Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

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

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: July 23, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Historical Fiction, Mythology

            Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament. She was eighteen, penniless, and had grown up in Uukumil, a drab town where mule-drawn railcars stopped twice a week and the sun scorched out dreams, (Chapter 1). 

            I read this ARC in 4 days (finishing it after midnight on the 5thmorning)! I was that engrossed in this story that reminded me of both Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez with story elements similar to both Rick Riordan and Katherine Arden. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a beautiful blend of history, culture, and mythology. Anyone who is a fan of standalone works such as The Wolf in the Whale and The Sisters of the Winter Wood will love this book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this story, but the focus is on Casiopea Tun. She is the granddaughter of Cirilo Leyva, the wealthiest man in town, but you wouldn’t know it based on her appearance and her demeanor. Because her mother had married a poor native man—who later died—both Casiopea and her mother live as servants to their family. Casiopea and her mother clean and cook for their relatives while the rest of the family live comfortably according to their socioeconomic status. All the while, Casiopea’s cousin, Martín—who is also Cirilo’s only grandson and 2 years older than Casiopea—entertains himself by bullying Casiopea. Unlike Casiopea—who is pragmatic, yet hopeful—Martín is the traditional spoiled heir who has nothing else going for him except for his family name and the wealth that comes with it. He wants nothing more than his grandfather’s approval, which he never earns, and he believes his cousin has it (which she doesn’t). After a spat between the two cousins, Casiopea opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed with the key he left behind. When she opens the chest, she finds a pile of bones that revive into Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. Casiopea learns that Hun-Kame was betrayed and imprisoned by Vucub-Kame, his twin brother. Immediately, Casiopea is traveling with the god in order to locate his missing essences and to help him regain his throne. The twin deities, Hun-Kame and Vucub-Kame are static characters (for the most part) because they are gods who have personas which are not affected by any change. Martín Leyva is a complex character who is forced to confront his demons, his family, and his insecurities, but that doesn’t mean he becomes a better person. It is Casiopea Tun who undergoes the most character development throughout the story.     

            The plot is part folklore and part bildungsroman. The folklore aspect of the plot follows the Hero’s Quest in that Casiopea leaves her home and goes on a “divine” quest. Except, Casiopea is compelled to accompany a god on this journey, and she doesn’t have anything forcing her to remain at her home. The bildungsroman, or coming-or-age story, surrounds both Casiopea and Martín. The growth these characters undergo happens because they leave home. Casiopea sees her chance to see the world and to experience new things; Martín, who had left his home once before, has no choice but to have these experiences. I’m not saying that Martín doesn’t need the experience that comes with leaving home, but it’s obvious that the growth won’t have the same positive effect on him the way it will have on Casiopea. The twin deities play their roles as gods, limited direct interference, which is expected. The subplot in this novel is family and family dynamics. Even though the setting is Mexico in 1927 (during The Jazz Age), some things remain universal and unchanged. There is nothing new about the spoiled heir and the “half-breed” child, but Moreno-Garcia makes sure that the long-term effects of such treatment and behavior remains realistic and believable. Martín, and the rest of the Leyva Family, know he’s not the heir anyone wants, but he’s the heir nonetheless, so the family finds it easier to indulge him rather than to curb his behavior. Casiopea, who is mistreated by the entire family, has a poor relationship with her mother because she never comes to Casiopea’s defense whenever she is abused by a relative. While both mother and daughter do care for each other, the relationship is strained. Casiopea goes on her adventure without hesitation because she has neither loyalty, nor emotional ties to her family. While there is both plot development and character development, the subplot of family develops and affects the plot within the story.  

            The narrative is an interesting one. First, there are multiple 1stperson point-of-view’s, and all 4 narratives are reliable because each character admits to his or her flaws and strengths during their P.O.V chapters. Next, the locations mentioned within the novel—with the exception of Uukumil(?)—are real places throughout Mexico. Readers can pull up a map of Mexico and follow the journey of the two adversaries throughout the narrative. Last, each of the characters provide both flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness throughout the narrative. Providing thoughts of both the past and the present not only allows readers to know what the characters are thinking at that particular moment, but also how and why they all think the way they do. This narrative method provides an understanding of each of these characters while allowing readers to choose for themselves whether or not they like, dislike, pity, etc. each character. The author incorporates all of these narratives into the story, yet it makes the story that much easier to follow along.

            The style Silvia Moreno-Garcia provides is a mixture of history, culture, and folklore. The historical events mentioned throughout the novel—automobiles, the Charleston, Prohibition, etc.—provides the mood of the story, which is modernity brings change. Each location throughout the story elaborates the clothing, the music, and the hustle and bustle illustrates how far behind the town of Uukumil is compared to the rest of Mexico. The culture reminds and informs readers that Mexico is a big country with a rich culture, but what Northern Mexico practices is not practiced in Central and Southern Mexico (necessarily). The folklore, while Mayan mythology is the main focus, fairy tales—such as “Cinderella”—is mentioned over and over. The author does an amazing job explaining Mayan mythology, Mexican culture and history, and pop culture, she mentions both fairy tales and poetry as cautionary tales to staying pragmatic no matter what is occurring in your life. In fact, that is the tone of the novel, staying humble regardless of any life changing events both positive and negative. Readers see the consequences of both examples within the story, and that moral is relevant in our modern times.

            The appeal surrounding Gods of Jade and Shadow are already positive (remember, I read an ARC of this novel). The book received advanced praise by critics and authors alike. And, it has been called one of the “Best Books of the Month” by Amazon and Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog for July 2019. I did mention that fans of mythology-inspired fantasy will enjoy this novel the most. I should mention that several years ago, many people throughout the world became obsessed with Mayan culture and history when it was believed the world would end in 2012. This novel would appeal to them, too. This book can be read over and over again, and it belongs in the canon of mythological fantasy alongside Circe and American Gods. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel as well. 

            Gods of Jade and Shadow is an informative and entertaining story about change, tradition, desire, and family. The honor of it being called one of the “Best Books of 2019” are not just words, but fact. This book is definitely one of my favorites of 2019. Silvia Moreno-Garcia conducts a grim, but magical journey throughout Mexico while reintroducing what we forgotten from our world history class. This novel is one of the best stories that balance fantasy and reality in recent years. This is an enjoyable story for readers of multiple genres.

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

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

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

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

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

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

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

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

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden

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

Alanna: The First Adventure (1983) by Tamora Pierce

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

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

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

Brave Story (1987) by Miyuki Miyabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Uprooted (2015) by Naomi Novik

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

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

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

7) Who Fears Death (2007) by Nnedi Okorafor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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