Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

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

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019

2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs. 

            This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).

            All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.

#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker

            This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it. 

#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

            As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.  

#23 The Survival of Molly Southbourne (Molly Southbourne #2) by Tade Thompson

            I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series. 

#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang

            I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best. 

#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

            This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves. 

#20 The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

            One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.  

#19 The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy) by S.A. Chakraborty

            I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.  

#18 The Rage of Dragons (The Burning #1) by Evan Winter

            One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!

#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

            This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019. 

#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole 

            To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy. 

#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons

            I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!  

#14 Smoke and Stone (City of Sacrifice #1) by Michael R. Fletcher

            2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!

#13 The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

            How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds. 

#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

            If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself. 

#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

            This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy. 

            Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!

#9 Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle #3) by Jay Kristoff

            This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked! 

#9 Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence

            In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied. 

#8 War Girls (War Girls #1) by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good. 

#7 Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes

            The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author. 

#6 The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

            The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale. 

#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang

            This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book. 

#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

            This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.  

#3 Realm of Ash (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

            I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy. 

#2 Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

            The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment. 

#1 The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy #1) by Gareth Hanrahan

            Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!

            It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!

Why You Need to Read: “Small Spaces”

Small Spaces: #1: Small Spaces

By: Katherine Arden

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Children, Paranormal, Horror, Folklore

            Ollie, poised on the edge of flight, said, “Tell me what?”

            “Avoid large places at night,” the woman breathed. “Keep to small.”

            “Small? That’s it?”

            “Small!” shrieked the woman. “Small spaces! Keep to small spaces or see what happens to you! Just see!” She burst into wild laughter, (Chapter 2).

            Katherine Arden, author of The Winternight Trilogy, has demonstrated her ability to branch out to a wider audience with her stories. This time, the author shares a story for young readers. Small Spaces will make you believe that you are reading a book from Goosebumps, a series that terrified me as a child. The difference here is the reality written within the story. Katherine Arden reminds her readers that folklore is ubiquitous. Every “story” has a dose of “truth” in it.  

            The protagonist is 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler and she is dealing with the recent death of her mother. After a bad day at school, Ollie rides her bike to the local river where she sees a woman standing at its edge screaming at a book she’s about to throw into the water. Ollie manages to steal the book believing “it’s just a book,” but the woman screams a warning not to read the book and to keep to “small spaces.” Just like anyone else, child or adult, Ollie believes the woman is crazy and sees no harm in reading the book. She reads about Beth Webster—a woman who had the affection of brothers Jonathan and Caleb. A few days later, Ollie’s class goes on a field trip to the farm, the same farm the book mentions. When the bus breaks down during the return ride, some of her classmates disappear. Ollie begins to wonder whether or not the story in the book is based on truth. Ollie has been withdrawn since her mother’s death. However, with all of the eerie coincidences and the same warning about “small spaces,” Ollie and two of her friends—Coco and Brian—must use the knowledge they have and their skills in order to survive the night and to save their classmates and teacher. Ollie is a complex character in that she is a child who lost her mother but must focus on surviving an urban legend. Her classmates are typical sidekicks, but they provide Ollie with the companionship she needs at the moment. 

            The plot is simple: a girl steals a book an adult is trying to destroy, the girl reads the book and soon realizes that what she thought was a story isn’t a story, and the girl must survive a supernatural force that is hunting her down. Before the field trip, Ollie is reading “Small Spaces” and about the people who are mentioned in it. At the same time, Ollie and her classmates learn about Smoke Hollow and its eerie history surrounding the family that owns the land, who happen to be the descendants of the people mentioned in Ollie’s book. Urban legends—tales based on rumors—are part of folklore, which are beliefs and cultural practices shared by a group of people that are passed from generation to generation. The story Ollie reads in her book and the tales she hears in class are examples of folklore, which is the subplot of the novel. These stories give Ollie just enough information to survive her upcoming ordeal. Both the information and the plot (and the subplot) are presented at an appropriate rate. Readers will forget this is a children’s book. 

            The narrative is told from Ollie’s point-of-view; and, given everything that has happened to her, she is a reliable narrator. The story is told in present time, with the exception of the events in Ollie’s book, which are presented as journal entries. Throughout the narrative, readers learn about Ollie and the choices she makes and why. All the while, readers are reminded that Ollie is just a kid. 

            Katherine Arden’s style remains as it was for her adult books, but the word choice and the sentence structure are written for children. The author presents another aspect of folklore to her fans and readers: legends and urban legends. Legends are unverified popular stories believed to be based on historical events that are passed from generation to generation. Ubiquitous examples are King Arthur and Atlantis. Urban legends are rumors of experiences that someone known to the storyteller—a friend of a friend—had. Urban legends involve creepy and/or supernatural stories such as: hitch hikers and haunted houses. The mood is the eeriness presented by these stories and urban legends. The tone is the notion that legends and other stories are “stories” until the truth in them emerges. In other words, don’t ignore any strange occurrences that happen around you!

            The appeal of Small Spaces have been positive. It is a horror book, so readers of any age will find it frightening at times, but it is an enjoyable read about an adventure in an individual’s small hometown. Remember, there are children who read and enjoy horror stories. As a 90’s kid, both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? were popular amongst kids my age (and both series gave me nightmares). Children who have watched Jordan Peele’s horror movies and/or the IT movie remakes will enjoy Small Spaces the most. In fact, the next book in the series, Dead Voices, comes out in August 2019. 

            Small Spaces is a strong introduction to young readers who enjoy believable haunted stories. Katherine Arden continues to use folklore in her stories in order to provide a sense of realism for her readers. As a fan of her adult fantasy, I was just as impressed with this book as with her other ones! Small Spaces is a fun read!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: July 23, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Historical Fiction, Mythology

            Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament. She was eighteen, penniless, and had grown up in Uukumil, a drab town where mule-drawn railcars stopped twice a week and the sun scorched out dreams, (Chapter 1). 

            I read this ARC in 4 days (finishing it after midnight on the 5thmorning)! I was that engrossed in this story that reminded me of both Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez with story elements similar to both Rick Riordan and Katherine Arden. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a beautiful blend of history, culture, and mythology. Anyone who is a fan of standalone works such as The Wolf in the Whale and The Sisters of the Winter Wood will love this book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this story, but the focus is on Casiopea Tun. She is the granddaughter of Cirilo Leyva, the wealthiest man in town, but you wouldn’t know it based on her appearance and her demeanor. Because her mother had married a poor native man—who later died—both Casiopea and her mother live as servants to their family. Casiopea and her mother clean and cook for their relatives while the rest of the family live comfortably according to their socioeconomic status. All the while, Casiopea’s cousin, Martín—who is also Cirilo’s only grandson and 2 years older than Casiopea—entertains himself by bullying Casiopea. Unlike Casiopea—who is pragmatic, yet hopeful—Martín is the traditional spoiled heir who has nothing else going for him except for his family name and the wealth that comes with it. He wants nothing more than his grandfather’s approval, which he never earns, and he believes his cousin has it (which she doesn’t). After a spat between the two cousins, Casiopea opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed with the key he left behind. When she opens the chest, she finds a pile of bones that revive into Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. Casiopea learns that Hun-Kame was betrayed and imprisoned by Vucub-Kame, his twin brother. Immediately, Casiopea is traveling with the god in order to locate his missing essences and to help him regain his throne. The twin deities, Hun-Kame and Vucub-Kame are static characters (for the most part) because they are gods who have personas which are not affected by any change. Martín Leyva is a complex character who is forced to confront his demons, his family, and his insecurities, but that doesn’t mean he becomes a better person. It is Casiopea Tun who undergoes the most character development throughout the story.     

            The plot is part folklore and part bildungsroman. The folklore aspect of the plot follows the Hero’s Quest in that Casiopea leaves her home and goes on a “divine” quest. Except, Casiopea is compelled to accompany a god on this journey, and she doesn’t have anything forcing her to remain at her home. The bildungsroman, or coming-or-age story, surrounds both Casiopea and Martín. The growth these characters undergo happens because they leave home. Casiopea sees her chance to see the world and to experience new things; Martín, who had left his home once before, has no choice but to have these experiences. I’m not saying that Martín doesn’t need the experience that comes with leaving home, but it’s obvious that the growth won’t have the same positive effect on him the way it will have on Casiopea. The twin deities play their roles as gods, limited direct interference, which is expected. The subplot in this novel is family and family dynamics. Even though the setting is Mexico in 1927 (during The Jazz Age), some things remain universal and unchanged. There is nothing new about the spoiled heir and the “half-breed” child, but Moreno-Garcia makes sure that the long-term effects of such treatment and behavior remains realistic and believable. Martín, and the rest of the Leyva Family, know he’s not the heir anyone wants, but he’s the heir nonetheless, so the family finds it easier to indulge him rather than to curb his behavior. Casiopea, who is mistreated by the entire family, has a poor relationship with her mother because she never comes to Casiopea’s defense whenever she is abused by a relative. While both mother and daughter do care for each other, the relationship is strained. Casiopea goes on her adventure without hesitation because she has neither loyalty, nor emotional ties to her family. While there is both plot development and character development, the subplot of family develops and affects the plot within the story.  

            The narrative is an interesting one. First, there are multiple 1stperson point-of-view’s, and all 4 narratives are reliable because each character admits to his or her flaws and strengths during their P.O.V chapters. Next, the locations mentioned within the novel—with the exception of Uukumil(?)—are real places throughout Mexico. Readers can pull up a map of Mexico and follow the journey of the two adversaries throughout the narrative. Last, each of the characters provide both flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness throughout the narrative. Providing thoughts of both the past and the present not only allows readers to know what the characters are thinking at that particular moment, but also how and why they all think the way they do. This narrative method provides an understanding of each of these characters while allowing readers to choose for themselves whether or not they like, dislike, pity, etc. each character. The author incorporates all of these narratives into the story, yet it makes the story that much easier to follow along.

            The style Silvia Moreno-Garcia provides is a mixture of history, culture, and folklore. The historical events mentioned throughout the novel—automobiles, the Charleston, Prohibition, etc.—provides the mood of the story, which is modernity brings change. Each location throughout the story elaborates the clothing, the music, and the hustle and bustle illustrates how far behind the town of Uukumil is compared to the rest of Mexico. The culture reminds and informs readers that Mexico is a big country with a rich culture, but what Northern Mexico practices is not practiced in Central and Southern Mexico (necessarily). The folklore, while Mayan mythology is the main focus, fairy tales—such as “Cinderella”—is mentioned over and over. The author does an amazing job explaining Mayan mythology, Mexican culture and history, and pop culture, she mentions both fairy tales and poetry as cautionary tales to staying pragmatic no matter what is occurring in your life. In fact, that is the tone of the novel, staying humble regardless of any life changing events both positive and negative. Readers see the consequences of both examples within the story, and that moral is relevant in our modern times.

            The appeal surrounding Gods of Jade and Shadow are already positive (remember, I read an ARC of this novel). The book received advanced praise by critics and authors alike. And, it has been called one of the “Best Books of the Month” by Amazon and Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog for July 2019. I did mention that fans of mythology-inspired fantasy will enjoy this novel the most. I should mention that several years ago, many people throughout the world became obsessed with Mayan culture and history when it was believed the world would end in 2012. This novel would appeal to them, too. This book can be read over and over again, and it belongs in the canon of mythological fantasy alongside Circe and American Gods. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel as well. 

            Gods of Jade and Shadow is an informative and entertaining story about change, tradition, desire, and family. The honor of it being called one of the “Best Books of 2019” are not just words, but fact. This book is definitely one of my favorites of 2019. Silvia Moreno-Garcia conducts a grim, but magical journey throughout Mexico while reintroducing what we forgotten from our world history class. This novel is one of the best stories that balance fantasy and reality in recent years. This is an enjoyable story for readers of multiple genres.

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

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019…So Far

We are halfway through 2019 and this year’s speculative fiction books have been both enjoyable and bountiful. Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been amazing, and I still have A LOT of books in my TBR pile to go through. Like you, I’m an ardent reader and I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on and has an interesting story. I’ve enjoyed novels, novellas, short stories across various genres of literature. If you’re interested in knowing some of the 51 books I’ve read between January 1stand June 30th2019, then please check out my Goodreads page here: https://www.goodreads.com/Misty306

            I’ve been trying to keep up with both ARCs, and the long list of nominations for this year’s Literary Awards as part of my Reading Award Challenge 2019. I knew it would be harder than it sounded, but I’ve read (and still reading) a lot of amazing books that I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. I suggest that you read a few of the numerous nominations for any of the 2019 SFF Awards. 

That being said, I wanted to point out some of speculative fiction books that were released in 2019 that I’ve enjoyed the most, so far. These are books I recommend you read, especially if you’re a fan of this genre of literature like I am. And, just so you know, these are books that I’ve read and finished between the 1sthalf of 2019. 

These are my Top Ten Picks in no particular order:

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

In An Absent Dream (Wayward Children #4) by Seanan McGuire

Uncanny Collateral (Valkyrie Collections #1) by Brian McClellan

Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher

Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

An Illusion of Thieves (Chimera #1) by Cate Glass

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Sisters of the Fire (Blood and Gold #2) by Kim Wilkins

Right now, I’m currently reading (released in 2019):

Broken Veil (Harbinger #5) by Jeff Wheeler

Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

One Word Kill (Impossible Times #1) by Mark Lawrence

Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

            Here are some of the MANY books I hope to read by the end of 2019 (many of these I received at Book Expo 2019!):  

            Those of my picks for the Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. I’m still aiming to read at least 100 books by the end of this year; and, I want to write as many reviews here, on Goodreads, on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you have any suggestions on what I should read, then please mention them in the Comments Section below. Please keep in mind that I might not be able to get access to certain books for various reasons (i.e. no $$$, waitlist at the library, etc.). Yet, I want to read as much as I can before 2019 ends (it’ll make my Award Reading Challenge 2020 much easier). 

            Which speculative fiction books released in 2019 have been your favorite so far?

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

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

            “…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

            There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

            Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba). 

            2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.” 

            Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are. 

            The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them. 

            The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.  

            Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.

            The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author. 

            The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s. 

The Shortlist Award Reading Challenge 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

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

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

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

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

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

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


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

Many readers recall waiting for the next book in a series whether or not it is a novel, a graphic novel, or a novella. Harry Potter usually comes to mind due to the phenomenon experienced throughout the 2000s, but there are other series that fans wait for with anticipation, patiently. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is one of those series. Due to the success of the show, Game of Thrones, the number of readers has increased, significantly. Unfortunately for Martin, this means that the pressure is mounting and readers have become more demanding for the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter. The fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, was released in 2011; and, with the television adaptation ending in 2019; the hype surrounding the next book continues to grow.

So, what do readers who are waiting for a book do? Simple, we read other books from either his or her contemporaries, or recommendations from friends or other fans. I’ll be listing suggested books and series you should read while waiting for The Winds of Winter. There are plenty of books to read, but which ones should you read? Besides books by Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, King, Jordan, Sanderson, Rowling, Herbert and Baum, there are so many books under the speculative fiction and magic realism genres for us to enjoy. And, readers can read these books and learn for themselves why these other books are just as essential to read as those written by the authors mentioned earlier.

This list is NOT my “favorites” because that list changes all the time. In addition, I will be including books in which I’ve finished reading. So, if there is a book that is NOT listed in this list, then it means either I have not yet read it, or I’m currently reading it and have not finished it. Also, I’m not including novellas or short stories here because that is a list for another time. This list contains suggestions I give to many people who know about my enthusiasm for reading, and are listed in no particular order. These books are available in print, in eBook, or at your local library.

Honorable Mentions

The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden

This is Katherine Arden’s debut novel, which is a blend of fantasy, folklore, and magic realism of the Russian culture. The novel is a retelling of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” which I’m learning more about while reading through the series. The novel, the first in a trilogy, follows Vasya, from her birth and early childhood to her adolescent years. Readers learn about Vasya’s family, culture, magic, and changes in her society—particularly Russia’s conversion to Christianity—during the mid-14th century. I recommend this book for fans of fairy tales, Russian history, and Slavic mythology.

Alanna: The First Adventure (1983) by Tamora Pierce

This is Tamora Pierce’s first novel, which is set in her world of Tortall. Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, switch places for their schooling. Thom goes to magic school to become a mage and Alanna goes to begin her training to become Tortall’s first female knight in 400 years. In order to accomplish this, Alanna has to disguise herself as a male. This novel provides readers with Alanna’s schooling, training, and developing into a woman (which she has to find ways to conceal). In addition, readers will learn about Tortall, which the author has spent the past 35 years building, creating, and expanding. There are several other books that occur in Tortall, with its own history and timeline.

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening (2016) by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (Artist)

Told by Marjorie M. Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, this volume contains issues #1-6. This graphic novel follows Maika Halfwolf, a 17 year-old survivor of a war between humans and magical beings known as Arcanics. Maika is suffering from both amnesia and PTSD from the war and her mother’s “research” that may or may not be responsible for her powers, and her blackouts. This beautifully illustrated steampunk horror story is a hybrid of Eastern and Western storytelling, supernatural elements, and art style.

Brave Story (1987) by Miyuki Miyabe

I’ll risk the criticism and call this novel the “first LitRPG”! This entwicklungsroman novel is from Japan and it follows Wataru Mitani, a young boy who goes on a magical quest in order to change his fate. However, he has to complete the quest before his classmate, Mitsuru Ashikawa, beats him to it. Similar to a RPG, Wataru travels to another world, meets companions, fights monsters in order to reach the end of the journey for the ultimate showdown. This fantasy novel includes social and familial issues children deal with on a regular basis, which makes it more enjoyable for fans of low fantasy.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) by Salman Rushdie

This novel is the first in a series by award-winning author, Salman Rushdie. When Haroun’s father loses his ability to tell stories, which is his profession, Haroun travels to the place where his father gets his stories, only to learn that the entire kingdom is in distress. Haroun is both the protagonist and the witness to the events within this novel. Salman Rushdie plays with everyone’s notions surrounding fairy tales, fantasy worlds, and magic.

1) The Harbinger Series: Storm Glass (2018) by Jeff Wheeler

The most recent book on this list is by Jeff Wheeler, an underground fantasy author who is very popular amongst the Kindle Unlimited subscribers. He has several fantasy books in multiple series that are interconnected. The Harbinger Series is Wheeler’s latest series and Storm Glass is the first book. If you’re new to Jeff Wheeler, then he recommends that you read this series before reading his other ones.

Storm Glass is told from the point-of-views of two 12 year-old girls from different backgrounds. Cettie is an orphan living in a foster home in the worst district in the city, until a wealthy politician and his family take her in. Sera is a princess who is living a sheltered, but unhappy life above the clouds. Both girls start to change their destinies against a rigid society that attempts to halt them over and over again. The girls realize quickly that their individual lives were never the most complex ones. Each social class has its own dilemmas.

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will appreciate the political discussions, the world building, and the complexity of all the characters. The fact that two 12 year-olds are faced with these adult issues and challenges reminds us that children are pawns in the struggle for power, too. The first book ends with a subtle cliffhanger, but fans and readers will remember that power is a continuous affair.

2) Vicious: Villains: Book 1 (2013) by V.E. Schwab

This unique and immersive story is Schwab’s first adult novel. The following influences the story: X-Men, Frankenstein, and The Count of Monte Cristo, toxic families, and toxic masculinity. Told in a narrative that alters between the past and the present, the author builds up a plan of revenge through the points of view of all of the characters, most of who have Extra Ordinary abilities gained from near death experiences.

Victor Vale and Eli Ever will remind readers of pairings such as Professor X and Magneto, Batman and the Joker, and The Punisher and Daredevil. Victor and Eli met and became frienemies at college. When the two decide to experiment with the ideas surrounding EOs for an assignment, both men gain very different abilities at great costs. 10 years later, both men are at opposite ends of the same side, the bad side. Readers learn everything that has happened to both Victor and Eli throughout that time period as well as what is supposed to happen when the two men meet up again. And, it’s everything and nothing you’d expect!

Readers of A Song of Ice and Fire should keep in mind that Victor Vale and Eli Ever could be compared to Varys and Littlefinger (you decide who is who). The cunning of these males are obvious and their traumas are relatable, yet the readers wonder if the ends justify the means. And just like A Dance with Dragons, only the sequels will give readers a closer look into these men. Vengeful is out now for those who crave more from these toxic males, and the author.

3) The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (1989) by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth   (Illus.), Mike Dringenberg (Illus.), Jill Thompson (Illus.), Shawn McManus (Illus.), Marc Hempel (Illus.), Michael Zulli (Illus.), Dave McKean (Illus.), and many other illustrators

Just about everyone has heard about this graphic novel series. But, how many people have actually read this series? This story follows Dream, a male who controls every aspect of dreams, as he does his “job” while interacting with various people and beings in the past and in the present. Each of the 10 issues illustrates Dream as he performs his “job” and displays his importance to humanity. The story is told by Neil Gaiman and is illustrated by a slew of talented artists.

Now available in a new printed edition, The Sandman Vol. 1 follows Dream as he is captured and released from a magical prison. Throughout this volume, readers learn of the severe consequences humanity suffers due to The Sandman’s imprisonment. Then, readers see how Dream deals and works through the damage control surrounding those affected by Dream’s absence. Dream even makes a journey to Hell.

Fans of George R.R. Martin will appreciate how Gaiman tells both the story and the consequences of humans messing around with “higher powers” and “the unknown.” If you decide to continue reading this series, then you will notice similarities found in the world building of the supernatural and the magic. The figures behind such powers will have readers wondering whether or not they should get involved with such things.

4) Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2005) by Rick Riordan

While many of us have heard of this popular series, how many have actual read the books, especially the first one? Rick Riordan writes a combination of “What if…” and “mundane/within our world” fantasy with modern-day children. The ancient gods still live, and they now reside in the United States. Percy Jackson is 12 year-olds, never met his father, hates his stepfather, suffers from dyslexia and ADHD, and gets expelled from school every year. Suddenly, he’s accused of stealing from Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods, and has to travel cross-country to prove his innocence. Think of it as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but for younger readers.

This book, the series, the sequel series, and the spinoffs should be read because of the references to the myths, the cultures, and the histories mentioned throughout the series. Myths are religious beliefs and customs followed by groups of people. Religion is the forefront of myths because people pray and worship their god(s) or goddess(es). History is a chronological list of events of the past, which allow for current generations to look at both the hindsight and the repercussions of those events. In addition, legends and heroes are added to the tales within the cultures’ mythology. Sound familiar?

George R.R. Martin’s influences come from ancient and modern mythologies and legends: Norse, Greek, Arthurian, Christianity, etc. Why not read a popular series that explains these influences? Riordan has written series about the Greek and the Roman, the Egyptian, and the Norse myths. Plus, he supports and recommends similar series about other world mythologies such as those written by Roshani Chokshi, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jonathan W. Stokes.

5) Battle Royale: The Novel (1999) by Koushun Takami

This novel gets lost between Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. And, since both novels are required reading in school, why not pick up another book about a dystopian society in which children are forced to kill each other? This import from Japan is an updated version of William Golding’s text, but with the emotional brutality of Suzanne Collin’s trilogy.

After being abducted and forced to compete in “the most dangerous game,” 42 15 year-old Japanese students make the choice on whether or not to participate. The chapters are told from the point-of-view of several of the characters, thus having the readers realize why certain students are the way they are. This setup of the characters’ past is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Just like in George R.R. Martin’s series, readers get into the heads of the teenagers in Battle Royale, and they decide on whether or not to emphasize with them. Even though the setting is dystopian, the issues and the experiences of the students are current and real. Yet, it is understandable if a reader wishes to continue disliking a character because he or she believes that someone’s past and previous experiences does NOT justify that character’s actions. Not to mention, the pacing is appropriate and believable and matches the mood of the book.

6) Uprooted (2015) by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik has been writing and publishing books for over ten years with her Temeraireseries. Yet, she has expanded her fan base due to her latest books, which focuses on what societies know about heroes, legends, magic, and fairy tales and adds the element of realism to them. Uprooted is one of Novik’s novels that follow this method of storytelling.

Loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, Agnieszka is chosen to serve a wizard known as “The Dragon” as a form of compensation for him protecting her village from “The Corrupted Wood.” Agnieszka must serve The Dragon for ten years by assisting him with reducing the power of The Wood. During her service, she learns how to use magic, how to make her way in the royal court, and how to live with the consequences that is her magic.

This novel is similar to George R.R. Martin’s series in that heroes are not always heroic, nature can be dangerous, magic comes at a cost, and power writes history. “Magic has a cost” is the central theme in this novel, just like in A Song of Ice and Fire. Also, the characters question the motives of the trees within the forest: The Wood and The Old Gods. Are there more to them than the characters and the readers realize?

7) Who Fears Death (2007) by Nnedi Okorafor

Fans of the Binti trilogy and the Akata series need to read Who Fears Death, the award-winning magic realism novel. Yes, this is the author who was with George R.R. Martin at the 2018 Emmy Awards, and it’s because HBO is adapting this novel for a television series with George R.R. Martin as an executive producer. This book is a gift given to us by its author, Nnedi Okorafor.

This story follows the life, the education, and the quest of Onyesonwu, whose name literally means “Who Fears Death?” She and her mother are labeled outcasts (because Onyesonwu is an “Ewu,” a mixed child of rape and violence), but they manage to find a home with Onyesonwu’s adoptive father, whom she tries to resurrect in the first chapter of the novel. Growing up, Onyesonwu learns about her “Eshu,” shape-shifting and magic abilities, and is determined to be taught by Aro—a sorcerer—about her powers, her biological father, and her destiny.

Just like George R.R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor combines (African) history and culture into an epic tale that is part fantasy and part reality. Everyone is a victim of war, tradition, fear, and death. Expectations are met and the unexpected will keep readers engrossed. War, gender roles, and power make the story what it is as well.

8) His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights (1995) by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is known as “The Most Dangerous Man in England,” J.K. Rowling’s counterpart,” and “a well-known atheist.” In addition, he is an Oxford professor and an award winning children’s author. Pullman is currently one of six authors to win both the “Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize” and “The Carnegie Medal” for the same book: The Northern Lights, or as it’s known in the U.S., The Golden Compass.

First published in 1995, this steampunk novel is an allusion—or, subtle connection to other works of literature—to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Ironic, isn’t it? Furthermore, it could be argued that Pullman’s series is his response to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and Lewis’ Narnia series. This first novel in the trilogy follows 11 year-old Lyra Belaqua, an orphan who goes on a journey to rescue her friend and other children from a religious order within her world, a world that is parallel and similar to our world.

The subplot of this trilogy is the cause and the effect religion has in a society. George R.R. Martin writes about various religions and about both their followers, and their fanatics. Unlike Martin, Pullman focuses on the darker side of Christianity. I’m not saying that I’m against Christianity, but every religion has its darker moments throughout history.

9) The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1: The Name of the Wind (2007) by Patrick Rothfuss

Fantasy fans have heard of this book, and if you have not read it yet, then you are really missing out on a great story. Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel—which took 15 years to write—follows Kvothe, the protagonist, as he recalls the events of his childhood from youth to orphan to hero to expelled student. Do not let the length of the novel intimidate you. The story and the world building will seize you and leave you wanting more.

This novel looks into the making of a “living hero” and the “semi-retirement” of our protagonist Kvothe is a gifted individual who shows promise of what he’ll become eventually. He does attend a university to learn magic, which has its own rules and structure. Rothfuss incorporates realism by including the conviction, the trauma, and the struggles the protagonist faces as he grows up. In addition, readers learn a bit about the main antagonist, The Chandrian, through the author’s world building. There is a lot more to Kvothe’s world and past than Rothfuss lets on.

And, like George R.R. Martin, fans and readers have been waiting for the next and final book, Doors of Stone, to be released. In other words, fans of both Martin and Rothfuss will be able to relate to each other because both groups have been waiting for the next book for years! This is wishful thinking, but maybe we’ll get both The Winds of Winter, and Doors of Stone in the same year! Or, maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda will release his version of a soundtrack to The Kingkiller Chronicles!

 

10) The Broken Earth: The Fifth Season (2015) by N.K. Jemisin

This award-winning novel from the award-winning trilogy is one of my favorite books of all-time! And, if you have not read The Fifth Season yet, then I suggest you do so immediately! Speculative fiction is changing and this novel is one of many behind the new popularity of this genre of fiction!

In the distant future, where the Earth suffers long-term damage from earthquakes and volcanoes, people with the power to control the planet’s stability are enslaved in order to prevent the planet from destroying its life forms. You learn about the world, its history, and its culture from various characters told from multiple points of view. As you get further along in the story, you realize that not only do you become attach to all of the characters and understand their motives, but also recall everything you learned back in your high school science classes!

This book will remind fans of George R.R. Martin as to why characters are just as important to the story as the world building. You cannot have one without the other. The people make the world and its many societies, and the world and its societies determine what happens to its people. The world is already broken, and the people must decide on whether or not it should be fixed.

Those are some of the many books I recommend for you to read while we continue waiting for The Winds of Winter. These recommendations, and their sequels, should be enough to occupy your time while we continue to wait for the 6th book—remember, the 7th and final book in the series, A Dream of Spring, will have its own separate waiting period. As you read, there are several books to choose from, and there are more that I was not able to mention because I wished to keep this list short. All genres and sub-genres were mentioned in this list because their stories are captivating whether or not it’s meant for children, adults, graphic novel readers, or folklore fans.

The settings and the influence surrounding these stories should make you aware that each region and culture on planet Earth has influenced the way these authors present their stories to us. Plus, reading other contemporary works of George R.R. Martin will provide insight to what we—as fans and as readers—can and cannot expect from these modern speculative authors. These are stories of how society affects the characters and their world with magical and spiritual elements.

Please either message me on social media, or in the comments below on what you think of my recommendations. Have you read any of these books? Which ones are your favorite from this list? Is there a book I forgot to mention, or that you recommend I should read? What would your choices be? Please let me know.