Why You Need to Read: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1: The Empire’s Ruin

By: Brian Staveley

Published: July 6, 2021

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            “But it can’t be coincidence, can it? The Annurians burn down the Purple Baths and then, the very next morning, these naked fools show up talking about an attacking army,” (5). 

            When an individual reads a work of fiction, it is said that the reader is transported to that world—either ours or a fantastic one—as they become immersed in the narrative. In addition, there are some stories which remind readers of other things ranging from emotions to music. These moments of empathy allows readers to gain some comprehension of what the author was expressing as they wrote the story. Now, there are moments when the interpretation by the audience is wrong, but whatever they concluded should be acknowledged by the creator(s). After I was convinced to read The Empire’s Ruin—the 1st book in the Ashes of the Unhewn Throne trilogy—by Brian Staveley by another bookblogger, immediately, I was sucked into the narrative, and the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky played on loop in my head as I read this epic fantasy. 

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel who are part of a large dramatis personae, all who are part of the events that start to unfold from the 1st chapter. The first protagonist is Gwenna Sharpe, the former Commander of the Kettral Wing. Why “former” Commander? It is because Gwenna’s reckless behavior and her ability to ignore direct orders led to the deaths of a few of her comrades, and the death of the last (known) kettral—large birds used by the Annurian military for battle and other missions. Emperor Adare hui’Malkeenian strips Gwenna of her rank, but orders her to go on a voyage to Menkiddoc—a mysterious continent with ties to the present day Annurian Empire—on an expedition to retrieve kettral eggs. Accompanying Gwenna is the Royal Chief Historian, Kiel, who has extensive knowledge of both Menkiddoc and the Csestriim—a race of individuals who were wiped out by the Annurians thousands of years ago; First Admiral Jonan lem Jonan is the commander of the fleet and the expedition—who serves as Gwenna’s foil as well; the legionaries, Cho Lu and Pattick, who are fans of Gwenna’s “heroics”; during the expedition, the party meets Bhurma Dhar—the former Captain of a Manjari ship; and, an orphaned girl who may or may not know that whereabouts of the current residents of Menkiddoc. The entire crew have a lot to lose on this voyage and everything is hanging on the victory of this mission. However, Gwenna Sharpe needs more than the Emperor’s orders for her to remember what her purpose is to the Annurian Empire. 

            The second protagonist is Ruc Lakatur Lan Luc, a priest of Eria—Lady of Love. Ruc was raised among the Vuo Ton—a race of people from Dombâng who live in the delta which is as dangerous as the Vuo Ton’s way of life—but, he left that life 15 years earlier. Now, as a priest who practices love and pacifism, Ruc finds himself worried that recent events—the attack by the Annurians—is starting to unravel the instincts of his past. The recent attack has led to violence and riots in the name of numerous religions within the city of Dombâng. The followers of Eria are few, but Ruc and the other priests and priestesses—including Bien Qui Nai, Ruc’s girlfriend—do all they can to practice and to keep their faith. During a beatdown, Ruc and Bien come across a naked man who preaches that his god is “the First” and will overtake all of the other ones. This encounter causes Ruc to return to the Vuo Tun to gain some possible answers. After Ruc’s suspicions are confirmed, he rushes back to Eira’s Temple to find followers of other faiths attacking it. Ruc and Bien barely escape only to be arrested on charges of heresy. Their “punishment” is to participate in the fighting at the Arena. Their trainer is Goatface, who pairs Ruc and Bien with a captured Annurian soldier as a trio. Theirs is not the only group Goatface trains; there is the trio made up of Mouse, Monster and Stupid, who don’t seem to mind fighting in the Arena. Ruc must re-educate himself on how to survive in a hostile environment as he clings to his faith. 

            The third protagonist is Akiil, a former thief and “former” Shin monk of Ashk’lan. In fact, Akiil studied with the monks alongside Kaden, the brother of the reigning Emperor of Annur, who was the Heir Apparent before his “death.” Akiil meets with the Emperor so that he can attempt to con her. He hopes to do this by providing the Emperor with information about the kenta—a practice developed by the Csestriim and taught among the Shin monks—and its gates. Akiil’s plan is to “teach” the Emperor how to use the kenta in order to gain riches for himself. The Emperor is interested in the kenta because she wasn’t taught how to use it because she wasn’t the (original) heir to the Empire. However, with her brother dead and she without the knowledge, the Emperor may have some use of Akiil. The question isn’t who can use the kenta, but why the 2 opposite individuals want to use it. It turns out that while Akiil’s plan started off with him being a thieving monk, a person from his past alters his reasons for doing the job; but, what about the Emperor’s conviction for the knowledge? Will that affect Akiil and his plans? 

            There are 3 plots in this novel, and they are as complex as the characters. The first plot surrounds the Kettral. The birds are extinct in Annur, so the Emperor arranges for an expedition to search for them elsewhere. The second plot focuses on the in-fighting in Dombâng about religion—which god or gods are the most powerful? Which faith “deserves” to be practiced? The third plot delves into the knowledge the Emperor seeks, which is offered to her by a “thieving monk.” It seems that neither the thieving monk nor the Emperor should have this knowledge, but this is the least of their problems. There are 3 subplots in this novel as well. The first subplot involves the Csestriim. Their race is extinct; and yet, for some reason, the knowledge of the Csestriim could help Annur—the Kettral and the kenta—from destruction. The second subplot delves into magic and abilities a few characters can use. Unfortunately, not only are these powers esoteric, but also the users are ostracized by the majority of the world’s denizens. Why is that? The third subplot focuses on the new faith that is starting to emerge in Dombâng (and in Annur). The followers claim their god is the most powerful, but something is off about the followers—which, is something all of the other religious groups agree on. 

            The narrative occurs in the present tense and is told from multiple points-of-view of the protagonists: Gwenna Sharpe, Ruc and Akiil. The narrative is in the 3rd person limited which limits the story to what each protagonist is experiencing (and their knowledge) through their streams-of-consciousness and their memories. All of their experiences, flaws and mistakes, emotions make all of the protagonists reliable narrators. And, as long as the narrative is, it can be followed by the reader(s) easily.

            The style Brian Staveley uses for The Empire’s Ruin enhances the epic fantasy experience for the reader(s). At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how this story had me humming the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. The reason for this is because the 1st chapter is a battle sequence, and Tchaikovsky’s musical piece is a tale about Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. What is an overture? An overture is defined as “an orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, suite, or other extended composition (in the 17th century).” And, that is what the author has written, an epic fantasy that is just the beginning of what will be an admirable opera (Note: I didn’t study music theory). All of the narratives are part of the bigger story to come, and Brian Staveley wrote this story in a way that it is not too long, but with enough details to capture the readers’ attention. The mood in this novel is pugnacious. All of the protagonists find themselves in atmospheres or in situations where they must be ready to fight. Even if they don’t want to, they don’t have a choice because their survival depends on it. The tone in this novel is diversion. All of the fighting throughout Annur and Dombâng is drawing attention away from the threats that have started to appear. In fact, the threats have made their “proclamations” known to certain crowds, but to no avail. It seems that the protagonists and their comrades know the severity of these threats. Also, if you need to, then you can consult the maps located at the beginning of the book. 

            The appeal for The Empire’s Ruin have been positive. So far, the 500+ ratings on Goodreads have 4- and 5-star reviews which make up 89% of the total ratings. Now, don’t be turned off by the quantity of the reviewers, but pay attention to the quality of those reviews. Regardless of the amount of reviews the book has so far, it can’t be overlooked that almost all of the readers keep raving about it. This book is not only the first in a new epic fantasy series, but also is part of the saga of the Annurian Empire which started with the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series—no, I haven’t read that series, yet. In other words, fans of Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Melissa Caruso will enjoy this book—and, the upcoming books in this series—the most. This series will continue the expansive world-building that started with the author’s previous books. There is something you should know about this novel. Brian Staveley rewrote this entire book after his agent told him that the first draft “wasn’t good enough.” I’m glad (and, so are several other readers) that the author listened to his agent (I wonder if it was the same agent who told V.E. Schwab to rewrite her draft of Vengeful?). Obviously, it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but this book is the result and that’s a good thing. Whenever the next book in this series is released, I will be reading it!

            The Empire’s Ruin is the first book in a new series that is an expansion of a fantasy world fans and other readers of the speculative fiction genre have praised for years. This novel is an excellent place for newcomers to start reading about the Annurian Empire. Brian Staveley has written one of the best (and one of the most underrated) books of the year. This novel is the 1st in what’s to come in this epic fantasy, which will remind readers of a musical overture. You don’t believe me? Then, read both the first and the last chapters in this book with the 1812 Overture playing in the background, and let me know what you think. 

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

Thank you to Tor (Books) and to Brian Staveley for sending me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

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

e- book, Bantam, 2009.