Why You Need to Read: “Ring Shout”

Ring Shout

By: P. Djèlí Clark

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Horror/Folklore/Supernatural/Historical Fiction

Thank you Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book.

            “The Birth of a Nation” had delivered all the souls they needed to stir up them old evil powers. Across the country, white folk who ain’t even heard of the Klans surrendered to the spell of them moving pictures. Got them believing the Klans the true heroes of the South, and colored people the monsters, (TWO). 

            They are one of the most infamous groups in modern society; yet, for some reason, American society fails to call them what they are: a hate group. The Ku Klux Klan emerged during the Reconstruction Era and sought destruction, especially against several Black American communities throughout the U.S., particularly in the South. While their white hoods presented and hid their identities, the freed slaves had a new fear, and they weren’t from their folklore, but from actual fears which manifested. P. Djèlí Clark combines two fears—the known and the unknown—into his latest novella, Ring Shout

            Maryse Boudreaux is a 25-year-old monster hunter. However, she and her companions have “The Sight” so that they can distinguish one monster—the Klan—from the other one—the Ku Kluxes. To everyone else, they are one and the same, but Maryse and the other monster hunters know better. There is Sadie, the best shooter in the group; and, Chef, a war veteran who has a talent for explosives. Nana Jean is a Gullah woman who uses her skills to offer protection from the Ku Kluxes. And, Michael George, the man who provides Maryse with reprieve from and motivation for fighting. Then, there are Aunties Jadine, Ondine and Margaret, “spirits” who guide Maryse on her quest to eradicate the Ku Kluxes, including gifting her with the sword she uses throughout the war against the supernatural threat. Maryse has her reasons for hunting the Ku Kluxes, but she cannot grasp how far these monsters are willing to go for domination. And, who is conjuring them? The revelation pushes her to make “deals” so that she and her companions have a chance to survive. Maryse is a fighter, but she knows all too well that she cannot do it alone. Her companions allow her to develop into the person she must become in order to defeat this threat. 

            The plot is straightforward. It is July 1922, 7 years after The Birth of a Nation was released, and 4 years since the Great War (a.k.a. World War I) ended; and, there is to be a re-release of the film in Stone Mountain, Georgia. What many people—White and Colored—do NOT know is that the movie is based on a book written by a sorcerer. The sorcerer uses moving pictures in order to conjure a spell so that evil beings can be summoned and walk amongst humanity. The cost: human souls. The Klan offered their souls and became Ku Kluxes, which go on to terrorize Colored people. So, monster hunters—consisting of a group of Colored people with “The Sight”—continue to fight them off after the Ku Kluxes make their return to power. The storyline within this plot is how the characters fight, live, and survive during these trying times where a force of evil—which is fueled by hatred—is unseen by almost everyone. It is the subplot that drives the plot in this book. The subplot focuses on the Black American Experience during the 1920s, and it is not an easy time for them. In addition to fighting the supernatural, the characters have to maintain their way of life while remaining segregated. Jim Crow laws and lynchings are a common and an everyday practice. Combined, both the subplot and the storyline allows for the plot to develop an appropriate rate. 

            The narrative is told from the point-of-view of Maryse. The sequence is a combination of stream-of-consciousness and flashback, which are necessary for the story. The events and the sequence occur in the present. However, it is the dialogue (and the dialect) of the characters that will keep the readers engaged throughout the narrative. 

            The style P. Djèlí Clark uses in Ring Shout includes allusion, history and folklore. The history is obvious to anyone who is familiar with (actual) American history and Southern culture. The allusion refers to historical moments such as: Prohibition, the reemergence of the KKK, the construction of the Panama Canal, the Black Wallstreet Massacre, etc. Yet, it is the folklore that influences the story. The mention of fairy tales as cautionary tales are mentioned throughout this book (i.e. Bruh Rabbit, eating strange food, sharing stories, etc.) and drive the story in a way so that both the characters and the readers are familiar with all of the story’s ongoings. Another factor the author wants his audience to consider are the similarities between Black American and Caribbean cultures, particularly the practices of the Gullah and the Obeah. The mood in Ring Shout is hatred; and, the tone within this book is manipulation (for power using hatred). Readers should know that the book’s cover is essential to the events which occur towards the end of the story. 

            The appeal for Ring Shout will be positive. This is because the author does a great job fusing fear and hatred with folklore and dark magic. The former are human emotions which often lead to harm, while the latter are elements of several cultures that are believed and are practiced. Fans of horror, paranormal and supernatural stories will enjoy this story. Fans of recent and related novellas such as The Deep by Rivers Solomon and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi will appreciate the continuation of the Black American experience being told blatantly and directly in the speculative fiction genre. However, Ring Shout will be canonized alongside The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson in the horror genre. This book can be read again and again, and it is a great addition to the genre. It should be mentioned that this book can be read and enjoyed by historians and folklorists as well due to the information written into the pages of the story.

             Ring Shout is a brilliant horror and supernatural story which will force you to recall all of the “stories” and the “magic” you’ve been exposed to throughout your life as you try to come up with an explanation for “the unknown.” Once again, P. Djèlí Clark has found a way to present readers with a story combining history and folklore into a believable, yet scary, tale that serves as a cautionary tale against hatred and sorcery. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Name of All Things”

A Chorus of Dragons #2: The Name of All Things

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       Audiobook: 25 hours 46 minutes

Published: October 29, 2019                                        Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld, Dan

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                   Bittner, Lauren Fortgang

                                                      

            In the twentieth year of the hawk and the lion, beneath the silver sword, the sleeping beast’s prison shatters. The dragon of swords devours demon falls as night takes the land, (61: Under The Waters). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting method of maintaining the attention of an audience, etc. Narratives in all formats—oral stories, books, movies, TV shows, and video games—continue to use this method of storytelling in order to let the audience know when one part of the story ends and when another begins, or to continue the action and/or the pacing of a story where it left off. In the case of Jenn Lyon’s A Chorus of Dragons series (not a trilogy, but will be 5 books), readers get both and so much more in Book 2: The Name of All Things.

            The protagonist in this story is Janel Theranon, a noblewoman from Jorat (a dominion in the Quuros Empire). She has been looking for Kihrin D’Mon since their first meeting, which was during the events involving Kihrin, his family, and the Emperor. Unfortunately, Kihrin doesn’t remember meeting Janel—with good reason—but, Janel doesn’t hold that against him. Ironically, the two outlaw nobles have been searching for each other without knowing where to locate the other one. Janel had lived a simple life as the granddaughter and heir of Count Jarin of Tolamer. She identifies herself as a “stallion,” or a Joratese whose gender—not sex—and gender expression is male. After an attack on her home and the citizens, Janel masquerades as “The Black Knight” in order to bring the culprits to justice. Instead, Janel’s true identity is revealed and she is sent on a quest to find a mystical spear so she can kill a dragon. Accompanying Janel is her friend, Brother Qown, who is a chronicler. The two friends have a long and arduous journey in locating Kihrin and the spear. Janel is from Jorat, a dominion known for its horses, and she was raised to become the next Count of Tolamer. Janel is smart, headstrong and combative, and she is known for her fighting skills and her willingness to protect her people. 

            The plot in The Name of All Things has four parts. Part I introduces Kihrin (and readers) to Janel’s life as a Count and the first of the events which caused her to leave Tolamer. Part II has Janel learning about her heritage, her abilities, and about “The Name of All Things,” another one of the eight Cornerstones. Not to mention, Janel meets and puts up with Relos Var. Part III has Janel reciting prophecies while surviving captivity without her abilities and while “conforming” to her opposing gender. Part IV brings all of the events back to the present and has Kihrin and Janel fulfilling prophecies whether or not they want to do so. The plot delves into Janel’s life, especially after it’s been uprooted, which takes place at the same time Kihrin’s life was upended. This is essential to know because this lets the protagonists (and the readers) know that more was happening throughout the Quuros Empire, and it seems that Relos Var is the central figure. The subplots include Armageddon, and the quest for magical artifacts and mystical weapons, which is familiar to readers. Another subplot is the idea of gender and its practices in Jorat. While gender is binary amongst the Joratese (and in our reality), it is NOT determined based on genitalia, but on the societal role and how each individual expresses their gender. These subplots are necessary in order to keep the plot going at an appropriate rate and they keep the narrative going as well. Just like Kihrin, Janel has a role to carryout for a prophecy, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. 

            Once again, the narrative jumps between the past and the present, with 3 different narrators. Kihrin serves as the narrator for the present mostly because he’s the person everyone is looking for. The flashbacks of events are told from the points-of-view of both Janel Theranon and Brother Qown. It is important to know while both of these characters are recounting the experiences to Kihrin, Brother Qown is a chronicler, so most of his recounts have been written down already (probably). This means he’s writing down Janel’s experiences as they overlap his in order to provide a complete story. Remember, someone else is reading this completed chronicle. The world-building comes from Janel’s P.O.V. as she explains Joratese culture, magic, and the events that occurred while Kihrin was with the Black Brotherhood, and there is a lot. We learn more about Relos Var, and about a few recurring characters both new and old. The narrative can be followed and this is because the audience (remember the reader) knows the narrator(s) is reliable. Given everything that’s happened so far, it seems to be the only choice.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Name of All Things follows the method of chronicles. Early written narratives were written down in order to include as many details as possible. In other words, whatever was said by the oral storyteller was written down by a chronicler. Early epic stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid were told orally and then written down, so however the length of the story was determined by the oral variant. A recent example of this style within a fantasy novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A chronicler is writing the story of the protagonist as it is being told to him, so the length is determined by how much the storyteller is willing to say to the chronicler. The mood in The Name of All Things is hostility and chaos. The former is due to the demons and the dragons set loose within the Empire, and the latter is due to how and why Kihrin had to flee the Capital. The tone is motivation after enduring traumatic events. We know Kihrin’s story and we learn Janel’s. Both leave us with questions and admiration for them being able to continue living their lives, even if it is as fugitives. Please note: the maps, the Foreword, and the Appendices are essential for the reading of this book.  

            The appeal for this book have been positive. There are many readers who enjoyed The Name of All Things just as much or more than The Ruin of Kings. This series continues to explore the tropes of prophecies and the ideas and the origins regarding them. Plus, Jenn Lyons does an excellent job incorporating the themes of gender—not sex and sexual orientation—into her story. This is a reflection of the reality in fiction in that the concept of gender is more complex and more fluid than it being binary. The world-building is done in a way where readers know another character from a different region within the same country/empire is the focus. Not to mention, we get an update on what happened to some of the minor characters from the first book. Once again, I listened to the audiobook, and this time, there were 3 new narrators. It took some time getting used to the “new voice” for Kihrin, but after telling myself that Kihrin is supposed to sound “more mature,” it made the listening experience go smoothly. Saskia Maarleveld, Dan Bittner, and Lauren Fortgang keeps the narrative going at a good pace, and keeps the listeners engaged in the story. The cliffhanger at the end will have fans excited for The Memory of Souls, which is the third book in a 5-book series and NOT the third and final book in a trilogy as I stated in my review for The Ruin of Kings. Remember, authors will answer your questions. The Memory of Souls will be released in August 2020.

            The Name of All Things is an achievement in world-building and in overlapping narratives. The characters remain as engaging as before, the dragons and the magic remain deadly, and the immortals are in it for themselves. Not to mention, the world won’t end due to just one prophecy. I’m looking forward to reading what happens in the next book, and I know the chaos will continue to grow.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Ruin of Kings”

A Chorus of Dragons #1: The Ruin of Kings

By: Jenn Lyons                                                    Audiobook: 27 hours 22 minutes

Published: February 5, 2019                          Narrated by: Feodor Chin, Vikas 

Genre: Fantasy                                                               Adam, Soneela Nankani

            There’s a prophecy. Actually no, it’s more like a thousand prophecies. It’s the collected rantings of a thousand people…the prophecies refer to an end time, a great cataclysm, when a single man of vast evil will rise up. The “Hellwarrior” will conquer the Manol, strip vane of our immortality, kill the Emperor, destroy the Empire of Quur, and free the demons. In his right hand he will hold Urthaenriel, and with his left, he will crush the world and remake it as he desires, (29: Teraeth’s Return, Kihrin’s story). 

            There are times when books are released to critical acclaim and maintain buzzworthy feedback, which piques a reader’s curiosity. While I was unsure whether or not the debut novel, The Ruin of Kings—the first book in A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, would meet my expectations, I was curious about the hype surrounding this book. I guess “the powers that be” wanted me to read Jenn Lyon’s book because I received the hardcopy as a prize in a drawing, the eBook for free, and the audiobook through my subscription. So, I read this book through audiobook and immediately, I understood what all of the attention was about. 

            The protagonist is Kihrin, the son of a minstrel who spends more time getting into mischief for his thievery and fighting than practicing his harp. After one of his heists, it looks as if Kihrin is about to profit from his work, when a demon manifests in the city and chases him through the streets of Quur. After being saved by the city watch, it is revealed to him—because of his physical attributes—that he is the lost heir of House D’Mon, one of the 12 Royal Houses of the Quur Empire. Claimed against his will into a life he doesn’t want, Kihrin learns quickly that being a noble is not as worthwhile as the tales and other people make it out to be. At the same time, Kihrin suspects that a few members of his new family might be up to no good. However, before he can escape, Kihrin is kidnapped and sold to the Black Brotherhood as a slave. Yet, this organization isn’t interested in keeping him as a slave, but wants to train him to be an assassin in order to fulfill his destiny in the war to come. Kihrin’s story is a twisted bildungsroman about a 15-year-old boy who is forced to grow up under arduous conditions in a hostile environment with people who refuse to reveal his identity to him. Kihrin develops into an adult whose complexity leaves him with more questions than answers; but, the other characters he meets and interacts with along the way give him hints to his (true) identity.

            The plot in this novel has two parts. The first is Kihrin’s life from his latest thief to his kidnapping, and in between is the time he spent living as a member of a Royal House and what transpired there. The second part is Kihrin’s capture, auction and imprisonment with the Black Brotherhood and everything that happened to him with them. Both plots reveal the two identities which were kept from Kihrin in order to keep him safe. Unfortunately, recent events brought an end to Kihrin’s carefree life. This is because the subplot—events which will lead up to the end-of-the-world—has begun and Kihrin is one of the many who can put an end to this upcoming and inevitable event. However, no one knows which part Kihrin is supposed to play within the prophecy. The subplot is crucial to the two parts of the plot because it is the reason why everything happens to Kihrin and it becomes the focal point of the series. 

            The narrative is what garners the most attention. The novel has two parts, which presents various moments of the occurrences throughout the Empire of Quur. Part I is told in the past tense, but with two different narrators reciting two different timelines. Kihrin begins his narration from when he was sold to the Black Brotherhood and all of the events, which happened right up to his imprisonment in jail. The second narrator—and fellow jailer—is Talon, a woman with shapeshifting abilities, among other powers, who knows A LOT about Kihrin from the jewels he stole that night, to his “return” to the D’Mon family, to his kidnapping. Talon, tells Kihrin’s story to him from her point-of-view (3rd person) and Kihrin tells his story from his point-of-view (1st person). Both of these narratives are told in flashback and they introduce the readers—and the chronicler who is the intended audience of this story (read the footnotes!)—to all of the characters Kihrin interacted with: Ola, Galen, Tyentso, and several more characters who navigate Kihrin’s life and the decisions he makes throughout the narrative. At the same time, the world-building occurs from these narrations as the audience learns about the world the author created, its history and society—including immortals, magic and jewels—how it relates to Kihrin’s predicament and how it all relates to the end-of-the-world. The world-building will keep the interest of the reader, with help from the Appendums. In Part I, Talon forces Kihrin to tell the truth and everything that happened to him up to his imprisonment, and Talon does the same for Kihrin, which angers him to no end. Due to this “creative method” of blackmailing, both Kihrin and Talon are reliable narrators through their recounting of events. Part II focuses on the first wave of cataclysmic events, which set off the prophecies about the end-of-the-world. It is here when the narration moves to present tense and the point-of-view switches between the characters who’ve become “players” in this part of the apocalypse, including Kihrin, a few members of the Black Brotherhood, and Kihrin’s family. Part II is told in 3rd person omniscient, which provides all of the action everywhere from all of the characters P.O.V.s. Here, the narration is reliable, too. The readers receive a full account of everything that led up to the end, and the stream-of-consciousness the author provides for all of her characters enriches the story so that it can be followed by the readers.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Ruin of Kings is the concept of oral tradition. Instead of one character providing an oral account of his story, the author inserted a second storyteller so that no detail would be omitted by the first one. Oral tradition typically results in changes to a narrative either through voluntary omission, or lack of knowledge of any kind by the storyteller (in this case, not being able to be two places at once). Here, the author found a way for the entire narration to be told orally. This is similar to how epic stories such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgameshwere passed down before being written down by scribes and chroniclers, and that is the style presented to the readers: two oral storytellers and one chronicler. The mood in The Ruin of Kings is imprisonment whether or not it comes from an individual’s identity, social status, or role in a prophecy, all of these elements put a restriction to one’s freedom, especially choice. The tone is how those individuals deal with their imprisonment and what choices (if few) they make when given the opportunity to make them; and, what happens when those individuals are no longer imprisoned and what that means for everyone else. Once again, both the maps and the appendums are a huge help to reading this book.  

            The appeal for The Ruin of Kings have been positive. Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire series and the Book of the Ancestor trilogy will enjoy this book the most. This is because both the character motivation and the idea of how prophecy is not straightforward are themes that are reflected in this novel. Jenn Lyons lets her protagonist learn the hard way that the tropes of long-lost heirs and prophetic heroes are nothing but embellishments to make such stories sound more appealing to everyone else. The one experiencing it has it the worse and gets to decide how the story will be told to everyone else; and, Kihrin almost makes the same mistake about his story, almost. This book was one of my selections for best speculative fiction books of 2019. The second book in this trilogy, The Name of All Things, was released in October 2019 with readers claiming it was better than the first book. And, the final book in the A Chorus of Dragons trilogy, The Memory of Souls, will be released in August 2020. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his trilogy!

            The audiobook experience was different this time because there were three narrators instead of the usual one. Yet, having three different voices for the three different characters who are telling the story—Kihrin, Talon and the chronicler—clue the listeners in as to who is telling the story at that moment. And, it keeps the listener(s) from tuning out of the story. Feodor Chin, Vikas Adam and Soneela Nankani voice the characters in a way that one can picture the voice matching those characters perfectly; they speak the way I imagine those characters sounding if they were real people. 

            The Ruin of Kings is an ambitious start to a new epic fantasy series, which present the harsh realities surrounding royalty, magic and prophecies. Within these twisted tropes is a story about a young man who had all of his choices taken away from him, yet he strives to protect everything he cares about, even if destiny says otherwise. Jenn Lyon’s story contains complex characters and a world whose history and culture is as complex yet constant as ours. This novel is like the story it tells, simple at first, and then drops you into the story “in media res.”

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “Vita Nostra”

Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra

By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.

Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman 

Winner of the PocKoH 2008

Vita nostra brevis est,                                                 Our life is brief,

Brevi finietur;                                                             Soon it will end;

Venit mors velociter,                                                   Death comes quickly,

Rarit nos atrociter,                                                     Snatches us cruelly,

Nemini parcetur!                                                        No one is spared!

                                                                                                                       (Part One).

            I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible. 

            Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute. 

            The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors. 

            The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.  

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre. 

            Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!

            Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions! 

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction

Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism

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).