Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

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

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!

Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Empire of Gold”

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold

By: S.A. Chakraborty 

Published: June 30, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

            Daevabad, in all its glory and infamy. The mighty brass walls embellished with the facades of its founders, her ancestors. The crush of ziggurats and minarets, temples and stupas; the dizzying array of clashing architecture and eras—each group, each voice leaving its defiant mark on the city of djinn. The shafit stolen from Persepolis and Timbuktu, the wandering scholars and warrior-poets from every corner of the world. The laborers who, when their work was left unacknowledged in official chronicles, had instead emblazoned their names in graffiti. The women who, after erecting universities and libraries and mosques, were kept silent because of “respectability,” had stamped their presence on the cityscape itself, (42: Nahri).

            It still amazes me how I almost missed this series. When a book’s title and/or cover captures your attention, make time to read it because you might enjoy it to the point where it becomes one of your new favorite books. The Daevabad Trilogy has been a different reading experience and its due to the influence based on Middle Eastern culture and the classic story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The series started with The City of Brass and continued with The Kingdom of Copper, which had an ending that left readers stunned. The Empire of Gold is the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy, and it begins where the last book left off.  

            The story begins with the antagonist, Manizheh—the former Banu Nahid and mother to both Nahri and Jamshid—as she looks over Daevabad after the almost successful usurpation of the kingdom and its ruler, King Ghassan. The rebellion was “almost successful” because Manizheh failed to retrieve Suleiman’s Seal. Instead, Nahri and Prince Alizayd beat her to the ring. And, just as Nahri and Ali are confronted by Manizheh, they jumped into the lake to get away from her only to find themselves transported to Cairo. Meanwhile, because the ring has been taken out of Daevabad, magic has vanished. Now, Manizheh is left without her magic and with hostile forces who are either trying to gain more independence or regrouping to take her down and reclaim the kingdom. Manizheh descends into madness as she struggles to maintain control of Daevabad. There is only one individual who has magic in Daevabad and it’s Darayavahoush e-Afshin. Dara is fighting a war within himself. He’s struggling to display his loyalty to Manizheh while trying to reach a truce with all of the 6 Tribes, the surviving members of the royal family, and the shafit. In addition, all of the trauma Dara experienced during the last war, which led to the deaths of his family has been resurfacing. It doesn’t take long for Dara to realize that history is repeating itself, and he’s the only one who comprehends what the war could lead to for everyone in Daevabad. This causes Dara to do everything he can to achieve a truce even if it means betraying his Nahid. Thousands of miles away, Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo with no clue as to how or why they ended up there. Ali wants to return to Daevabad immediately, but Nahri needs some convincing. The last 5 years haven’t been kind neither to the prince nor to the Banu Nahid, but it is the former’s surviving family members who remain at risk. After a lot of consideration, Nahri agrees to save Daevabad from Manizheh. Unfortunately, the journey back to Daevabad is even more perilous than Nahri’s first journey there with Dara. Not to mention, it turns out EVERYONE is searching for Nahri and Ali, and not just their families. Numerous “outsiders” hope to collect the bounty, and several mystical beings demand the payments of their ancestors’ “debts.” Why does everyone know about Nahri’s heritage except her? And, what other “debts” does Ali have to pay on behalf of both his maternal and his paternal ancestors? Throughout the story Nahri, Ali and Dara develop as characters as they find ways to overcome their traumas as they fight to save their home and to restore magic. It is essential to understand that the horrors and the traumas these protagonists face do not motivate their actions, they allow them to make “reasonable” decisions as they strive to change their world for the better. 

            The plot in this story picks up where The Kingdom of Copper ended. King Ghassan’s tyrannical rule is over, but Banu Manizheh proves quickly to be more ruthless and more paranoid than her former oppressor. And, Manizheh didn’t factor in losing Suleiman’s Seal or magic. Now, she feels powerless and she is forced to depend on Dara to complete her tasks. Meanwhile, Dara doesn’t wish to lose his independence, so he works against Manizheh secretly in order to keep everyone alive. Another plot in this story is Ali and Nahri’s journey back to Daevabad, which is full of physical and emotional turmoil. Ali has to decide whether or not to go through with his plans or that of his family’s. Nahri is dealing with what was revealed to her about her family and whether or not it’s true. The 2 friends need a plan to retake Daevabad and to defeat Manizheh, but it looks like they’ll have to make bargains of their own. There is one subplot in this novel and it relates to family. Ali, Nahri and Dara have struggled with family expectations—yes, even Nahri—and they’ve had an impact on all 3 of them. Ali has been a dutiful prince, but clashed against his father’s rule and his mother’s ambitions. Nahri was told what was expected of her due to her heritage even though she believed her relatives were all dead. Dara did everything that was expected of him by both his family and the (then) ruling family—the Nahids—only to witness his family’s deaths and the Nahids being overthrown. All 3 protagonists attempt to go against their family’s expectations as they strive to make their own decisions and what is best for themselves. This subplot is necessary for the plots of the story because readers can relate to some of the struggles the protagonists are experiencing and why they make certain choices throughout the story. 

            Once again, the narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali—with one chapter told in Manizheh’s P.O.V. The narrative is told in real-time and are in 3rd person limited narrative—the characters know only what is happening around them and to them at the moment. All 3 protagonists are reliable narrators because each of them provide everything that is happening to them, including the mistakes they make. The narrative follows the streams-of-consciousness of all of the protagonists. Yet, keep in mind these characters experience both flashbacks and memories. It is important to know the two are not the same thing, and the narrative is able to present this distinction.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses for The Empire of Gold is a continuation of what readers received from the previous books in the trilogy. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern culture are major influences in this book, and there are allusions to the Ottomans and the Napoleonic Wars as well. Now, instead of an impending rebellion, civil war has broken out after the ruler has been overthrown, and the person who claims she is in charge does not know how to maintain control and cannot solve the kingdom’s biggest dilemma, which is the loss of magic. The mood in this novel is discord. All over the world, magic is gone and everyone is dealing with the ramifications, including the civil war in Daevabad. The tone in this novel is resilience and which of the characters, including the protagonists, are able to withstand all of the incoming challenges. Readers should refer to the maps and the appendices as they read this book so that they can keep track of the Tribes and the world-building.

            The appeal for The Empire of Gold have been positive. Several fans and readers have lauded the author for providing a strong conclusion to this trilogy. Yes, this book is over 700 pages long, but any fantasy fan will appreciate all of the world-building the author has put into her books. Not only does this series belong in the fantasy canon, but also is a great addition to the historical fantasy and the Middle Eastern fantasy subgenres. Even George R.R. Martin has praised this series. And, fans can expect a new series from the author in 2022!

            The Empire of Gold is a gratifying end to The Daevabad Trilogy. The plots answer all of the questions readers have about the characters, and the author provides appropriate endings for all of them. Do not be intimidated by the book’s size because you will finish reading it before you know it. Fans of Tasha Suri, Sabaa Tahir, Egyptian mythology, and Scheherazade will enjoy this series the most. This book is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

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…My Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2021

How many books will I read in 2021? Let me rephrase the question: how many books coming in 2021 will I get to read in 2021? I ask this question because I’m still going through all of the books I didn’t get to read last year—including all of the books that came out in 2020. Yet, I can’t help myself because I’m so excited for all of the books coming out in 2021! These are just some of the numerous books I hope I get to read this year. Will I get to read them all in 2021? Probably not, but I’m going to aim to read these books at some point!

#1: Wayward Children #6: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire –> January 12th

            This next book in this fantasy series follows a girl who travels to a world where every horse creature resides. However, what happens there and whether or not the Visitor wishes to stay or leave has to wait until the book is released. Note: We’re getting 4 more books in this series!

#2: The Black Iron Legacy #3: The Broken God by Gareth Hanrahan –> May 20th

            It seems like we’re going to follow Carillon Thay’s adventures outside of Guerdon, which is probably for the best given what happened during the events in The Shadow Saint. Speaking of what’s going to happen to the city after all of the political and the divine betrayals? Looks like the world needs to be saved, again.  

#3: Bethel #2: The Dawn of the Coven by Alexis Henderson –> August 31st

            I was surprised and excited when I learned there would be a sequel to The Year of the Witching. I believe the story will focus on the aftermath of the events which occurred at the end of the first book. However, this is a dark fantasy series about witches and priests, so anyone can become powerful or die at any time. 

#4: A Chorus of Dragons #4: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons –> May 11th

            The way The Memory of Souls ended makes readers wonder how the author will continue her saga. What will the “heroes” do next to thwart the plans of the “threat”? And, is the House a place or an individual? 

#5: Magic of the Lost #1: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark –> March 23rd

            This is the first book in a new trilogy and it focuses on two young women. One is a soldier who was stolen from her home as a child. When her company has been sent back to her home to stop a rebellion, she doesn’t know which side she should be on. The other is a princess whose uncle has taken the throne which was meant for her. She needs a turncoat who is willing to balance treason and orders for what she sees as peace. All is fair in love and war. 

#6: Deathless #1: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna –> February 9th

            This debut novel—which I believe was delayed due to the pandemic—follows 16-year-old Deka, who is about to be tested. If her blood runs red—normalcy—then she can carry on with her life. If her blood runs gold—impurity—then she faces a consequence worse than death. When Deka’s blood runs gold, she is given a choice: stay in her village to die, or leave and join the emperor’s army of girls—alaki, near immortals with rare gifts—like her to fight. Knowing she can find acceptance by serving the emperor, Deka leaves her home for the capital, where she learns that nothing is what it seems. Sounds like a great combination of Red Queen and The Old Guard

#7: Burning Kingdoms #1: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri –> June 8th

            I LOVED the Books of Ambha Duology, so it should come as no surprise that I’m looking forward to reading Tasha Suri’s next book in her new series. A princess who is imprisoned by her dictator brother befriends one of the maidservants. When the princess discovers her maidservant’s secret, they join forces to get what they want—the former the throne and the latter her family. 

#8: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall –> June 22nd

            For several months, the author of The Border Keeper has been teasing her upcoming debut novel, and it cannot come soon enough. This book follows a female whose power must be preserved as ordered by her order. However, in order to preserve the magical bloodline, these women must give birth to the next generation, and the pregnancy kills these women. The protagonist is desperate for an escape, and she is granted the opportunity. All she has to do is spy on the highest ranks of her Order and learn their secrets. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right? 

#9: The Radiant Emperor #1: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan –> July 20th

            This debut novel is described as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles…(the) reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.” That description alone should be enough to grasp the attention of any fan of historical fiction and fantasy. The year is 1345, China is under the rule of the Mongols. The story follows the second daughter in a Chinese family, who was given the fate of nothingness, while one of her brothers—Zhu— was given the fate of greatness. After Zhu dies, the daughter decides to use her brother’s identity to escape her fate and enters a monastery as a young male novice. After the monastery is destroyed by Mongolian forces, Zhu decides to claim the future that was meant for her brother. This is story is going to be EPIC!!!

#10: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff –> September 14th (in the U.S.)

            This upcoming series by the Australian author combines vampires with the legend of the Holy Grail. The protagonist is imprisoned not only for murdering the Vampiric King, but also for unknowingly destroying the holy order—The Silversaints—he served. Recounting his life and the events which led him to his current predicament, readers will learn first and foremost that the Holy Grail was a person, a teenager. Please Note: This series is NOT YA!!!       

#11: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner –> April 13th

            This historical fantasy is a retelling of Rabbi Isaac and his family, particularly his three gifted daughters. After an accusation of witchcraft forces the Rabbi and his family into exile, they learn of a dark force making its way across Europe. The sisters must choose whether or not to face the threat. This book is the author’s follow up to The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and fans of Alix E. Harrow, Katherine Arden and Constance Sayers will enjoy this book the most. 

#12: The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec –> February 9th

            2021 continues the Norse-inspired books fantasy fans get to experience. This debut novel is a reimagination of Loki’s children as told by the woman who bore them and loved Loki—the witch, Angrboda. The story begins with Angrboda being burned by Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future—which Odin gains another way. After escaping and fleeing to the end of the world(s), Angrboda encounters Loki and fall for each other. Anyone who is familiar with Norse mythology recalls the role Loki’s children play in Ragnarök. Will Angrboda allow fate to happen, or attempt to change the future? 

#13: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace –> May 4th

            I learned about this book from author C.S.E. Cooney, and she had nothing but positive things to say about it. After reading the synopsis, I’m excited to read this book, too! The best way to describe this book is part 1984, part War Girls,and part Ready Player One. If you’re interest isn’t piqued after reading that, then I don’t know what else to tell you. 

#14: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara –> April 6th

            I didn’t get to read Docile in 2020 (but, I will this year!), but I’m just as excited for the author’s second novel. The plot of this book sounds like it was supposed to start off as an RPG, but the quest ended before it could start. I’m curious to read what happens to the characters in this book. 

#15: The First Argentines Series by Jeff Wheeler –> Book 1: Knight’s Ransom release on January 26th

I got to read an eARC of Knight’s Ransom (click here to watch my first livestream Q&A panel with the author) and it’s an amazing beginning to a new series. Set about 400 years before the events in The Queen’s Poisoner, readers learn about the struggles the Argentine Family had when they first became the rulers of Kingfountain. The story is told from the perspective of one of the knights, Ransom, who witnessed many political and familial feuds as the Argentines commit to gain control over the entire realm, and survive. 

#16: Rook and Rose #1: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick –> January 21

            This debut novel—written by a duo—presents a story of a con artist who hopes to secure a fortune and a future—for herself and her sister—by robbing a noble house. However, as this woman gets more involved with the family, she learns more about the aristocratic society, and the games they like to play. Soon, the protagonist has to choose between saving herself or saving an entire city. 

#17: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune –> September 21st

            After reading the beautiful book that is The House in the Cerulean Sea—I hope to read The Extraordinaries this year—I had to find out what the author’s next book is going to be. This book takes a page from Greek mythology as the subplot of the story. The plot is about a recently deceased man who isn’t ready to cross over to the afterlife, so he resides with the ferryman at his tea shop for 7 days. Question: who is the artist of the cover art? I know it’s the same one who did the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea

#18: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #2: The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell –> March 23rd

            This sequel to the author’s debut novel will focus on the aftermath of the events that occurred in The Kingdom of Liars. I curious to learn whether or not the queen really is two-faced. And, does she know what really happened to her father and her brother?  

#19: Wings of Ebony by J. Elle –> January 26th

            I won a copy of this book in a giveaway—which, will arrive on the book’s release day (an early birthday present for me!)—and I’m looking forward to reading it. This book focuses on a teenaged girl who is separated from her sister after their mother’s death to live on an island with her father and to learn about the heritage she never knew about. To me, this book sounds like a combination of Legendborn, Empire of Sand, and Percy Jackson, and I’m not complaining at all. 

#20: Wilderwood #1: For the Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten –> June 15th

            This retelling of the tales of Little Red Riding Hood and (Norse? or Greek?) mythology is the author’s debut novel. Red is the first Second Daughter born in centuries. This isn’t an issue for her family because while her older sister will get the Throne, Red is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood so he’ll return the world’s captured gods. Unfortunately, legends are not what they seem. The Wolf isn’t a monster, he is a man; and, Red isn’t a damsel, she has magic that she has to learn how to control in order to save her world. 

Additional Books to Lookout For: 

The Murderbot Diaries #6: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells –> April 27th

The Tide Child #3: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker –> September 28th

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers –> March 23rd

The Up-and-Under #2: Across the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker –> October 12th

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell –> February 2nd

The Bloodsworn Trilogy #1: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne –> May 4th

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1: The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley –> July 6th

The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett –> August 3rd

The Protectorate #3: Catalyst Gate by Megan E. O’Keefe –> July 13th

Small Spaces #3: Dark Waters by Katherine Arden –> August 3rd

            As I mentioned earlier, this is some of the several books being released in 2021. Which books did I miss? What are you excited to read the most in 2021? Any debuts and/or new series others and I should look out for? Let me know! Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Ring Shout”

Ring Shout

By: P. Djèlí Clark

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Horror/Folklore/Supernatural/Historical Fiction

Thank you Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book.

            “The Birth of a Nation” had delivered all the souls they needed to stir up them old evil powers. Across the country, white folk who ain’t even heard of the Klans surrendered to the spell of them moving pictures. Got them believing the Klans the true heroes of the South, and colored people the monsters, (TWO). 

            They are one of the most infamous groups in modern society; yet, for some reason, American society fails to call them what they are: a hate group. The Ku Klux Klan emerged during the Reconstruction Era and sought destruction, especially against several Black American communities throughout the U.S., particularly in the South. While their white hoods presented and hid their identities, the freed slaves had a new fear, and they weren’t from their folklore, but from actual fears which manifested. P. Djèlí Clark combines two fears—the known and the unknown—into his latest novella, Ring Shout

            Maryse Boudreaux is a 25-year-old monster hunter. However, she and her companions have “The Sight” so that they can distinguish one monster—the Klan—from the other one—the Ku Kluxes. To everyone else, they are one and the same, but Maryse and the other monster hunters know better. There is Sadie, the best shooter in the group; and, Chef, a war veteran who has a talent for explosives. Nana Jean is a Gullah woman who uses her skills to offer protection from the Ku Kluxes. And, Michael George, the man who provides Maryse with reprieve from and motivation for fighting. Then, there are Aunties Jadine, Ondine and Margaret, “spirits” who guide Maryse on her quest to eradicate the Ku Kluxes, including gifting her with the sword she uses throughout the war against the supernatural threat. Maryse has her reasons for hunting the Ku Kluxes, but she cannot grasp how far these monsters are willing to go for domination. And, who is conjuring them? The revelation pushes her to make “deals” so that she and her companions have a chance to survive. Maryse is a fighter, but she knows all too well that she cannot do it alone. Her companions allow her to develop into the person she must become in order to defeat this threat. 

            The plot is straightforward. It is July 1922, 7 years after The Birth of a Nation was released, and 4 years since the Great War (a.k.a. World War I) ended; and, there is to be a re-release of the film in Stone Mountain, Georgia. What many people—White and Colored—do NOT know is that the movie is based on a book written by a sorcerer. The sorcerer uses moving pictures in order to conjure a spell so that evil beings can be summoned and walk amongst humanity. The cost: human souls. The Klan offered their souls and became Ku Kluxes, which go on to terrorize Colored people. So, monster hunters—consisting of a group of Colored people with “The Sight”—continue to fight them off after the Ku Kluxes make their return to power. The storyline within this plot is how the characters fight, live, and survive during these trying times where a force of evil—which is fueled by hatred—is unseen by almost everyone. It is the subplot that drives the plot in this book. The subplot focuses on the Black American Experience during the 1920s, and it is not an easy time for them. In addition to fighting the supernatural, the characters have to maintain their way of life while remaining segregated. Jim Crow laws and lynchings are a common and an everyday practice. Combined, both the subplot and the storyline allows for the plot to develop an appropriate rate. 

            The narrative is told from the point-of-view of Maryse. The sequence is a combination of stream-of-consciousness and flashback, which are necessary for the story. The events and the sequence occur in the present. However, it is the dialogue (and the dialect) of the characters that will keep the readers engaged throughout the narrative. 

            The style P. Djèlí Clark uses in Ring Shout includes allusion, history and folklore. The history is obvious to anyone who is familiar with (actual) American history and Southern culture. The allusion refers to historical moments such as: Prohibition, the reemergence of the KKK, the construction of the Panama Canal, the Black Wallstreet Massacre, etc. Yet, it is the folklore that influences the story. The mention of fairy tales as cautionary tales are mentioned throughout this book (i.e. Bruh Rabbit, eating strange food, sharing stories, etc.) and drive the story in a way so that both the characters and the readers are familiar with all of the story’s ongoings. Another factor the author wants his audience to consider are the similarities between Black American and Caribbean cultures, particularly the practices of the Gullah and the Obeah. The mood in Ring Shout is hatred; and, the tone within this book is manipulation (for power using hatred). Readers should know that the book’s cover is essential to the events which occur towards the end of the story. 

            The appeal for Ring Shout will be positive. This is because the author does a great job fusing fear and hatred with folklore and dark magic. The former are human emotions which often lead to harm, while the latter are elements of several cultures that are believed and are practiced. Fans of horror, paranormal and supernatural stories will enjoy this story. Fans of recent and related novellas such as The Deep by Rivers Solomon and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi will appreciate the continuation of the Black American experience being told blatantly and directly in the speculative fiction genre. However, Ring Shout will be canonized alongside The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson in the horror genre. This book can be read again and again, and it is a great addition to the genre. It should be mentioned that this book can be read and enjoyed by historians and folklorists as well due to the information written into the pages of the story.

             Ring Shout is a brilliant horror and supernatural story which will force you to recall all of the “stories” and the “magic” you’ve been exposed to throughout your life as you try to come up with an explanation for “the unknown.” Once again, P. Djèlí Clark has found a way to present readers with a story combining history and folklore into a believable, yet scary, tale that serves as a cautionary tale against hatred and sorcery. 

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

End of 2020 Releases I’m Looking Forward to Reading

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

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

Books I’ve Read

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

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

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

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

Books I am Reading

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

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

Books To Be Read

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

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

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

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

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

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

Eventide by Sarah Goodman

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

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

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

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

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

War Girls #2, Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

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

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

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

The Graven #1, Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

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

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

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

Poison Wars #2, Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Uprooted”

Uprooted

By: Naomi Novik

Published: May 19, 2015

Genre: Fantasy/Fractured Fairy Tale or Fairy Tale Retelling/Coming-of-Age Story

            The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one, somehow: if there was one girl who was far and away the prettiest, or the most bright, or the best dancer, or especially kind, somehow he always picked her out, even though he scarcely exchanged a word with the girls before he made his choice, (Chapter 1).

            I remember what led me to read this book. The ebook was on sale and I saw the promotion for its upcoming companion novel, Spinning Silver. Then, I attended BookCon in 2018. I had read an excerpt of the author’s upcoming novel, Spinning Silver, and I wanted to meet her and have her sign copies of her books. Yes, books, because in addition to Spinning Silver, I picked up Naomi Novik’s other books, His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire Book 1—which, I still haven’t read, yet—and Uprooted, which I had already read. I reviewed Spinning Silver first. Both books are similar in themes and tropes, but they stand out well as individual standalone novels. 

            Agnieszka is 17-years-old and lives with her parents in the village, Dvernik, near the corrupted Wood’s border. A wizard, known only as “the Dragon” to the villagers, protects the village from the Wood, which is his task set to him from the royal court. As part of the Dragon’s tribute, he takes one girl from the village for 10 years of service. No one knows what the service entails except the girls return as women, but “changed,” and leave the village for city life shortly after. Agnieszka is tall, clumsy and awkward, and she’s one of the girls who is of the age for the Dragon to choose from for his next tribute. However, Agnieszka knows she won’t be chosen, but her friend, Kasia, will be the one chosen. Kasia is beautiful and talented in almost everything she does, and Agnieszka and the entire village knows the Dragon will choose her. Only, he doesn’t. To everyone’s shock, Agnieszka is selected to serve the Dragon. Now, Agnieszka has to learn what is expected of her for the next 10 years. And, this includes filling in for the Dragon when he cannot attend court. Agnieszka learns about the Dragon and his service, why she was chosen over the other girls, and how the Wood became so corrupted. Agnieszka develops as a character and as a person as she learns about the outside world, which she has been sheltered from her entire life, and about the dark forces that make the Wood so dangerous. Agnieszka is accompanied by the Dragon, but as she learns more about what is expected from her, she refuses to lose contact with her family and her friends. Agnieszka grows up in an unusual way under unusual circumstances, and she manages in her own way.

            The plot is divided into two parts. The first part regards Agnieszka’s “services” to the Dragon, which is easier said than done. While Agnieszka shows promise with the more “difficult” tasks, she is awkward when it comes to completing the “easier” ones, which makes for a very entertaining “education.” The second plot revolves around the Wood and how it continues to grow stronger and more aggressive. After the Dragon is injured during a confrontation with the Wood, Agnieszka must travel to the royal court in his place in order to request reinforcements. Once there, Agnieszka meets the royal family and other individuals like the Dragon. It is here when the subplot develops: the Dragon’s relationship with the court, and the court’s connection to the Wood. The subplot explains the two plots of the novel as they all go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative is told from Agnieszka’s point-of-view in first-person in the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness. Everything the readers learn, is from Agnieszka’s perspective. If she is not where the action is taking place, then she learns about it afterwards from someone else (and, so do the readers). The fact that Agnieszka can only account for her actions and her experiences make her a reliable narrator. All of these elements make the narrative easy to follow.

            The style Naomi Novik uses for Uprooted follows both a fairy tale retelling and a fractured fairy tale. A fairy tale retelling is when a known fairy tale is retold with components that alter either the setting or the characters. A fractured fairy tale is when a smaller, yet popular part of a fairy tale is kept while the rest of the story changes. In this case, elements of the story, “Beauty and the Beast” can be found throughout the narrative, but the author presents a new story from the few parts she fractured and used. The mood in this novel is anticipation. All of the characters in the story are anxious or excited about an upcoming event, or dreading a threat that cannot be stopped. The tone of the novel focuses on how all of the characters remain resilient during such difficult times and how they handle themselves. The last two literary elements of style will make you forget about the fractured fairy tale and focus on the fantasy story.

            The appeal for Uprooted have been noteworthy. Besides receiving critical and popular acclaim, this novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2016. However, it seems that since the release of Spinning Silver, Uprooted has fallen a bit behind on the popularity, but I can assure you, if you enjoyed the former, then you will enjoy the latter. Uprooted remains a great addition to the fantasy canon, and fans of Katherine Arden, S.A. Chakraborty, and Rena Rossner will enjoy this book the most. There hasn’t been any announcements on whether or not we should expect another novel similar to this one, but I am willing to wait for as long as it takes, especially since the rumor is that both books are set in the same universe. Uprooted can be reread; in fact, older adolescents can read and enjoy this book as well (regardless of some of the adult content). 

            Uprooted is an entertaining coming-of-age story about identity and magic of all sorts. All of the familiar fairy tale tropes are twisted from what you know of them, and that makes the story more enjoyable. If you read and loved Spinning Silver, and you haven’t read Uprooted yet, then don’t wait any longer. If you want to read a fantasy story that uproots the expectations of the readers, then this is the book for you.

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