Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

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

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

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

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

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

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

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

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden

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

Alanna: The First Adventure (1983) by Tamora Pierce

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

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

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

Brave Story (1987) by Miyuki Miyabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Uprooted (2015) by Naomi Novik

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

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

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

7) Who Fears Death (2007) by Nnedi Okorafor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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