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

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

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

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

Books I’ve Finished:

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

     by Sarah Kozloff

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

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

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

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

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

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

Books I’m Currently Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

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

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

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

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

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

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

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

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

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

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

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

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

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

My Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2020

Yes, I am late with this post, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with the news surrounding the nominees for this year’s speculative fiction awards. The good news is that thanks to all of my reading throughout the previous year, I’ve read a lot of the books that have been nominated for these awards. The bad news is that all of the conventions have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The silver lining is that many of these Cons and awards will be presented through livestream events. Yet, I feel sad for many of the nominees, especially the debut authors, because they will not be able to accept the award and give their acceptance speech in person. At the same time, I know some of these Cons are open to fans, and a lot of them had to cancel their plans as well. It does make the livestreams good enough substitutes and next year’s Cons will make up for it all, but it’s still a bummer. 

            Like I said, I read a lot of the nominees for almost all of this year’s speculative fiction awards. If you click on this Google Document that I’ve shared (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1G2uYVlAPclCA83KYOb3n5G-xLfW5xza5HT50dz5uX4Y/edit?usp=sharing), then you’ll find which books I’ve been able to review so far. However, I’ve read enough of the nominees—mostly novels and novellas—to know that it’ll be another close year in terms of the winner. I have my picks of who is going to win, but in most cases, I can’t determine who the winner(s) will be. Nevertheless, I’m excited for all of these speculative fiction awards. Fans and readers should not only pay attention to the Nebulas and the Hugos, but also to the British Science Fiction Association, or BSFA, the Aurealis Awards, and the Nommo Awards (to start). On a serious note, there’s a lot more going on in Australia, in Africa, and within their writing communities than those of us residing in the rest of the continents can comprehend. 

            As for the awards themselves (some of them), both the nominations and the dates of them have been delayed. For example, the BSFA Awards were supposed to be in April during Eastercon, but the event was postponed until May. Those awards will be livestreamed this weekend (check their website for the link). It seems that most of these awards will be streamed, but we’ll have to consult the Awards’ websites and social media pages for information and dates. This experience will be memorable, and we won’t miss them. 

            Just like last year, I’ll update my Google Doc as both the nominations and the winners are announced. I’ll share any information on whether or not the awards will be streamed and when they’ll occur on social media. I suggest you follow any information provided by the award organizations themselves on their websites, which are listed below. Read or watch the nominated works as well. And, look out for my post on the wrap up of my Reading Challenge, which will be posted towards the end of the award season (whenever that is). Please note: the S.P.F.B.O. 6 will be mentioned in separate posts! Let me know which of the nominees you’ve read! Enjoy this year’s awards and nominations! 

            If any of the information listed below is incorrect, then please let me know.

Philip K. Dick: https://www.philipkdickaward.org

BSFA: https://bsfa.co.uk 

Nebula: https://nebulas.sfwa.org

Aurealis: https://aurealisawards.org

Brave New Words: https://www.starburstmagazine.com

Hugos: http://www.thehugoawards.org

Lambda Literary: https://www.lambdaliterary.org

Compton Crook: http://www.bsfs.org 

Otherwise (formerly the Tiptree Award): https://otherwiseaward.org 

The Kitschies: http://www.thekitschies.com

BFA: http://www.britishfantasysociety.org

Locus Awards: https://locusmag.com

Arthur C. Clarke Award: https://clarkeaward.com

Nommo Award: http://www.africansfs.com/home

Bram Stoker Awards: http://www.thebramstokerawards.com

World Fantasy Award: http://www.worldfantasy.org/

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Cerulean Queen”

The Nine Realms #4: The Cerulean Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Middlegame”

Middlegame

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Metaphysical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Ships”

The Tide Child #1: The Bone Ships

By: R.J. Barker

Published: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2019—The End

            As some of you may or may not know, I decided to partake of this crazy reading challenge in which, I would read as many of the nominees of the largest book awards for speculative fiction I could by the time the winners were announced. Obviously, this was easier said than done, but I did read a lot of amazing books, and many of them did NOT win the awards. In addition, I learned of more awards that were given to these authors in different regions throughout the world—if anyone knows of an award given in Asia, then please let me know—and I learned more about authors I’ve read or haven’t read before. 

            I suggest that you go to the websites for these awards and take a look at all of the finalists because you might recognize the authors, their works and their other interested. Some of these authors only receive the recognition from these awards. And, I wouldn’t have known who Lauren C. Teffeau and Nick Clark Windo were without doing this project. 

            I did read a lot of the winners and the nominees, but only the winners of each award and category will be listed here. I haven’t written all of the reviews for some of the winners, yet; but, I hope to do so in the near future. Please read my reviews I’ve linked to the books, and let me know what you thought of the winners of these awards. And yes, I’m doing this again for 2020!

Philip K. Dick Award

Winner: 84K by Claire North

Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award

Honors the Best 1st Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Novel of the Year

Winner: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award

Winners:

            Novel: Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

            Shorter Fiction: Time Was by Ian McDonald

            Non-Fiction: “On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures” by Aliette de Bodard

            Artwork: Likhain’s “In the Vanishers’ Palace: Dragon I and II”

Nebula Awards

Winners:

            Novel: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

            Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

            Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander

            Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

            Game Writing: “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” Charlie Brooker

            The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Screenplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman

            The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Hugo Awards

Winners: 

            Novel: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

            Novella: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

            Novelette: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

            Short Story: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

            Series: Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

            Related Work: Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works

            Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda

            Dramatic Presentation:

                                                Long Form: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

                                                Short Form: “The Good Place: Janet”

            Editor:

                        Short Form: Gardner Dozois

                        Long Form: Navah Wolfe

            Professional Artist: Charles Vess

            Semiprozine: “Uncanny Magazine”   

            Fanzine: “Lady Business”

            Fancast: “Our Opinions Are Correct”

            Fan Writer: Foz Meadows

            Fan Artist: Likhain (Mia Sereno)

            Art Book: The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. LeGuin   

            Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

            John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Jeannette Ng

Brave New Words Award

Given to an individual who produces break-out literature that is New and Bold.

Winner: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The Arthur C. Clarke Award

Given for Science Fiction Literature

Winner: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Locus Awards

Winners: 

            Science Fiction Novel: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

            Fantasy Novel: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

            Horror Novel: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

            Young Adult Book: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

            First Novel: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

            Novella: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

            Novelette: “The Only Harmless Thing” by Brooke Bolander

            Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

            Anthology: The Book of Magic edited by Gardner Dozois

            Collection: How Long ‘til Black Future Month? By N.K. Jemisin

            Magazine: Tor.com

            Publisher: Tor

            Editor: Gardner Dozois

            Artist: Charles Vess

            Non-Fiction: Ursula K. LeGuin: Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. LeGuin & David Naimon

            Art Book: Charles Vess, The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, Ursula K. LeGuin

British Fantasy Awards

Winners:

            Fantasy Novel: The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams

            Horror Novel: Little Eve by Catriona Ward

            Newcomer: Tasha Suri for Empire of Sand

            Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

            Short Fiction: “Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by GV Anderson

            Anthology: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 5, edited by Robert Shearman & Michael Kelly

            Collection: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma

            Non-Fiction: Noise and Sparks by Ruth EJ Booth

            Independent Press: Unsung Stories 

            Magazine/Periodical: “Uncanny Magazine

            Audio: Breaking the Glass Slipper (www.breakingtheglassslipper.com)

            Comic/Graphic Novel: Widdershins, Vol. 7 by Kate Ashwin

            Artist: Vince Haig

            Film/Television Production: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

2019 World Fantasy Awards

Lifetime Achievement Awards: Hayao Miyazaki, Jack Zipes

Winners:

            Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk

            Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson

            Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Sky” by Mel Kassel

                                           “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs

            Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell

            Artist: Rovina Cal

            Special Award:

                        Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands

                        Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy

            Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo

Bram Stoker Awards (2018)

Superior Achievement in a Novel: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Superior Achievement in a First Novel: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel: Victor LaValle’s Destroyer by Victor LaValle

Superior Achievement in Long Fiction: The Devil’s Throat (Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror)

Superior Achievement in Short Fiction: “Mutter” (Fantastic Tales of Terror) by Jess Landry

Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection: That Which Grows Wild by Eric J. Guignard

Superior Achievement in a Screenplay: The Haunting Hill House: The Bent-Neck Lady, Episode 01:05 by Meredith Averill

Superior Achievement in an Anthology: The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea by Ellen Datlow

Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction: It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life by Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson

Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection: The Devil’s Dreamland by Sara Tantlinger

Aurealis Award (2018)

Recognizes the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. 

Winners:

            Young Adult Short Story: “The Sea-Maker of Darmid Bay” by Shauna O’Meara

            Young Adult Novel: Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina

            Science Fiction Novel: Lifel1k3 by Jay Kristoff

            Fantasy Novel (tie): City of Lies by Sam Hawke

                                             The Witch Who Courted Death by Maria Lewis

            Horror Novel: Tides of Stone by Kaaron Warren

            Children’s Fiction: The Endsister by Penni Russon

            Graphic Novel/Illustrated Work: Tales from The Inner City by Shaun Tan

            Horror Novella: Crisis Apparition by Kaaron Warren

            Horror Short Story: “Sub-Urban” by Alfie Simpson

            Fantasy Novella: “The Staff in the Stone” by Garth Nix

            Fantasy Short Story: “The Further Shore” by J. Ashley Smith

            Science Fiction Novella: Icefall by Stephanie Gunn

            Science Fiction Short Story: “The Astronaut” by Jen White

            Collection: Tales from The Inner City, edited by Shaun Tan

            Anthology: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year, edited by Jonathan Strahan

            The Sara Douglass Book Series Award: Blackthorn & Grim Trilogy by Juliet Mariller

            Convenors’ Award for Excellence (tie):

                        Cat Sparks, The 21st Century Catastrophe: Hyper-capitalism and Severe Climate Change in Science Fiction (PhD exegesis Curtin University)

                        Kim Wilkins, Lisa Fletcher and Beth Driscoll, Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the 21st Century (http://www.genreworlds.com)

Nommo Award (2018)

Recognizes the works of speculative fiction by Africans, defined as “science fiction, fantasy, stories of magic and traditional belief, alternative histories, horror and strange stuff that might not fit anywhere else,” awarded by the African Speculative Fiction Society

Winners: 

            Novel (The Ilube Award): Freshwater by Akweake Emezi

            Novella: The Fire Bird by Nerine Dorman

            Short Story: “The Witching Hour” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

            Comic or Graphic Novel: Shuri by Nnedi Okorafor

SPFBO (Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off) 2018 (4th

Started by Mark Lawrence, yes THAT one, with the purpose to “shines a light on self-published fantasy. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.” The contest starts with 300 books and it gradually narrows down to 10 finalists! The judges are readers who are bloggers and vloggers. Note: some of these authors gain a following and some even earn a publishing contract, so don’t ignore these books!

Winner: Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike

Finalists:

            The Gods of Men by Barbara Kloss

            The Purification Era Book One: Sowing by Angie Gricaliunas

            We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

            Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon

            The Anointed by Keith Ward

            Conspiracy of Magic Book One: Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe

            Sworn to the Night by Craig Schaefer

            Iconoclasts Book 1: Aching God by Mike Shel

            Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc

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

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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