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

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

By: Sam Sykes

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Need to Read: “The Poppy War”

The Poppy War Series: Book 1: The Poppy War

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: May 1, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

            “Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”

            Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers. 

            She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).

            This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war. 

            The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division. 

            The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her. 

            Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.

            Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals. 

            The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow. 

            The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary. 

            The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story. 

            The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang. 

The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.

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

The Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2019

It seems that my #1 goal for 2019 is to exhaust myself into completing all of the other goals I have made for myself: get a job, read 100 books, read and post about ARCs, connect with authors and editors, work on my content for my social media pages, finish some of my WIP for submission, etc. Now, I’ve decided that I’m going to read the books that are nominated for various book awards.

            I’m going to call it: The Shortlist Award Reading Challenge. Last year, I followed the Hugo Awards closely because I knew that The Stone Skyby N.K. Jemisin was going to win “Best Novel,” and All Systems Redby Martha Wells was going to win “Best Novella.” However, as I was looking at the shortlist for the other categories, I realized that I read many of the books and watched many of the media that were nominated. So, I decided to read as many of the other nominees as I could before the winners were announced. Not only did I caught up to many recent series, but also I started reading works by authors who had been writing in the genre for several years. I read what I could access through libraries, bookstores, and the Internet. This process was very insightful. Soon, I was able to select whom I believed should win the Hugo Awards. While I was correct in who won in categories such as Best Novel and Best Novella, I was wrong in other categories such as John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. 

            After the winners of the Hugo Awards were announced, I made a reaction video and posted it on my YouTube channel. Then, I continued looking into the nominees and their works. For example, while I am a huge fan of Katherine Arden’s Winternight TrilogyI understood why Rebecca Roanhorse won the award in the category—Best New Writer—over her. And, I realized that some works won in the same category at other awards, and then there were a few awards in which one book won over another book. It makes you wonder if there was a difference in who voted based on preference and/or guidelines. Not to mention, one notices that other works win awards due to the way they stand out from the rest of the nominees per category.

            Like everyone else, I read what is released when I am able to do so. In addition to reading my usual genres—fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, contemporary, classics, graphic novels, etc.—I read many debut novels and I catch up on series that were unknown to me previously. Now, with the 2019 Award Season gaining momentum, I’m excited to see what is nominated and who could win. TV shows and movies can be viewed from at least one viewing before comparing them. Video games are similar to books in that one must invest the time needed to immerse themselves within that narrative. I will comment on these categories for the given awards as well. As of right now, I noticed that once again, there are many books that I have not read, but I am willing to read as many of them as I can before the winners are announced. 

            I want to be able to determine for myself why these books and media have been nominated for these awards. I keep using the terms “books” and “media” because both fiction and non-fiction works get nominated, and movies, television shows, and video games get nominated, too. This is not only a chance to insert myself into what I might have missed otherwise, but also learn how and why these selections were nominated in the first place. 

            So, between now and the end of the 2019 award season, I will read as many of the nominated books and watch as many of the nominated media as I can. This way I can give my critiques before and after the awards. If you want to see the compiled list for the awards I will be following, reading, and critiquing, then please checkout this list on my Google Docs page: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yzQEUvGTILR2LaGMVCibEbeZXp1q5PlSQIch9c0Q-IQ/edit. This list will be updated throughout the award season in order to add to the list, to highlight my reading progress, to provide access to my reviews of the nominees, and to mark the winners of each award in each category.

            In addition, I will be continuing to upload reviews to this blog. Some of the nominees were reviewed previously, and I will continue to add more to my website so that you all have a better understanding of what each book is about. In other words, I’ll do the reading—which, you can do as well—and I’ll let you look over my notes, similar to what I did back in high school. As I complete the list of nominees—regardless of which award each one is nominated for—I will write, upload and share my review. As each awards ceremony gets closer, I will upload both a blog post and a YouTube video with my “prediction” on who should win and why. And, after each award ceremony, I will upload my reaction video on the winners. This is an arduous path I’ve put myself on, but I’m eager to attempt and to accomplish this ambitious goal. 

            Just so everyone knows, this will slow down my progress on my ARCs, essays, theories, and other reviews and content I am currently working on. However, they will get completed, eventually. The only thing that will put a complete halt on everything I’ve been doing is starting a new job—which I really, really need right now—and reworking my schedule to accomplish everything.

            All that being said and addressed, I hope you either follow me, or participate with me as I read as many books as I can and offer my opinions on them. There will be many awards that I won’t be able to add to this challenge, but I’m open to the names and the nominees of each of them. Who knows? I might have read some of those books already, too. This year’s award season is going to be very exciting due to ALL of the nominees. It’s going to be very close, so close that I might have to predict a (potential) second winner within some of the categories. Bring on the 2019 Shortlist Award Reading Challenge! Will you join me? 

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf in the Whale”

By: Jordanna Max Brodsky                                                   

Published: January 29, 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Fantasy

  Garbed once more as a man, I entered the blood-soaked iglu. I sawed at my hair so it brushed the tops of my ears as a man’s should. I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack. The wolf in the whale had gone south. And so did I. (Chapter 22).

            When I first received the ARC for this book, I did not know what to expect from it; however, the description of the story caught my attention and I read it with an open mind. The Wolf in the Whaleis an interesting story about gender roles, family, survival, cultural differences, and religion. Expectations placed on the characters—and the gods—within the story drive the narrative as well. Readers will gain insight into the first inhabitants to reside in and the first travelers to North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

            The protagonist of this story is also our narrator, who is retelling the events of her life. Omat was born with her father’s spirit as a hunter and with her grandfather’s abilities as a shaman. Hence, Omat is raised and treated as a male by her aunt, her grandfather, and her tribesmen, and she is expected to become the next leader of the tribe much to her cousin’s, Kiasik, chagrin. At the same time, the gods of the world—particularly the Inuit and the Norse—fear the changes to come due to the rise of a new and powerful monotheistic god. Unbeknownst to her, the gods mark Omat as a “threat” for she is expected to bring forth Ragnarök, or the end of the world. The gods’ fear causes Omat’s family to suffer from starvation and isolation. However, anyone who is familiar with myths, legends, and prophecies know that the more anyone tries to prevent a prophecy or an event from happening, the more likely it will occur. Omat’s interaction with her family, other tribesmen, the Vikings, and the gods and the spirits shape her character as she transitions from adolescence to adult. 

            The plot of this novel is broken down into 3 parts: Omat’s bildungsroman, the gods’ fear of the end of their lifestyle and adoration, and the Viking exploration. All of these plots drive the story and provides some insight into how early settlers came to inhabit the Americas, and how the interactions—even brief ones—brought elements of cultural diffusion to Omat’s tribe. The Viking “visit” is based on historical and recorded events; yet, it is unknown as to why they did not remain in the Americas. As for the motives of the gods, anyone who is familiar with religion and myths—or, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and/or Rick Riordan’s books—know the gods depend on both the worship and the stories from the mouths of mortals and shamans for their existence. A new, single god could jeopardize the lives of the rest of the gods. Omat’s journey and growth to becoming a leader means learning from other leaders—the good, the bad, and the worst—meeting challenges from the environment and from other people. Omat manages to overcome these obstacles, but not without repercussions. At the same time, Omat does learn some things from each adversity, which ensures her survival. 

            The narrative is divided into 5 parts: Omat’s birth, family and growth into an angakkug—or shaman; Omat’s power and livelihood being threaten by a visiting tribe who only see Omat for her sex and not for her abilities regardless of her gender; Omat’s journey south in search of her cousin and meeting a Viking, and seeing other people live beyond her world; Omat’s captivity amongst the Vikings; and, Omat’s role in Ragnarök, and its aftermath. All the while, the gods are watching the events unfold and they make decisions for their interests, which do not consider the impact they will have on the mortals. Given the multiple subplots and the story, the later parts in the novel are told in real-time. While this is both appropriate and believable for the plot, it makes the story seem slow at times. Omat is retelling this story. These events already happened—she either was told, or she experienced them—and we are led to believe that this stream-of-consciousness narrative is reliable. 

            The author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, has a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. The Wolf in the Whaleis a historical fiction fantasy and folklore novel. This story is not only about the brief “meeting” between the Inuit and the Vikings—and other early settlers—but also a look into the folklore—a body of culture, traditions, tales, religion, etc. shared by a particular group of people—with fantasy elements (i.e. gods). The descriptions of the lifestyles of both the Inuit and the Vikings make the story more immersive. The cultural diffusion added by the author’s historical knowledge make the story more believable because the exchange of knowledge amongst various groups of people have been, and continue to be, a necessity for human survival and progression. This novel is a credible story of journey, survival and growth as seen in the author’s style. These elements add to the various dangers all of the characters face from the weather to each other. The realism makes the difference and it flourishes in this novel. 

            Readers who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy The Wolf in the Whale more than those who enjoy fantasy. This is because the historical and the anthropological aspects drive the story more than the appearances of the gods and the spirits. That is not to say fantasy fans won’t enjoy this book, they might not appreciate it as much as historical fiction fans. This is the author’s first standalone novel. So, readers who are curious about the author should read this novel. Fans of the TV show, Vikings, and/or the video game, Never Alone, should find The Wolf in the Whaleto be a well-structured story with the right amount of cultural elements that makes it more believable than the “what if” concept.

            The Wolf in the Whalecaught my attention due to its description about “clashing cultures and warring gods.” I was not sure what to expect from the novel besides shamans and Vikings. Being clueless, but open-minded about the novel allowed me to read the story as it is, and not what I thought it was going to be. The topics of sex and gender roles, culture, survival, interactions between different groups of people, and family drive the story as much as the history and the fantasy within it. There were times in which, some of the real-time events dragged the story. There were times in which, I wanted more from certain characters, but realized it would have diverted from the protagonist. Overall, The Wolf in the Whaleis a speculative fiction novel that is a hybrid of fantasy, folklore, history, and anthropology. I was immersed in the story from start to finish. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys an eclectic mix of genres in fiction. 

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

Why You Need to Read: “The Winter of the Witch”

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witchis the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower,in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower,which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingalein 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingalewas the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witchis the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogyproves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogyleaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials(by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018

2018 has been an amazing year for writers, editors, publishers, and readers of speculative fiction. Throughout this year, I’ve caught up with my reading of various genres in the print and digital formats. Also, I managed to read many of 2018’s new releases, and they were amazing reads. In fact, there were so many anticipated novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction, and anthologies that I neither read, nor completed many of the books released in 2018. 

            There are two things I learned throughout all of this year’s readings. One, speculative fiction’s spectrum continues to lengthen including stories of all sorts from authors of multiple demographic backgrounds. Two, readers and publishers are becoming more and more aware of the sort of stories that could emerge from this broader genre of literature than the ‘older’ and ‘more rigid’ structures of the previous separate binary genres of the past.

            The award winners and nominees of all the literature prizes demonstrate how the mainstream is starting to publicize these authors more and more. N.K. Jemisin’s historic win at the Hugo Awards made the news on several major news networks. And, Haruki Murakami withdrew his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature so he could, “stay focused on his writing.” These big moments in the literary community captured the attention of non-speculative fiction readers and everyone else. Maybe literary scholars will begin to pay more attention to this genre the way Americans are starting to pay attention to football (a.k.a. soccer). 

            Although I did NOT get to read and/or to finish many of the 2018 releases—Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; Circe by Madeline Miller; Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi; Head On by John Scalzi; Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce;How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, etc.—I managed to read many books of all formats (and in other genres). Obviously, my focus for this posting is what I consider to be the best releases in speculative fiction of 2018. If you are curious as to the other books I’ve read or started reading in 2018, then you can checkout my list on my Goodreads page. 

               Originally, I was not going to do a ranking. There were many books I wanted to mention and I was going to categorize my list based on: debut novels, novels with distinctive narratives, novellas, and anthologies. However, when I spoke to my friends and other readers, I realized that I kept mentioning the same books over and over again. These books stood out to me the most, so a Top Ten list came together. 

            Once again, this is a list of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018. There won’t be any “Honorable Mentions” here, and this list will be descending (#10-#1). If you believe I missed a book, or if you wish to comment on my choices, then please leave a message in the comments section.

#10 The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne #1) by Myke Cole

            As I mentioned in my review of this novella on Goodreads, this novella is a good start to what will eventually be a series. And, since I have not read The Queen of Crowsyet, I can only assume that both the story and the pace will pick up in that book. Don’t get me wrong, the story is worth reading and is different from other stories I’ve read, but I wanted more from it, which is a good thing. For this reason, I cannot put this book any higher on my list. 

            That being said, The Armored Saintis an interesting medieval fantasy tale, which takes the notions of religion and combines it with the idea of technological warfare. In this case, giant armored bots (look at the cover) are the weapons of power. The story begins with the protagonist, Heloise, getting into trouble with those in power and she witnesses the death and the destruction of those she cares about. However, Myke Cole does not use tropes in the ‘clichéd’ way. Instead, readers are surprised at what happens to everyone within the protagonist’s inner circle. And, while this story ends with you wanting for more, you will believe you were cheated due to the slow pace of this novella.

#9Empire of Sandby Tasha Suri

            2018 was a year containing many amazing debut books by authors—many of whom are not Caucasian—and managed to reintroduce readers to the notions of “old magic” and the treatment of the individuals who have the innate ability to wield it. Empire of Sandtakes a look into a society in which clans of tribesmen and tribeswomen are abducted for “the good of the Empire.” 

            Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Imperial Governors who defies her family’s wishes and paranoia, and performs the magical rites of her mother’s family. When the Religious Order notices her, she is forced to become a ‘tool’ for the Empire. As I read this novel, the characters are what kept my attention the most. The protagonist’s love for her family and her mixed heritage are what drives the story. The story gets really interesting during the last 100 pages, and it’ll make you want the next book in the series sooner rather than later. 

#8Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)by Rebecca Roanhorse

            This debut novel written by the 2018 Recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer takes place on a dystopian Earth, which ended due to climate change. The aftermath includes the return of Navajo deities and monsters. Maggie, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities, is hired to locate a missing girl. From there, the story turns into a scavenger hunt in what remains of the Southwestern region of the United States.

            This is the first fantasy novel involving Native American characters that I’ve read. Plus, I can see why Rebecca Roanhorse has been nominated for all the literary awards, and winning some of them. It’s not just about the idea that climate change is responsible for the dystopian society, but it includes the reminder that the ancient deities—no matter where they’re from and/or located—always have their desires over those of humans. The idea that the ‘end of the world’ leads to the return of the gods, so they can reform the world makes for a very intriguing story. 

#7Rosewaterby Tade Thompson

            I received an ARC of this book and I should have read it sooner, but I managed to read it all the same! This Afrocentric book tells an interesting story of individuals who use their innate abilities as part of their jobs, while residing near an alien dome. Yes, there was an alien invasion and every year people travel to Nigeria in order to be blessed with the healing powers of the dome. 

            This novel catches your attention with the reminder that a futuristic world will continue to have some of the same issues as we do in present society. In this case, cyber-hacking is a concern to the point where Kaaro, the protagonist, and others use their psychic abilities as part of their job description for both the local bank and (in Kaaro’s case) the government. After the annual healing ceremony, things go well and poorly for Kaaro. While he gets into an intimate relationship, Kaaro realizes that there is more happening to him and to those in his community. Some of it involves his past and some of it involves the changes occurring within his society. The blend of science, fantasy, and religion makes Rosewaterstand out from the rest of 2018’s speculative fiction releases. And, like the previous mentions, readers can expect a follow up book to be released in 2019. 

#6 The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

            I mentioned pacing as being essential to telling a story and Clark does an excellent job incorporating it into his novella, The Black God’s Drums. The setting is Post Civil War Louisiana where the technology is advanced and dangerous. Gender roles and terrorism are at the center of this steampunk thriller in which a young woman, Creeper, overhears a plot to bomb New Orleans during Mardi Gras. 

            The best thing about this novella is that I forget I was reading a novella! Creeper’s adventure in New Orleans does not occur through the span of a few weeks. Instead, the story and the dilemma occur and resolve within approximately 24-48 hours! The way Clark presents this story has you realizing that you are reading the action in real-time! For anyone who wants a quick and a fun tale, then I highly recommend The Black God’s Drums. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

#5Vengeful (Villains #2)by V.E. Schwab

            Recently, I started reading Schwab’s books, and I can say that my interest in her other books and series continues to increase. Vengeful is the second book in the Villains series, and it lives up to both the fans’ expectations, and its title. Vengeful begins where Viciousends, and it’s a marvelous continuation of what happens to the characters from the first story. In addition, Schwab introduces us to new characters that either are EO’s, or know about them.

            What I enjoyed the most about Vengefulis that Schwab continues to incorporate her take on the concept of ‘superheroes.’ In Schwab’s world, anyone can become an EO, but not everyone receives an ability worthy of awe. In addition, there are consequences pertaining to EO’s, and it reminds readers that anything involving magic, the supernatural, or the unknown comes at a cost. The new characters readers follow is another reminder regarding the name of the series. There are no ‘good superheroes’ in this story. 

#4The Poppy Warby R.F. Kuang

            This debut novel is based on the history of the Sino-Japanese War and the culture of China until that war. Readers learn about Chinese schooling, Chinese warfare, and shamanism. Rin is an orphan who decides that her only chance at a better life is an admission into Sinegard, the most elite military school in her country. While she does get into the university, Rin will have to train harder in order to remain a student there. Unfortunately, by the time Rin completes her training and her education, war breaks out and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned for her survival. 

            I enjoyed The Poppy Warbecause of the blending of history and fantasy. It’s interesting to read a book, which is influenced by another country’s history and culture. It’s a reminder that there are more aspects to our world than we know about. The best part of reading The Poppy Waris learning about the protagonist and the other characters who are learning and putting their training into action. Yes, the battle scenes and its aftermath are brutal reminders of war, but the scenes at the school are brutal reminders of the risks people take in order to achieve their goals. 

#3 Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

            I received an ARC for this novel, too; and, I couldn’t help it, but I started reading Spinning Silver, as soon as I got it. Spinning Silveris a companion novel to Novik’s award winning, Uprooted. This time, the tale is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskinand a cautionary tale of saying a ‘few harmless words.’ While Miryem is the main focus in Spinning Silver, she is not the only protagonist. For this reason, it makes the story all the more interesting. What will all the female characters (and one young male character)—from various backgrounds, with different dilemmas—do when the odds continue to buildup against them?

            I knew that I would love Spinning Silvereven before I received it! Naomi Novik does an amazing job blending folklore into her fantasy tales. Folklore is the idea of customs, traditions and practices that get pass along through generations without keep any formal track of them, such as stories. Novik provides examples of such practices in Spinning Silver. It gives her readers something familiar while reading her fantasy stories!

#2 The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

            This series was going to be my #1 pick of 2018 until I read the book that would push it back to #2. And, I know I’m cheating because the first novella, All Systems Red, was released in 2017, but since it won all of the awards in 2018, and you need to read the first novella in order to read the rest of them, so I rest my case! All four novellas in this series take place in consecutive order, with Artificial Conditionand Rogue Protocolfollowing the first novella, and the story concludes with Exit Strategy, for now. 

            Before reading Martha Wells’ books, I have not read any books about robot protagonists. However, The Murderbot Diariesare told from the point-of-view of a Security Unit, or SecUnit for short, who is a robot that offers contracted protection. In the case of our SecUnit, readers learn that it chooses to follow orders because it is not under the control of its manufacturers. In other words, the SecUnit went ‘rogue’ before the events of All Systems Red. All of the actions and the decisions our SecUnit makes throughout the novellas are choices it made itself and for its own reasons. I enjoyed every single book in this series and the series is a fun read for all science fiction readers. Yes, the SecUnit knows how to fight! I cannot wait until the upcoming novel is published! 

#1Vita Nostraby Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            Every once in a while, one comes across a book, or a story, that is so captivating and impacting that it alters your view of literature. Not only does it find its way to your all-time favorite books list, but also has you searching for similar books in the same (sub)genre. I find it shocking that this award-winning novel from Ukraine was published in 2007! Why did it take over 10 years to get this novel in English?

            The way Marina and Sergey Dyachenko tell this story is interesting. Sasha is ‘selected’ to become a candidate to an exclusive vocational school, before the start of her senior year in high school. Throughout that year, Sasha performs and accomplishes all of the tasks presented to her even as she notices some minor changes within herself. Once she becomes a student at the college, Sasha is pushed to her limits to the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Yet, Sasha and her classmates continue with their studies because failure does NOT equate expulsion! Readers learn with Sasha and the other students as to why they were ‘selected’ and what they hope to achieve by the end of their education at ‘that’ school. Vita Nostrais the first book in the Metamorphosisseries; and, I hope we get the translations of those books sooner rather than later.

            This is one of the best books I have ever read! Yes, I enjoy stories—regardless of its genre—that standout; Vita Nostrais an example of a story that takes its genre to a higher level. As I read the story and the events surrounding Sasha’s education, her growth into adulthood, and her disgruntled interactions with her family, I realized Vita Nostra is one of the best examples of what speculative fiction could be! The idea that there is more to our mundane world is nothing new to readers of the genre, but the way the authors present that notion through their writing leaves you in awe of everything you’ll read in this novel!

            My favorites of 2018 contain books within the speculative fiction spectrum ranging from science fiction to fantasy, from folklore to alternative history, and from paranormal to metaphysical. And, while many of my picks are part of a continuing series, each book stood out to me due to the plot, the story, the setting, the characters, the pacing, etc. While there were many other noteworthy books released in 2018 that I have not read yet, I plan on reading those books while reading both other books and new releases in 2019.

            2019 already looks promising with the books being released as well as others that may or may not get the same level of attention. Many of them sound exciting, but reading them will determine which stories get passed along. I hope this list provided some insight as to which books I enjoyed the most in 2018 and why. Let us continue reading in the New Year. 

A Look Into: America’s Top 10 Books Based on “The Great American Read”

Tonight, Tuesday, October 23, 2018, PBS will announce, based on votes, which book is “America’s Best-Loved Book.” The series and the vote were announced last spring, and the last few weeks have given viewers and readers a brief in-depth look into each book. The 100 books were categorized based on theme, not genre, which makes it for a more relevant look into the books. Now, PBS has reached the end of the series, viewers have reached the end of voting, and American readers will know which book was selected as “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

Twelve days ago, the Top 10 Books, based on voting were announced. Here they are, not listed by vote rank:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White                       Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell         The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis        Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë                         Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling           Little Women by Louisa May Alcott                    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien        Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen       Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon        To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Take a look at the way I listed PBS’ Top 10 Books. Have you noticed anything? The column to the left has a list of books that can be categorized under the “fantasy” genre; and, the column to the right has a list of books that can be categorized as “historical” fiction. What does this say about America’s taste in literature? What does it say about the notions surrounding fantasy literature?

First, the historical fiction books; two novels take place (before,) during (and after) the American Civil War, two novels are about society in England during the 1800s, and one novel is about segregation in the United States during The Great Depression. All of these novels give readers insight into the social dissonance occurring during certain moments in human history. People have either read one or more of these books for school, or saw the film adaptation at some point in the lives. Their stories are familiar by all, and well loved by readers.

Now, for the fantasy books, all of which have at least one media adaptation whether or not it’s movie or television. Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling are from Britain, and E.B. White—not to be confused with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King—and Diana Gabaldon are from the United States. Each of these fantasy novels (and series) falls under different subgenres. Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia are for children and have talking animals, which comes from Aesop’s Fables; Harry Potter is a bildungsroman series that follows Harry Potter and his friends and schoolmates as they learn about magic and prepare to fight against the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort; and, The Lord of the Rings and Outlander are fantasy novels that make up a larger compendium of books set in the world the characters reside in, Middle-earth and 18th Century Scotland, respectively.

It’s interesting how fantasy fiction is beloved enough to keep the genre growing and going. Fantasy and fairy stories are not only for children—read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories—but also they are not enjoyed by all children. Children who grew up reading fantasy and fairy tales grow up and write stories of the same genre as adults. And, some of those stories are for adult readers. The author determines the audience whom his/her/their story is read; and yet, two of the fantasy books in the Top 10 are fantasy stories for adults. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fantasy world, and in Outlander, the protagonist time travels to the past by means of supernatural elements.

Fantasy has been an established literary genre since the publication of both The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Lewis and Tolkien are recognized as being two of the authors who helped solidify the genre. Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, respectively, which were a few of the early fantasy books in which the fantasy genre emerged. All of the mentioned books were popular enough for media adaptations, and those films brought more attention to the books. Harry Potter brought fantasy to a towering level that no one saw coming. Fantasy literature is an established, recognized, and read genre. Hence, the books that made it into “The Great American Read” Top 10 List.

Do I believe any of the fantasy novels in the Top 10 will be chosen as “America’s Best-Loved Book”? No, I do not, but not due to the reason you may or may not believe. While I am an enthusiastic reader of the fantasy (and other speculative fiction) genre, I—like everyone else—had to read certain books as a student in grade school and in college. And, I enjoyed reading some of those books for my English classes. I was able to relate to the characters and comprehend the social issues mentioned throughout each novel. Some of the themes found in those novels still resonate in today’s society. I’m not saying that that isn’t the case with the fantasy books in the Top 10, but one novel calls out “America” to me whenever I think about the title. And, that book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

First published in 1960, during the American Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout and her family who are living in Alabama during The Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel illustrates the loss of innocence Scout and her brother, Jem, experience when their father, Atticus—a lawyer, defends a disabled black man accused of raping a white woman. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been said to be a literary response to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till’s murder sparked outrage nationwide, and was the event that would eventually lead to the start Civil Rights Movement.

Over 60 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains on school reading lists and is listed as an “American Classic.” Personally, I believe this novel has just as many life lessons and memorable characters such as Aslan from Narnia, Gandalf from Middle-earth, Professor Dumbledore from Hogwarts, and Charlotte from Zuckerman’s Farm. As someone who grew up during the publication of the Harry Potter books while old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the former books to be enjoyable and the latter book to be more thought provoking as I continue living in a changing United States.

Harper Lee does not shy away from the issues of race and class in her novel. In addition, she was not afraid of including the harsh reality of life that her child characters had to witness and to endure. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to teach readers of all ages that judging people based on their traits and not their appearances or their living situation is essential to being a good person. Yes, there are people who harm the innocent and get away with it, but treating people the way they deserve to be treated—with respect—goes a long way.

PBS’ “The Great American Read” allowed denizens in the U.S. to review what many people read and enjoy. The great thing about the special was that all genres of literature were considered. Furthermore, the special gave insight into which books, many which remain on school reading lists, are and remain popular by readers and non-readers alike.