Why You Need to Read: “Catalyst Gate”

The Protectorate: Book 3: Catalyst Gate

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                                           Audiobook: 20 hours 49 minutes

Published: June 22, 2021                                                        Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera

            Rainier Lavaux had threatened everything and everyone Sanda had ever loved. Sanda had felt that loss once. And she’d burn the bitch to the ground rather than suffer through that pain all over again, (Chapter 1: Hello, Spy).

            Space operas remain popular in modern society, and there are 2 reasons for this popularity. One, the idea of traveling in space enraptures everyone’s imagination. Two, we all want to see fights within space with spaceships and blasters. Many movies and TV shows emphasis both of these—especially, the latter; however, like other narratives, the conflict must be addressed and be resolved before the resolution. In books of this genre, more emphasis is placed on the characters and the world-building because it is through their points-of-view that we learn more about the conflict, which is at an intergalactic level, literally. Catalyst Gate—the 3rd book in The Protectorate Trilogy by Megan E. O’Keefe—delivers on the characters’ story arcs, the conflicts, the world-building, and, of course, the space fights. 

            The same 4 protagonists have returned, and they’re all going after Rainier Lavaux, the entity set on destroying all of humanity. First, Commander Sanda Greeve has Bero, Grippy and her crew—made up of Arden, Nox, Conway, Knuth, Dr. Liao, and Tomas—are racing to stay steps ahead of Rainier as she searches the galaxy for the “keys” she needs to finalize her plans. Second, Director Keeper Biran Greeve is on a mission to “purge” those who “fell under” Rainier’s “influence.” Some are close to his job while others are with the Icarions. Third, Tomas Cepko has learned what he is in relation to Rainier and has decided to join the Greeve siblings on their mission to stop her. Last, Jules Valentine has committed numerous atrocities to keep her friend, Lolla, alive. This puts her at an advantage because she’s figured out how to stop Rainier once and for all. All of the protagonists and their companions are resolved to stopping Rainier, but first they have to confront how her actions in the past has led to this upcoming showdown. The war forces all of them to develop into the “heroes” they have to become; yet, their ordeals won’t be straightforward. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel, and they continue from the first 2 books in the series. The first plot revolves around stopping Rainier Lavaux, who is the mastermind behind all of the events and the incidents involving the protagonists, the Icarions, and Ada Prime. Obviously, there is more to Rainier than even the Keepers know, so where do all of the parties travel to in order to learn the entire story? How far back into the past does Rainier’s plans go? The second plot delves into Atrux, the planet where Jules once called home and where her life changed for the worse. Everything for Jules had started in the Grotta, which means Rainier’s plans might have started there, too. Jules’ search to cure Lolla could lead to answers on how to stop Rainier. There are a few subplots in this novel as well, and they wrap up the remaining plot holes in the series. Everything mentioned from the first book: the Chip, the Gates, the Icarions, the agent, etc., are reiterated so that the answers can be revealed, and so that the plots can conclude. 

            There is a difference in this narrative compared to the ones in the previous books; there are NO Interludes. This means the narrative occurs in the present—Prime Standard Year 3543—without flashbacks to the past; yet, we learn whose memories they belonged to and their relevance to the series. Once again, all of the narratives are from the points-of-view of all of the protagonists, and they are told in 3rd person limited through their streams-of-consciousness. It is through the protagonists’ P.O.V. that we learn all of the events that led to everything happening now, and the possibility of it all working out for them all. The truths and the revelations uncovered by the protagonists make all of them reliable narrators. 

            The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Catalyst Gate continues from the previous 2 books; only this time, the timeline is complete. Space operas are science fiction stories about galaxies with complex plots which take place in “near-future” Earth. Well, Earth is mentioned, but it is not from the “near-past.” The conflict goes back millennia—even before Prime Standard—which, influenced the events leading up to the present war in the narrative (sound familiar?) Mistakes were made in the past because of human error and alien technology; and now, posterity is paying the price for it. This is no longer a complex political conspiracy, but a war to preserve humanity; and, not everyone makes it out unscathed or healed. The mood in this novel is combative. All of the protagonists, the other characters, the antagonists, and the villain have been fighting. Only now, the war has begun. The tone in this novel is sacrifice. Each of the protagonists have a conviction and they are willing to defend those convictions at the cost of their lives.

            The appeal for Catalyst Gate have been positive. What started with a shocking start to this space opera trilogy concludes with a satisfying conclusion with several action sequences along the way. Fans of the first 2 books will be satisfied with the last book in this trilogy. Fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Martha Wells should consider reading this series. Fans of the space opera subgenre will appreciate this series, too. I listened to the audiobook for this book—actually, the entire trilogy—and, Joe Jameson’s performance was well done and very entertaining. I’m glad he did the narration for this trilogy.

            Catalyst Gate is an action-filled conclusion to an entertaining space opera trilogy. The characters and the plots sucked me into the story and kept me there after its end. The Protectorate Trilogy reintroduced me to space operas and reminded me why they are so much fun. Megan E. O’Keefe’s trilogy needs to be read by all sci-fi fans because they don’t know what they are missing.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).  

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

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

By: Brian Staveley

Published: July 6, 2021

Genre: Epic Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The House of Always”

A Chorus of Dragons, #4: The House of Always

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       

Published: May 11, 2021                                                        

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                             

Thank you Tor for sending me an eARC of this book. I listened to excerpts of the audiobook, too.

Note: There are a few spoilers from the first three books in A Chorus of Dragons series. 

            After I have my answers. Time moves differently here. Only seconds will have passed when we return. There’s no need to hurry. There’s no point, (3: Secret Plans, Teraeth’s reaction).

            The beginning of the end has begun in this series. The climax occurred at the end of the last book—The Memory of Souls—yet the consequences of the actions and the choices in the previous chronicle must play out before the story can reach its conclusion. The House of Always is that book in A Chorus of Dragons; and A LOT happens before the story can begin to end. 

            If you believed the Dramatis Personae was long in the previous book, then be ready for even more callbacks in this one. Thanks to Senera, Kihrin D’Mon, Janel Thernanon, Tereath and Thurvishar D’Lorus reunite with Galen and Sheloran D’Mon, Qown, Kalindra Milligreest, Talea, Xivan and Talon. They all “meet up” after the battle that took place in the previous book in order to discuss their recent activities, the latest threat to Quur, and the upcoming threat(s) to the entire world. The last, of course, involves both Relos Var and Vol Karoth; so, what’s the plan? Each character has been busy with their own tasks, then—through magic—they find themselves inside an unusual place where they have a lot of time to sought through all of their thoughts—and those of their adversaries. 

            There are 2 plots in this story, and they involve 2 current conflicts. The first plot involves Kihrin’s “plans” for confronting Vol Karoth, which is easier said than done. The second plot delves into the current threat to Quur, which is something none of the protagonists or the main characters know anything about; or, do they? These plots are linked due to the most obvious reason, that 1 dilemma has to be resolved before the other one can be confronted. Meanwhile, there are several subplots within the story, and they are ALL relevant and essential to the plots of the story. All of the missions, the tasks, and the memories of ALL of the characters are linked to the ongoings throughout the rest of the Quuros Empire and the potential way to save it. 

            Once again, the narrative in this book is different from the narratives in the previous books. That being said, by now readers of this series should be familiar with the author’s narrative style. There are 2 Parts in this book; and, while the 1st 2 chapters in Part I and all of Part II are told in the present, the remainder of the narrative jumps back-and-forth amongst memories, flashbacks, previous lives, and streams-of-consciousness of ALL of the characters! In fact, a handful of other characters reemerge in this book. Which ones, and why? There are numerous P.O.V. chapters and passages which follows ALL of the characters. However, Kihrin’s point-of-view is the only one told in 1st person. The rest of the characters’ P.O.V.s are in 3rd person limited. There is a reason for this narration, and it is presented as it progresses. This narrative style allows for further development of the plots, the characters, and the world-building. And, believe it or not, the characters are reliable narrators, and their narratives can be followed easily. 

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The House of Always can be argued as it being an additional buildup before the finale in the last book in this series. The final battle in the war is approaching, and the Dramatis Personae must decide which side they are on. Unfortunately, neutrality is no longer an option, so a decision has to be made. Not to mention, “the plan” must be finalized and agreed upon by EVERYONE. The style presented by the author reminds the readers what is at stake as the series approaches its end. The mood in this novel is ominous. All of the characters know what’s coming, and they must remain vigilant—which is the tone in this novel—as the final battle draws near. Once again, the readers can refer to the maps, the glossary, and the appendices for whenever they need to consult any information.     

            The appeal for The House of Always have been positive. Readers and fans who read through this book in the series gave it high ratings (4- & 5-stars). This is the book in which all of the pieces and the subplots from the previous books reemerge in this one, right before the series reaches its dénouement. This epic fantasy series continues to be compared to ones written by George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and other authors who write similar books in this subgenre. To fantasy fans and readers who are still indecisive on whether or not to read this series, DO IT! If you’re worried about remembering all of the characters, then know that their stories continue throughout the series. If you’re concerned about all of the plots and the subplots, then take notes (I do). If you’re worried about forgetting what happens in all of the books leading up to the last book in the series—The Discord of Gods—then, now is the time either to re-read the previous books in the series, or to join (or to create) a group for a read along of this series! You are running out of reasons for NOT reading this series!

            The House of Always is a unique story that gears up readers for the series’ conclusion. You might wonder as to whether or not the narrative style leads to an essential part of the plot, and it does that and so much more. All of the elements within this series begins to end as the story and the characters’ fates gets closer to it. Now, we must wait until 2022 to learn who survives the apocalypse. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Shard Daughter”

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter

By: Andrea Stewart

Published: September 8, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I knew who I was. I was Lin. I was the Emperor’s daughter. I shouted the words in my head, but I didn’t say them. Unlike my father, I kept my face neutral, my thoughts hidden. Sometimes he liked it when I stood up for myself, but this was not one of those times. It never was, when it came to my past, (1: Lin: Imperial Island).

            Pace is an interesting concept; all of our lives we’ve been told about “pacing” ourselves when it comes to doing everything from completing everyday tasks to taking a test to reading books. Pace is referred to in storytelling; the “pace” of the story can keep the reader either engaged or lost. The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in The Drowning EmpireTrilogy and the debut novel of the author, Andrea Stewart, was written in a way that the story’s pace kept me engaged to where I read the entire book within a week!

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel. The first protagonist, is Lin, the daughter of the Emperor. Although she should be the heir apparent, she hasn’t earned that title for 2 reasons. One, she lost many of her memories due to an illness she had as a child. Her father gives her tests daily to determine what Lin can remember, which isn’t a lot. Two, Lin has been falling behind on her bone constructs, which has put her foster brother, Bayan, ahead of her. If Lin cannot recall what she has forgotten and doesn’t pick up her work on bone constructs, then she’ll lose her position to Bayan. The second protagonist, is Jovis, a merchant turned pirate. Jovis went from merchant to smuggler after his wife, Emahla, disappeared from their home several years earlier. Since then, Jovis has been searching for leads on his wife while avoiding capture by the Emperor’s soldiers and some individuals he owes money. However, the closer Jovis gets to solving the mystery surrounding his wife, the closer he gets to uncovering a dark truth. The last protagonist, is Phalue, the daughter of a governor. Phalue is in an interesting situation, she understands that her father’s political policies doesn’t make him a popular governor, which is something her girlfriend, Ranami, reminds her over and over again. Phalue has to figure out the type of leader she wants to become before she gets caught up in a potential uprising against her father. All of these protagonists (and the other characters they interact with) are complex individuals who have to maneuver their way through politics and matters of the heart so they can become the people they want to be. 

            There are 2 main plots in this novel. The first plot surrounds bone shards, which are collected from the citizens of the Empire as children—known as ‘the Tithing’—as  ordered by the Emperor. Eventually, these bone shards are used by the Emperor as part of his magic to create bone constructs, which are used to protect both the Empire and the Emperor, so says the Emperor. The second plot delves into the political atmosphere which lead to rebellions. There is no such thing as a perfect government system, but it seems that each setting presents an inevitable uprising. There is one subplot in this novel, and it surrounds the cost of magic. Lin and Jovis know from experience the cost of bone shard magic. And yet, they continue to carry on their personal campaigns because they don’t know what else to do. But, how long can they ignore the “bigger” problem? 

            The narrative is told from multiple points-of-view in the present tense. The narratives are told from Lin’s and Jovis’ P.O.V. in the 1st person, and from Phalue’s P.O.V. in the 3rd person limited. It is from their narratives that the readers learn about the world and the societies they inhabit. Their streams-of-consciousness (and some memories) make these characters reliable narrators whose narrations can be followed easily. Not to mention, any additional P.O.V. characters should NOT be overlooked throughout the narrative. 

            The style Andrea Stewart uses in The Bone Shard Daughter is a combination of dark magic and political corruption. In similar dark fantasy stories, the two go hand-in-hand often, but it’s not the case in this novel. There is enough occurring that the two corruptions overlap each other while still remaining 2 separate threats. The mood in this novel is mystery. Why are bone shards collected? Is there an actual threat? Why are the Emperor and the politicians unaware of their citizens’ plights? The tone in this novel is rebellion. It is obvious that both Lin and Phalue are rebelling against their families (and committing treason), but Jovis’ rebellion is against the entire Empire. How long will their rebellions last before their actions catch up to them? In fact, shouldn’t they be focused on “bigger” things? 

            The appeal for The Bone Shard Daughter have been positive. Several readers have given this book 4- and 5-star ratings! This novel is one of the latest in Asian-inspired fantasy and is an excellent addition to the speculative fiction canon. As I mentioned earlier, I read this book in a week (and, I participated in a livestream with the author)! One of the reasons for this is because the story is very engaging, and the last 50 pages will have you waiting to read the book’s sequel, The Bone Shard Emperor, when it releases later this year!

            The Bone Shard Daughter is an amazing and an engaging debut novel that is a blend of anime and older horror stories. This Asian-inspired dark fantasy gives readers some from all familiar tropes and more. Andrea Stewart presents a story with characters who drive the narrative, who live in oppressive societies controlled by magic, and whose rebellions can trigger the change or the destruction that is needed.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Over the Woodward Wall”

The Up-and-Under, #1: Over the Woodward Wall

By: A. Deborah Baker

Published: October 6, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Children’s Literature

            Because of their houses, Avery’s and Zib’s both, were on the side of the street where the forest loomed, there were no corners: they lived, unwittingly, only three doors down from one another. But across the street from them was another road, right between the one where Avery walked to school and the one where Zib walked to school. They approached it, Avery walking with quick, precise steps, Zib skipping and strolling and sometimes outright running, and they reached their respective corners at the same time, (One: The Same Ordinary Town). 

            Creativity and imagination are used interchangeably when fiction writers—especially genre fiction—are praised for their stories. The stories presented by these authors remind us how infinite creativity and imagination are to everyone else. The range of such talent goes from authors who devote their entire lives constructing 1 world with 1 extensive timeline, to authors who can juggle multiple worlds with their own set of characters, timelines, and—at times—rules about magic. Seanan McGuire is an example of the latter, and this time she is writing as A. Deborah Baker with Over the Woodward Wall, the first book in The Up-and-Under series, which is mentioned in her novel, Middlegame.

            The protagonists are 2 children—a boy and a girl—who are the same age and live 3 doors down from each other, but whose paths have crossed barely until now. Hepzibah, or Zib, lives with her “eccentric” parents, and Avery (Alexander Grey) lives with his “efficient” parents. One day, at the same time for the same reason, both children take a detour to school, come across a wall, climb over it, and find themselves in a new world. Avery and Zib—who focus more on their differences over their similarities—must travel to the Impossible City on the Improbable Road so they can return home. During their journey they meet: a crow, an owl, a queen, a page, and a king. Throughout their journey, both Avery and Zib must learn about each other, learn how to get along with each other (they are young children), and learn about the Up-and-Under—the world they entered unknowingly. The protagonists are as resilient as children can be, but they cling on to the rules of our world as they move away further from it. Avery and Zib are not complex, but the other characters are, which makes the protagonists more intriguing. 

            The plot of this book is straightforward in its own way. Two children stumble into a world that isn’t familiar to them (or, to us), and in order to return to our world, they must meet with the ruler who lives in the center of it. Hence, their adventure begins. Along the way, Avery and Zib meet the inhabitants of the Up-and-Under. Each meeting with each denizen is a subplot within the story. During these encounters, the children learn more about the world and its rules. Each subplot develops alongside the plot as the children travel closer to the heart of the world they stumbled into by accident.

            The narrative is presented from the points-of-view of both Zib and Avery in the present. In addition, the story is told in 3rd person omniscient which is relevant to how the story is being told. Given that the protagonists are young children, it would make sense for the narration to be from a figure who knows more about what is happening because otherwise, the story would be confusing for everyone. Not to mention, this type of narration makes Zib and Avery reliable narrators. Their streams-of-consciousness—and, the narrator’s—allows the story to be followed easily. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses as A. Deborah Baker is both an allusion and a tribute to classic children’s literature, particularly adventure stories. The word choice and the sentence structure expands the audience of readers (children to adults), while the story itself will remind other readers of books written by Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Holly Black, and others. However, this book tells its story in a way that is can be distinguished from the series by the authors mentioned. The mood in this book is improbable—which comes directly from the book. All of the events throughout this adventure should be unlikely, but occur because the Up-and-Under follows the rules of its world. The tone in this book is eccentric. From when we first meet the protagonists to the end of this book, EVERYTHING deviates from the norm from the protagonists’ actions to the Improbable Road.

            The appeal for Over the Woodward Wall have been positive. That being said, there has been some confusion about The Up-and-Under series. According to the author, this series is mentioned in Middlegame, but there is NO (direct) connection or tie-ins between the 2 series. This means that both series can be read and enjoyed separately. So far, this series belongs in both the speculative fiction and the children’s literature canons. Fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Oz series, and The Spiderwick Chronicles should read this series because they will enjoy it the most. The next book in this series, Along the Saltwise Sea—which will be released later this year, will pick up where the first book ended.

            Over the Woodward Wall is a brilliant series based on the Hugo nominated book, but you don’t have to read Middlegame to enjoy this story. A. Deborah Baker presents a story that is familiar to readers, yet it manages to stand on its own. Fans of the genre shouldn’t hesitate to read this book, and fans of Seanan McGuire should not wait any longer to read this book. The story is a delightful throwback to children’s (fantasy) adventure books. Seanan McGuire’s talent for storytelling is as lengthy as The Improbable Road.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Chaos Vector”

The Protectorate: Book 2: Chaos Vector                               

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                                           Audiobook: 19 hours and 5 minutes

Published: July 28, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

            “It’s been two years. Why would things escalate now?

            Graham smiled slyly. “Because you’re back, kid. Two years and some change was about the time you disappeared, about the time Icarion lost control of Bero. Nakata, Kenwick, Lavaux—they’re all tangled up somehow, and Harlan and his crew crossed paths with that lot,” (Chapter 6: Can’t Count on a Spy). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting concept in storytelling. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that cliffhangers are excellent ways to keep the audience engaged in the narrative. There are several cliffhangers the storyteller can use, but depending on the narrative, one fits better than others. In the case of Megan E. O’Keefe and her The Protectorate trilogy, Chaos Vector—the sequel to Velocity Weapon—picks up immediately after the revelations in the first book. And, that includes both the plot and the pace.

            There are 4 protagonists in this book. First, is Sanda Greeve, who went from “Hero of Ada Prime” to suspected murdered of a Keeper. Now, she’s on the run to clear her name after a brief reunion with her family and to discover what is in the Keeper Chip that is embedded in her skull. After learning some about one of her fathers’ past, Sanda joins up with Arden, Nox and everyone else in Harlan’s crew in order to solve 2 mysteries with 1 person of interest, Rainier Lavaux. Second, is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother and one of the Keepers. Life as a Keeper begins to catch up with Biran as he does damage control, first for his sister and then for the Keepers; and, he begins his investigation into the missing Keeper, the stolen Keeper Chip, and The Light of Berossus, all while trying to figure out who among the other Keepers are his allies. Third, is Jules, whose circumstances and previous actions now have her working for Rainier Lavaux. She hides herself from her friends as she does everything she can to save one of them, but is she being played? Last, is Tomas Cepko, the agent from Nazca whom Biran hired previously. Now that his mission is complete, Tomas is given a new assignment; and, it’s Rainier Lavaux. All of the protagonists and the other characters are beginning to comprehend the effect their recent actions have on one another, for the rest of Ada Prime, and the Icarions. Not to mention, what happened to Bero? 

            The first plot in this novel carries over from the first book, only now there are more questions than answers. But, everything revolves around Rainier Lavaux, the wife of the murdered Keeper. Somehow, she knows about both The Light of Berossus and the Keeper Chip; but, which one will she go after? And, why is she so interested in Jules? The second plot revolves around the Keeper Chip lounged in Sanda’s skull. Sanda is on a mission to discover the contents on the Chip before Ada Prime’s enemies track her down and reclaim it. Meanwhile, Biran looks into which Keeper went missing and why that Keeper’s Chip stands out more than the other ones. There are 2 subplots, which develop alongside the 2 plots which enhances and expands the narrative. The first one focuses on Jules’ efforts to thwart Rainier Lavaux’s plans, which pulls Jules further into an intergalactic conspiracy that she never would have imagined getting involved in. The second subplot delves into the events of the past which may or may not have impacted the present. As everything converges, it begins to make sense. 

            The narrative is more straightforward than in the first book. There are 2 years that the narrative focuses on: Prime Standard Year 0002 (the past) and Prime Standard Year 3543 (the present). All of the narratives are told in the 3rd person limited in the present tense from the points-of-view of the protagonists. Unlike the previous book, the sequence of events allow the narrative to be followed easily by readers (and by listeners). The streams-of-consciousness of the protagonists not only give the audience a complete understanding of the revelations, but also make the characters reliable narrators.

            The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Chaos Vector flows from Velocity Weapon. There is a political conspiracy that is starting to unravel, but the majority of the citizens seem focused on the continued conflict between 2 feuding nations. This conflict reflects the mood of this novel which is distraction. The leaders of Ada Prime do not want their citizens to worry about “threats,” so they make announcements about falsehoods to keep everyone “calm” as they continue to work on a cover-up instead of addressing the conflict. This leads to the tone of this book which centers around the idea of duty. Some of the characters are more willing to follow up on their obligations than others including their superiors. It remains to be seen whether or not the characters’ choices will have negative consequences for the rest of the galaxy.

            The appeal for Chaos Vector have been positive. Fans of Velocity Weapon will be pleased to know that the author presents a strong and fast-paced sequel to this familial space opera. Science fiction fans and anyone who is interested in an intriguing space opera should read this series, especially with the third and final book in the trilogy—Catalyst Gate—releasing this summer (2021)! If you cannot read the book, then you can listen to the audiobook like I did. Once again, Joe Jameson does an excellent job narrating this story, and I hope he does the next book!

            Chaos Vector is a strong and an entertaining sequel to this underappreciated space opera. Both the characters and the plot develop as answers lead to more questions. Everything Megan E. O’Keefe has written in her story guarantees a promising conclusion to this trilogy! Don’t wait any longer, start reading The Protectorate

My Reading: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Empire of Gold”

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold

By: S.A. Chakraborty 

Published: June 30, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

            Daevabad, in all its glory and infamy. The mighty brass walls embellished with the facades of its founders, her ancestors. The crush of ziggurats and minarets, temples and stupas; the dizzying array of clashing architecture and eras—each group, each voice leaving its defiant mark on the city of djinn. The shafit stolen from Persepolis and Timbuktu, the wandering scholars and warrior-poets from every corner of the world. The laborers who, when their work was left unacknowledged in official chronicles, had instead emblazoned their names in graffiti. The women who, after erecting universities and libraries and mosques, were kept silent because of “respectability,” had stamped their presence on the cityscape itself, (42: Nahri).

            It still amazes me how I almost missed this series. When a book’s title and/or cover captures your attention, make time to read it because you might enjoy it to the point where it becomes one of your new favorite books. The Daevabad Trilogy has been a different reading experience and its due to the influence based on Middle Eastern culture and the classic story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The series started with The City of Brass and continued with The Kingdom of Copper, which had an ending that left readers stunned. The Empire of Gold is the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy, and it begins where the last book left off.  

            The story begins with the antagonist, Manizheh—the former Banu Nahid and mother to both Nahri and Jamshid—as she looks over Daevabad after the almost successful usurpation of the kingdom and its ruler, King Ghassan. The rebellion was “almost successful” because Manizheh failed to retrieve Suleiman’s Seal. Instead, Nahri and Prince Alizayd beat her to the ring. And, just as Nahri and Ali are confronted by Manizheh, they jumped into the lake to get away from her only to find themselves transported to Cairo. Meanwhile, because the ring has been taken out of Daevabad, magic has vanished. Now, Manizheh is left without her magic and with hostile forces who are either trying to gain more independence or regrouping to take her down and reclaim the kingdom. Manizheh descends into madness as she struggles to maintain control of Daevabad. There is only one individual who has magic in Daevabad and it’s Darayavahoush e-Afshin. Dara is fighting a war within himself. He’s struggling to display his loyalty to Manizheh while trying to reach a truce with all of the 6 Tribes, the surviving members of the royal family, and the shafit. In addition, all of the trauma Dara experienced during the last war, which led to the deaths of his family has been resurfacing. It doesn’t take long for Dara to realize that history is repeating itself, and he’s the only one who comprehends what the war could lead to for everyone in Daevabad. This causes Dara to do everything he can to achieve a truce even if it means betraying his Nahid. Thousands of miles away, Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo with no clue as to how or why they ended up there. Ali wants to return to Daevabad immediately, but Nahri needs some convincing. The last 5 years haven’t been kind neither to the prince nor to the Banu Nahid, but it is the former’s surviving family members who remain at risk. After a lot of consideration, Nahri agrees to save Daevabad from Manizheh. Unfortunately, the journey back to Daevabad is even more perilous than Nahri’s first journey there with Dara. Not to mention, it turns out EVERYONE is searching for Nahri and Ali, and not just their families. Numerous “outsiders” hope to collect the bounty, and several mystical beings demand the payments of their ancestors’ “debts.” Why does everyone know about Nahri’s heritage except her? And, what other “debts” does Ali have to pay on behalf of both his maternal and his paternal ancestors? Throughout the story Nahri, Ali and Dara develop as characters as they find ways to overcome their traumas as they fight to save their home and to restore magic. It is essential to understand that the horrors and the traumas these protagonists face do not motivate their actions, they allow them to make “reasonable” decisions as they strive to change their world for the better. 

            The plot in this story picks up where The Kingdom of Copper ended. King Ghassan’s tyrannical rule is over, but Banu Manizheh proves quickly to be more ruthless and more paranoid than her former oppressor. And, Manizheh didn’t factor in losing Suleiman’s Seal or magic. Now, she feels powerless and she is forced to depend on Dara to complete her tasks. Meanwhile, Dara doesn’t wish to lose his independence, so he works against Manizheh secretly in order to keep everyone alive. Another plot in this story is Ali and Nahri’s journey back to Daevabad, which is full of physical and emotional turmoil. Ali has to decide whether or not to go through with his plans or that of his family’s. Nahri is dealing with what was revealed to her about her family and whether or not it’s true. The 2 friends need a plan to retake Daevabad and to defeat Manizheh, but it looks like they’ll have to make bargains of their own. There is one subplot in this novel and it relates to family. Ali, Nahri and Dara have struggled with family expectations—yes, even Nahri—and they’ve had an impact on all 3 of them. Ali has been a dutiful prince, but clashed against his father’s rule and his mother’s ambitions. Nahri was told what was expected of her due to her heritage even though she believed her relatives were all dead. Dara did everything that was expected of him by both his family and the (then) ruling family—the Nahids—only to witness his family’s deaths and the Nahids being overthrown. All 3 protagonists attempt to go against their family’s expectations as they strive to make their own decisions and what is best for themselves. This subplot is necessary for the plots of the story because readers can relate to some of the struggles the protagonists are experiencing and why they make certain choices throughout the story. 

            Once again, the narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali—with one chapter told in Manizheh’s P.O.V. The narrative is told in real-time and are in 3rd person limited narrative—the characters know only what is happening around them and to them at the moment. All 3 protagonists are reliable narrators because each of them provide everything that is happening to them, including the mistakes they make. The narrative follows the streams-of-consciousness of all of the protagonists. Yet, keep in mind these characters experience both flashbacks and memories. It is important to know the two are not the same thing, and the narrative is able to present this distinction.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses for The Empire of Gold is a continuation of what readers received from the previous books in the trilogy. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern culture are major influences in this book, and there are allusions to the Ottomans and the Napoleonic Wars as well. Now, instead of an impending rebellion, civil war has broken out after the ruler has been overthrown, and the person who claims she is in charge does not know how to maintain control and cannot solve the kingdom’s biggest dilemma, which is the loss of magic. The mood in this novel is discord. All over the world, magic is gone and everyone is dealing with the ramifications, including the civil war in Daevabad. The tone in this novel is resilience and which of the characters, including the protagonists, are able to withstand all of the incoming challenges. Readers should refer to the maps and the appendices as they read this book so that they can keep track of the Tribes and the world-building.

            The appeal for The Empire of Gold have been positive. Several fans and readers have lauded the author for providing a strong conclusion to this trilogy. Yes, this book is over 700 pages long, but any fantasy fan will appreciate all of the world-building the author has put into her books. Not only does this series belong in the fantasy canon, but also is a great addition to the historical fantasy and the Middle Eastern fantasy subgenres. Even George R.R. Martin has praised this series. And, fans can expect a new series from the author in 2022!

            The Empire of Gold is a gratifying end to The Daevabad Trilogy. The plots answer all of the questions readers have about the characters, and the author provides appropriate endings for all of them. Do not be intimidated by the book’s size because you will finish reading it before you know it. Fans of Tasha Suri, Sabaa Tahir, Egyptian mythology, and Scheherazade will enjoy this series the most. This book is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

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

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).