Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Juice Like Wounds”

Wayward Children, #4.5: Juice Like Wounds

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: July 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Short Story

***This short story can be read for free here on Tor.com.

            They walked west, the three girls: Lundy with her knife, Mockery with her spear, and Moon with her sling. And when the trees loomed before them like the walls of heaven, they exchanged a look but not a word, ducked their heads, and stepped into the darkness.

            This short story is NOT an interlude, but an expansion on Lundy’s first “trip” to the Goblin Market. So, you need to read In An Absent Dream before reading this story. Juice Like Wounds explains why Lundy decided to return to her parents after her first trip to the Goblin Market. 

            Lundy is 8-years-old and is learning how the world of the Goblin Market operates. She has made a deal to stay with the Archivist, whose library Lundy has access to. This means Lundy has been able to read upon the world’s history. And, Lundy is hanging out with her new friends: Moon and Mockery. This is the first time Lundy has had friends, and she is about to lose one of them. Just like Lundy, Moon and Mockery are from other worlds who ended up in the Goblin Market and find themselves happy to be there. This trio of travelers decide to slay a monster in order to retrieve back what was once stolen. 

            The plot is simple: children go on an adventure so they can become heroes. Unfortunately, they are too young to understand adventures don’t always have happy endings. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first one is a further explanation of the world of the Goblin Market. There is more there than the Market, and Lundy and her friends want to learn more about it. The second subplot revolves around Mockery. Readers learn who she was, what happened to her, and her relevance to Lundy’s story. Both subplots are necessary for the plot, and the development of the characters. 

            The narrative in this short story is a continuation of Lundy’s first visit to the Goblin Market, which ended with blood and death. The points-of-view are those of Lundy, Moon and Mockery, and the Archivist, which makes it 3rd person omniscient. The sequence is of the past, and told in the past tense. Readers follow the streams-of-consciousness of the protagonists, and given what happens to them, it is fair to say the narrators are reliable.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses for Juice Like Wounds is a continuation of what she used in In An Absent Dream. The reference to Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti comes up again because the poem mentions a 3rd girl who died after buying and eating fruit from the goblins. Seanan McGuire goes further with her cautionary tale and mentions not only Mockery, but also Zorah—another young visitor to the Goblin Market who no longer lives there. This short story is the first of many cautionary tales about “fair value,” which goes over Lundy’s head. While the Wasp Queen could be a figure of foreshadowing, the story is about Lundy and the Archivist in equal measure. 

            Fans of Wayward Children will enjoy this short story. Juice Like Wounds lets readers know what Lundy was up to during her first visit to the Goblin Market and why she was so eager to return to her parents afterwards. It is unfortunate Lundy never understood the reason why Mockery died although hints were left throughout In An Absent Dream for her to pick up on—Lundy never forgot about Mockery; she just didn’t know what her death signified. 

            Juice Like Wounds is a short story which serves as a cautionary tale as readers travel back with Lundy to the Goblin Market. Seanan McGuire answers the question: who was Mockery? in this expansion of In An Absent Dream. I hope the author has similar stories for future releases because I have some questions about other characters I would enjoy reading in similar format. I know other fans of the Wayward Children series feel the same way.

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

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)!!!

Review of Season One of “His Dark Materials”

Season one of His Dark Materials, based on The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman has completed its run on the BBC and on HBO, and they didn’t alter the ending! Overall, season one was a great adaptation to the books and some of the “fillers” worked well for the narrative that was presented to the audience. Readers got to enjoy scenes that were denied to them from the 2007 movie and viewers were able to grasp the demeanor of all of the characters thanks to both the actors’ portrayals of the characters and the “fillers” which were added for additional context. 

            It should be mentioned that the TV mini-series was a better adaptation than the movie, but this is due to the fact that neither the studios, nor the test audience (these are based on rumors, which have circulated over and over again) interfered with the editing of the series. The order of the events presented matched the way they occurred in the books, the “true” ending of season one ended the way it does in the books, and the revelations of what was happening to the missing children weren’t glossed over. Yes, the movie did get a lot of things right, and those were repeated in the series, but the TV series is more in tandem with the books.

            The issues I have with the series so far should be mentioned as well. First, is the aging up of some of the younger characters. Lyra, Roger, and Billy were all close to the age of the characters they portrayed (between 10 and 12 years-old), but Will Parry was aged up to 15 years-old (he’s around 12-13 years-old when readers first meet him). I want to say this was because of the age of the actor who is portraying Will, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not this is the case. Yes, there have been some cases in which the age of the character(s) have been altered due to the actors that play them, but there have been even more examples of when it’s happened because the studio(s) believe it’ll make the narrative “more believable.” If it’s the former, then I have no complaint; but if it’s the latter, then they should stop making it so obvious. 

            Next, were the ways the proximity of daemons were presented to the viewers. While in the books, it is unclear what the actual distance a human can be “away” from their daemon, it is clear that the proximity has to be very close in order for human and daemon to maintain their bond and their lives. However, there are moments when the proximity is unclear and that is due to the way some of daemons are presented. Sometimes they are far enough for the individual not to experience pain, and then they are so far away that you wonder whether or not they could be similar to a witch’s daemon. I hope the network and the studio corrects this misconception for season two because it became very confusing between each episode. 

            Last, was the way Dust is presented throughout the season. The mystery of Dust was portrayed better than the knowledge of it. The explanation provided in the season finale is straight from the books, but the “danger” of someone outside of Jordan College and the Magisterium having knowledge of what Dust is—which, was presented better in the movie—wasn’t demonstrated in the series the way it should have been, in my opinion. Then again, Dust is supposed to be remain a mystery throughout the series until the end. 

            Besides the casting and the special effects, there were several things that I enjoyed about season one from the titles of the episodes—based on chapters in the books—to the way the parental figures were portrayed in the series. Presenting both Mrs. Coulter and Mrs. Parry as “damaged” individuals who try to balance their demeanor with their desire to be mothers to their children was presented extremely well. The issue of succession and power amongst the panserbjørne and the Magisterium—which, are both essential to the plot of the story—were presented (with the details given throughout the books) with the hypocrisy immensely. And, the motives of Lord Asriel and his reasons for doing everything he does comes back full circle. Lord Asriel is what keeps the narrative moving along and the series makes sure that the viewers do not forget it. Yet, it was Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Mrs. Coulter that grasped the viewers’ attention the most. 

            Overall, season one of His Dark Materials was the adaptation fans of the books waited for patiently, and the wait was worth it. All of the details that were omitted from the 2007 movie were included, the pacing matched the books and were appropriate for a TV mini-series, and the inclusion of source material from other books in the Philip Pullman’s universe—both The Book of Dust and The Subtle Knife—enriched the narrative more than expected and it worked well for the audience, both readers and viewers. Season two was announced by the BBC (with HBO promising to continue showing the series in the U.S.), which is great because this news is what book fans have been waiting for the most! The adaptation of The Subtle Knife will not only continue Lyra’s story, but also continue the narrative from the multiple cliffhangers this time around. Yes, the books should be read, but knowing that the mini-series will continue makes book fans as excited as the viewers more than anyone else can imagine! 

If you want the reviews of each episode, then you can click on each of the episode titles below:

S1, Ep.1: Lyra’s Jordan

S1, Ep. 2: The Idea of North

S1, Ep. 3: The Spies

S1, Ep. 4: Armour

S1, Ep. 5: The Lost Boy

S1, Ep. 6: The Daemon-Cages

S1, Ep. 7: The Fight to the Death

S1, Ep. 8: Betrayal

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10! 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Betrayal”

The season finale of Season One begins with both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel—Lyra’s parents—preparing for what they’ve been planning for since the first episode. The former is planning to kill Lord Asriel under the orders of the Magisterium, and the latter is planning something that involves the aurora—a.k.a. the northern lights—and this involves his strange interest in Roger. 

            Lyra’s reunion and confrontation with her father does not go the way she wants it to go. Lord Asriel admits that he is Lyra’s father, but he’s not going to be the sort of father she wants him to be. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter admits that her abandoning Lyra was a mistake and she’s been trying to rectify it. Lyra goes from being an orphan to knowing she’s an abandoned child, and she doesn’t know how to deal with either the knowledge or the rejection of it. It is Roger who comforts her when she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings. Roger tells Lyra that they can “pretend to be orphans” again, knowing life for them has changed and things won’t ever be the same. 

            Lord Asriel makes the decision to explain to Lyra the purpose of his research and his reason for him being absent. The discussion of Dust and its origins comes from the novel. The Magisterium believes that Dust is Original Sin and that it begins to affect humans once they start puberty. Lyra begins to understand why the Magisterium conducted the experiments on the missing children, and Lord Asriel explains his beliefs on Dust and his discovery about the aurora and Dust—it can build a bridge between worlds. He asks Lyra if she wants to go with him, but Lyra has already decided to return to Jordan College with Roger. 

            Meanwhile, Lord Carlo Boreal continues his search for the Parrys and the letters. Will is hiding in town knowing that the police are looking for him because of the man he killed. What Will doesn’t know is that the reason he’s being tracked is because Lord Carlo Boreal is using the police to find him. It’s interesting how far the power of the Magisterium stretches across the worlds. Will manages to stay hidden, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he’s found, and he needs to hide somewhere where no one can find him. 

            Lyra wakes up when the Magisterium has arrived to arrest her father, but her father has already left taking Roger with him to the peak of the mountain. Lyra realizes that her father didn’t need the alethiometer, but Roger. Lord Asriel needed a child whose daemon hasn’t settled yet in order to use the energy from the bond to create a bridge. Similar to how Mrs. Coulter wouldn’t sacrifice Lyra to the intercision, Lord Asriel refused to sacrifice Lyra. This could be viewed as a twisted type of love parents have for their child.  

            Lyra rushes to save Roger. She dodges the Magisterium’s attacks thanks to Iorek Byrinison and the other panserbjørnes; however, not even Iorek can travel across the thin bands of ice. Lyra Silvertongue says goodbye to Iorek not knowing what will happen once she reaches the top. Pantalaimon tells Lyra that Roger is in a cage similar to the one at The Station and Lyra knows what her father plans to do. Unfortunately, she’s too late. Lord Asriel creates the bridge at the cost of the life of his daughter’s best friend. 

            Mrs. Coulter arrives too late as well, but she resists her orders to kill her former lover. Lord Asriel tells her of his plans to end the Magisterium and asks her to join him. It’s a brief, yet strange, reconciliation between Lyra’s parents (in which, Lyra witnesses firsthand in the book). However, Mrs. Coulter rejects Lord Asriel in order to stay with Lyra. Lyra regains consciousness in time to avoid her mother and she goes to say goodbye to Roger. Lyra decides that she needs to find Dust before her father and the Magisterium. At the same time, Will goes to the park, the same one where Lord Carlo Boreal travels from, where he finds a cat that disappears into thin air. Lyra and Will go through the bridges at the same time not knowing where they’ll end up. 

            Betrayal is an appropriate season finale because it wraps up all of the plots throughout the season going back to the events of the first episode. All of the questions asked from that first episode are answered. The deviation from the books works for this episode as well because it fits with the adaptation presented to us by the BBC and HBO. The only question left is “what happens next?” There will be a season two, which will be based on The Subtle Knife. Hopefully, the next season will continue to follow the darker tones left by season one.

My Rating: 9.0 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: Sink with California”

Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

This season finale is separated into two parts. One, being Marcus and his crew invading Chester’s stronghold in order to stop him and his crew, and to retrieve Chico’s body. And two, Master Lin running from the Cartel with his daughter in tow. Marcus’ storyline follows the graphic novels, while Master Lin’s storyline allows viewers and fans to learn more about the Headmaster’s convictions. 

Marcus and his friends—minus Willie—attack the house but learn quickly that Chester and his crew are formidable forces. The fight scenes and the dialogue are straight from the graphic novel. However, Chester’s monologue with his camcorder allows Marcus and viewers to learn more about him…before he dies. Chester reiterates how society is to blame for his actions and his lifestyle (the same B.S.); yet, Marcus tells him that’s no reason to take his frustrations on other people. Ironically, when Chester is killed by one of his “friendly” dogs, it is safe to say that Chester’s notions got him chewed up by his same philosophy. 

The fighting isn’t just between Marcus and Chester, Maria and Saya have some words and strikes against each other about their actions and feeling towards Marcus. Maria still hasn’t realized how much her friends are risking because of her actions. Saya—while admitting to sleeping with Marcus—feels she doesn’t have to explain herself to someone as selfish as Maria. While this sounds like typical adolescent girls fighting over a boy, it is important to know Saya and Maria were brought to King’s Dominion for a reason. Saya tells Maria that she still hasn’t figured out what she’s supposed to do and decides to leave Maria to figure it out by herself. But first, she and Marcus will have to escape the Cartel.

Meanwhile, Master Lin continues to feel the wrath of the Cartel. Now, this doesn’t happen in the graphic novels, but it is interesting to see how and why King’s Dominion is run the way it is, and to learn more about any potential relatives Master Lin may or may not have. This storyline is obvious, Master Lin and his daughter run to avoid gunshots, Master Lin manages to fight off those on foot, and father and daughter make it back to the school, where his sister, Master Gao, notices the errors of her brother’s actions. Master Gao does what her brother should have done, send his daughter to the “Temple” for her training. Now, this choice is a reminder to what happened to both Maria and Saya when they were the same age as Master Lin’s daughter. However, Master Lin should have taken more precautions in protecting his daughter by training her himself. What happens to Master Lin and Master Gao at King’s Dominion will remain a mystery until Season 2—if there is one.

For viewers who enjoyed Sink with Californiaand are curious to the ending—where Chico’s father meets Maria and Marcus at Chester’s stronghold—then I should let you know that that does occur in the graphic novel. However, I won’t tell you what happens next. You’ll either have to read the series, or wait for the next season. As for Willie, I have no idea what’s going to happen to him.

This season final offers the end of the plot of Marcus attending and adjusting at King’s Dominion School of the Deadly Arts. Marcus made friends with several of his classmates, and they’ve entertained themselves by traveling to places any adolescent would go to if given the chance and killing people while they were at it. Marcus managed to end his feud with Chester and can go back to being a student and not a fearful homeless kid. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work out the way we want them to, and Marcus should know that better than anyone else. And, with the two cliffhangers, all we can do is wait and see how Marcus will survive these next obstacles.

Note:A review of Season One will be available soon. 

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: Kids of the Black Hole”

Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

            It’s the buildup to the final showdown and the kids decide to have fun before the big fight, which is during Christmas Break. Chester has gathered his posse at the house he has taken over and continues his torture, with Chico’s head still in the ice. Saya is able to track down Chester to his hideout, which he’s turned into a fortress. Chester is expecting a retaliation from Marcus and his friends for his actions. Marcus has been making plans in order to get revenge and to prove his conviction. 

            When Willie decides not to take any part of the upcoming showdown between Marcus and his former roommate, it’s a reminder to the audience that the characters do have a choice to their actions. Maria and Marcus made decisions because they believed they didn’t have a choice. Saya chooses her friends over the assignment Master Lin gives her. Willie does have a choice and his decision to leave is vital; at the same time, we know that Willie isn’t one to abandon his friends completely. 

            Meanwhile, Master Lin’s efforts to protect his family has reached its end. Yes, he didn’t want his daughter to have the same upbringing and lifestyle as his sister and Saya, but he underestimated the need for his family to be able to defend themselves. It is not clear who tipped off Chico’s father and the rest of the Cartel, but the cliché narrative about the consequences of secrets and making the decision that should have been made in the first place will play out in the season finale. 

            Kids of the Black Holegives viewers the title of the episode. The lifestyle of assassins sucks people into a vortex. And, when presented with the opportunity to avoid that vortex, the decision to either go in, or stay out can be a matter of life and death. And, like with every decision every character has made throughout this season, there will be consequences for all of those involved. 

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: The Clampdown”

 Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

            While Kings Dominion investigates the death of another student, the students are placed under lockdown. The lockdown is effective to the point where several of the students are shoved into random dorm rooms instead of their own. This is interesting because viewers see more interaction between the students who are not friendly with one another. At the same time, the cliques from the Pilotepisode is brought back in order to reiterate the reasons why these kids became students at Kings Dominion in the first place. And yes, while some of the students believe Marcus is the center of the conflicts at the school, the teachers and the administration know that Marcus is being labeled as a scapegoat. This is how rumors spread. 

            Marcus gets interrogated by Master Lin and Maria gets interrogated by Master Gao. And, while it is obvious that Master Lin and Master Gao want the same thing—to diffuse a potential race/gang war within the school—their methods demonstrate how these siblings remain at odds with each other. Master Lin believes what he wants to believe, while Master Gao knows the truth, but cannot prove it. Master Lin is able to stop the adults from interfering with the school, but Master Gao believes in “an eye for an eye” philosophy. It makes you wonder what could happen when these siblings work together instead trying to outmaneuver each other.  

Confessions is the theme for The Clampdown. Maria confesses to killing both Chico and Yukio; Marcus confesses to knowing about it; and, Saya confesses that she sees Maria as a friend even with all of the tension breaking out between the Cartel and the Yakuza. And, while it seems that the conflict between the two gangs is over for now, Marcus’ confession to his friends about his past reminds everyone what is really at stake, the existence of Kings Dominion to the outside world. 

In all, The Clampdown presents which of the students are willing to do help themselves versus which students are willing to help each other. It becomes obvious that Marcus trusts his friends more than his roommate and that Maria and Saya trust each other more than their fellow members. Silly as it may sound, this friendship is what will bring about a very entertaining season finale. 

Why You Need to Read: “Binti: The Complete Trilogy”

Binti: The Complete Trilogy                                                      

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published:  Binti(#1) released September 22, 2015

                 Binti: Sacred Fire(#1.5) released February 5, 2019

                 Binti: Home(#2) released January 31, 2017

                Binti: The Night Masquerade(#3) released January 16, 2018

                Binti: The Complete Trilogyreleased February 5, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Anthology  

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2015 & the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2016

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib (Binti).

            Every once in a while you hear about a story that is so unique and so captivating that it is suggested that everyone should read it regardless if it’s not from their preferred genre of literature. Binti is a story about a young woman who leaves her home—without her family’s blessing—so that she can take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, Oomza Uni. She boards a spacecraft and it is traveling to a distant planet, and Binti has never been away from her home before. It seems like the story will pick up pace once the spacecraft arrives; only it is attacked by a “hostile” alien species. This is the first part of the first novella in the series by Nnedi Okorafor—which, won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for “Best Novella”—and, neither the action, nor the story ends with the first novella! Binti: The Complete Trilogy contains all of the author’s stories in one volume!

            Binti starts off with a simple plot: a gifted young woman goes against her family’s expectations in order to attend an esteemed university. Readers are introduced to Binti’s intelligence for mathematics, abilities as a harmonizer, and Himba culture. At the same time, readers are reminded that human differences and alien versus human culture clashes exist in the future as well. One particular rivalry between the species quickly becomes the center of the story, quickly. Binti has to find a way to survive her new—and unexpected—predicament, which will be hard because the Meduse, the hostile alien species want her dead. 

            Binti is terrified to the point where it’s easier to blame herself for her current situation rather than realize how sheltered she was back on Earth. Binti soon realizes that she must rely on her abilities and her talent in order to understand the situation and escape with her life. However, Binti is not in control of either her abilities, or the tools she has with her. This means improvising. She soon realizes that her astrolabe allows her to communicate with the Meduse on the spacecraft. Binti is able to come up with a strategy to save herself, the lives at Oomza Uni, and the lives of the people on Earth, including her family. Even though she succeeds, the experience of Binti’s excursion to Oomza Uni changes her in more ways than one.

            Binti: Sacred Fire is the latest story written by the author in this series, but it serves as an interlude between the first and the second books in the series. This tale provides an appropriate look into Binti’s life as a student at the university she saved. She has become friends with one of the Meduse, Okwu, who is now a student at the university as well. Readers gain insight into Binti’s interactions with her classmates and her professors, and her family and friends back home (the ones who are willing to talk to her). 

            Unfortunately, Binti’s new life at Oomza Uni is not as smooth as she hopes. She is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from her voyage to the university and from the bullying from a few of the humans who happen to be from a feuding tribe from Earth. Although Binti is hailed as a hero for negotiating a truce, she feels as isolated at Oomza Uni as she did back home. Not to mention, Binti is still dealing with some personal “changes” to her being. 

            Even though Binti is traumatized and isolated, she is not alone. Her friends are with her as she works her way through her adjustments and her traumas. Binti knows that it’ll take a while to get used to her new lifestyle, but it seems like she’ll be getting the full university experience. 

            Binti: Home is about what is in the title. Binti completes her first semester or year at Oomza Uni and decides to return home to visit her family and to participate in her tribe’s pilgrimage. Binti has made progress at the university: in her classes, in her therapy sessions, and in her reputation as a Master Harmonizer. However, returning home means traveling by spacecraft, and it’s the same one Binti traveled on to get to Oomza Uni.

            The spacecraft—known as The Third Fish—is a living thing that flies in outer space. Binti—who is still suffering from PTSD—decides to stay in the same room she stayed in during her first voyage in order to face her trauma. Throughout the voyage, Binti is able to make some progress of dealing with her panic attacks and flashbacks. However, Binti still has to face her fear of reuniting with her family. And, since she’s lived away from her home for a while, she’s forgotten some of her people’s more casual customs. Binti has changed in more ways than one because of her experiences. Unfortunately, her family and her tribe are static in their ways and are disgusted with Binti’s changes and growth. 

            The purpose of a pilgrimage is for an individual to seek growth through moral and spiritual growth. Oftentimes, that individual becomes enlightened and transformed by the end of their pilgrimage. This is what happens to Binti during her pilgrimage even if it isn’t the pilgrimage she was supposed to go on. The pilgrimage Binti goes on brings her to a new level of personal enlightenment. And, she is made aware of her own prejudices and slowly comes around to accepting the changes she’s been experiencing. At the same time, the prejudices surrounding three different clans have erupted, and Binti—once again—must rely on her skills as a harmonizer in order to diffuse the tensions before war breaks out. 

            Binti: The Night Masquerade starts where Binti: Home left off, with Binti rushing back to her family home after her pilgrimage in order to stop a war before it starts. The Night Masquerade is a personification of the coming of a “big change.” To Binti, she interprets it to mean a war is about to start. And, Binti plans on ending it before it can happen.

            Cultures clash, hidden history is revealed, and someone always gets betrayed. The POVs change so that the readers have a better understanding of what is happening during certain parts of the story. Within the conclusion to this series, readers realize that not everyone is willing to accept change, not everyone wants to interact with someone who is “different” from themselves, and not everyone is willing to admit he/she/it/they have flaws. Binti comes to terms with all of this as she returns to Oomza Uni just in time for the upcoming academic year. All of her experiences and changes within herself allow Binti to elevate herself beyond the status of Master Harmonizer. However, Binti wishes to continue her studies, for the time being. 

            It was thrilling to read Binti again. And, Binti: The Complete Trilogy allows readers to enjoy all of the Binti stories in tandem. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor and readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this series compilation as much as I did. Reading through Binti’s life as a university freshman reminded me of some of my experiences during my first year of college as well, including the changes in myself and the stagnancy of everything else. Bintiis a story about personal growth through experience and change, and how expectations depend on individual actions, not those of others. This coming-of-age story is pleasing to all readers and it should not be overlooked. And, readers can rejoice knowing that Nnedi Okorafor has plans to continue Binti’s story!