SCKA 2021: The Nominees, the Finalists & the Experience

One of the best things about being a bookblogger is the book awards. Besides the “big awards” such as the Hugo and the Nebula Awards—which many of us have read at least half of the nominees—there are the SPFBO and the SPSFC—which gives bookbloggers and (indie) reviewers the chance to propel indie books towards more readers. How many of you have heard of SCKA? Well, I didn’t until I was asked to participate on the jury this year.

            SCKA stands for Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, which was started by bookbloggers. This year, I was asked to participate as one of the judges. Even though I had some other things going on at the same time—i.e. grad school—I said yes. This has been a fun yet tense experience because there is a process that must be followed. It makes you have a stronger appreciation for the other literary awards.  

            First, was the categories. There are 12 of us, including myself, who make up the jury and we agreed on which categories we all wanted to include for these awards. We agreed on: fantasy, science fiction, blurred (a.k.a. genre blended), debut work, series, novella and short fiction. Next, we all had the opportunity to nominate a work for each category; but, there was a catch: if we nominated for a category, then we had to read ALL of the nominees. Some of us had to remember how much we could read within a given time. So no, I didn’t participate in the 1st round voting in every category. 

            As you can observe from this chart: we all nominated on our nominees while making sure we didn’t nominate the same book, the same series, or the same stories. For the short fiction, we all made sure sources—either links or anthology titles—were provided for everyone so they could access them. 

Here are the nominees for each category (I apologize for the list, but I couldn’t format the Excel chart onto WordPress):

Fantasy:

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Comet Weather by Liz Williams

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Sci-Fi:

Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Repo Virtual by Corey S. White

Blurred:

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Debut:

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Series:

Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard

Islands of Blood and Storm by Kacen Callender

Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez

The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Novella:

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Sweet Harmony by Claire North

Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Short Fiction:

“Tiger Lawyer Gets It Right” by Sarah Gailey

“Convergence in Chorus Architecture: by Dare Segun Falowo

“In Kind” by Kayla Whaley

“Volumes” by Laura Duerr

“You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark

“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen F. McHugh

“Juice Like Wounds” by Seanan McGuire

Then, we read, and we read, and we read some more. 

Recently, we voted on our finalists. The finalists were determined based on votes, and whichever nominees received the highest and the 2nd highest (or, in some cases, the 3rd highest) votes moved on to the finalists round.

Here are the finalists for each category based on the most votes:

Fantasy:

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Sci-Fi:

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Blurred:

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (tie)

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (tie)

Debut:

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (tie)

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (tie)

Series:

The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard

Novella:

Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Short Fiction:

“You Perfect, Broken Things” by C.L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine, #32)

“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen F. McHugh (Tor.com)

            Please note: the finalists do NOT take away from the rest of the nominees AT ALL! In comparison to the rest of the nominees, the finalists stood out the most. Now, we have to read ALL of the finalists to determine the winner for each category. Unlike the nominees, all of the judges are allowed to participate in voting for the finalists in any or in all of the categories. This means that all of the finalists must be read by each juror before voting, which is fair. You can expect an announcement of the winners within the next couple of months.

            Which one will be voted as the winners of SCKA 2021? Stick around and find out!

Why You Need to Read: These Books While Waiting for “The Winds of Winter”: Part II

Here we go again. It’s been almost 3 years since I complied the 1st list of book recommendations; and, we’re still waiting for The Winds of Winter, the next book in A Song of Ice and Fire series. Many of us continue to wait, patiently, for this book by reading similar books by authors who write fantasy stories. There have been numerous books released since I compiled my 1st list of recommendations; yet, I know some of the readers enjoyed the latest releases from Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson, etc. Within the last decade, several new authors have made a name for themselves through their works, and others have continued to release books for us to enjoy as well.

            This is my 2nd list of book recommendations for those who are waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish and to release the next book in his fantasy series. Please note that I couldn’t include all of the fantasy authors for this list, and there are a few “obvious” authors who are not on this list (i.e. Sanderson, Jordan). I am reading books by Joe Abercrombie and Ben Galley for the first time, so they will be on the next list I compile, hopefully. In addition, if there is an author you don’t see on this list, then please refer to the first one I’ve written and posted. 

  1. The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

This trilogy is a retelling of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and is as grimdark as A Song of Ice and Fire. The story follows Rin, who studies to enroll into a prestigious military university to escape an arranged marriage and poverty. As she studies to become a soldier, Rin studies shamanism, which ignites a power linked to her heritage. Then, a war breaks out and Rin—and her classmates—soon realize that war is NOT what you learn in a classroom.

Based on the speculative fiction books I’ve read so far this series is the most identical to A Song of Ice and Fire. This is because the mood and the tone in both series follow both warfare and social mobility. The politics are the subplot which carries the narrative through the series in both the characters and the conflict.

2. The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire have heard of this series because Martin has read this series and praised the author for her storytelling and for the narrative. This trilogy is a retelling of one of the tales from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and it is full of political intrigue and backstabbing. The world-building alone will keep you invested in this trilogy.

The trilogy follows 3 protagonists who represent different tribes with overlapping histories. As their heritages are revealed, so are the conflicts amongst those groups of individuals. And then, there are all the “mythical beings” mentioned throughout the series—the ones we heard about in tales such as Aladdin, Sinbad, etc.—play a role as well. In addition, the twists presented throughout the series could rival the ones written by Martin!

3. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The standalone epic fantasy novel has everything A Song of Ice and Fire has in one massive tome: dragons, prophecies, secret societies, political conspiracies, strong female characters, and a historical timeline. While the story follows 3 female protagonists, there are points-of-view chapters from several other characters that will feel familiar to any and all fans of Martin’s series. And, before you ask: yes, there are a TON of references to historical events, many of which you will recall from your school days. 

4. Book of the Ancestor by Mark Lawrence

I would describe this trilogy to fans of Martin as a religious combative school for girls. While the protagonist will remind readers of Arya Stark, I would say these female characters resemble the Free Folk. These characters are strong, intelligent and combative females who are, or are training to become, nuns. 

This trilogy delves into the “idea” and the “expectation” of prophecies—especially the concept of “the chosen one”—how and why they come into existence, when they become relevant, and who they are about. In addition, this series presents a different look into “heritage.” Yes, political and social hierarchy play their roles in the narrative, but both magic and social hierarchy is inherited through blood. So young girls with magical abilities are sought after by these nuns so they can learn about their magic and how it relates to the religion they practice. And yes, there are plenty of battles that present these powers and fighting skills in action.

5. The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff

I describe the protagonist in this trilogy as a female Kratos. For those of you who don’t play video games, you will be reminded of a bloodier and an angrier Arya Stark. From the opening pages, you can expect one of the ultimate tales of betrayal, family, vengeance, love, conspiracy, and murder—lots and lots of murder—from this trilogy. 

This trilogy is one-part dark fantasy and one part folklore. The magic in this series is as twisted as the foundation of the school of assassins the protagonist trains and then works for. And, if that’s not enough for you, then know that the footnotes are guaranteed to make you laugh. One final thing to know about this trilogy: IT’S NOT YA!!!

6. The Books of Ambha by Tasha Suri

Some of you might be reading this author’s latest book, The Jasmine Throne, but how many of you read her debut novel, Empire of Sand, and the sequel, Realm of Ash? This duology delves into colonialism, family relationships, colorism, buried history, magic, and political corruption and gameplay. The duology follows 2 sisters—one per book—who are the illegitimate daughters of the governor in a historical and a magical India. The sisters possess magical abilities which are coveted by both the royal family and their mystics. The elder sister reveals her magic, which leads to the mystics separating her from her family, leaving her younger sister behind. Several years later, the younger sister offers her services to the royal family where she learns about the dark history of the Empire and what happened to her sister. 

7. The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff

Anyone who is a fan of Tamora Pierce should pick up this series—think of following a strong female protagonist from childhood through early adulthood. This comparison is valid because instead of one thick tome, the author insisted on a binge-reading experience, providing readers with 4 novels: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen. The story follows a princess who must live in exile after her mother—the Queen—uncovers a plot for her Council to seize power through the princess. The princess grows up amongst commoners, evades capture from her enemies, and makes allies along the way so that she can reclaim her family’s throne. 

This series will be enjoyed by those who’ve read the Dunk and Egg series (still incomplete). The protagonists travel and reside in the Nine Realms where each realm has its own culture and conflict. All of the plots, the characters and the conflicts revolve around individual realms, politicians, magic, gods, warfare, history and science. And yes, you must read one book after the other in order to grasp the entire experience. 

8. A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons

If you’re a fan of intricate world-building with matching histories that rival both Tolkien and Martin (yes, I said it), then, this series is for you! This series delves into prophecies, family trees (think of the Lannisters) and magical artifacts as the narration jumps back-and-forth between the past and the present with several characters to tell the story as it progresses. Did I mention the dragons? 

The series follows several characters from different regions of the world whose “circumstances” brings them together in order to save the world as per the prophecies. However, those “prophecies” are questioned by all of the characters—“who came up with them,” “are they relevant right now,” etc.—but, they understand that there is a force that will bring about the end-of-the-world, and they are the ones “chosen” to save it. Note: this is a 5-book series. 

9. The Black Iron Legacy by Gareth Hanrahan

This series started as a 4-book series and was announced recently that it will be a 5-book series. This series is part dark fantasy and part grimdark (NOT THE SAME SUBGENRE) in which the characters within the series who are morally gray must survive a harsh society (that reflect ours) and have a dark portrayal of magic. If the series needs more reason to be read, then know that there will be at least 1 character you will want to learn more about throughout your reading. 

Each book in the series focuses on a cast of characters who end up playing a pivotal role with events in their society, but not in the “traditional fantasy” narrative. Each of the characters have a backstory which in turn influences the reasons for the actions they take (sound familiar?). In addition, the gods—from various cultures throughout the world—are at war with each other for dominance; and, they need “vessels” to assist them with their plans. 

10. The Tide Child Trilogy by R.J. Barker

This series is about pirates, but not the ones from the movies or in real life. Fans of the nautical, and House Greyjoy, will appreciate this unique narrative of sea life and sea dragons. And no, this series is NOT like The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” These pirates are on these ships serving because they all committed crimes and were convicted of them.

As you may have guessed, this series isn’t about piracy, but about a crew who is on a mission to protect their home (even though they are no longer welcomed there) and to search for the source of their ships. This series offers an interesting look into life on the seas, which match the harsh lifestyles of the land dwellers. Not to mention, there are plenty of battle sequences that place you right in the middle of it all. This is one of the best nautical fantasy books yet!

11. Chronicles of the Bitch Queen by K.S. Villoso

You are the daughter of the Empire’s most notorious war lord, who on the eve before the coronation with your husband—the would-be king—he abandons you and your young son, which makes you “the Queen” while leaving you to deal with a new kingdom, numerous enemies, and parenthood by yourself. A few years later, your husband asks to meet in order to reconcile, in another country. After an attack by unknown enemies, you find yourself alone in a foreign land with no one to trust and with no way to return home. 

This series presents several political conspiracies which go back to before the protagonist was born. And, the narrative presents realistic scenarios with realistic dilemmas on what the protagonist must do if she wants to survive and to return home. Did I mention the queen is also a kickass warrior? 

12. The Burning by Evan Winter

Both fantasy and folklore mention the origins of dragons as from both Europe and East Asia. That being said, have you ever wondered whether or not dragons could have existed elsewhere (in our world)? Who said dragons couldn’t have come from Africa? If they did, then why haven’t we heard of them until now? 

The 1st book in this quartet—The Rage of Dragons—begins with a battle between 2 tribes—one of them has women who have the power to summon dragons. Then, the story heads in the direction of a military fantasy with a protagonist driven by vengeance (especially against the social hierarchy), which sees the pace of the narrative zoom until you realize that the series is about 2 warring nations and an in tribal struggle amongst social classes and magic users. This series will leave you with a new appreciation for battle sequences.  

13. The Poison War by Sam Hawke

This series is part political fantasy and part mystery. The 1st book in this series—City of Lies—follows a brother and a sister as they try to figure out who murdered the lord they serve and their uncle, who was his closest friend and his poisoner. That’s right, the plot of this novel delves into various poisons. So, fans of Dorne and the Red Viper will find this narrative very intriguing. 

This series delves into the world’s politics, civil war and lost magic. At the same time, the siblings must step into the roles they’ve trained for their entire lives. All the while, who poisoned their uncle and their lord, and why? 

14. The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings by Nick Martell

The newest book on this list focuses on a group of siblings who are struggling to survive after their family was stripped of their status after their father murdered the crown prince, supposedly. The protagonist—who is the younger brother—is determined to prove his father’s innocence. How is he going to do it? By re-entering the royal court and gaining the attention of the royal family, or what’s left of it.

The world in A Song of Ice and Fire has “unusual seasons” and this trilogy has a fractured moon. Fans of the former will enjoy the latter due to the political system, the political backstabbing (and there are A LOT of them), and the political corruption (A LOT of that, too). And, all of that doesn’t compare to the series’ magic system and the twist at the end of the 1st book. 

15. Die by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, Clayton Cowles, Rian Hughes & Chrissy Williams

I would describe this graphic novel series as a cross between Jumanji and Dungeons and Dragons. The premise of this series follows 6 high schoolers who meet up to play D&D only to disappear for 3 years; then, 5 of them return to our world. 20 years later, the players reunite when a package arrives for them, which returns them back into the “game.” 

So far, this is an on-going series, which narrates the darker side of a fantasy world. The images illustrate the world the main characters are trapped in. However, the story is about these traumatized individuals, their dual personalities, and their desires. Kieron Gillen has written numerous graphic novels, and this series is character driven that is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re a fan of this graphic novelist and you haven’t started reading this series, then you’re missing out on an excellent one! 

            As you can see, there is a reason why it took me a while to compile a 2nd list of recommendations. And no, I was not able to add more books and/or series to this list without it being too long. That being said, I am reading my way through other books I hope to recommend in a future post. Hopefully, by then it will be when we’re waiting for A Dream of Spring to be released. Not to mention, many of these “in-progress” series should be completed by that time as well. 

            If it does come to another list, then I hope to have one compiled of books and series by indie authors; and, I believe you have an idea of which ones I might include on that list. And yes, they’ll be another list because there are so many more books to read and to enjoy as we continue to wait for Martin to finish writing his series, patiently.

            Which books and/or series do you recommend reading while waiting for the next book in this series? 

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

What. A. Year. It was a great year for stories—not necessarily publication—but a terrible year for everything else. While the pandemic brought about more time for some readers, I did NOT fall into that category. If anything, then the pandemic had me being more occupied, which brought about less time for reading. Don’t get me wrong, I still met my reading goal (100 books), but I’m going to have to change the way I do these end-of-the-year lists. I didn’t get to read or to finish reading all the books I wanted to read this year (I lost some time because I no longer had a long commute), but I read just enough books to compile this list. These books were released and read—by me—in 2020. 

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

            This novella didn’t get the same recognition similar novellas received, and that’s a shame because this standalone work is entertaining and brilliant from start to end. The story follows a troupe of thieves for hire who are completing a job when they are recognized and have to escape, with a nun following them. From there, several hijinks and revelations ensue until the big reveal at the end leaves readers wondering whether or not this book should be a standalone. 

#14: Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            This is a standalone novel, which serves as the English translated follow up to Vita Nostra. The story follows a DJ who saves a young girl from bullies, and by some hidden powers from the girl’s “family,” he becomes her legal guardian during her “stay” in “our world.” The girl is accompanied by a teddy bear and music strings, and her mission is to locate her missing brother while learning how to play the violin. However, the longer the girl stays, the stranger the world surrounding the DJ becomes until he is forced to behave like an adult—who is afraid of a teddy bear. 

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

            Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children sees the return of Jack, who has been betrayed by her twin sister, Jill. A few of the students embark on a quest—which is supposed to be forbidden—in order to save Jack from Jill. This story continues to look into how the children at the school continue to hope to return Home, while catching up with their former classmates who were able to do so. On top of this, the narration of present events continues to lay out the consequences to those who believe they can ignore the rules of the world. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

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

            I didn’t know what to make of this debut novel. That is, until I read the first few chapters, and the title fits the story brilliantly. The story follows Michael Kingman, the younger son of David Kingman, who was executed for murdering the Crowned Prince. Living in exile with his older brother and sister, Michael is given the chance to reenter high society and to prove his father’s innocence. But, how is Michael going to complete these tasks when everyone is a liar, and several people want him dead?

#11: The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff

            Dr. Sarah Kozloff took her massive epic fantasy and gave it to readers as a quartet, so they could binge read the books without too long of a wait. The decision to present 4 “shorter” books instead of 1 huge one had me reflecting back to Tamora Pierce’s series. However, this series can be read by both teens and adults because the lead protagonist grows from girlhood (and exiled princess) to adulthood (and a queen). During the time, she has to learn how to fend for herself, avoid being recognized and captured, how to protect her kingdom by joining up with the rebel army, and using her “Talent” to reclaim the throne. The author gives an excellent balance between fantasy (magic) and reality (science) as readers are given a straightforward—as in no previous look back on what occurred in the last book—narration which allows for an enjoyable reading experience. 

#10: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

            Believe it or not, this is the first book by the author that I’ve read. Even though this book is a fantasy story, I will argue that the elements of magic realism make the story more realistic. The protagonist is a social worker who works for an agency that deals with “unusual” children. These children either have special abilities or are of a magical species, and our society deems that all of these children must be “registered” and “observed” so that they will grow up to be “productive adults.” The protagonist is given an assignment to observe a house where several “unusual” children reside. And, it is through this assignment that the protagonist begins to see the children as children and not just the nature of their species. This is a brilliant story about foster children, prejudice and family. 

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

            What if you were caught in a precarious situation in another country? What if assassins and political powers were searching for you? What if you were the queen of your nation? How would you survive your ordeal? This book—a reprint of the author’s debut novel—presents readers with a realistic account of survival and being royal during a time of fragile establishment and foreign hostility. What happens when a queen is lured to another land only to be betrayed and left stranded there? It’s a good thing the queen knows how to use a sword.

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

            Yes, this book is massive, but the story makes the pages go quicker. The last book in the trilogy takes place immediately where the last one leaves off. Nahri and Prince Ali find themselves far away from Daevabad as a rebellion and usurpation continues there. Under the rule of a new tyrant, Nahri and Ali must decide whether or not to save the empire and its magic. Meanwhile, Dara comes to terms with all of the decisions he’s made in his past and during his present as he determines whether or not loyalty outweighs being noble. This was a great ending to this Arabian Nightsinspired epic fantasy. 

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

            The 3rd book in this 5-book series—remember when I thought it was a trilogy? I’m so glad I was wrong!—has all of the characters from the first 2 books joining together in order to save the world from the “real threat.” All of the events from the previous books lead up to where all of the protagonists and the characters find themselves in, and the roles they are supposed to play in the near and the far future. Another prophecy is mentioned, another dragon is introduced, and ulterior motives are revealed. The question is—especially after THAT ending—what will the heroes do next? 

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

            I enjoyed this sequel to The Gutter Prayer—my #1 Favorite Speculative Fiction Book of 2019—and it’s an interesting book. One of the reasons for this is because of the new P.O.V. characters—and a few previous ones—the readers experience the events from. This book focuses on the aftermath of the end of the first book, and instead of magical forces, there are political conspiracies and familial backstabbing amongst all of the characters. Unfortunately, politics overshadow the real threat, which once again comes from the gods.

#5 (Tie): Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            This novella takes the history of a film which promoted racism—and revived the Ku Klux Klan—and added a supernatural element to it. There is the Klan, who terrorize Black Americans, and are human; and, there are the Ku Kluxes, supernatural beings who feed off of fear and hatred, and are only identified by those with the Sight. Because the Ku Kluxes look like White Americans, only the Black demon hunters are brave enough to fight them and to defend our world from them. However, what happens when the Ku Kluxes join the ranks of the KKK? 

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

            This novella presents the horrors and the consequences of institutional racism in Modern America. The story follows a sister and a brother who are “victims” of racism from their early childhood. After realizing that there is no avoiding becoming a “statistic,” the siblings have to decide on whether or not to use their gifts in order to change their world for the better. 

#3: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This standalone novel is the follow up to the author’s debut novel. This time, instead of one female protagonist, there are three sisters. After several years apart, they are reunited under circumstances and a cause—the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and, it’s not just about the right to vote, but the right to use magic. This historical fantasy presents a throwback to Camelot, fairy tales, spells and symbolism as well as practices which brought about the Women’s Vote, the (first) Civil Rights Movement, and Labor Laws. This is a fitting story to mark what was happening one hundred years ago.           

#2: Bethel #1: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

            This debut novel immersed my attention and had me completing the book within 24 hours! This dark fantasy story presents the protagonist who is her community’s reminder of past sins and upcoming retributions. The author gives readers an amazing take on the hypocrisy surrounding religion, family, race, sex and leadership. The ending to this book has me excited for the upcoming sequel, which we will be getting in 2021!

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

            There are times when the synopsis of a book isn’t enough to snag a reader’s interest, so the emphasis shifts to the book’s cover. And, what a cover! Even if you hadn’t read Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series—which is a dystopian urban fantasy series—then reading this series—which is dark fantasy—will introduce readers what a talented storyteller the author is to all who must become familiar with her books. The novel starts with the past, jumps forward to the last moment within the narration, and then jumps back to the aftermath of the opening chapter. Readers get are presented with several characters from different backgrounds and positions, and where the Winter Solstice is a date in which something is about to happen and decisions have to be made before the moment—and, once they’re made, there is no going back. This book begins and ends the way you believe it will, which makes it all the more shocking and entertaining. Book 2 is expected sometime in the future, which will answer the question: What will happen next? 

            There were so many books that came out in 2020—miraculously—I didn’t get to finish reading them all! I want to read all of the books I missed this year and in previous years, but I want to be able to read all of the upcoming books (in the new year) as well. I’ll find a way to pull it off! Hopefully, this pandemic will end within the next several months—I’m not holding my hopes or my expectations too high—so some normalcy can return. Otherwise, here’s to another great year in reading. Which books of 2020 were your favorites?

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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…My Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

2020 is coming and so are the books. Many of them are to be expected because they are follow-ups or sequels to previous books in a series. Others are either new or standalones books that have piqued our interests. Here is a short list of the books I’m excited to read in the new year (and, new decade). Note: if there is a book that is NOT listed here, then it is because either no release date has been announced, or I have not yet read the previous book(s) in that series. Also, keep in mind that intended release dates can change due to multiple reasons. This is based on the dates stated on the day this was posted. 

#1 The City We Became (The City #1) by N.K. Jemisin à March 26, 2020

            Many of us have been waiting for N.K. Jemisin to follow-up on her success of The Broken Earth Trilogy and we won’t have to wait much longer. This urban fantasy is a follow-up of the author’s short story, “The City Born Great,” and it appears to be an expansion of the “mythology” she mentioned in it. The focus is on New York City and its five protectors as they come together to protect the city from an ancient evil. As a New Yorker, I’m curious to see which aspects of City life the author decided to incorporate into her story. 

#2 The Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5) by Martha Wells à May 5, 2020

            When it was announced that there would be a novel to continue The Murderbot Diaries series, I not only added the novel to my TBR list, but also made sure I was either able to claim an ARC of the book, or to preorder a copy of it! All we know of the plot so far is that Murderbot has to choose between saving his human friends and binge watching his favorite TV show. We already know what it’s going to do, and the story is going to be epic! I’m glad the author chose to continue this series!

#3 The Shadow Saint (The Black Iron Legacy #2) by Gareth Hanrahan à January 7, 2020

            This one shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Gutter Prayer was my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019, and the sequel, The Shadow Saint, has been on my TBR list since I started reading the first book in the series. The sequel takes place six months after the events in The Gutter Prayer. All we know is that the two warring factions—probably the ones from the first book—are competing against one another in search of a rumored weapon. It’s not clear whether or not any of the characters from the first book will appear in the second one, but if The Shadow Saint is anything like its predecessor, then we have nothing to worry about. 

#4 Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko à February 11, 2020

            Vita Nostra was my favorite book of 2018, so you know I’m looking forward to reading this book by the husband and wife duo! This is a standalone novel is about a man who saves a 10-year-old girl from danger, who claims to be a music prodigy who is searching for her missing brother. Not sure whether or not the girl is a con artist, the man does everything he can in order to get the girl to leave, but every time he does, a “protector” thwarts him. All the while, darker forces threaten to separate the two before either of them can determine whether or not there’s a connection between them. 

#5 Ten Arrows of Iron (The Grave of Empires #2) by Sam Sykes à August 4, 2020

            Seven Blades in Black was my surprise read of 2019 and I’ve been anticipating the sequel since I finished it! Based on the synopsis, Sal is alone after the events of the previous book. However, she gains new purpose when she is asked to participate in a heist on the airship fleet, the Ten Arrows, in order to steal power for a mysterious patron. Things turn for the worse when Sal uncovers yet another conspiracy which may or may not with the death and the destruction of the world, again. If Ten Arrows of Iron is anything like its predecessor, then I already know it’s going to be fast-paced and full of action!   

#6 The Girl and the Stars (Book of the Ice #1) by Mark Lawrence à April 30, 2020

            The author is basing his new series in the same world as in the Book of the Ancestor Trilogy. Except now, readers will be transported to the Ice instead of a convent. Yaz is an ice triber who survives the harsh environment based on the ways of her people. However, she is separated from that life and everyone she knows and Yaz has to learn how to survive in a world she never knew existed. Fans and readers get to return to Abeth for a new story set in a world we only got a glimpse of before. 

#7 The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S.A. Chakraborty à June 30, 2020

            Daevabad has fallen to the rebels, unrest has erupted amongst the denizens, and magic has disappeared from the world. Meanwhile, both Nahri and Ali are safe in Cairo but decide to save their loved ones in the fallen kingdom. At the same time, Dara must confront his guilt while working alongside Banu Manizheh in order to bring some stability to the kingdom they’ve managed to overtake. The Empire of Gold is the final book in the author’s trilogy and we’re wondering who will survive the final fight for power within Daevabad. 

#8 The Burning God (The Poppy War #3) by R.F. Kuang à November 19, 2020

            There is no synopsis for this book, but here’s my hypothesis. The final book in The Poppy War Trilogy sees Rin struggling with the few friends she has left after more death and betrayal from both allies and enemies. However, she might have figure out the secret to the Empress’ power, but before she can do anything, she must face-off against the colonizers and those who betrayed her. 

#9 Legacy of Ash (Legacy Trilogy #1) by Matthew Wardà April 7, 2020 (Print)

            This debut novel focuses on three protagonists with different motivations must work together in order to save their country from a hostile empire. This is easier said than done, but are old hatreds and grudges worth it when their empire is about to fall to destruction? The eBook is available to purchase, but I know many are awaiting to read the printed format. 

#10 The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff à    

#1: A Queen in Hiding à January 21, 2020

#2: The Queen of Raiders à  February 18, 2020      

#3: A Broken Queen à  March 24, 2020

#4: The Cerulean Queen à   April 21, 2020

            Fantasy readers are in for a treat! The Nine Realms is a new series and both the author—who is making her debut—and the publisher—Tor Books—are releasing all four books within four consecutive months! Instead of waiting until after the author writes the next book in the series, each book will be released so that readers can enjoy the series—all 1,968+ pages of it—within a short time span. In other words, the time between each novel is more than enough time for readers to read and to process each one. The efforts of both the author and the publisher are appreciated immensely!

            The series is a fantasy bildungsroman and it follows Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, who is starts off as an exiled and hunted orphan who is determined to do whatever it takes to reclaim the throne that is her birthright. Readers will get to experience the protagonist as she learns magic and how to fight; to participating in a battle against the invaders; to recovering from both visible and invisible scars caused by the war; to reclaiming her throne and establishing herself as a ruler and restoring order to the realm that was left in chaos. This journey sounds so promising that it’s no wonder the author and the publisher decided to release the books in consecutive months!  

#11 The Ranger of Marzanna (The Goddess War #1) by Jon Skovron à April 21, 2020

            Two siblings find themselves on opposing sides of allegiance to the Empire. After their father is murder by imperial soldiers, one will seek to destroy the Empire, while the other will strive to protect it. Sonya is a Ranger of Marzanna, an ancient sect of warriors and her brother, Sebastian, is the most powerful sorcerer in the world. What will happen when the siblings face-off against each other? 

#12 The Obsidian Tower (The Gate of Secrets #1) by Melissa Caruso à June 4, 2020

            The granddaughter of the ruler of a kingdom has broken magic. Although Ryx is mage-marked, all she can do is drain the life from everything she touches, making her place in society unstable. However, after she kills a visiting dignitary and activates a mysterious magical artifact, both by accident, she flees and meets up with a group of unlikely magical experts who are investigating the disturbances of the kingdom. Once, Ryx learns that her family is in danger, she risks everything to save them and to gain control of the same artifact she activated. The Obsidian Tower is the first book in a new series by the author of the Swords and Fire trilogy. 

#13 Call of the Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #2) by R.J. Barker à September 2020

            There is little to no information about this book and I had to confirm the rumored anticipated release date with the author. My hypothesis: the Tide Child continues its voyage into uncharted territory in order to determine whether or not the “sea dragons” are as endangered as everyone else believes them to be. At the same time, the crew must fend off any suspicious and curious ships whom decide to follow the path of their voyage. 

#14 The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning #2) by Evan Winter à July 16, 2020

            All that is known about this sequel to The Rage of Dragons is that it takes place after the events in the first book. I’m going to make a hypothesis and say that the story follows Tau as he continues his path towards vengeance for his father’s death and the betrayal of his warrior brothers. The Fires of Vengeance is a continuation of the war between two nations, but loyalties have altered since the end of Book One. 

#15 The Memory of Souls (A Chorus of Dragons #3) by Jenn Lyons à August 25, 2020

            I haven’t started to read The Name of All Things, the second book in A Chorus of Dragons Trilogy, but I know I’ll be done with it in time to read The Memory of Souls, the last book in the same trilogy. Kihrin has managed to convince everyone of the plans of his enemies to release the dark god, thus ending the world. There might be a way to prevent this from happening, but at the cost of all of the immortals. However, will Kihrin have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the world? Is he willing to do that? 

#16 The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates #1) by A.K. Larkwood à February 11, 2020

            If you were supposed to die, but were then given the opportunity to live, then would you take it? Csorwe was supposed to be a sacrifice for the gods, but a mage gives him the chance to live, with some conditions. All he has to do is become a thief, train as a spy and an assassin, topple an empire and help the mage reclaim his seat of power. What’s the problem? Well, it turns out that Csorwe was supposed to be sacrificed for a reason; and the gods never forget. 

#17 The Wolf of Oren-Yaro (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1) by K.S. Villoso à February 18, 2020

            Queen Talyien was a hero of the War of the Wolves and set to marry the son of her father’s rival. Unfortunately, he vanishes before their reign can begin and the fragile peace crumbles. Years later, the Queen receives a message and she crosses the sea towards the meeting place. She survives an assassination attempt and now must find a way home while surviving through a hostile land. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the debut novel of a new epic fantasy series by this up-and-coming author. 

#18 The Protectorate #2 by Megan E. O’Keefe à August 18, 2020

            The sequel to Velocity Weapon takes place after the events in that novel. After the truth of Sanda’s imprisonment abroad Bero—whom escape from both Nazca and the Protectorate—she and Tomas flee before she can become a pawn of the greater powers. All they have are coordinates to a dead gate with no way to survive there. Unsure of what to do, Sanda and Tomas might have to plead to the only group willing to assist them, Nazca.

#19 Docile by K.M. Szpara à March 3, 2020

            Dociline is a drug. It is given to Dociles when they serve out their contracts of servitude to those who own them. However, there are negative side effects to this drug and for some reason only Elisha is willing to avoid the drug. When his contract of servitude is purchased by the family of the creators of the drug, Elisha refuses to take it. This puts him at odds against Alexander Bishop III, who believes he can turn Elisha into a Docile without the drug. This story is a parable about sex, love, corruption and capitalism.  

#20 Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse à January 14, 2020

            Lake, the seventeen-year-old protagonist in this story, seems to be the only one who knows that the world she and everyone is living in is in fact a simulation. For some unknown reason, after a nuclear event everyone’s bodies have remained in stasis and their minds are trapped within a shared virtual reality all aboard a spaceship. The only way to get off the ship is to remind all of the passengers that they are living in a virtual reality. Lake is accompanied by Taren, but he doesn’t share the same views about saving everyone as she does and soon they are both of them are in a race to locate the heart of the simulation so that everyone can get off the ship dead or alive. 

Additional Books to Lookout For:

Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5) by Seanan McGuire à January 7, 2020

Stormsong (The Kingston Cycle #2) by C.L. Polk à February 11, 2020

The Killing Fog (The Grave Kingdom #1) by Jeff Wheeler à March 1, 2020

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst à April 21, 2020

Aurora Burning (The Aurora Cycle #2) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff à May 5, 2020

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones à May 19, 2020

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho à June 23, 2020

Ashes of the Sun (Burningblade & Silvereye #1) by Django Wexler à July 21, 2020

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab à October 6, 2020

Between Earth and Sky (Anasazi Series #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse à TBA 2020

            These are some of the many books I plan to read in 2020. There are so many other books to expect—some to be released in 2020 and others beyond 2020—but, these are the ones I’m going to start reading, immediately. As for the obvious anticipated books that were not listed here, don’t worry I plan on making my way through the previous books in those series so that I can read the follow-ups as soon as they are released. Which books are you excited for the most in 2020 Are there any other buzzworthy books to lookout for?