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

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Wayward Children, #2: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: ALA Alex Award 2018, ALA RUSA Fantasy Award 2018

            It did not occur to Jill that Jack’s avoidance, like her own, had been born purely of parental desire and never of a sincere wanting. Their parents had done everything they could to blur the lines of twinhood, leaving Jack and Jill stuck in the middle, (6: The First Night of Safety). 

            Series of any kind—books, movies, TV shows (including anime), video games, etc.—remain intriguing. One of the many reasons series continue to fascinate everyone is due to the ways the elements—the story, the characters, the setting, etc.—keep us immersed within them. Another reason is because of the creators of these series. They have to come up with creative ways not only to keep our interest, but also find ways to make us want more from them. Not to mention, some of the creators find ways to expand on their world through their series. Series are not limited to any genre or any format, but it seems speculative fiction captivates our expectations when it comes to using series to expand on everyone’s desires, especially the creators’. And, series can be presented to the audience in any order the creator wants to present them. Seanan McGuire is such an author who presents her Wayward Children series across moments in time. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in the series, which takes place before the events in its predecessor, Every Heart A Doorway

            The protagonists in this story are Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott—also known as, and preferred to be called, Jack and Jill—identical twins with different personalities yet similar demeanors. Both girls had the unfortunate luck of being born to Chester and Serena Wolcott who believe having children would move them up the social ladder (and yes, such adults still exist, sadly). The parents take this notion to extreme levels by forcing their daughters into roles of binary femininity—the girly-girl, Jack; and, the tomboy, Jill. Unfortunately for the twins, the style of parenting forced upon them not only messes up their idea of what femininity is, but also causes a crescendo of sibling rivalry instead of sisterhood. Jacqueline, who always wore dresses she could never get dirty, wants to prove she knows more than what others let on—which she does. Jillian, who cannot decide whether or not her short hair and her boyish clothes make her a freak, wants nothing more than to have any sort of affection from anybody—which she deserves. It comes as no surprise their Door leads to the Moors, a place which reminds travelers of black-and-white monster movies (where monsters are “born”). Once there, the twins are separated—physically—for the first time, and will remain that way for the next 5 years, through most of their adolescence. Jack goes with Dr. Bleak to become his apprentice, which allows her to learn everything she could ever want; and, Jill goes with the Master—a real monster—who showers her with all of the affection and the attention she always craved. As the twins grow apart with their new parental figures, it comes as no surprise Jack and Jill develop a spectrum of psychopathic behavior, one way more extreme than the other. 

            The plot of this story revolves around the birth, the upbringings—remember, they each had 2—and the growth of the twins into what they become by their 17th birthday. Yes, the Moors cemented Jack and Jill into monsters; but, one could argue their parents put them on that path before their Door appeared. There are two subplots which develop alongside the plot and are essential to the story. The first subplot follows how the twins gain separate identities, something that was denied to them by their parents, but explored in the Moors. The second subplot delves into types of parenting, especially toxic parenting. There are 5 adults who “parent” Jack and Jill, and 3 of them would be labeled as “toxic.” These subplots and the plot are important to the story because readers get an understanding of the nurturing the twins endured throughout their entire childhood. Keeping this in mind, while Jack and Jill are not responsible for their adult role models, they are responsible for their decisions and their actions.

            The narrative in this novella isn’t a flashback, but a look into the past. The points-of-view is 3rd person omniscient, or a narration which moves between the P.O.V.s of multiple (main) characters. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first characters readers are introduced to are Jack and Jill’s parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Readers learn the reason why they decided to have children, why their parenting methods are viewed as “toxic,” and their “reactions” to their daughters’ disappearance and their return. Due to the narrative styles used in this book, the characters’ P.O.V.s are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness. In this case, the readers are able to empathize with (most of) the characters, especially Jack and Jill. This narration is straightforward and engrossing. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be argued as becoming “the villain.” I’m NOT an expert in psychology, but it has been mentioned by several experts that neglected and abused children often crave love and affection and are willing to do just about anything to get it. However, if those parents and/or adult role models are “toxic,” or are “parents who inflict ongoing trauma, abuse, and denigration on their children,” (Forward and Buck, 12). The author’s use of specific moments Chester and Serena and the Master inflicted the identities and the roles they wanted onto their daughters—throwing away gifts from Gemma Lou, murdering playmates, etc.—foreshadows the behaviors (i.e. Obsession Compulsive Disorder, or OCD) and the traits (i.e. eager-to-please) the twins will exhibit in the future. This story is NOT a parenting book, but a cautionary tale of children and how they are individuals, and NOT blank slates to force into a role of the adults’ choosing. The mood in this story is duality. Jacqueline and Jillian are identical twins—who are nicknamed after the nursery rhyme by everyone but their parents—who are forced into the false binary roles of femininity—girly and tomboy—by their parents, who are brought up separately in the Moors later on by 2 new “role models” as the mad scientist’s apprentice and the vampire’s daughter—two of the most notorious “monsters” in literature. This book is the first in the series to include illustrations—by the talented Rovina Cai—and they present the moments of “love” the twins experienced during their stay at the Moors. 

            The appeal for this book have been positive. It was nominated for the same literary awards as its predecessor. Yet, it was the American Library Association, or the ALA, who gave this novella its accolades winning both the Alex Award—given to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18—and, the ALA RUSA Award—an annual best-of-list comprised of 8 different fiction genres for adult readers—in Fantasy. These awards—given by librarians—demonstrate readers of most ages can read and appreciate this book. And, while this book takes place before the events of Every Heart A Doorway, you should read that book before reading this one. That way readers won’t get confused about the book’s context. After learning about the world Jack and Jill traveled to, who wouldn’t want to learn what happens in the next book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky?

            Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an engrossing follow up to its predecessor. Readers get a look into how the twins lived before finding their Door and living in a new world who embraced them for better and for worse. Seanan McGuire uses duality in order to give readers the beauty and the horror in everything from gender identity to parental figures. Which world will we travel to next?

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Forward, Susan, and Craig Buck. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.

e- book, Bantam, 2009. 

Why You Need to Read: “Every Heart A Doorway”

Wayward Children, #1: Every Heart A Doorway

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: April 5, 2016

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: Hugo Award for Best Novella 2017, Nebula Award for Best Novella 2016, Locus Award for Best Novella 2017, ALA Alex Award 2017

            …the wanting. You want to go back, and so you hold on to the habits you learned while you were traveling, because it’s better than admitting the journey’s over. We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on, (3: Birds of a Feather). 

            Anyone who is a fan of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, and authors who write similar stories MUST READ THIS SERIES!!! The Wayward Children books are a portal fantasy series which asks the question: what happens when those who are “spirited away” return to our world? Seanan McGuire answers this question in her series. While it is obvious which stories inspired and influenced the author, the originality will draw readers into this series. It mentions how a combination of Time and Desire can lead to a portal to another world. And, there are many worlds which we are familiar with whether or not we realize it. They are allusions to other portal fantasy and adventure books and readers have to recall all of them in order to comprehend the series. 

            While there are several characters in this book—the students and the (resident) teachers are “travelers”—the protagonist is Nancy, the newest arrival at Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests. She is 17-years-old and was “gone” for six months in the Halls of the Dead before the Lord of the Dead returned Nancy to our world so that she can “Be Sure” before making her choice to stay there forever. It’s been “seven weeks, four days” and counting, and Nancy is waiting for her Door to reappear. Nancy is like many of the students at the school, she wants to return Home, but knows there is a slim chance of it happening. Nancy’s parents send her to this school so she can “get better,” but Nancy learns quickly that the school is a haven for other children like her who want nothing more than to return to their Homes. There’s Sumi—Nancy’s roommate—who traveled to Confection and cannot sit still long enough to hold a conversation. Kade—a relative of Eleanor’s—who was kicked out of Fairyland and is in charge of managing everyone’s “preferred” wardrobe. Jacqueline and Jillian—known as Jack and Jill—are identical twins whose adventures in the Moors is something out of a black-and-white horror movie. And, Christopher who traveled to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” similar to the holiday, Día de los Muertos. The adults in charge consist of Eleanor West, the headmistress, whose Door is still open; and, Lundy, the school’s therapist, who is aging in reverse as punishment for breaking the rules of the High Logic, High Wicked world she “visited.” Unlike Eleanor, Lundy knows she can never return to her Home, and so she projects her bitterness on to the students. All of the residents at the school want to go Home, but they all have to settle on having to learn how to readapt in our world. And yet, many of the students refuse to believe their Doors are lost to them forever. 

            There are 2 plots in Every Heart A Doorway. The first is learning how the school operates and how Eleanor recruits students while keeping them safe. The second is the construction of the “Great Compass.” Eleanor, Lundy and Kade spend their free time compiling a book of the descriptions and the characteristics of each world. The most common “directions” are: Nonsense, Virtue, Logic and Wicked; then, there are several “minor” compass directions such as Rhyme and Linearity. These plots are continuous throughout the series, and it is fascinating to learn how the school is managed, and it’s intriguing to learn which worlds are “connected” to one another. However, it is the subplots that keep the readers engaged, and there are two of them. The first concerns the murders of some of the school’s residents. Who is killing them and why? The second subplot follows the worlds each traveler visited and the “stereotypes” surrounding each one. For example, who’s to decide on whether or not a world of rainbows is “good” over the world with skeleton people? All worlds whether or not they exist in reality contain both beauty and danger.

            The narrative in this story follow’s Nancy’s point-of-view; but, she does not remain as the only P.O.V. character in this story. There are times when the P.O.V. switches to other characters, even for a paragraph. So, this narration is presented using 3rd person limited omniscience. Due to the style of narration, the protagonist—and, the other P.O.V. characters—are reliable narrators. Not to mention, readers get the characters’ streams-of-consciousness throughout the story. It should be mentioned whenever the characters are talking about their Homes—both their worlds and their families—they are as memories, NOT flashbacks! This is because the characters are describing their experiences as they remember them; and, some of those recollections are unreliable because they are from their perspectives, which are biased. 

            The style Seanan McGuire presents is a twist on portal and quest fantasies. Farah Mendlesohn defines “Portal-Quest Fantasy” as: “In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not ‘have’ to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are,” (Mendlesohn, 1). McGuire asks the question: what happens if the ‘hero’ or the ‘traveler’ returns to our world? On the one hand, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland goes back to Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass before returning to our world for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Dorothy from the Oz series traveled to Oz so often, she, her aunt and her uncle, and Toto move there permanently. So, why did one stay in our world while the other one didn’t? Would Alice have stayed in Wonderland if she was given a choice? And, the characters from McGuire’s story, what would they give to return Home? The author asks these questions as these children return from their travels changed, and are suffering—NOT from PTSD—but from struggling to return to their mundane existence. The allusions to all of the stories and their authors mentioned are informative and valid. Instead of the “familiar” fantasy stories and fairy tales we believe we know, readers receive the dark lore and the styles from other variants of folklore and fantasy stories. And, it’s the reality check fantasy readers didn’t know they needed. The mood in Every Heart A Doorway is a haven for all of the travelers. The tone in this story is how each character struggles to accept their current predicament. Some have accepted it and others continue to search for their Doors.  

            The appeal for Every Heart A Doorway were and continue to be multitudinous. Not only did this novella win several awards—including the Hugo and the Nebula—but also gain numerous readers who were introduced to the author and her other books, including myself! This book and the other ones in the Wayward Children series belong in the speculative fiction canon, and have lasting appeal because of the characters and their stories. The fact this continues to be an ongoing series will have fans rereading this book over and over again. In fact, Tor.com announced fans and readers can expect the series to have at least 4 more books, bringing the current total to 10 books!

            Every Heart A Doorway is an amazing and unique look into how diversified fantasy is based on all of the worlds the characters have traveled to, and why all of the authors who wrote similar stories believed their characters were better off returning whence they came from instead of remaining where they were the happiest. Fans of both traditional and twisted fantasy stories should read this book. This novella will have you searching for your Door.

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan, 2008.

Why You Need to Listen to: “The Original”

The Original

By: Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal                Audiobook: 3 hours 24 minutes

Released: September 14, 2020                                                       Narrated by: Julia Whelan

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

            Have you ever listened to any audio story or audio narrative without the text or any visuals to follow along to? I believe the most familiar example of this would be Peter and the Wolf. This Russian “symphonic fairy tale” is presented with specific orchestra ensembles representing each of the characters with a narrator telling the rest of the story. There are audiobooks which are standalones (as in no written edition) and it relies on an excellent narration and an engaging story so that the audience’s attention is maintained from start to finish. The Original by both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal demonstrates a strong collaboration, but it is the talent of Julia Whelan that gives life to the story through her narration. 

            Holly is the protagonist. She wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there; and, her husband, Jonathan, isn’t with her. She is told by doctors and by Detective Skylar that she is a Clone of the “Original” Holly, and that she was created on the orders of a warrant because Holly murdered her husband. On top of that bit of news, Holly learns she is an “Edited Clone,” which means that changes were made to the body and the DNA that can make a Clone “better” than the “Original.” Finally, Holly is told one more thing: no one can locate the real Holly, and she has to find her and kill her in order to survive. Holly leaves the hospital with her mission to carry out with a set of skills her “Original” doesn’t have and didn’t ask for. The Clone Holly has to shift through shared memories, to survive attacks from people she doesn’t recognize, and to find her Original within 4 days or cease to exist. Does Holly want to live the life of her Original? Can she find her? And, if she does, then will she be able to kill her? 

            The plot is very interesting. A clone awakens, learns the reason for her creation, told her purpose, and is sent to carry it out. Of course, that’s the short version of it. Holly has less than 4 days to find her Original before she ceases to exist because a Clone and its Original cannot exist at the same time. Detective Skylar explains to Holly that after she finds and kills her Original she can live her life for the duration of hers. Meanwhile, Holly is trying to figure out what led her Original to kill Jonathan. She goes through her memories of her relationship and love for Jonathan, his occupation and hers, the last time they were together before the murder, and the murder itself. This leads to Holly having more questions than answers, but she decides that finding her Original and demanding to know why she killed her husband before killing her is how she is going to complete her mission. The subplot is the elements of world-building, many of which includes the idea behind clones and other scientific practices the society performs. In addition to clones, nanotechnology exists so that people can reverse aging and accelerate healing. Yet, Holly discovers that nanotechnology and clones are not wanted by everyone, including Jonathan. So, if Jonathan was against the idea of clones, then why is Holly being promised with a clone of Jonathan after she kills her Original? The subplot develops alongside the plot in which both the society and the conflict are explained further as the story continues. 

            The narrative follows the point-of-view of Clone Holly. This makes for an interesting P.O.V. experience because none of her past experiences are hers, and she cannot remember everything of her past before she was created. This is important to know because this means that when Holly remembers something, it is NOT a flashback! It is NOT amnesia! This is because, one, the memory isn’t hers; and two, Holly can’t remember all of the details surrounding those memories. Holly knows that she was created without all of her memories intentionally. This revelation does make Holly’s stream-of-consciousness very interesting because in between Holly’s confusion and exhaustion, the audience knows how frustrated Holly is throughout everything that is happening to her. This knowledge and the experience Holly goes through makes her a reliable narrator. As a clone, she is dependent on what is being told to her. It is obvious she is being manipulated, but it is not her fault. The audio presentation makes the narration easy to follow. 

            The style both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal used for The Original delves into two “traditional” conflicts: individual versus society, and science versus nature. Reiterating these conflicts within this story not only demonstrates the reality within the fiction, but also leaves the audience to question their identities as well. The word choice used throughout the narrative was done intentionally by the authors so that the audience can comprehend the story with the scientific terminology, which allows for a thought-provoking story without too much thought. The mood in the story is anxiety. Both the protagonist and the audience are anxious throughout the story as both the truth and the existence is at stake for a clone who isn’t sure whether or not she wants to live. The tone gives the vibe of a cautionary tale. This story serves as a warning against scientific advancements and government control over individuals within a society. 

            This audiobook was narrated by Julia Whelan, and I have to say that I am beyond impressed with how she presented this story. Her voice of the characters are easy to distinguish and her voice for the narrative is enough to keep the audience immersed in the story. If it weren’t for the chapters, then it would have been easy to get lost in the story until the very end. I’m looking forward to hearing her narrate other stories in the future. 

            The appeal for this audiobook have been positive. Many listeners seem to enjoy the story, but have mixed feelings of it being just an audiobook. I know many readers don’t always listen to audiobooks, but what makes The Original standout is that it’s only available as an audiobook. I was able to keep up with the story with the narrator’s pace, but I understand if other listeners did not feel the same way. That being said, both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal have confirmed during a livestream on YouTube that there is no hurry for a written edition of The Original. If an adaptation were to be done for this audiobook, then I could see it as a graphic novel—both the action sequences and the story’s tone is enough to visualize a graphic novel. Fans of science fiction and readers of novellas will enjoy this audiobook the most. In fact, anyone who is on a long commute and/or are doing household chores should listen to this audiobook. This is because by the time you’re done with the commute or with your chores, you should be done with the story and not have to worry about losing your place within the audiobook. 

            The Original is a brilliant collaboration between two bestselling authors of the speculative fiction genre. Do not be intimidated by the fact that this is an audiobook. If you’ve listened to Broadway musicals on audio, then you can handle a sci-fi thriller novella on audio. At least listen to the story for the second twist in this story! Did you really believe these authors would include only one twist? I’m not going to tell you what it is, so you’re going to have to listen to the story to find out what the other twist is, and it’s not what you think it is!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Cerulean Queen”

The Nine Realms #4: The Cerulean Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I am Cerúlia, the daughter of the late, brave Queen Cressa the Enchanter and the heroic Lord Ambrice. 

            I. Am. Your. Queen, (Chapter Five).

            When the end of a story draws near, there lies a range of emotion from sadness to anxiousness. It is sad when a great story comes to an end, but there is anticipation in that the story will have a great ending. Many series that were well-received and started out well do have great endings, but there are a few that have excellent endings, and some whose endings fall short on everything. Sarah Kozloff delivers an excellent ending in The Nine Realms with the fourth and final book, The Cerulean Queen

            Cerúlia—once Wren, Kestrel, Skylark and finally, Phénix—has returned to Weirandale in order to claim her birthright, the Nargis Throne. Unfortunately, arriving in Cascada was the easy part. Cerúlia still has to get into the throne room, get Dedicated, seize control back from Matwyck, liberate the captured citizens, and begin her reign. All of this is easier said than done. Especially since Lord Matwyck, General Yurgn, and others have no intention of allowing Cerúlia to become queen. General Sumroth of Oromondo seeks power and vengeance towards the Nargis Queen for crimes new and forgotten. In fact, with some divine guidance, an alliance is made in order to destroy Weirandale. Meanwhile, Thalen, the Raiders, and the rest of the denizens in the Free States start to rebuild after the Oros had left their land after war and occupation. Thalen and the Raiders travel to the Scolairíum in order to resolve the remaining dilemma concerning Oromondo, the famine and the cause of it. In this part of the story, Queen Cerúlia presents the most development. She is no longer a child, but Cerúlia has neither knowledge nor experience with being a monarch; and, part of that lies in the fact that she spent more time with the common people instead of nobles. However, Cerúlia has always known who she is and what she would become, so she rises to all of the challenges of being a ruler and, she won’t have to do it alone. 

            The plot in The Cerulean Queen is Cerúlia’s rise to Queen amidst all of the threats a monarch has to put up with. Cerúlia has enemies in and beyond Weirandale who do all they can to stop her reign before order can be maintained. Not only must she gain control of all of the affairs of Weirandale, but also demonstrate her diplomatic abilities and desires for maintaining peace with the other realms. Cerúlia has the Nargis Throne and she must begin to consider the future of her kingdom. There are two subplots that coincide with the plot. First, is the divine intervention that continues to occur in Weirandale, especially now that Cerúlia is Queen. A few of the Spirits desire an end to the Nargis Line and they use both their Agents and the mortals to carry out those desires (with others opposing them at the same time). Second, is the consequences surrounding Cerúlia’s revelation to her friends, her allies and her foster family. Cerúlia’s true identity is shocking, but other secrets have yet to be revealed and the fallout begins once everything is known. The plot and the subplots develop alongside the narrative in order to start wrapping up the rest of the story. In addition, readers start saying goodbye to all of the characters as the plot(s) and the subplots are resolved. 

            The narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view; however, much of the narration focuses on Cerúlia. Readers do experience the on goings of the other realms from the other characters, but Cerúlia’s reign is the subject of the Spirits and all Nine Realms, so more attention is given to her. That being said, the narrative is in a chronological sequence told in 1st person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of reliable narrators. Most of the narration focuses on Cerúlia’s reign at its beginning. This means that she’ll have “challenges” to her status as Queen, leaving her to demonstrate her ability to rule. Readers should pay attention to the characters who support and who oppose her rule and why. Some of the characters are justified in their beliefs, others not so much. Some of Cerúlia’s opponents are not corrupt or greedy, they believe in their ambitions, and some of it is understandable. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Cerulean Queen focuses on the politics that comes with a monarchy with familiar fantasy tropes. Cerúlia becomes Queen, but still must weed out all of those responsible for Matwyck’s usurpation and tyranny while forming peace and alliances with the other realms and her subjects. Cerúlia and her allies know that changes must be made so that history doesn’t repeat itself; and, they have to determine when to be ruthless and when to be merciful. Towards the end of the book, fantasy tropes emerge, and they will remind readers of books by J.R.R. Tolkien and Tamora Pierce. The final battle, magic and the divine will playout in this book. It’s cliché, but it works well within this story. The mood is hope and all that comes with it. Even though Cerúlia is Queen, that was one factor of hope. The denizens of Weirandale are hoping for a peaceful reign, but all they can do is hope for a better future. The tone is strength and determination demonstrated by all of the protagonists and the main characters throughout the narrative. Cerúlia is not the only one with something to prove to everyone. The maps—not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist the readers with keeping track of all of the characters and the locations mentioned throughout the story. 

            The appeal for The Cerulean Queen will be positive. Not only has Sarah Kozloff presented readers with a fulfilling ending to this epic fantasy series, but also managed to pull it off by convincing the publisher—Tor Books—to release these books in consecutive months in order to keep the interests of the readers. And, this proves that reading an epic fantasy series is doable—there are several standalone books and series to choose from—and it should no longer be seen as a daunting experience. I believe The Nine Realms will remain in the fantasy canon because of the world-building and countless female characters presented throughout the series. I hope we’ll see more stories by the author in the future. 

            The Cerulean Queen is the novel that wraps up The Nine Realms saga; and, the author does a great job delivering an appropriate conclusion to the story and the characters. It is sad to see this series reach its end, but readers will not deny that they found the experience enjoyable and magical. Sarah Kozloff should be proud of what she has accomplished! And, when the anniversary omnibus edition is released, I’ll be purchasing a copy as well!

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

Why You Need to Read: "A Broken Queen"

The Nine Realms #3: A Broken Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: March 24, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

NOTE: There are minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. You have been warned. 

            …sure that she was dying with her task unfulfilled, her people condemned to suffering, and the line of Nargis Queens judging her harshly, (Chapter Nine, “Aboard Island Dreamer”). 

            All great stories and storytellers know how to present the events and the plot to the audience. And, in the age of online streaming services, modern audiences started to forget what it’s like to have a cliffhanger and it being drawn out to where one wants their suspicions to be either confirmed or debunked. The Queen of Raiders—Book 2 in The Nine Realms—ended with this type of cliffhanger. Readers suspected that the protagonist did not meet her end, but the mystery of “what happened” and “what is going to happen” is addressed in A Broken Queen, Book 3 in The Nine Realms

            Thalen, Skylark and the Raiders have defeated the Oros in Oromondo. Unfortunately, Skylark is injured during the escape, falls into and is lost to the sea. Believing Skylark is dead, Thalen and the Raiders return to the Free States in order to lift the siege and to end the occupation of the Oros. Meanwhile, Gustie and Hartling do all they can to keep the Resistance going until the Oro army leaves; Matwyck has become drunk on power, finally, and has taken on interfering with the blossoming romance of his son, Marcot; and, the Spirits are becoming more active in their influence on the affairs of their Agents and the other mortals. All the while, Cerúlia—now using the alias, Phénix—ends up in Salubriton in the Realm of Wyeland, which is on the other side of Ennea Món. It is there Cerúlia is able to heal from both her injuries and her traumas. Even though Thalen and all of the denizens of the Free States now have to deal with the aftermath of the war and the occupation, and Matwyck becomes more and more devious with his “regency,” it is Cerúlia who develops the most in this book. This time, she learns empathy through her interactions with the other patients at the recovery house as they heal from ailments that plague the body, the mind, and the soul. At the same time, the Spirits present themselves to being as petty as stagnant as any other divine being. Then again, the conflicts of the Spirits are just as complex as their worshippers! 

            The plot in A Broken Queen is Cerúlia’s determination to reclaim the Nargis Throne after being hidden and in exile for 15 years. Once again, she’s shocked to learn of the lengths Matwyck goes to in order to prevent her return. But first, Cerúlia must regain her strength and come up with a plan for seizing control of Weirandale from the usurpers. There are several subplots as well, and they tie into the plot. First, there is the occupation of the Oromondo army in the Free States. Even though the war is over with a victory for the Free States, the Oros have no plans to leave the place where there is no famine or poisoned water. The war did not resolve the reason for the invasion, which is now becoming the dilemma to be solved by both the Free States and the Oros. Second, is the “Regency” of Matwyck and the toll its taking on the remaining citizens of Weirandale. With more arrests and disappearances, those who remain secretly plan on what to do when the Queen does return to Cascada. At the same time, Matwyck is losing control over his Council as they show themselves to being just as greedy and deceptive as him. This leads him into trying to maintain his last bit of control he has, which he believes is his son. Last, the Spirits—who are upset by the recent events involving Cerúlia—are arguing with each other over grudges of the past and the present. And, they have gone from using their Agents to act on their wills and behalves to overreaching into each other’s Realms: fires and tornadoes, sea storms and lightning, earthquakes, etc. All of these subplots go back to the plot of the Nargis Throne, which remains in chaos because of Matwyck and the other usurpers. It all traces back to what happened at the very beginning of the story. 

            Once again, the narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view. This is a chronological sequence told in first-person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of these reliable narrators. Readers will know what is going on everywhere all at once. It should be mentioned that attention should be placed on the characters Cerúlia meets during her recovery in Wyeland because it represents the reality that injury and trauma are not always obtained on a battlefield. And, there are two cases in which readers will see manipulation as an act of desperation to maintain control over what cannot be controlled. Desperate individuals do desperate things. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in A Broken Queen focuses on both the recovery of the injured from the traumas of war and other unspeakable events, and the growing instability amongst the Divine. Although the main focus shifts back to Cerúlia, she’s not the only one who learns empathy through her interaction with other people (and animals). Thalen, Gunnit and Marcot learn how individuals don’t overcome their traumas overnight. Time is essential for recovery, and there are some who never recover. In addition, the reason one country would invade another one is readdressed here and it cannot be overlooked. All of their issues and themes reflect the reality of life as mentioned in history and in journals (both personal and professional/academic) by: soldiers, doctors, nurses, civilians, psychologists and survivors. The mood is somber and bittersweet. This is because while the war is over, the survivors have to deal with the traumas and the aftermath of everything that happened to them and rebuild their lives knowing it’ll never be the same. The tone is resilience and recovery, especially how all of the characters go through the process of becoming whole again. The maps—which were not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist readers in keeping track of who’s who and where all of the characters are throughout the narrative. 

            The appeal for A Broken Queen will be positive. This is because it is in this book in which the story reaches its climax and some of the plots and the storylines are wrapping up. Fans and readers of The Nine Realms must continue reading the series because the pacing and the narration do not stop and we need to know what happens to our favorite characters. And, while it’ll be sad and difficult to say goodbye once The Cerulean Queen is released, we will all need the closure to the end of the author’s story.

            A Broken Queen continues the adventures and the turmoil wroth throughout The Nine Realms. Only this time it’s not only politicians and armies at work. The characters have grown into who they are and what they have to become given the circumstances. Emotions and trauma are the focus in the book, but the author incorporates them in a way which works with the story instead of it dragging it down. I’m already counting down the days for when I can read The Cerulean Queen! Luckily, we all don’t have to wait too long!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Daughter from the Dark”

Daughter from the Dark

By: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Published: 2006 in Russian; February 11, 2020 in English

Translated by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Genre: Metaphysical/Speculative Fiction/Psychological

            Aspirin had to admit—he was his own worst enemy. He’d brought it on himself: the first time when he did not leave the girl alone where she was, and the second time when he refused to give her back to his camo-clad guest,(Tuesday).

            As you know, Vita Nostra is one of my favorite books of all-time. This translated book—from Russian and translated to English by Julia Meitov Hersey—introduced some readers and I to the metaphysical fiction genre—that is NOT a graphic novel—and to the creative minds of the authors: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Daughter from the Dark is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series, but a standalone story about a girl from another dimension, and the man who is assigned to be her guardian. 

            The main protagonist is Alexey Igorevich Grimalsky, who goes by his radio sobriquet—Aspirin, is a radio DJ host and a nightclub DJ who lives his life carefree with small comforts that keep him satisfied. One Sunday evening, he finds a young girl shivering in an alley holding a teddy bear. He asks the girl where her parents are before they are attacked by a group of hoodlums and their Pitbull; but, before anything can happen, a large shadow appears on the wall (the teddy bear?) looms over everyone and attacks the dog in self-defense. Shaken up and confused, Aspirin brings the girl into his apartment as a gesture of goodwill. However, the next morning (Monday), the girl refuses to leave or to say anything about herself or where she came from. Then, a stranger appears at his door with intention to take the girl back with him. When Aspirin refuses to let the girl—Alyona—leave with the man, Aspirin finds himself holding a birth certificate stating that he’s the father, which he is not. In a blink of an eye, Aspirin goes from carefree man to father, and it seems everyone else around him believes Alyona is his daughter from Pervomaysk. At the same time, Alyona has no intention in playing the role of “daughter.” Instead of attending school, she cleans the house and listens to CDs (remember those?). Alyona left her home so that she can find her brother, who is a musician. Alyona not only brought her teddy bear, “Mishutka,” but also “special” music strings. Her plan is to learn how to play the violin so that she can play a song, which will call out to him. That means Aspirin has to register Alyona for music lessons, to buy her a violin, and to put up with her aloofness and her eccentricities: feeding Mishutka, ignoring her pain and illness, making “claims” about other people, etc. Meanwhile, Aspirin sees Alyona as an annoying houseguest who keeps interfering with his life and daily lifestyle: going to work, attending parties, hooking up with women, etc. And, Alyona views Aspirin as a coward who is nice but afraid of commitment and wastes his musical gifts. The two characters become more like college roommates than father and daughter, but that living arrangement seems to work for them. Neither Aspirin nor Alyona develop much as characters, but they do demonstrate growth with help from Whiskas—Aspirin’s friend and colleague—and, Irina—Aspirin’s neighbor. Then again, complex characters (and people) don’t change their behaviors overnight, it takes several months. 

            The plot of Daughter from the Dark is straightforward. Aspirin becomes the guardian for 11-year-old Alyona and must learn how to put her needs before his own. It sounds like something from a movie or a T.V. sitcom, but that’s where the similarities end. This leads to the two subplots. The first one involves Alyona’s music. She learns how to play the violin at a rate in which she’s called a music prodigy, but she quits music school so she can focus on learning to play the song which will call her brother and send him home. The second subplot is Aspirin’s slow maturity during the duration of Alyona’s stay. Aspirin considers his music gifts more and more. He even starts a long-term relationship with Irina instead of hooking up with random women. Yes, Aspirin tries to get Alyona to leave more than once, but he learns how to deal with her and everyone who gets involved with her: their neighbors, her music teacher, etc. These subplots are essential for the plot because they explain the reasons and the reactions to Alyona’s unexpected arrival. It is obvious Aspirin doesn’t have a daughter, so allowing the subplots to become part of the plot is necessary and it allows for it to go at an appropriate rate so that the story seems believable. 

            The narrative is told from Aspirin’s point-of-view and his stream-of-consciousness. So not only do readers experience everything from Aspirin’s perspective, but also his thoughts as everything happens around him in real-time. Given the strange occurrences involving Mishutka, Alyona’s music and birth certificate, and the changes involving Alyona’s identity, Aspirin—for all of his flaws—is a reliable narrator. This is because several moments throughout the narrative leave us asking the same questions Aspirin asks himself: What’s happening? Is this real? Where did Alyona come from? Is Mishutka really a teddy bear? Readers are able to follow the narrative because they understand how confused Aspirin is because they feel the same way. The book is in 3 parts, which presents the length of time both Aspirin and Alyona live together. Part I is in days and Parts II and III are in months. These breakdowns are marked by what happens to both characters during those days and months. This sequence is significant because it illustrates ALL of the changes that occur around Aspirin and Alyona. 

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use follows the rules of metaphysical fiction, but it’s written and presented differently. In Vita Nostra, a handful of individuals possessed talents which could bend reality and defy physical laws. In Daughter from the Dark, there are several moments where the extraordinary occurs, and there are several witnesses who experience those moments, but they react with discomfort and questioning whether or not that event actually happened. At the same time, the longer Alyona remains in Aspirin’s world (our world), her identity alters to match the “cover story” she and Aspirin came up with. So not only does Alyona have a time limit to learning the song and finding her brother, but also there is a time limit concerning Alyona’s connection to her world and when or if she’ll be able to go back there. This type of metaphysical fiction trope is similar to the theory about parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. The novel, and the authors, demonstrate what could happen if one or two “other worldly” beings find their way into another world. The mood in this novel is imperfection. Alyona points out constantly how imperfect our world is, which it is, and how it is inspiration for the creative mind. The tone is how a gifted individual can use creativity to seek perfection in an imperfect world. Aspirin, Alyona, Alyona’s brother and all creative artists seek their art in our imperfect world. Music is the central theme in Daughter from the Dark and the authors do an amazing job incorporating music and its techniques and truths within the story.

            The appeal surrounding Daughter from the Dark will continue to present English readers and fans of speculative fiction what they’ve been missing out on. I will reiterate that this novel is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series! This novel is a separate story about characters and metaphysical tropes. In other words, don’t read Daughter from the Dark expecting Vita Nostra! Readers of speculative fiction should know better than to expect identical stories form the same author! Daughter from the Dark is its own example of metaphysical fiction and translated work of speculative fiction. This novel is another great addition for the canon, and we have Julia Meitov Hersey to thank again for taking the time to translate the book. And, she is already translating another book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and I can’t wait to read it! Readers and fans of Vita Nostra and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire will not be disappointed with this novel!       

            Daughter from the Dark is the latest translated work by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and the focus is on music instead of a hidden school. The narrative and the plot are more relatable and more action-paced than Vita Nostra, but fans of metaphysical fiction will enjoy this book the most. This novel is the most down-to-Earth mind-bending work by the husband and wife duo so far, and the books keep coming! Anyone who is interested in reading anything by them should start with this book. For everyone else, it’s not at the same level in terms of genre, but the experience is worth reading. Now, all I have to do is wait for the next book to be translated into English!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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