My Favorite Speculative Fiction Narratives

***My 200th Blog Post!!!***

For this post, which marks a new milestone for me, I decided to discuss one of the most enjoyable—and the most dreadful—topics: favorites. We all know why favorites is a fun topic, but it can be daunting for opposing reasons: others have them as their favorites, they are ubiquitous, they are different from yours, etc. 

            Why am I using the term “narrative” instead of story? What is a narrative? MasterClass has a great definition of the word (no, I am NOT a member). “A narrative is a way of presenting connected events in order to tell a ‘good’ story. A narrative unites distinct events by concept, idea, or plot.” Narratives have existed since the start of humanity, and they range from folktales to poetry to visual media, etc.

            So, why am I using narrative for this post? It is because it is tied to the topic of my 100th post. In that post, I mentioned how speculative fiction genres and subgenres can be used for films and video games. Personally, I believe speculative fiction should include both visual art mediums more often because many films and video games are presenting narratives. Yes, many films (and TV shows) are based on text narratives (a.k.a. books)—and, some video games are based on books and films; yet, there are many films and video games that standout because they are excellent narratives that are NOT based on books.

            Think about it, which films and video games are considered to be the best based on their narratives? And yes, not everyone has seen the same films, and not everyone plays the same video games, but you’ve heard of the “popular” ones and the “excellent” ones. Most of the these are critically acclaimed within their own academy, but their narratives are what capture our attention the most as we progress through them. These narratives are so captivating, we appreciate them regardless of the medium they are being presented to the audience. 

            So, for this post, I will be discussing my favorite speculative fiction narratives. My (current) favorites span across speculative fiction genres and narratives formats. Expect not only books, but also films and video games as well. Many of my favorites shouldn’t surprise you, but I hope you understand why I continue to gush over these narratives. This is a Top 10 List, but the order is based on when I experienced each one.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman

Known as both “the most dangerous man in the U.K.” and “J.K. Rowling’s contemporary” this (now retired) Oxford professor has been enjoying the latest adaptation of this dark fantasy—with blended elements of science fiction and religion—trilogy which have been more faithful to the books. This trilogy was published right before the Harry Potter Phenomenon, which were released in tandem (to the first half of the Harry Potter series). And, while this series might not have the same amount of fans as Hogwarts, readers of this series became devoted fans who waited years for the same level of media adaptation as its counterpart. 

I’ll say it right now, this is my favorite book series from my childhood. That’s over Harry Potter, Animorphs, and other series (from the same decade). Why? Because this series had a narrative that presented various conflicts within a coming-of-age story with realistic elements—which we take for granted—told through a lens that is speculative fiction. In addition to the protagonist being a less than ideal heroine (she has flaws), she takes matters into her own hands in order to do what she believes is the right thing to do, regardless of what the authority figures tell her to do.

Not only was this series my introduction to portal fantasy—I read C.S. Lewis’ and L. Frank Baum’s series in college and in grad school respectively—and genre blending. This trilogy is fantasy that contains several elements of science, religion and folklore—dæmons are a belief from Ancient Greece and the shamanism dates back to the Pre-Socratic Era—which tie into the plot, the character development, and the world-building. You can recognize the series based on keywords mentioned from the beginning to the ending. 

This narrative is one of my favorites because it takes the familiar tropes of a fantasy story (i.e. family) with real life elements (i.e. science) and scenarios (i.e. identity) and allows it to be presented between science fantasy and reality. And, the idea that a single action can lead to the same ramifications in all worlds is extremely thought provoking as well. The series’ ending—given the circumstances—is satisfying. This narrative has you saying, “what is” instead of “what if.”

  • Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001)

I remember when this movie was released in the U.S., but I didn’t get to see it in theaters. When I did sit down to watch this movie, I was mesmerized by both the animation and the narrative. And, while I understand the comparisons between this narrative and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—this story, fused with Japanese folklore, stands out on its own.

Chihiro isn’t a curious young girl who wanders into a magical world. She is a whiny child who is saddened with moving to a new home with her parents who are more optimistic about the move than her. When they get lost, it is her parents whose curiosity leads them all into the spirit world, where they are trapped inside. Chihiro is forced to complete the “Hero’s Quest” by completing 3 tasks. However, Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl, and she behaves like one throughout the narrative. It won’t be easy.

I love the narrative within this movie because it explores the balance between fantasy and folklore. Some tales from a region’s religion, culture and/or superstitions are often dismissed as being “false” or “fantasy.” However, the fantastic often presents what is real in its own way; and, this movie presents a spirit world with more than one location within it, which demonstrates that world is as vast as ours. There is one unanswered question: how long were Chihiro and her parents in the spirit world for? 

  • Final Fantasy X (2001)

I’ve discussed my love for video games before, but I haven’t talked about them as much as I wanted to beforehand. Some readers of speculative fiction do enjoy video games of the same genres, but role-playing games—a.k.a. R.P.G.s and Japanese R.P.G.s—are visual narratives in which you play your way through the story until you reach its end. And, some of the games in this genre are both popular and laudable enough for all gamers to play at least once.

Everyone has their favorite Final Fantasy game; and, each game in the main series has its own superlative. For example, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VII is the “Most Popular” game in the series. Final Fantasy X has my favorite narratives in this series. In addition to this game having an excellent story—which the other games in the (main) series all have in common—this game presents a narrative in which all of the main characters develop and grow over the course of the game.

            You play as Tidus, a famous athlete who takes after his father (who he hates and has been missing for 10 years). During a game, the city is attacked by an entity, and Tidus is transported 1,000 years into the future. From this point in the game, Tidus (and the player) learn about the world they find themselves in, what happened to their world since the initial attack there, and how the two are tied together. Conflicts and themes surrounding power, identity, religion, beliefs, love and choice are presented in each of the main characters throughout the gameplay. Each conflict and its relation to each character is presented early within the narrative. However, as each “truth” is revealed to the party, they must decide on how they want to carry on knowing the consequences of their actions. While the ending is bittersweet, you finish the game’s narrative aware that the world will be able to start anew; which is something we can all learn from this game.

            Final Fantasy X is one of the games in this main series with a direct sequel. Final Fantasy X-2 (2003) takes place a few years after the events of its predecessor. This presents a unique, yet believable, look into how the world has changed, and how the main characters have changed with it.             

  • The Twelve Kingdoms (1992-Present, Japan; 2007-10, U.S.A.) by Fuyumi Ono

Personally, I believe we take narratives for granted. Yes, we learn how stories were told orally and passed down from generation through posterity, then collected and written down, and then translated into other languages so more can enjoy them. The 1990s saw the demand for Asian content to be presented to a Western audience, and not just action movies. TV shows, anime, manga, etc., were in high demand; some works of literature were translated as well. Battle Royale: The Novel and the movie have a strong cult following, but some light novels (Japanese YA novels) were being translated as well.

Sea of Shadow is the first book in The Twelve Kingdoms, and the narrative focuses on the trope of the outcast and presents it in a way that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Yoko Nakajima has lived her entire life as an outcast. She is a high-schooler with red hair living in Japan with her traditional parents. Although she is an only child, she receives little love from her parents; she gets good grades in school, but she is ostracized due to her hair color. All Yoko knows is how to get through life by trying to please everyone around her. One day, a man with golden hair appears at her school—which is an all-girls school—abducts her from her classroom, and spirits her away to a world where Asian folklore and fantasy are authentic. After arriving, Yoko is separated from the man and now must survive in a world where she is even more of an outcast than in our world. 

This narrative is part coming-of-age and part survival story. Yoko is in a place where she is considered to be a criminal because she is an immigrant. After a few close calls, she is left on her own to survive in the wilderness. From there, Yoko grows into the individual she was forced to suppress due to her familial and societal notions. After accepting that there is nothing left for her in our world (she can never go home anyway), Yoko mush find a reason to keep living throughout all of the adversities she faces. Her goal matches a shocking revelation about herself.

The rest of the series introduce new characters and reintroduces fan favorites as the timeline of the 12 Kingdoms’ history is covered throughout each book. The same issues of immigration, regional biases and political conspiracies are covered in the narratives of each book. In addition, without too many spoilers, each of the protagonists in each book represent one of 3 types of societal outcasts within that world. 

Print copies of this series is limited; not to mention just 4 books in the series were translated to English. There is an anime series based on the first 4 books which you can stream online. Hopefully, one day we’ll get the rest of the series translated and released.

  • Pan’s Labyrinth, El labriento del fauno (2006)

I’ve discussed fairy tale retellings and fractured fairy tales, but I haven’t mentioned fairy tales and folktales as often as I should in my posts. In short, fairy tales are a genre of folktales in which there is a strong storyline and plot, emphasis upon magic and fantasy, repeated motifs and tropes, with a “happy ending.” Characters are represented as good or evil, and there are beings with magical powers or objects which serve a purpose for the characters. Director Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed his own fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth, in which he blends fantasy, magic realism and folklore into this poignant, yet dark film. 

The setting of the narrative grabs your attention immediately. It is the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)—which occurred in tandem with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and World War II (1939-45)—and a young girl, Ofelia, and her pregnant mother are traveling to her (new) stepfather’s residence. The protagonist’s stepfather is a captain in Franco’s army, which holds dominance over Spain. Ofelia does her best to cope with the changes by retreating into fairy tales, her favorite literary genre, which the adults all comment that “she is too old for them.” Amidst the violence that happens outside of the home, Ofelia comes across a magical faun who tells her her true identity and the 3 tasks she must complete in order to prove that she is “the lost princess.” 

The narrative is haunting and beautiful as it explores the reasons why anyone would read fantasy and fairy tales; besides escapism, they offer a semblance of hope during difficult times. Not to mention, this is one of the few “fairy tales” where there is a villainous step-father instead of a step-mother (and he’s not a child molester). Each of the 3 tasks correlate to the themes of war and violence—not to mention one of the scariest evil creatures in recent narratives to date—and whether or not magic does exist.

This new fairy tale resembles the older variants which were collected by the Grimm Brothers, and written by Perrault, Andersen, and Baum. In other words, it is for adults not children; that being said, anyone who is a fan of fairy tales will appreciate how new tales can emerge through the appreciation of previous ones. And yes, you can read the literary variant of this narrative—released in 2019—but the film presents how the audience, and the general public, continue to take these narratives for granted instead of seeing them for what they are: a much needed and a wonderful fairy tale. 

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 (2016)

I’ve played both Persona 3 and Persona 4—which you should as well—and, while those entries in the series have great narratives, characters and gameplay, it does not have the same down-to-Earth element Persona 5 maintains throughout the entire game. The series is an urban fantasy JRPG with elements of folklore, science, horror and paranormal in it. Persona 3 delves into themes of depression. Persona 4 is a murder mystery which focuses on the effects of media coverage and urban legends. Persona 5 investigates how societal norms and conformity has a negative effect on individuals. 

The narrative focuses on a group of misfit students who are victims of misconceptions placed upon them by the adults in their lives and the rest of society. Anyone who remembers feeling like an outcast—even in adulthood—can relate to these emotions. And yet, the game explores how it is not only adults and power figures who mistreat other individuals, but also other children and adolescents. In addition, players realize how each of the antagonists ended up as they are because of societal expectations. Are the Phantom Thieves heroes, or “a group of meddling kids”?

The narrative within this game is the reality within the fiction. The unfortunate truth is that we all know more than 1 person in our life and “social circle” who is similar to the characters in the game. Another factor to consider is that the narrative forces us to look at ourselves and to determine whether or not we are mistreating anyone for our own gain. The game’s narrative serves as one part fable and one part entertainment.

I’ll mention the narrative within Royal as well. Without getting into too many spoilers, the narrative in this part of the narrative focuses on how manifested desires allows us to achieve a life that is too good to be true, and the causes and the consequences of living such a life. Living this life can lead us to being “out of touch” from reality, especially to those who might be suffering because life isn’t as good for them. Persona 5 (Royal) examines the lives we choose to live while fighting beings from folklore around the world. 

From the first page to the final sentence of this trilogy you are transported to a world where science, fantasy, history, magic and reality enmesh into one of the most engrossing narratives of all time. What if the seasons lasted for several centuries? What if Earth was unstable due to tectonic activity? What if there were individuals who could control seismic activity? What if life on Earth was dead for centuries? Would you be able to survive?

In the far future, Earth has become an unstable planet where earthquakes kill life for centuries at a time. In a twist of fate, some humans gained abilities to sense and to control the Earth’s tectonic activity; so what does the majority of humanity do? Resort to the old methods of societal oppression by practicing fear, control and slavery of these individuals for millennia, which leads to the beginning of the series where a woman arrives at her home to find her toddler son has been murdered, her daughter abducted by her father, and her secret exposed to her community. On top of that, the “fifth season” has begun, so she must hurry and find her daughter (and kill her now ex-husband) before the surface becomes too uninhabitable to survive. 

This series not only takes genre blending to a new level, but also reminds the readers of the dangers of repeating negative social norms instead of solving the bigger problem. Not to mention how such negative treatment and hostility affects posterity for the worse; and, how far will any mother go to protect her child(ren)? And, what will a child do to ensure their own survival? The world-building explains the current predicament the characters find themselves in and how the planet ended up the way it did. In addition, this is one of the few series in which the beginning chapters play a huge role in the narrative. Even the 2nd person P.O.V. chapters are well-written. You finish reading this series knowing it was an amazing narrative. There is a reason why every book in this trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and in consecutive years. 

How do I describe Murderbot to someone who hasn’t read this series? Murderbot is a brilliant A.I. who is smart enough to gain control over itself, hates stupidity, has a bleak outlook on life to the point where it borders on nihilism, watches soap operas so that it can understand humans better, and is very good at its job at providing security and killing threats to those under its protection. On a serious note, I haven’t laughed so much regarding robots since watching the Star Wars movies.

The series follows Murderbot—which is what it calls itself—on its latest assignment, protecting a group of scientists as they explore a planet. After a close call, it wonders if something else was happening on that planet, not that it cares what happens to the humans. Basing its knowledge about humans on the T.V. show it watches (i.e. Sanctuary Moon), Murderbot concludes that some of the other humans are up to no good. So, it abandons its post to go on a mission to determine whether or not Murderbot is right; but, not because it cares about the humans who were nice to it. And, from there the narrative takes off. 

With 5 novellas and 1 novel (with more books expected in the future) readers get to look into how the future could look—and without any intergalactic wars, just corporate greed. Through Murderbot’s P.O.V., readers learn how various types of robots are created and are treated throughout the galaxy, and how they interact with each other when they have the opportunity to do so. Murderbot is a “Security Unit, or Sec Unit,” whose purpose is to follow orders and to protect those within its “contract.” But, Murderbot is smart enough to play dumb when it has to survive and to remain incognito from other bots, A.I.s, and humans. 

Each narrative is a “report” of events Murderbot has to submit. And, given its personality, expect a lot of laughs because you will get its inner thoughts as well; and they are on point! Anyone who wants to read a sci-fi action-adventure series with a funny and a unique narrative will enjoy this one as much as I do. 

After reading so many fantasy stories (and playing them), you ask yourself 2 questions. One, if I ended up in a fantasy world, then what would it be like? Two, if I found myself in another world I started to call, “Home,” then why would I consider returning to the world I came from? Seanan McGuire isn’t the first author to think about these things (read the Oz books by L. Frank Baum), but she is one of many to consider such worlds existing parallel to ours. 

Wayward Children takes the trope of “lost/wandering” children—they ended up in a different world with a different set of rules and time span—and transforms it into a new narrative with a twist. The ones who “return” are “changed” by their time in the other world, which they called Home. Their families don’t know what to do with them, so they send them to “Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children” (or, its sister school in Maine) so they can become “reacclimated” into society again. In truth, these students are searching for ways to return Home by looking for their Doors.

The series is divided into 2 narrative sequences. The first one follows the ongoings at the school, which is more like a school than the characters want to admit. There are disagreements about clothes, cliques are formed based on the sort of worlds they traveled to, and what their plans are for the future—in our world or in their Homes. Not to mention, when they do go on quests, they have to be quick about it, so Miss West doesn’t tell their parents. The second one focuses on each adventure each character, or characters, has in the world they traveled to, from how they found themselves there to the reason(s) why they had to leave it. The one thing these characters all have in common is that they’ll do anything to return Home. 

Worlds such as Fairyland, the Moors, the Goblin Market, Hooflands, and several more where beings such as mermaids, talking skeletons, resurrected individuals, centaurs, etc., exist in worlds next to ours. In fact, some of those worlds are connected to each other as well. How many other worlds exist? Which one would you find yourself in and why? Would you want to stay there or return to our world? 

The narrative of this novel begins with a familiar trope before twisting into something else. The protagonist, Sasha, is on vacation with her mother when she notices a strange man watching and following her. When she confronts him, he gives her strange tasks to complete. The catch is if she doesn’t complete them, then a loved one will suffer the consequences. After the first failure, she accomplishes all of the tasks given to her (which causes her to vomit gold coins). Afterward, Sasha is coerced into attending a university in order to “enhance” her knowledge.

Before you start comparing this book to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc., remember, Sasha was coerced into attending this university (which is in the isolated and rural parts of Russia). In fact, all of the students are in the same situation as Sasha, but why are they there? What makes them different from their former high school classmates? What are they supposed to be learning? 

This narrative blends the college experience within a speculative fiction setting. Sasha and her college peers have to deal with roommates, classes, changing family relationships, and the changes that go with being away from home; but, they don’t have the option to flunk out of the university. If a student fails their classes or reveals the ongoings at the university, then their families will pay the price. This is done to ensure the secrecy of the university and the success of their students. As for what they are studying, well none of the students know until halfway through their second year. And then, they have to study for a test so that they can “attend” the graduate program.

Without giving away anything else, the narrative does an amazing job balancing college life with the unexpected. And, similar to the narrative, the college experience becomes an addiction you don’t want to give up. In fact, some of the students decide to stay at the university during the holidays, instead of returning home. No one is forcing them to stay there during that time, so why won’t they leave? And, what happens to the students—including Sasha—when they begin to comprehend their “schoolwork”?

            Those are my (current) favorite speculative fiction narratives. Yes, they are on my lists of favorites by medium as well, but I won’t be mentioning that topic anytime soon. I hope you all consider reading, watching and/or playing what I listed here. If anything, then I hope you enjoy the stories being told as much as I did, and still do.

            Coincidentally, I started my blog site 9 years ago, and it started as a simple hobby. It’s amazing what any individual can achieve when given the opportunity to do so. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me to keep my blog going from when I was just posting theories about A Song of Ice and Fire and pop culture essays. I wasn’t sure whether or not anyone would read the posts on this blog; then again, I didn’t believe I had so much to say about literature, social issues, pop culture, etc. I’ve been able to branch out and work on projects for other websites (i.e. Fantasy-Faction, SWFA). So, thank you for reading, liking, commenting, and sharing my work; especially when I was attending grad school and I had to limit the content in my posts. And, a huge thank you to the publishers, the authors (and their literary agents), and other bookbloggers for sending me ARCs and galleys of so many books so I am able to keep up with the industry; and, as I make my way through my never-ending TBR pile.           

            Obviously, I’ll still be posting on my blog while working on all of my many projects and any new ones that come my way. A few of you have asked me about one potential project (more like a revival). My answer: I’ll decide after the New Year because there are other things that require my immediate attention. So you’ll have to wait and see. 

            Here’s to 9 years and to 200 blog posts with hopes that I make it to the next milestone. 

Why You Need to Read: “A Spindle Splintered”

Fractured Fables, #1: A Spindle Splintered

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 5, 2021

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore

            …I’ve fallen out of my own story and into one that might have a happy ending. Because this is my last chance to have a real adventure, to escape, to do more than play out the clock, (2).

            Fairy tales have existed since oral and literary traditions became embedded in folklore and culture. For example, there is a “Cinderella” story for each region and culture in the world; and, it is one of the “oldest” folktales in human existence. In fact, anyone can recite a few fairy tales orally and include all of the “elements” within it. Disney movies aside, fairy tale retellings continue to exist, and there have been numerous stories released recently, which demonstrates how these tales continue to entertain us. In Alix E. Harrow’s novella, A Spindle Splintered, she fuses traditional variants with modern knowledge. 

            There are 2 things you need to know about the protagonist, Zinnia Gray. First, she is obsessed with the tale of “Sleeping Beauty”; second, Zinnia is dying from a rare genetic disease. In fact, she is not expected to live past her 21st birthday, which is today (in the story), and time is limited as Zinnia starts to process her “last days.” Fairy tales have been a coping mechanism for Zinnia—she earned a Master’s degree in Folk Studies—and, it is the story of “Sleeping Beauty” she finds most relatable to her. And yet, Zinnia’s best friend, Charmaine Baldwin a.k.a. “Charm,” has stood by her since childhood. Furthermore, Charm insists that her best friend attends the “Sleeping Beauty” themed birthday party she put together for her. There’s even a spinning wheel! But, what happens when Zinnia pricks her finger on it? And, who is the young woman claiming to be a princess? Readers learn quickly that Zinnia is more than just a “sick girl.” Her determination and her resilience allows her to view her current predicament as an opportunity to save her life, and another’s as well. 

            The plot of this story is Zinnia dreading her impending death. Her disease means that she won’t live past 21, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. That is, until a spinning wheel provides a rare chance to change her fate. At the same time, Zinnia might be able to rescue a princess from hers. There is a subplot in this story, and it is fairy tales: their origins, their evolution, and their “lasting appeal.” Remember, every story is a story unless it’s yours; that’s when the story becomes one’s experience. The subplot drives the plot in this narrative, which brings out the reality (and the magic) within the fiction.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Zinnia’s point-of-view, and it is told in the present. Zinnia’s stream-of-consciousness is vital to the narrative because her knowledge of the past helps her with her quest and her phone lets her (and us) know that all of the events within the narrative are happening—Zinnia is NOT under a sleeping spell. A few revelations throughout the quest leads to genuine moments of awe and of shock through Zinnia, which makes her a reliable narrator with a narrative that can be followed easily. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses in A Spindle Splintered is different from her novels. Instead of allusions to previous stories, myths, legends and magic, this novella delves into the evolution of fairy tales—also known as Märchen, or “magic tale” by folklorists—many in which, “expresses the escape from reality,” (Dégh 59). In addition, this story is NOT a fairy tale retelling, but a “fractured fairy tale.” A fairy tale is “a story involving the fantastic, usually involving familiar traditional formulas and often ending in eucatastrophe (after which people live happily ever after),” (Mendlesohn and James 253). A fractured fairy tale is the practice of breaking fairy tales (from as small as a split to as large as a chasm) up so that the storyteller can rewrite them to reflect the present world while maintaining key elements from the fractures that get used in them. In other words, new variants of the older variants of fairy tales must have something in it so that the audience can identify the (new) tale being told. The most popular example of this is Disney and how they took older variants of these folktales and retold them in a way in which the audience knows it’s the “Disney variant.” A fractured fairy tale is another way for stories to be “told and retold in many different ways. They are guised and disguised,” (Yolen 4). Another explanation is that the author has taken parts of the tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” kept the parts that would identify it as “Sleeping Beauty,” include the possible origins of the tale within a modern conflict that presents the tale as a new variant. In short, and I repeat, this is NOT a fairy tale retelling (per se), but a modern fairy tale. How many fairy tales have working smartphones in them? The mood in this story is dread. 2 young women are fearful of their impending 21st birthdays. The tone is resilience. Both young women actively seek out ways to change their fate.

            The appeal for A Spindle Splintered will be positive. Fans of the author’s previous works will enjoy this one; however, they should know that this book is closer to a fairy tale than a fantasy story—similar yet different. If you’re not a fan of fairy tales, then this book might not be for you. Fans of Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley will enjoy this book the most. But, fans Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Rena Rossner should consider reading this story, too. Anyone who studied folklore—such as myself—will appreciate all of the scholarly references mentioned throughout this tale. And, anyone who enjoys this book will be pleased to know that the follow up—A Mirror Mended—will be released next summer.

            A Spindle Splintered is a tragic yet entertaining story about the lasting affect of fairy tales, and what an individual should do when they find themselves in one. Once again, Alix E. Harrow reminds her audience of the significance of fairy tales and their everlasting impact throughout culture and humanity. This is the “Sleeping Beauty” tale for the 21st century.

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

                                                                        References 

Dégh, Linda. “Folk Narrative.” Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard M. Dorson, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 53-83.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Tachyon Publications LLC, 2018. 

Novella Series Speculative Fiction Readers Need to Read: Part I

Novellas are stories which range from 17,500 to 40,000 words, and they can be read within one sitting. Novellas—along with novelettes and short stories—continue to be written, published and read by all within the publishing industry and the reading community. While novellas are written for all literary genres, in recent years, more of them have been published and read for speculative fiction. That’s NOT to say that they weren’t available, just that there are more available to read now. While Tor.com appears to be dominating the market with novellas—which is NOT a bad thing—there are many novellas from Saga Press, Harper Voyager, DAW Books, and all of the magazines that publish them. There are numerous standalone novellas for speculative fiction fans to read, and there are series—some of which are ongoing—that are worth reading as well. Yes, all of these novellas on this list were released by Tor.com originally, but this is the first list of many that I’m compiling and presenting. It just so happens that one publisher releases more novellas than other ones (for now). 

  • Tensorate by Neon (formerly known as J.Y.) Yang (2017-19)

This series was my introduction into silkpunk. Asian influence aside the story follows the lives of the Royal Family of Protectorate, particularly Protector Sanao—The Empress—and her youngest children—twins, Mokoya and Akeha—as they struggle to maintain control over the Empire as a rebellion grows more ruthless to match the Protector’s cruelty. However, it isn’t just the family saga or the politics that will intrigue readers, but the concept of biological sex and gender fluidity which is a mundane cultural practice in that world. I have read comparisons of this series to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (I haven’t read it, yet). Regardless, this quartet is worth reading.

The subplot of prophecy versus fate versus free will runs its course throughout the series, too. And yes, all of the books come full circle in the end, which will leave you emitting empathy for all of the protagonists. Not to mention, the last few chapters in the fourth book will stay with you for a long time. 

I love it when authors write stories across genres. After reading Rosewater, The Murders of Molly Southbourne intrigued me with its plot: when a young woman bleeds, clones are created. So, not only does Molly have to prevent herself from bleeding, but also learn how to fight, to kill, and to dispose of these clones. So, how does Molly live her life with this “unusual ‘medical’ condition”? Is there a way to stop it? Is there a cure? Even the second book leaves Molly (and readers) with more questions than answers. Hopefully, the next book will let us know what Molly will do next. 

This is a sci-fi horror/thriller series about the lengths a family will go to in order to protect their secret, and what an individual is willing to do in order to maintain their identity. Even if you’re not into sci-fi or horror or thriller, then you should still read this series because readers receive the point-of-view of the victim who never stood a chance for a “normal” life. 

  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015-Present)

This Africanfuturistic series will remind readers that with space exploration, xenophobia will continue to be an issue, and only choosing to understand those who are different from themselves will resolve conflict. The series follows Binti as she decides to break one of her culture’s traditions to leave her home to study at the most prestigious universities in the galaxy. However, during the voyage, the ship is attacked by a race of aliens claiming something was stolen from them. When Binti finds herself to be the lone survivor of the attack, she realizes that her skills as a harmonizer will ensure her survival.

The rest of the series deals with both the aftermath and the consequences of Binti’s actions. Readers follow Binti’s first year at the university as she learns to overcome her classes, her PTSD, and her reunion with her family (amongst other things). Binti manages to overcome all of the obstacles she faces while attempting to maintain peace amongst various races and cultures in the galaxy. I’m looking forward to the TV adaptation of this series! 

This series takes everything you know about portal world fantasy and gives it a dose of reality with multiple worlds existing next to ours. The series centers on a school for children who went “missing” only to return “changed” from their “ordeal.” Their parents believe they are sending their children to a school for therapy; but, the school is a haven for the “visitors” to meet others like themselves who hope to return “home.”

The series alternates between the present and the past allowing readers to learn about the ongoings at the school—and its students—as well as all of the worlds the students reside in, and where they were able to become their true selves. The fact that some of these students might never be able to return “home” adds the reality to the situation that leaves you feeling emotionally twisted as to what our world does to all of us. 

Murderbot is my favorite robot/A.I. of all-time (sorry R2-D2)! I don’t know what else I can say about this snarky and depressed A.I. who performs its tasks so it has more time to watch its favorite TV show?! Murderbot has more empathy for humans than it’s willing to admit, and that’s what makes the series so relatable and engaging. Throughout the first four novellas in this series, Murderbot performs its latest task with a group of scientists, discovers corruption, then decides to travel to various planets to collect evidence of the crime. 

While Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel gave Murderbot the novel length adventure the A.I. deserved (I haven’t read it yet, I’m sorry), Murderbot will return to novellas when the next book in the series, Fugitive Telemetry is released in 2021. I hope the author continues to delight her fans and her readers with this series. And, I want to read an episode of Sanctuary Moon

This is just a starter list of novellas all readers should read. Readers who either want a quick read, or who want to meet their reading goal by the end of the year should check out these books. As for other novella series, I hope to include Impossible Times by Mark Lawrence, Valkyrie Collections by Brian McClellan, Finna by Nino Cipri, others in a future post. As for standalone novellas, I hope to compile a list of them in the near future!

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019

2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs. 

            This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).

            All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.

#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker

            This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it. 

#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

            As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.  

#23 The Survival of Molly Southbourne (Molly Southbourne #2) by Tade Thompson

            I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series. 

#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang

            I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best. 

#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

            This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves. 

#20 The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

            One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.  

#19 The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy) by S.A. Chakraborty

            I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.  

#18 The Rage of Dragons (The Burning #1) by Evan Winter

            One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!

#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

            This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019. 

#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole 

            To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy. 

#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons

            I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!  

#14 Smoke and Stone (City of Sacrifice #1) by Michael R. Fletcher

            2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!

#13 The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

            How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds. 

#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

            If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself. 

#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

            This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy. 

            Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!

#9 Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle #3) by Jay Kristoff

            This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked! 

#9 Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence

            In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied. 

#8 War Girls (War Girls #1) by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good. 

#7 Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes

            The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author. 

#6 The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

            The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale. 

#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang

            This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book. 

#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

            This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.  

#3 Realm of Ash (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

            I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy. 

#2 Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

            The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment. 

#1 The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy #1) by Gareth Hanrahan

            Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!

            It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!

Why You Need to Read: “Binti: The Complete Trilogy”

Binti: The Complete Trilogy                                                      

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published:  Binti(#1) released September 22, 2015

                 Binti: Sacred Fire(#1.5) released February 5, 2019

                 Binti: Home(#2) released January 31, 2017

                Binti: The Night Masquerade(#3) released January 16, 2018

                Binti: The Complete Trilogyreleased February 5, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Anthology  

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2015 & the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2016

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib (Binti).

            Every once in a while you hear about a story that is so unique and so captivating that it is suggested that everyone should read it regardless if it’s not from their preferred genre of literature. Binti is a story about a young woman who leaves her home—without her family’s blessing—so that she can take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, Oomza Uni. She boards a spacecraft and it is traveling to a distant planet, and Binti has never been away from her home before. It seems like the story will pick up pace once the spacecraft arrives; only it is attacked by a “hostile” alien species. This is the first part of the first novella in the series by Nnedi Okorafor—which, won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for “Best Novella”—and, neither the action, nor the story ends with the first novella! Binti: The Complete Trilogy contains all of the author’s stories in one volume!

            Binti starts off with a simple plot: a gifted young woman goes against her family’s expectations in order to attend an esteemed university. Readers are introduced to Binti’s intelligence for mathematics, abilities as a harmonizer, and Himba culture. At the same time, readers are reminded that human differences and alien versus human culture clashes exist in the future as well. One particular rivalry between the species quickly becomes the center of the story, quickly. Binti has to find a way to survive her new—and unexpected—predicament, which will be hard because the Meduse, the hostile alien species want her dead. 

            Binti is terrified to the point where it’s easier to blame herself for her current situation rather than realize how sheltered she was back on Earth. Binti soon realizes that she must rely on her abilities and her talent in order to understand the situation and escape with her life. However, Binti is not in control of either her abilities, or the tools she has with her. This means improvising. She soon realizes that her astrolabe allows her to communicate with the Meduse on the spacecraft. Binti is able to come up with a strategy to save herself, the lives at Oomza Uni, and the lives of the people on Earth, including her family. Even though she succeeds, the experience of Binti’s excursion to Oomza Uni changes her in more ways than one.

            Binti: Sacred Fire is the latest story written by the author in this series, but it serves as an interlude between the first and the second books in the series. This tale provides an appropriate look into Binti’s life as a student at the university she saved. She has become friends with one of the Meduse, Okwu, who is now a student at the university as well. Readers gain insight into Binti’s interactions with her classmates and her professors, and her family and friends back home (the ones who are willing to talk to her). 

            Unfortunately, Binti’s new life at Oomza Uni is not as smooth as she hopes. She is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from her voyage to the university and from the bullying from a few of the humans who happen to be from a feuding tribe from Earth. Although Binti is hailed as a hero for negotiating a truce, she feels as isolated at Oomza Uni as she did back home. Not to mention, Binti is still dealing with some personal “changes” to her being. 

            Even though Binti is traumatized and isolated, she is not alone. Her friends are with her as she works her way through her adjustments and her traumas. Binti knows that it’ll take a while to get used to her new lifestyle, but it seems like she’ll be getting the full university experience. 

            Binti: Home is about what is in the title. Binti completes her first semester or year at Oomza Uni and decides to return home to visit her family and to participate in her tribe’s pilgrimage. Binti has made progress at the university: in her classes, in her therapy sessions, and in her reputation as a Master Harmonizer. However, returning home means traveling by spacecraft, and it’s the same one Binti traveled on to get to Oomza Uni.

            The spacecraft—known as The Third Fish—is a living thing that flies in outer space. Binti—who is still suffering from PTSD—decides to stay in the same room she stayed in during her first voyage in order to face her trauma. Throughout the voyage, Binti is able to make some progress of dealing with her panic attacks and flashbacks. However, Binti still has to face her fear of reuniting with her family. And, since she’s lived away from her home for a while, she’s forgotten some of her people’s more casual customs. Binti has changed in more ways than one because of her experiences. Unfortunately, her family and her tribe are static in their ways and are disgusted with Binti’s changes and growth. 

            The purpose of a pilgrimage is for an individual to seek growth through moral and spiritual growth. Oftentimes, that individual becomes enlightened and transformed by the end of their pilgrimage. This is what happens to Binti during her pilgrimage even if it isn’t the pilgrimage she was supposed to go on. The pilgrimage Binti goes on brings her to a new level of personal enlightenment. And, she is made aware of her own prejudices and slowly comes around to accepting the changes she’s been experiencing. At the same time, the prejudices surrounding three different clans have erupted, and Binti—once again—must rely on her skills as a harmonizer in order to diffuse the tensions before war breaks out. 

            Binti: The Night Masquerade starts where Binti: Home left off, with Binti rushing back to her family home after her pilgrimage in order to stop a war before it starts. The Night Masquerade is a personification of the coming of a “big change.” To Binti, she interprets it to mean a war is about to start. And, Binti plans on ending it before it can happen.

            Cultures clash, hidden history is revealed, and someone always gets betrayed. The POVs change so that the readers have a better understanding of what is happening during certain parts of the story. Within the conclusion to this series, readers realize that not everyone is willing to accept change, not everyone wants to interact with someone who is “different” from themselves, and not everyone is willing to admit he/she/it/they have flaws. Binti comes to terms with all of this as she returns to Oomza Uni just in time for the upcoming academic year. All of her experiences and changes within herself allow Binti to elevate herself beyond the status of Master Harmonizer. However, Binti wishes to continue her studies, for the time being. 

            It was thrilling to read Binti again. And, Binti: The Complete Trilogy allows readers to enjoy all of the Binti stories in tandem. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor and readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this series compilation as much as I did. Reading through Binti’s life as a university freshman reminded me of some of my experiences during my first year of college as well, including the changes in myself and the stagnancy of everything else. Bintiis a story about personal growth through experience and change, and how expectations depend on individual actions, not those of others. This coming-of-age story is pleasing to all readers and it should not be overlooked. And, readers can rejoice knowing that Nnedi Okorafor has plans to continue Binti’s story! 

Why You Need to Read “The Murderbot Diaries” Series

The Murderbot Diaries                                              

By: Martha Wells

Published:  All Systems Red released May 2, 2017

                     Artificial Condition released May 8, 2018

                    Rogue Protocol released August 7, 2018

                    Exit Strategy released October 2, 2018

             Untitled Murderbot Novel expected in 2020

Genre: Science Fiction

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2017, the Hugo, the Alex, and the Locus Award for Best Novella 2018

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

Murderbots aren’t allowed to ride with the humans and I had to have verbal permission to enter. With my cracked governor there was nothing to stop me, but not letting anybody, especially the people who held my contract, know that I was a free agent was kind of important. Like, not having my organic components destroyed and the rest of me cut up for parts important (Chapter 1).

Out of the numerous stories and representations of robots—whether or not they are AI’s or drones—Murderbot is the most interesting one in recent years. All Systems Red, the first novella in the series, has won numerous awards since its 2017 publication. These intriguing science fiction tales of an acerbic robot who travels the galaxy in search of its identity, the humans who created it, and the humans who hired it are a humorous and a descriptive look into both Martha Wells’ galaxy and at the spectrum of robots and their relationship to humans.

All Systems Red opens with Murderbot, a Security Unit, performing its job—with a new contract with a new crew of scientists on a hostile planet—and complaining how it wants to be left alone to re-watch his favorite TV show, Sanctuary Moon. Also, it found a way to hack its government module, so it can store more entertainment shows, and not follow company issued orders as much. Typically, Security Units, or “SecUnits, or any other robot for that matter, will be dismantled if it is discovered that they have gone “rogue.”

Our SecUnit wants nothing more than to perform its job protecting humans, so it can watch human TV shows to criticize. The current group it is assigned to is willing to interact with it. At the same time, the SecUnit and the scientists realize that the planet is more hostile than mentioned in their report.

Throughout this story, readers learn that the SecUnit is still willing to perform its job, regardless of going “rogue,” and that it calls itself, “Murderbot.” However, it does question its purpose and its past; all the while it is trying to learn and to determine humans and their behavior. It could be the reason it watches all those TV shows.

Unfortunately, this assignment is not a simple one. To the dismay of both Murderbot and the scientists: Mensah, Pin-Lee, Ratthi, Gurathin and others, there are hostiles on the planet, and they attack the group. Our SecUnit demonstrates its abilities as both a fighter and a strategist. Murderbot perform its tasks to the extreme gratitude of the scientists—it gets “bought”—and, it believes there was a plot set by the corporation, GrayCris, to harm everyone—human and AI—who travel to the planet.

By the end of this story, Murderbot decides to leave its new “owner” in order to determine what the corporation, GrayCris, and its parent companies, such as Port FreeCommerce, have done to it, the scientists, and the other Security Units. In addition, it is worried about losing its purpose so maybe it wants to be able to perform what it was designed to do one last time.

Artificial Condition picks up where All Systems Red leaves off, with our SecUnit traveling in disguise through a crowded station in order to complete its quest. It is shocked when it see itself on the news and reported as “missing.” However, it is still determined to accomplish its task, alone.

Murderbot ends up on a transport with a research robot that decides to assist our protagonist on its journey by providing it with a disguise. The interaction between the two AIs is what makes this story very poignant. Murderbot “appreciates” the help the other AI gives it. In return, the two AIs watch episodes of TV shows and discuss the realities and the misconceptions in them, particularly about the various AIs presented on the shows.

This novella is more about character development than anything involving GrayCris and the scientists, but it allows readers to learn more about AIs when there are no humans around. Murderbot displays its humanity by going against what it was programmed to do. This is a rogue bot with a scrambled governor module that still performs its task to offer protection to humans. And yet, everything is tied to GrayCris.

Rogue Protocol has our SecUnit at the location of a GrayCris excavation site in order to commence its investigation into the company. Once again, Murderbot finds itself working with a group of humans and their “pet” AI. Only this time, both the humans, and the readers learn how corrupt GrayCris is and how much effort the company puts into keeping its secrets from everyone else.

Our SecUnit continues to think about its owner, Dr. Mensah, and the other human scientists it left behind while assisting this group of scientists and researchers and keeping them from making the same almost fatal blunders as Murderbot’s group of humans. Murderbot continues to fascinate us by performing more of its functions: hacking, thinking, communicating, and fighting. Martha Wells reminds us that our protagonist is NOT a rogue SecUnit with a violent streak! Unfortunately, the “enemy” AIs are aware of what Murderbot is capable of doing without its governor module. And, all for some alien remnants.

Murderbot is able to collect the evidence needed to prove GrayCris’ corruption and illegal activities. Although the consequences to the mission leaves Murderbot feeling guilty (even though it won’t admit it), it is confident that everything will work out once it returns to HaveRatton Station and Dr. Mensah. Too bad the readers are human and know the lengths corruption can reach.

Exit Strategy comes full circle for Murderbot’s personal mission. Murderbot returns to HaveRatton Station with the evidence needed to takedown GrayCris only to learn that its owner/friend, Dr. Mensah, has been abducted and is being held captive by the corporation due to its actions. Because no one is aware that Murderbot is a rogue SecUnit—with a few exceptions—it realizes quickly the possible repercussions of its actions against GrayCris. Feeling responsible, Murderbot decides to find the rest of the Preservation Team—Pin-Lee, Ratthi, and Gurathin—to rescue Mensah.

Reuniting with the characters from All Systems Redis both refreshing and directing because readers are reminded as to why Murderbot decided to defy orders—again—and function in a way it believes is the right way. At the same time, it is reminded that it still cares for the Preservation Team and why its relationships with them remind it of the AIs and the other humans from its journey to and from the GrayCris excavation site. Murderbot learns about the desperation and the collaboration of both GrayCris and Port FreeCommerce, too.

Murderbot’s role in the rescue of Mensah is all that readers expect and more. It has to think like both a bot and a human constantly because that is whom it is up against. Martha Wells does an excellent job describing the rescue mission, incorporating the characters’ dialogue, and hinting at Murderbot’s wants and purposes now that it fulfilled its goal. The ending suggests that Murderbot will be able to continue performing what it is programed to do, helping humans, while enjoying its hobby, watching media.

In all, Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries delivers what science fiction readers want: a flawed but relatable protagonist, a look at the (continuing) issues amongst the human race, various settings and locations in space, dialogues with humans and AIs, and several fights involving humans and AIs with guns. Now, all we need besides the upcoming Murderbot novel is an episode of Sanctuary Moon.

My final rating: MUST Read It Now!