillier have had their books published in the U.S. since the 1990s, with Kim Wilkins and Jay Kristoff following them in the 2000s, presenting readers with a new spin on the genre. Now, there are two more authors from Australia that have captured everyone’s attention. The first is Devin Madson; and, the other is Sam Hawke, the author of City of Lies, the first book in the Poison Wars series.

            The story follows Jovan and Kalina—brother and sister—who have been training to take over their “Tashi,” their uncle Etan’s position as advisor and protector of the Chancellor (and his heir), as well as a poisoner, someone who tests all of the foods in order to avoid poisoning—both accidental and deliberate. At least Jovan, who is younger, has been training to be their Tashi’s heir. This is because Kalina didn’t pass her uncle’s testing, so she has been finding ways to prove herself to her family, so she doesn’t have to return to the family home away from the Talafan Empire’s capital. While Jovan learns everything about his upcoming role and travels the Empire with the Chancellor’s nephew, Tain, Kalina reads up on everything about the Empire so she can be of use when the time comes. Unfortunately, Jovan, Kalina and Tain are thrust into their roles when their uncles—a member of the Council and the Chancellor—are poisoned and die before Jovan and Kalina can identify the poison and find the antidote for it. From there, Jovan and Kalina must figure out who and what killed their Tashi and the Chancellor, and why. Besides Tain, Jovan and Kalina are accompanied by Marco—a Warrior-Guilder—and, An-Hadrea, a young woman from Losi of the Ash Estates, who meets Jovan and Tain and explains to them about the Darfri, their religion, and their role in the death of the Chancellor. Jovan and Kalina are the protagonists, yet they are able to grow due to their interactions with Tain, Marco and An-Hadrea.

            The plot of the story is two-fold. First, is who poisoned the Chancellor and his advisor. The second is the rebellion that causes a siege within the capital. The questions are: who are the rebels? Are they the lower class? Are they the religious fanatics? What do they hope to accomplish? As these plots unravel and develop, the subplot develops alongside the plot, which is the growth of the roles Jovan, Kalina and Tain take on. Tain is the Chancellor and Jovan must step up into the role of advisor as he aids and protects Tain while solving all of the mysteries behind the poisonings and the rebellion. Meanwhile, Kalina finds her purpose during the siege, and grows into the role she created for herself. The subplots are necessary in this story because it demonstrates how the world—real or fictional—keeps going and the characters have to adapt to the changes in order to survive the larger dilemma. Both the plots and the subplot develop and move at an appropriate pace. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of both Jovan and Kalina as the events in the capital of the Talafan Empire unfold from the poisonings to the siege to the revelations of everything that led up to it all. The narrative is told in 1st person and both Jovan and delve into the history and the politics of the Empire as they try to piece together the mystery that led to the deaths of their Tashi and the Chancellor, as well as the current siege. Both brother and sister are reliable narrators as their streams-of-consciousness provide their thoughts and their emotions as everything occurs. Not to mention, the time frame of the narrative provides a realistic approach from traveling through the country to how long military sieges can last. All of these components make the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Sam Hawk uses is very intriguing. Yes, readers are familiar with multiple P.O.V.s and political backstabbing in such stories; yet, not too many fantasy stories start off as a low fantasy with magic having a “smaller” or a “limited” role within the story. This novel focuses more on the conflict while introducing the magic as a secondary bit of world-building. This is why each chapter opens with a (known) poison to the protagonists and not about the various Guilds or noble families, because the poison used to kill the Chancellor, which leads to all of the events in the story, has to be determined before someone else gets poisoned. The mood of the novel is a conundrum. Everyone is trying to solve several mysteries within a “short” time frame. The tone of the novel is the disclosure of those mysteries and what the revelations of them means for all of the characters affected by the poisonings. 

            The appeal of City of Lies have been positive. While the author has won several awards in Australia, Sam Hawke has received international praise and accolades as well. The author was even nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, which is given during the Hugo Awards. This novel joins the canon alongside other political fantasies such as A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell. And, with how this story ended, it makes the upcoming sequel—Hollow Empire, to be released in December 2020—an anticipated book of the year.

            I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Rosa Coduri and Dan Morgan. Both narrators were excellent as Kalina and Jovan, respectively. However, I was very impressed with how the two narrators seemed to tell the story at the same pace. I’m not sure whether or not the two of them recorded their parts at the same time, but they did an excellent job with keeping the pacing of the story balanced.

            City of Lies is a brilliant debut novel about the realities of politics and society within a fantasy world. Sam Hawke delivers a strong story about dealing with the bigger issues while maintaining composure so that even personal affairs can be handled discreetly. The guide of poisons reminds me of what I learned of plants from gardening and from Girl Scouts. I’m looking forward to reading and to learning more about the magic system in the upcoming sequel. This novel is extremely underrated and should be read by readers and by fans of the fantasy genre. Let us all wait and see what the author gives her readers next!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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 Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

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

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

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