Why You Need to Read: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

Wayward Children, #3: Beneath the Sugar Sky

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 9, 2018

Genre: Fantasy

            The Queen of Cakes would never have been defeated: Sumi had died before she could return to Confection and overthrow the government. Rini wasn’t just saving herself. She was saving a world, setting right what was on the verge of going wrong, (5: Places of the Living, Places of the Dead).

***NOTE: This review contains some spoilers from Every Heart A Doorway. That book should 

be read BEFORE reading this one. 

            Quests; adventures; journeys. Everyone is familiar with the numerous stories about “ordinary” people who leave home to go on a “hero’s quest” usually “to save the world.” Other journeys include a fellowship attempting to do the impossible, and most of them take place in different worlds. Stories about Narnia, Oz, Middle-earth and the gods involve quests. In fact, several video games such as Final Fantasy are about a group of individuals on an adventure to accomplish a goal. Seanan McGuire has her readers return to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children before they go on a quest, which is against the rules. Beneath the Sugar Sky, the 3rd book in the Wayward Children series, takes place after some time has passed after the events in Every Heart A Doorway

            Readers are reunited with the students from Eleanor West’s school: Kade, who is training to be the school’s next headmaster; Christopher, who is waiting for the Day of the Dead so his Door will appear, if it does; Cora, the school’s newest student, who was a mermaid; and, Nadya, one of the school’s longest residents, who talks to turtles. It is an ordinary day at school, until a girl wearing a cotton candy dress falls from the sky and into the turtle pond. The girl identifies herself as Onishi Rini, the daughter of Onishi Sumi, one of the students at the school. Rini claims she is from the future and she is searching for her mother—who disappeared from their home in Confection. There is one problem, Sumi is dead, which means she can’t have a daughter in the future, at least in our Logical world. However, Confection is NOT a Logical world, so there should be a loophole, right? Eleanor allows some of her students to go on a quest—which, is against the rules—”to put Sumi back together.” Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya travel with Rini on her quest bringing their knowledge and their skills as they attempt to do the impossible. Readers learn more about these characters, the worlds they call Home, and the worlds they travel to. Who else will they meet along the way?

            The plot in this story is straightforward. A few schoolmates are going to resurrect the dead friend with her future daughter leading the way. All they have to do is travel to the worlds where pieces of Sumi can be found so they can put her back together. Not too difficult right? Not to mention, with Sumi dead, Confection remains under control of a despot, who will do everything in her power to stop her nemesis from coming back to life. There is one subplot and it goes back to one of the plots from Every Heart A Doorway, which is the construction of the Great Compass. Kade, Christopher, Cora, Nadya and Rini all traveled to different worlds; and, those worlds are connected to each other somehow. As the students continue on their quest, they note which worlds are connected to each other, which serve as clues for the students who are trying to return Home. It seems like the Great Compass is forming into a larger map where one world has pathways to several other worlds. Someone just has to figure out a way to map them all out. The subplot develops alongside the plot as the characters note which Doors take them to which worlds. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of all of the travelers, but the focus is on Cora because she is the newest student. This means that the P.O.V. is 3rd person omniscient and the sequence is in the present as readers follow the events in “real time.” In addition, following the streams-of-consciousness of the characters make them reliable narrators that makes it easy to follow the story.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in this story reminds readers of the adventure stories they’ve read (and, probably continue to read). Throw in elements of hero’s quest stories from myths and legends and some Japanese pop culture and you have a story everyone can enjoy. Allusions to Orpheus, the Underworld, JRPGsSailor Moon and Back to the Future can be found throughout the story and are recognized by readers who are familiar with them. Additionally, the allusions to magic objects and other tropes from folklore could be viewed as foreshadowing for future books in the series and as evidence that magic exists in our world. The mood in this story is adventure. The students go on a quest to save their friend and her future and her Home. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it will be more fun than they’ve had in a long time. The tone in this story is fellowship. The students wouldn’t embark or assist in this quest if it wasn’t for the loyalty—both strong and fragile—they have for each other. They are not sure whether or not they will succeed in their quest, but they are willing to risk it all because of the friendship they share. There are illustrations in this book done by Rovina Cai. While they are few, they capture the essential parts of this quest, and the illustrations are beautiful.

            The appeal for Beneath the Sugar Sky have been positive. And yes, this novella was nominated for some of the literary awards its predecessors have won. However, fans of the series agree this book is a creative continuation about the lives of the students at the school. Readers learn through the characters that magic is brought over to Earth from other worlds, and the magic and the worlds are connected. This book is a portal-quest fantasy and it belongs in the fantasy canon alongside the other books in the series. This book can be read by fans of both Philip Pullman and Joseph Campbell. And, due to its connection to the first 2 books in Wayward Children, readers can and should reread all of the books in the series so they know how each book is related to each other. After reading all 3 books, they will be ready to read the next book in the series, In An Absent Dream

            Beneath the Sugar Sky is a sweet addition to the Wayward Children series. This book gives readers a quest with some of their favorite characters—both old and new—where they learn about them and some of the many worlds as they journey to save their friend. The author combines story elements from the past and the present in order to present this narrative to her fans. In all, this novella is a must read for fans of fantasy stories and of fantasy scholarship. 

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

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)!!!

End of 2020 Releases I’m Looking Forward to Reading

By some miracle, we survived to the end of September (2020). It seems that books and video games have managed to remain constant throughout the year—as in some delays and/or minimal postponement. I’m still working my way through my TBR pile as it continues to grow. Fall 2020—September-December—continues the unceasing releases within the literary world (not that I’m complaining). Here are some of the books being released between October and December 2020 I’m excited to read. 

            Please note, I haven’t listed all of the speculative fiction books that will be released by the end of 2020, just the ones I’m hoping to read. If some books are missing, then it’s because either they are part of a series which I haven’t read yet, or I am unaware of their upcoming release. 

Books I’ve Read

Between Earth and Sky #1, Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            For those of you who haven’t read my review of this book, you should read the book as soon as it’s released because this book doesn’t stop until its end. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book, you’ll realize that there will be a sequel, which will leave you asking: what else can happen? 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            If The Deep looks into the possibilities of the events surrounding the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Riot Baby is the potential of the future surrounding current racial events, then Ring Shout presents a horror story of the consequences of hatred and violence within a society. Since this is based on U.S. History—a subject that continues to be glossed over—readers can expect Jim Crow Laws, and KKK rallies and attacks in this novella. 

Books I am Reading

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This is the second book by Alix E. Harrow. So far, it’s an amazing follow up to The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This time the story follows three sisters who use their magic to obtain the right to vote. So far, I can say that this is a clever look into how misogyny and sexist practices can lead to a small rebellion demanding equality by using unconventional methods, and magic. 

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

            Finally, I’m reading a book by this acclaimed author. In this book, the protagonist is a recently divorced woman who moves into her uncle’s “museum,” only to locate a hidden passage inside the house. However, the length of the passage doesn’t equate to the perimeter of the museum, making her (and us) question as to where the passage leads to and whether or not anyone else knows about it. 

Books To Be Read

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

            Anyone who has read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is excited for this book. This book is a companion to Middlegame in that this is the book mentioned throughout the novel. Over the Woodward Wall is the book written by A. Deborah Baker in “code” for anyone who is interested in reaching The Impossible City. Think of it as a fictionalized version of The Secret: A Treasure Hunt.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

            There’s the “age-old” story that serves as a cautionary tale: immortality can be a lonely life. However, what if on top of living forever, no one will remember meeting you? Eternal loneliness is the ultimate sadness, but what if—by some miracle—someone remembers you? That miracle can blossom into the hope the protagonist needs in her immortal life. 

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

            There are a lot of books about witches and their magic that have been released in 2020. This book by C.L. Polk is the latest of them, as well as the author’s first standalone novel. In a world where women have to choose between magic and marriage, the protagonist seeks a way to have both. 

Eventide by Sarah Goodman

            This historical fantasy focuses on the Orphan Train and the superstitions within a small town. Sisters Lilah and Verity struggle to stay together after the death of their parents. Unfortunately, their family history and the dark forces within the town seek to destroy the siblings like it destroyed their parents. This YA novel is the author’s debut book. 

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

            Norse mythology continues to be a source of new fantasy stories, and this debut novel by the author is no different. This epic fantasy occurs when Christianity and Norse folklore clash constantly for dominance. The book follows several characters as they go on a quest to save their gods and Midgard. 

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

            The Rage of Dragons started off as an African-inspired military fantasy became something even more by the time readers reached the last quarter of the book. Tau has lost everything he’s cared about at the same time he’s given a promotion that would make anyone else happy. Unfortunately, all Tau has left is his rage. And, although the queen needs his skills to end the war, it’ll take more than anger to get Tau motivated again. What will it take to get him to fight again?

War Girls #2, Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War Girls is the realistic dystopian YA novel about the cost of war and how it can affect children before, during and, after a war. Tochi Onyebuchi empathized the emotions felt by his readers throughout the book, especially the ending. Rebel Sisters takes place 5 years after the events of the first book, which sees Ify returning home to Earth. Those of us who read the first book already know to expect our emotions to pour out onto the pages, again. 

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

            After the release of The Dragon Republic, R.F Kuang announced who Rin, the protagonist, is supposed to represent in this historical military grimdark fantasy. Wow! And, with the way Book 2 ended and what that means for everyone who survived those events, I can only imagine how this trilogy is going to end. The title alone gives a hint as to what readers can expect from this finale. I hope I’m right about this assumption. 

The Graven #1, Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

            Hostile aliens, smart ships and humans can be found in this science fiction story. This debut novel follows the protagonist after he loses everything—literally—when his planet is destroyed. On a quest for vengeance, he travels to the home of those who destroyed his planet. Along the way, he learns more about the universe.  

The Tide Child #2, Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

            The Bone Ships was my surprise book of 2019; and, since I’ve finish it, I’ve been excited to read the sequel. I don’t know whether or not the sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first book, but I know that the subplot continues in this book and it’s going to be very interesting. More voyages ahead for the readers!

Poison Wars #2, Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

            City of Lies is a great book about political conspiracies, history and folklore, and poisonous plants. Now, with the return of magic within the Empire, will it lead to something positive or to more treachery for the protagonists? We’ll have to wait and read what happens next. 

            Now, will I complete all of these books by the end of this year? Probably not. Yet, I’m aiming to read as many of these books as I can by December 31, 2020. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll finish reading them in 2021! Which books are you excited to read by the end of 2020?

Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            This year, the solstice will be marked by the rarest of celestial occurrences. As the year divides into old and new, so also will the earth, sun, and moon align in the Convergence. Over our very heads, we will witness order move to chaos and back to order again. So it is with the heavens, so it will be with Tova. We will bear witness to the cycle of evil rising in darkness to be battled back by goodness and light when the sun prevails, (Chapter 9). 

            Remember when I said that I read Trail of Lightning, the first book in The Sixth World series, because I wanted to determine for myself whether or not the author was as big of a deal as the speculative fiction genre community made her out to be? And, that the author’s book was worth reading? Well, if Trail of Lightning was part of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut—the other being her award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”—then, Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, cements her status as one of the must-read authors within the genre. 

            There are four protagonists in this novel. First, is Serapio, the son of an Obregi Lord and a foreigner. The foreigner is his mother, Saaya, who along with three others, prepare Serapio towards his destiny of his transcendence to godhood. Second, is Xiala, a female sea captain and an exile from the Teek tribe. She is hired to bring cargo to Tova, one of whom is Serapio. The two exiles form a friendship during their journey to Tova. Along the way, Xiala learns about Serapio and realizes that his magic is just as powerful and as lethal as hers. Third, is Naranpa, one of the four priests in Tova—and, the head of the oracle society. On top of all of her responsibilities, she must deal with several political conspiracies all at once, including: several assassination attempts on her life, rumors surrounding the death of one of the matrons to one of the four tribes, prophecies surrounding the return of the crow god, rumors of what is to come on the winter solstice, talks of revenge for an event of the past, and the plot to have her removed from her seat of power. With all of these political conspiracies surrounding her, Naranpa doesn’t know who to trust. This includes Iktan—head of the knife society—one of the other four priests and Naranpa’s friend. The fourth and final protagonist is Okoa, the son of the Carrion Crow matron and future leader of the Shield, a military troop who serve as the matron’s bodyguards. After his mother’s death, Okoa rises to his role. During the transition, he uncovers two conspiracies. One is about his mother’s death, and the other is about the cultists from his tribe who believe their god can be raised and returned to them so that past wrongs can be paid back through divine retribution. All of these protagonists are complex people who find themselves being responsible for a group of people, and their choices affect those around them and everything they care about. As “The Day of Convergence” approaches, each of the protagonists develop into the individuals their roles demand of them to the point where not even the secondary characters can divert them from their path. 

            The plot of this novel involves the events that lead up to “The Day of Convergence,” which falls on the winter solstice. The plot develops through each of the protagonists as they uncover the mystery of what is to occur on that day, and whether or not it can be prevented. Serapio travels to Tova in order to fulfill his destiny of becoming a god, as per his mother’s actions. Naranpa is doing everything she can to remain the Sun Priest of the Celestial Tower while uncovering a plot of revenge against the Faith for a treacherous transgression from the past which left hundreds dead. Okoa is trying to unravel the events that led up to his mother’s death while trying to shake off the unwanted attention of his tribe’s cultist group. And, Xiala is trying to keep her powers in check while deciding whether or not to bring the apocalypse into Tova. While these appear to be four separate plots, they converge into one unforgettable moment when all of the protagonists must decide on acting on their destiny, or doing the right thing. There are two subplots within this novel which not only explains the plots, but also the motivations for the actions that take place at the novel’s end. The first one is vengeance. Vengeance, while mentioned from time-to-time, plays a large role in the story. Usually, the reason for an act of revenge depends on those who want it; but, in this case, everyone is expecting it. It all depends on who is involved and when the act will be carried out. The second subplot involves religion and magic. Similar to our world and other fantasy worlds, there are a few religions, each with its own rituals and practices. Some of this involves magic and how those in the out-group view that magic as opposed to their magic. Some of it is accepted, some are based in superstition, and a lot of it is forbidden; yet, it is all real and powerful, especially when done correctly. These subplots play a huge role in the plot development and must not be overlooked by the reader(s).

            The narratives are told from the points-of-view of the four protagonists. And, they are in third-person limited, which means readers know only what each protagonist is thinking and is experiencing at one time. Even when two characters are together, we are limited only to one character’s P.O.V. The sequence of the narration jumps back-and-forth from the start of Serapio’s transcendence to “The Day of Convergence” to the aftermath. While the sequence might come off as confusing, it is not because readers learn of all of the essential events leading up to the winter solstice from multiple P.O.V.s. So, while the narration moves from past to present, it follows a stream-of-consciousness of each protagonist so that we gain a better understanding of them, their culture, and their motivation of their actions. This presents the readers with a reliable narration (from each protagonist) that can be followed easily.

            The style Rebecca Roanhorse uses for her new series is amazing and informative. Once again, she draws on inspiration from her Native American heritage; but this time, the author draws on inspiration from Yucatec Mayan, Tewa, Polynesian and pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, many of which continues to be glossed over in school curriculums worldwide. Some of what I recall of ancient pre-Columbian societies (i.e. Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.) involve rituals and ceremonies to the gods, and their calendar, which was accurate. History and folklore aside, the use of foreshadowing and of characterization enhances the story to the point where readers known what is going to happen and why, and that there was no way to prevent the events from happening. By the time everything is revealed, the protagonists have made their decisions, and what is going to happen, happens. This leaves the reader(s) stunned, yet anticipating what will happen next during the aftermath of those events. It’s a shocking and an impressive move by the author. The mood in this novel is preparation. Everything that happens in this novel revolves on the winter solstice. To many, the day marks a celebration. To the protagonists and the other characters involved, it’s a day of dread, retribution, and change. The tone of the novel is fate. Without getting into too many spoilers, two of the protagonists were predestined to be part of “The Day of Convergence,” but an argument can be made that they could have chosen to resist that fate at any given time before that day. In fact, the choices of the other two protagonists should be noted as well because they all have no choice but to live with the decisions they make leading up to the winter solstice. I read an eARC of this book, and it did NOT come with any maps of the setting. Luckily, Rebecca Roanhorse provided some of the maps through Tor.com, which made picturing the mentioned towns and the distance between the cities easier.

            The appeal for Black Sun is already positive. So far, literary critics and other authors have praised Rebecca Roanhorse for the story she has written. Fans of the author’s urban fantasy series will be impressed with how the author can fuse her heritage into one story of the past and another story of the future. Not to mention that this book is an amazing addition to the fantasy canon, and will leave readers anticipating the second book in this series. Fans of historical and/or mythological fantasy—Tasha Suri, S.A. Chakraborty, Evan Winter and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—should read this book as soon as they are able to, they will enjoy it a lot.

            Black Sun is proof that Rebecca Roanhorse can weave her talent and her heritage into powerful stories over and over again. If you need a reason to read one of her books, or if you want to read a fantasy series that will take your expectations to another level, then you really should read this book. It has everything from magic and prophecies to political power struggle based on a moment in human history, in which it all could have happened, but its setting is a fantasy world. I don’t know about you, but while I’m waiting for Book 2 of this series, I’ll be reading Storm of Locusts, Book 2 in the author’s other series. Enjoy!      

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

Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

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

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books I’ve Finished:

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

     by Sarah Kozloff

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

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

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

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

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

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

Books I’m Currently Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

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

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

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

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

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

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

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

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

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

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

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

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

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

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

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Rage of Dragons”

The Burning #1: The Rage of Dragons

By: Evan Winters                                               Audiobook: 16 hours, 15 minutes

Published: July 16, 2019                                    Narrated by: Prentice Onayemi

Genre: Fantasy/Military/Historical Fiction/Folklore

            And if Tau didn’t feel better, it had to be because there was still so much to do. He needed to go to Kigambe and test to become an Ihashe. Then he’d have military status and the right to blood-duel anyone in the Chosen military. The old law was the only way a Lesser could kill a Noble with impunity, (Chapter Three, Fallen).

            2019 was an amazing year for debut authors, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Without listing all of the names of the authors who helped elevate the genre with their stories, some of them are using “older,” “classic,” and “overused” tropes in the genre. However, just like how other authors such as: George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Brandon Sanderson have written their stories mixing “classic” tropes with “unexpected, but believable” twists. Evan Winter is the latest author to incorporate this sort of narrative into his stories. The Rage of Dragons—the first book in The Burning Series—is an African-inspired epic fantasy story, which starts off with war, dragons and revenge, but grows into a rich tale with realistic characters, great world-building, and a believable society whose cultural and socioeconomical practices reflect those of our actual history. 

            Tau is the protagonist in this novel. He is an adolescent who is old enough to “Test” in order to enter the military of the Omehi, his tribe. He is the son of a High Common woman and a Lesser man (his mother ran off with Tau’s father, Aren, only to return to her family after Tau was born). Although tradition and status come from the mother—Tau’s surname is Tafari—Tau is raised and treated as his father’s son. Tau is very much aware of his place in life (servitude) and what his expectations are supposed to be (military life). However, Tau desires a simple life: land and a family with his crush, Zuri—a handmaiden. So, he comes up with a dangerous, yet practical way to gain those desires. Unfortunately, Tau never gets the chance to put his plan into action. Within one day, Tau loses all he holds dear to him and he must flee from his home before he is executed. From that day, Tau is consumed with anger and a new plan: to become an Ihashe warrior, the best one in living memory. After arriving in the capital—and barely surviving the Testing—Tau becomes an Ihashe Initiate and is placed in a Scale (or Unit) led by Umgondisi (Captain or General) Jayyed Ayim—a former adviser to the Guardian Council—who has a special interest in Tau and the other Initiates in his Scale. It is this moment when Tau decides to go by his father’s surname, Solarin. Throughout his training, Tau works harder than any other Initiate, honing his growing anger into his weapons training. He is not alone during the training. He is accompanied by: Hadith, who is known for his strategic planning; Uduak, a huge Initiate who is more aware of Tau’s anger than anyone else; and, Zuri, an Initiate of the Gifted—a female whose powers can call dragons. Throughout the novel, Tau becomes the warrior he wants to be and gets closer and closer to his goal towards vengeance. However, Tau’s anger remains within him and he lacks both an outlet and a support system for his grief and his anger. His companions keep him grounded, but how long will these characters stand with Tau knowing his anger can burst into a fit of rage at any moment? 

            The plot of this novel is Tau’s path to take revenge on those who left him with nothing. As much as this sounds like the trope of “the son getting revenge for his father’s death,” Tau neither finds a mentor nor finds companionship within his Scale. Instead, Tau isolates himself as much as possible from other people and focuses on his training instead of his raging emotions and how those could affect his fighting techniques while doing drills with his Scale. Some readers will notice that Tau’s method of dealing with his emotions can lead Tau to having a mental breakdown. There are two main subplots in this novel. The first one is Tau’s training. The author is not only writing a story about one’s path towards vengeance, but also a fantasy story which is influenced heavily in military history and strategy. As Tau goes through his training, both Tau and the readers learn about fighting stances, strategic planning and battle formations, all of which are practiced and exercised over and over throughout the narrative. This subplot serves as a device for time. It’s going to take years for Tau to become the warrior he wants to become, and the length of training all of the Initiates undergo makes the story more realistic. The second subplot is the division between the Omehi and the Xiddeen, and between the Nobles and the Lessers of the Omehi. For almost 200 years (and since the Omehi landed on the beach), both the Omehi and the Xiddeen have been at war. Recent events have caused rumors of a potential truce between the two warring tribes. However, after fighting for generations, what other lifestyle could await the armies? Will they lose their purpose? As for the division between the Nobles and the Lessers, Tau is proof that such unions are possible. Socioeconomic status is a constant universal issue and theme in human history and culture. When the truce promises to bring an end to the division between Lessers and Nobles, which group from which tribe will rebel and which one will comply? These subplots are necessary for the plot because they embellish the world-building in the story and remind readers of Tau’s initial reasons for joining the army. The plot develops at an appropriate pace; and, the subplots are necessary for the plot because they are “breaks” from the military aspect of the story which are as severe as the issues on the Homefront. 

            The narrative is told in first person point-of-view in present time. With the exception of the prologue, the epilogue, and a handful of chapters in between, the narrative is told from Tau’s viewpoint. Tau’s hardships, training and motivations are written in sequence with his stream-of-consciousness so that readers know what he is thinking and experiencing with his actions, concurrently. The change of characters’ P.O.V. demonstrate not only how Tau presents himself to those around him, but also presents the conflicts the other characters are dealing with at the same time (hint: they’re based on the subplots). While Tau is a ticking timebomb, he is a reliable narrator. The narrative is well-written—even with the jumps in the P.O.V.s—and they can be followed by the readers. 

            The style Evan Winter uses in his novel focuses on the history of violence between two conflicting sides. The use of power, strength and abilities in the author’s writing is part of his central theme of violence. Yes, this story is influenced by African history and folklore, but the violence and the emotions can originate from any individual throughout the world past and present. The military aspect of the story will remind readers that this is an epic military fantasy, not just a story containing traditional fantasy tropes. The mood in The Rage of Dragons is one of anger and warfare which is expressed and reflected amongst all of the characters in the author’s world. The tone is how the elements that make up the mood are dealt with by these characters; should they find a truce or submit to their unstable emotions and desires? The mood matches the tone in the themes of war, violence and division. 

            The appeal for The Rage of Dragons have been positive. The debut novel has been called “one of the best fantasy books of 2019” by several critics. And, it was one of my favorite speculative books of 2019! Any readers who are fans of world-building, magic and dragons will enjoy this book. Fans of military fantasy will enjoy this story, too. I listened to the audiobook of this novel and Prentice Onayemi’s performance and narration was the best choice for this book. This is because both his accent and his pronunciation of the words and the terminology made the story more realistic. It does take some getting used to, but the audiobook is worth listening to. There are some concerns by a few readers about the use of “worn out fantasy tropes.” My answer to that is Tau’s story starts down that route, but the focus shifts towards something else, which foreshadows future events forthcoming in the sequel, The Fires of Vengeance. Only Evan Winter knows which tropes he’ll stick with and which ones he’ll twist. 

            The Rage of Dragons is the latest work of fantasy that combines dragons with African influences. What starts off as a trope for one individual’s vengeance evolves into a military story about the struggles for power and the purpose of war. The idea that war can be used for world-building is nothing new. However, the emotional toll of the training and the fighting in a war within a corrupted society containing dragons will remind fantasy fans of one or two popular series. That being said, Evan Winter gifted fantasy fans with an action-packed military tale that should not be missed. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).