When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun).
Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity.
There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community.
The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect.
The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.
The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well.
The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, The Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.
The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!
And if Tau didn’t feel better, it had to be because there was still so much to do. He needed to go to Kigambe and test to become an Ihashe. Then he’d have military status and the right to blood-duel anyone in the Chosen military. The old law was the only way a Lesser could kill a Noble with impunity, (Chapter Three, Fallen).
2019 was an amazing year for debut authors, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Without listing all of the names of the authors who helped elevate the genre with their stories, some of them are using “older,” “classic,” and “overused” tropes in the genre. However, just like how other authors such as: George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Brandon Sanderson have written their stories mixing “classic” tropes with “unexpected, but believable” twists. Evan Winter is the latest author to incorporate this sort of narrative into his stories. The Rage of Dragons—the first book in The Burning Series—is an African-inspired epic fantasy story, which starts off with war, dragons and revenge, but grows into a rich tale with realistic characters, great world-building, and a believable society whose cultural and socioeconomical practices reflect those of our actual history.
Tau is the protagonist in this novel. He is an adolescent who is old enough to “Test” in order to enter the military of the Omehi, his tribe. He is the son of a High Common woman and a Lesser man (his mother ran off with Tau’s father, Aren, only to return to her family after Tau was born). Although tradition and status come from the mother—Tau’s surname is Tafari—Tau is raised and treated as his father’s son. Tau is very much aware of his place in life (servitude) and what his expectations are supposed to be (military life). However, Tau desires a simple life: land and a family with his crush, Zuri—a handmaiden. So, he comes up with a dangerous, yet practical way to gain those desires. Unfortunately, Tau never gets the chance to put his plan into action. Within one day, Tau loses all he holds dear to him and he must flee from his home before he is executed. From that day, Tau is consumed with anger and a new plan: to become an Ihashe warrior, the best one in living memory. After arriving in the capital—and barely surviving the Testing—Tau becomes an Ihashe Initiate and is placed in a Scale (or Unit) led by Umgondisi (Captain or General) Jayyed Ayim—a former adviser to the Guardian Council—who has a special interest in Tau and the other Initiates in his Scale. It is this moment when Tau decides to go by his father’s surname, Solarin. Throughout his training, Tau works harder than any other Initiate, honing his growing anger into his weapons training. He is not alone during the training. He is accompanied by: Hadith, who is known for his strategic planning; Uduak, a huge Initiate who is more aware of Tau’s anger than anyone else; and, Zuri, an Initiate of the Gifted—a female whose powers can call dragons. Throughout the novel, Tau becomes the warrior he wants to be and gets closer and closer to his goal towards vengeance. However, Tau’s anger remains within him and he lacks both an outlet and a support system for his grief and his anger. His companions keep him grounded, but how long will these characters stand with Tau knowing his anger can burst into a fit of rage at any moment?
The plot of this novel is Tau’s path to take revenge on those who left him with nothing. As much as this sounds like the trope of “the son getting revenge for his father’s death,” Tau neither finds a mentor nor finds companionship within his Scale. Instead, Tau isolates himself as much as possible from other people and focuses on his training instead of his raging emotions and how those could affect his fighting techniques while doing drills with his Scale. Some readers will notice that Tau’s method of dealing with his emotions can lead Tau to having a mental breakdown. There are two main subplots in this novel. The first one is Tau’s training. The author is not only writing a story about one’s path towards vengeance, but also a fantasy story which is influenced heavily in military history and strategy. As Tau goes through his training, both Tau and the readers learn about fighting stances, strategic planning and battle formations, all of which are practiced and exercised over and over throughout the narrative. This subplot serves as a device for time. It’s going to take years for Tau to become the warrior he wants to become, and the length of training all of the Initiates undergo makes the story more realistic. The second subplot is the division between the Omehi and the Xiddeen, and between the Nobles and the Lessers of the Omehi. For almost 200 years (and since the Omehi landed on the beach), both the Omehi and the Xiddeen have been at war. Recent events have caused rumors of a potential truce between the two warring tribes. However, after fighting for generations, what other lifestyle could await the armies? Will they lose their purpose? As for the division between the Nobles and the Lessers, Tau is proof that such unions are possible. Socioeconomic status is a constant universal issue and theme in human history and culture. When the truce promises to bring an end to the division between Lessers and Nobles, which group from which tribe will rebel and which one will comply? These subplots are necessary for the plot because they embellish the world-building in the story and remind readers of Tau’s initial reasons for joining the army. The plot develops at an appropriate pace; and, the subplots are necessary for the plot because they are “breaks” from the military aspect of the story which are as severe as the issues on the Homefront.
The narrative is told in first person point-of-view in present time. With the exception of the prologue, the epilogue, and a handful of chapters in between, the narrative is told from Tau’s viewpoint. Tau’s hardships, training and motivations are written in sequence with his stream-of-consciousness so that readers know what he is thinking and experiencing with his actions, concurrently. The change of characters’ P.O.V. demonstrate not only how Tau presents himself to those around him, but also presents the conflicts the other characters are dealing with at the same time (hint: they’re based on the subplots). While Tau is a ticking timebomb, he is a reliable narrator. The narrative is well-written—even with the jumps in the P.O.V.s—and they can be followed by the readers.
The style Evan Winter uses in his novel focuses on the history of violence between two conflicting sides. The use of power, strength and abilities in the author’s writing is part of his central theme of violence. Yes, this story is influenced by African history and folklore, but the violence and the emotions can originate from any individual throughout the world past and present. The military aspect of the story will remind readers that this is an epic military fantasy, not just a story containing traditional fantasy tropes. The mood in The Rage of Dragons is one of anger and warfare which is expressed and reflected amongst all of the characters in the author’s world. The tone is how the elements that make up the mood are dealt with by these characters; should they find a truce or submit to their unstable emotions and desires? The mood matches the tone in the themes of war, violence and division.
The appeal for The Rage of Dragons have been positive. The debut novel has been called “one of the best fantasy books of 2019” by several critics. And, it was one of my favorite speculative books of 2019! Any readers who are fans of world-building, magic and dragons will enjoy this book. Fans of military fantasy will enjoy this story, too. I listened to the audiobook of this novel and Prentice Onayemi’s performance and narration was the best choice for this book. This is because both his accent and his pronunciation of the words and the terminology made the story more realistic. It does take some getting used to, but the audiobook is worth listening to. There are some concerns by a few readers about the use of “worn out fantasy tropes.” My answer to that is Tau’s story starts down that route, but the focus shifts towards something else, which foreshadows future events forthcoming in the sequel, The Fires of Vengeance. Only Evan Winter knows which tropes he’ll stick with and which ones he’ll twist.
The Rage of Dragons is the latest work of fantasy that combines dragons with African influences. What starts off as a trope for one individual’s vengeance evolves into a military story about the struggles for power and the purpose of war. The idea that war can be used for world-building is nothing new. However, the emotional toll of the training and the fighting in a war within a corrupted society containing dragons will remind fantasy fans of one or two popular series. That being said, Evan Winter gifted fantasy fans with an action-packed military tale that should not be missed.
I could lend my Talent to (the) Raiders. I could attack the Oros in their lair, (Chapter Thirteen, Slagos to Alpetar).
The wait between books in a series are often long. There are times when the book comes out the next year, or in two or three years. Then, there was the case of Alan Garner’s Tales of Alderley Trilogy which had a 50-year wait between the 2nd and the 3rd books! And, of course fantasy fans still await for the next books by both George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, patiently. Meanwhile, author Sarah Kozloff gifted her fans and readers with a one-month waiting period between each book in her The Nine Realms Quartet! And, The Queen of Raiders begins where A Queen in Hiding ended.
Book 2 starts off with Thalen and the other survivors of the invasion of the Oromondo army. Thalen decides that a small group of raiders instead of a large army would work more to their advantage in fighting back. Once the first rounds of recruitment are over, Thalen and his Raiders travel into Oromondo in order to liberate the Free States. Meanwhile, Wren—now under the alias of ‘Kestrel’—escaped detection from Lord Matwyck but had to leave her foster family. She arrives in the Green Isles and Kestrel must decide her next move before she is recognized again and captured. Gustie, one of Thalen’s friends from the Scolairíum, has been captured by the Oros and is forced to serve one of the generals, but she decides to fight back with the other captors. And, Lord Matwyck continues to increase his power and corruption as Lord Regent of Weirandale, leaving only his son, Marcot, to question his governorship without fear of losing his life. Each of these characters develop more into themselves due to the Oromondo aggression. Out of all of these protagonists, only Matwyck ignores the Oromondo threat, which serves as a reminder that Matwyck is ruling for himself and for power, and not for the benefit of his country or its people. Thalen, Kestrel, Gustie and all of the other characters are aware of the extent the Oromondos can have on their nations if they’re not stopped. The only thing Marcot can do is work behind his father’s back and learn how Matwyck’s selfishness is affecting everyone else in Weirandale. No one is safe from either Matwyck or the Oro army. The complexity lies not amongst the characters, but how they deal with their complex scenarios. These characters develop because of these hardships and conflicts.
The main plot in The Queen of Raiders is the resistance and the retaliation against the Oromondo army. Thalen is the Commander of the Raiders and he leads his small army into enemy territory knowing that the odds are stacked against them. Gustie uses her location amongst the Oros to her advantage and plots various attacks on the Oro army from the inside. And, Kestrel decides to participate alongside the Raiders in order to protect her citizens and to get vengeance for Weirandale. There are two subplots within this novel. The first is the continued corruption of Lord Matwyck and his “council.” It’s been over a decade since Matwyck seized control of Weirandale and he’s become obsessed with power. Matwyck’s corruption and desperation to maintain power has him posting bounties of the missing heir in other realms and executing the nobles who remain loyal to the Nargis Throne. The citizens suffer and Cerúlia remains in exile. The second subplot focuses on both the survival and the world-building in the other realms affected by the Oromondo invasion. The army didn’t just invade the Free States, but the realms bordering Oromondo as well. It turns out that because the Oromondos suffered, it lead to the suffering of the neighboring realms in the name of survival. So, these other realms decide to fight back as well, and the protagonists (and the readers) learn about the culture and the livelihood of the denizens of those realms, and what they need to do in order to survive the war and the occupation. Kestrel doesn’t return to Cascada due to the Oromondo invasion. She knows that the bigger conflict must be dealt with first before she reclaims the Nargis Throne. This is necessary to know because Kestrel is aware of her responsibilities as the queen she hopes to become.
Once again, the narration is told from several points-of-view. The protagonists and the other characters are reliable narrators as they provide this chronological sequence from first-person P.O.V. and their stream-of-consciousness. Just like in A Queen in Hiding, the readers will know everything that is going on everywhere consecutively. Only this time, the motivations and the actions of the characters aren’t as complicated and justified as they were in the first book.
The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Queen of Raiders focuses on military occupation and military strategy. Other recent military fantasy series written by R.F. Kuang and Myke Cole are about the realities of war. War isn’t just fighting and dying. Not all soldiers are trained fighters and are able to survive harsh conditions and injuries. Supplies run out, wounds become infected, horses die, etc. The stories told afterwards mentions all of the heroics and the battles; however, what occurs in the present are the planning, the struggling, the decision making, the suffering and the dying are often left out of those tales. The author presents war and occupation as a long-term conflict, not a quick battle. Anyone who participates with the fighting unit—cooks, medics, etc.—is just as vulnerable as the soldiers to the costs and the conditions of war. Success is often paid with death. The mood in this book is the occupation of hostiles and the terror that comes with it. Victims of the Oromondo army are held as slaves within their own homes and the denizens of Weirandale are suppressed by Matwyck and his “council.” The tone of the novel is rebellion. Both groups of oppression rebel in catches as opposed to one large group. This is done in order to derive suspicion from everyone else while succeeding with smaller victories; victories that garter hope for the oppressed and reflect the same fear back to the oppressors. Sometimes warfare becomes a necessity for survival.
The appeal for The Queen of Raiders will be a positive one. I say this because both the narrative and the pacing continues where A Queen in Hiding ended, leaving no open questions to be asked by the readers. Anyone who enjoyed the first book in The Nine Realms will be pleased with the short waiting period so that they can start back where they left off. And, with the cliffhanger at the end of this book, many readers will be happy that the wait for Book 3—A Broken Queen—is a short one! I want to mention that the final publications of the books do contain maps of the realms so following along the treks of all of the characters makes it easy for the readers to keep track of the events everywhere in the author’s world.
The Queen of Raiders is an excellent follow-up to A Queen in Hiding. Fans will appreciate how the conflicts continue in their own direction while all of the characters develop and participate in maintaining order through those conflicts. This action-packed part of the series reminds readers that there are other responsibilities individuals must rise up to in order to becomes the leaders they must be.
Binge reading. It’s something some readers will do when the time comes for it. If a book in a popular series is about to be released, then fans will not just re-read, but binge read those books. This happens a lot with readers of comics, graphic novels and manga, but it occurs amongst fans and readers of other genres of literature as well. Within the fantasy genre, readers have and continue to binge read their favorite series, and it happens when the series has enough books for fans to pass their time with while waiting for the next book (i.e. Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.,). Yet, every once in a while, an author will put out several of their books within a short time frame so that fans and readers can read them all at once and they won’t lose track of the events of the story. Brent Weeks did it with his The Night Angel Trilogy(from what I’ve read online); and now, Sarah Kozloff is doing the same with her debut series, The Nine Realms. All four books in the series will be released within four consecutive months so readers don’t have to wait too long to learn what happens next. A Queen in Hiding is the first book in the series.
The novel begins with the central protagonist, Princella Cerúlia, who is eight years-old, and her mother, Queen Cressa, on a visit to Chronicler Sewell, the royal scriber and historian, for Cerúlia’s Definition—the moment when the future queen’s Talent (magical ability) manifests, and then announced throughout the kingdom of Weirandale. Queen Cressa is an Enchanter whose Talent involves gaining the truth from other people and alternating someone’s memories, and her late mother, Queen Catreena was known as “The Strategist” for being able to strategize her movements several steps ahead of her opponents. While Queen Cressa worries about her daughter’s future, she is dealing with grievances from the realm of Oromondia—which is dealing with drought and poisoned water—who accuses the Queen and Weirandale of sending poisoned food to them, which they did not do. After an assassination attempt on the royal family, the queen spirits her daughter away to the region of Wyndton. There the princella is disguised as an orphaned peasant and hidden with a family who is loyal to the throne. Cerúlia goes by the alias, Wren, the adopted daughter of Wilim and Stahlia, and sister to Percia. This happens because Cressa learns that her Lord Steward, Matwyck, arranged the assassination attempt in order to rule as Lord Regent through her daughter and then imprison her once she comes of age to rule by herself. Meanwhile, Sumroth leads an army from Oromondo through the other realms in order to obtain food and resources for Oromondia’s survival. At the same time, Thalen, the son of a potter, is accepted into the Scolairíum (a university) in the Free States where he divides his time between studying the subjects Earth and Water, and History and Diplomacy. Throughout the narrative, Cerúlia/Wren and Thalen are the protagonists who develop the most; not only because they demonstrate growth through their learning and maturity, but also because it is obvious that their stories are the most relevant to the entire series (so far). There are several minor characters who are essential to the story in their own ways: those whose remain faithful to the Nargis Throne, those who sided with Matwyck and his treachery, and Cerúlia’s foster family who remain oblivious to Wren’s true identity. These characters are just as heartwarming and memorable as the protagonists.
The plot of A Queen in Hiding is one that will carry throughout the entire The Nine Realms series. The Queen of Weirandale fled her kingdom with her daughter so that the Nargis Throne could not be usurped by her traitorous council. However, she is killed before she can reclaim the throne, which forces the princella to remain in exile in order to avoid capture by those who usurped the throne in the first place. The main storyline narrates the occurrence of the before and the after of the usurpation, which follows Queen Cressa’s campaign to reclaim the throne, Princella Cerúlia’s upbringing while in hiding, and the “Regency” of Lord Matwyck and the lengths he goes to in order to maintain power. There are several subplots within this novel and they’re all necessary for the plot and its development. This first is the threat of Oromondia and its army. Due to the land not being able to sustain life, the leaders decide to invade the Free States for their survival. At the same time, the fire priests who travel with the army act as the Spanish Inquisition and punish the denizens stating that their “lack of faith” caused the land to become uninhabitable. The next subplot is Thalen’s education at the Scolairíum. Thalen (and the readers) learn how each of the realms operate, why the Oromondos are invading the other realms, and why the lack of a Weirandale ruler is upsetting the balance of the world. The last subplot is how the lower-class denizens of Weirandale are handling the brutal regency of Lord Matwyck and how they avoid detection from other nobles—and how they continue to track down the princella—as they continue to hope and to prepare for the return of the new Queen. All of the subplots go at an appropriate rate with the plot, and the pacing is believable because all of these campaigns and events would develop over the course of several years.
The narrative is told from several points-of-view from both the protagonists and the other characters in a chronological sequence. As all of the events unfold, the narrative moves from character and setting to character and setting. This allows readers to know everything that is going on from each of the characters’ 1st person P.O.V.s and their stream-of-consciousness. Because of this flow of narration from character to character, readers are able to keep track of everything that happens within the story. In addition, readers can determine for themselves which characters’ motivations and actions are justified.
The style Sarah Kozloff uses for A Queen in Hiding follows the tropes and the traditions of epic fantasy with elements of reality that make the story more believable to her audience. The elements of magic and religion with the use of science and knowledge lets readers know that the author does not want either her characters or her readers to become too reliable on one factor of knowledge over the other one. This is similar to our world; science doesn’t explain everything, and different realms have different governments and cultural practices. The author’s word choice and sentence structure reflects the age, the level of education, and the location of each P.O.V. character. The author’s style for her characters and settings enriches her world and her story; and, the inclusion of science and military strategy—knowledge we take for granted—demonstrate realism and familiarity for the readers and any potential foreshadowing in the next book(s). The mood in A Queen in Hiding is chaos. Weirandale is without a queen and at the mercy of a tyrant, Oromondia believes conquest will ensure their survival, and all of the scholars and the students at the Scolairíum lack common sense when it comes to preparing for and to fighting against an army of invaders. The tone in this novel is the consequences and the results of chaos across all realms regardless of conflict and government. I should mention that I read a digital ARC of this book and there were no maps to be found in my edition of the book. They’re not necessary, but they would have been helpful to have them in the book.
Fans of other epic fantasy series such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Daevabad Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and The Priory of the Orange Tree will enjoy this series the most. This is because A Queen in Hiding focuses on one main conflict and fantasy trope of “the missing heir” while exploring several other conflicts and world-building in other settings from the points-of-view of several other characters. And, there’s a bonus: each book will be released in consecutive months, so by April 2020, readers can read the entire quartet in one sitting! If the story moves at the same pace and uses the same style as in the first book, then the appeal for The Nine Realms will be a positive one. The time and the effort of the author to write this series and to convince the publisher, Tor, to release them all in consecutive months must be lauded because one, over 2,000 pages and God knows how many characters written and presented as one chronicle is an accomplishment all on its own; and two, I already plan (and want) to read the rest of the series, starting with Book 2, The Queen of Raiders.
A Queen in Hiding is a bold debut epic fantasy novel. Sarah Kozloff creates one world with nine realms and numerous characters and conflicts which are tethered in ways that keep the attention of the readers from beginning to end (of Book 1). By the time readers reach the end of this book, they will be pleased with the short waiting period for the next one, and the one after that, and the last one.
2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs.
This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).
All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.
#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it.
#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.
I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series.
#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang
I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best.
#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves.
One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.
I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.
One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!
#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019.
#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole
To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy.
#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!
2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!
How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds.
#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself.
#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy.
Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!
This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked!
In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied.
War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good.
The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author.
The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale.
#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang
This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book.
#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe
This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.
I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy.
The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment.
Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!
It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Grimdark, Folklore, Military
WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. You have been warned.
She didn’t care about anyone’s visions for the future. She’d stopped wanting to be great, to carve out her place in history, a long time ago. She’d since learned the cost, (Chapter 6).
Books about war—whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction—attempts to include the horrors it brings along with it. In recent years, more fiction stories have included the “realities” of war as opposed to the “glories” of it, which usually make their way into the narratives. R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, re-establishes the “cost of war” and its aftermath in the sequel, The Dragon Republic.
Runin “Rin” Fang is (still) reeling from her actions, which led to the end of the Third Poppy War and victory for the Empire. However, the victory has left Rin feeling hollow due to the deaths of her friends, her teachers, and her comrades. Everything she’d witnessed throughout the war: death, rape, starvation, mutilation, her lack of control as a shaman over a goddess, her addiction to opium, and the betrayal she and her Unit suffered towards the end of the war has left Rin in a depressive state of mind. As a soldier, Rin believes her only purpose lies in seeking revenge against those who betrayed her and the other denizens of the Empire. Lacking support, resources, and leadership skills, Rin leads the 13th Division to fight their remaining enemies. However, Rin and her soldiers are approached by Yin Vaisra—the Dragon Warlord, the Head of the House of Yin, and the father of one of her Sinegard classmates—and, he has a proposition for her: join up with him to form a “democratic” Republic amongst the now disbanded 12 Provinces and he will assist her with her vengeance. Rin—suspecting hidden motives and desiring to remain a soldier—agrees to the Dragon Warlord’s terms. As Rin works with her Unit and the Dragon Province, she is reunited with her former classmates who make their own decisions regarding the civil war that has broken out between the Empire and the Dragon Republic. This time, she has to determine her worth within this latest conflict. In order to do this, Rin develops from soldier to puppet to commander; it is a rough, but essential growth for Rin!
Just like The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic has three parts: the aftermath of war, the beginning of a civil war, and the fallout as a result of the civil war. Part I focuses on the Aftermath of the Third Poppy War, especially how the survivors—both military and civilian—are dealing with the damage that remains. Rin struggles with keeping her unit alive while avoiding the troops who would capture Rin in order to collect the bounty on her head. She makes a deal with the Dragon Warlord not only to achieve her goal of revenge and to have access of supplies for her troops, but also to maintain her purpose of being a soldier. All Rin knows is warfare and she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. She’s not alone in this because her friends and her comrades feel the same way.
Part II is the campaign launched by the Dragon Province. The mission: either to parlay, or to destroy the other 11 Provinces. The choice lies between siding with the Dragon Warlord or fighting against him. The reality of war is presented to readers again as war tactics, war strategy, and death becomes part of the plot. Decisions are the difference between life and death, and death always seems to prevail. Meanwhile, Rin is suffering from her lost abilities as a shaman and from the humiliating “testing” done to her by the Hesperians—an advanced civilization who promises to ally themselves with the Dragon Province towards the goal of a united republic with the promise of weapons as long as they: win the civil war, allow missionaries to assist with the refugees, and to “study” Rin. Rin has flashbacks to the same experiments done to her and Altan by the Mugenese and begins to wonder whether or not if more than her self-worth is on the line. At the same time, Rin learns how the Empress became so powerful and how the damage she inflicted on Rin can be skirted. For that to happen, Rin must learn more about the powers of a shaman. To do that she’ll have to learn from those who taught Jiang, her former Master of Lore. These two subplots are necessary for both the plot development, and the character development, especially Rin’s.
Part III unveils all of the revelations and the intentions of all of the characters. Everyone is involved with another oncoming war whether or not they want to be. The Empire and the Hinterlanders are on the brink of another civil war, and Rin and her Unit must decide who they are going to fight for when the war begins. Even Rin has intentions for this war, especially after she learns the truth about the Dragon Province, the Empress, and their “allies.” Amongst the death and the reunions Rin must determine if she is a soldier or a shaman.
Once again, the narrative is in 1stperson and stream-of-consciousness. With the exception of the Prologue, readers follow Rin’s experiences during the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. All of Rin’s thoughts and traumas are witnessed by both readers and other characters. It seems during the postbellum everyone sees Rin as a solder without purpose. She’s a terrible leader and her mistakes puts others in danger. Yet, she wants peace and prosperity (and revenge) just like the other survivors of the war. The scenes involving war, refugees, and previous events and memories are told in real time, so readers experience the anticipation, the suffering, and the confusion all of the characters experience. While it is long, the pacing of the narrative is appropriate for this military fantasy novel.
The style Kuang uses in The Dragon Republic is both similar and different from The Poppy Way. The conflict and the aftermath of war—based on the conflicts stirring in several countries before the beginning of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II—is found throughout the pages within this novel. The difference, or better yet the addition to the conflict, is the notion of imperialism. It is obvious that the Dragon Province is attempting to do this, but they are not the only ones fighting for control of a weaken empire. The mood of The Dragon Republic is death and suffering; just because (one) war is over doesn’t mean everything will get better soon. The tone in this novel is not only about the cost of war, but also about the price one is willing to pay for power. There are no innocent people left alive in this story.
The appeal surrounding The Dragon Republic have been positive. Fans of The Poppy War, other military fiction, and grimdark will enjoy this sequel. As the world expands, so does the world-building, which is found in the characters and the weapons, which are based on military history and Chinese culture and folklore. It must be mentioned that anyone who couldn’t finish The Poppy War and/or are triggered by real life acts of violence should NOT read this book! While not all readers are into military literature, actual events of war, such as rape, is mentioned in this novel. Otherwise, expect another well-written story by R.F. Kuang.
The Dragon Republic is an amazing sequel. The story picks up where The Poppy War left off and it is both creative and realistic for the type of grimdark and military fantasy the author is telling the readers. Parts of the plot and the narrative can drag on at times, but they are necessary for the story the author is telling everyone. I can’t wait for the next book, even though I must.
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military
PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.
“Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”
Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers.
She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).
This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war.
The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division.
The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her.
Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.
Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals.
The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow.
The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary.
The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story.
The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang.
The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.