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). 

Why You Need to Read: “Come Tumbling Down”

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Horror

            “Everyone who comes here becomes a monster: you, me, your sister, everyone,” said Mary, voice low and fast and urgent. “The doors only open for the monsters in waiting. But you made the right choice when you left this castle, because you would have been the worst monster of them all if you had grown up in a vampire’s care.”

            “I know,” said Jack… (13: The Broken Crown).

            Responsibility is a trait which marks the coming of adulthood. The older we get, the more responsibility we get whether or not we want it. The concept of being responsible follows the practice of being reliable to others and being held accountable for your actions both good and bad. Even adults don’t always know who is reliable and who isn’t. Children and adolescents are given the benefit of the doubt due to their youth. However, once society deems the youth as “old enough to know better,” society expects the youth to follow the rules and obey the laws, or face the consequences. The Wayward Children series is about children and adolescents who traveled to other worlds for various reasons, and there are those who were kicked out of those worlds because they broke the rules. But, what happens when a traveler believes the rules shouldn’t apply to them? Fans of the series know of one example thanks to the past events in In An Absent Dream, but the author presents readers with an example occurring in the present in Come Tumbling Down.

            Readers catch up with the misfits at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children: Christopher, who traveled to Mariposa; Cora, a Drowned Girl; Kade, a hero of Fairyland and headmaster-in-training; and Sumi, who—thanks to the events in Beneath the Sugar Sky—is alive and her old self again. It seems like an ordinary day at school, until lightning strikes the basement and a Door appears, but none of the students recognize it as theirs. This is because the Door swings inward revealing a large girl carrying a smaller one in her arms. No one recognizes the first girl, but the other girl is one of the Wolcott twins, but which one? It turns out that it’s Jack, but she’s in Jill’s body. Jack didn’t give her consent for the body swap; not to mention, Jack and Jill aren’t identical twins anymore since Jill’s death and resurrection. Jill’s death was one of two punishments she was dealt as consequence for breaking the rules in the Moors. Jill either had to remain in her world, or return after dying where she can no longer become a vampire. The problem was Jill proved to be as ruthless in our world as she is in the Moors, forcing Jack to make a decision to save her sister from herself. Unfortunately, everything blows up in Jack’s face, and Jill and her Master have decided to wreak havoc on the Moors, prompting a war between mad scientist and vampire, and between identical twin sisters. Jack flees the Moors with her fiancé, Alexis, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children so she can get help with getting her body back from Jill and save her Home. Throughout the story, readers learn more about Jack: what she’s been up to since returning to the Moors, and her future plans there with Dr. Bleak and Alexis. Jack is able to open herself up more to her former schoolmates than she was able to while staying at the school, which is a huge development for her character—and, as a (fictional) individual. Another character who develops in this story is Cora, but not in the “traditional” way. Cora—like the other students—hopes to return Home. However, it seems Cora has a deeper connection to the Drowned Worlds than everyone realizes, including Cora. 

            The plot in this story is sibling rivalry to extreme levels. Jack and Jill were kicked out of the Moors for Jill’s crimes (in Down Among the Sticks and Bones) and Jack made the decision to “change” Jill so both of them could return Home (in Every Heart A Doorway). Unfortunately for Jack, Jill views her twin’s actions as NOT “saving” her, but as “stealing eternity away from her.” Jill sees getting Jack’s body as a way to get everything she wants and damn the consequences. There are 2 main problems with this nonconsensual body swap. First, is that Jill and her Master believe they have found a loophole in the order of the Moors, but the rules in the Moors are strict and valid, and those in charge will NOT allow these transgressions to continue. Second, is Jack has OCD and she cannot cope with being in Jill’s body because of what the Master did to it; and, Jack has no intention of becoming a vampire, so she has to get her body back before the next full moon. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first is the concept of Death within some of these worlds. Just like in Confection, death isn’t permanent in the Moors. However, there are setbacks to being resurrected in the Moors—the body loses its function after each one—and time is of the essence. The second is the continued world-building of the Moors. We learn—through the other characters—how vast the world of the Moors is and about the Powers who run the Moors making sure ALL rules are followed. The subplots are necessary because they develop alongside the plot. Plus, everyone learns quickly how much trouble Jill is in for going against the order of the Moors. 

            The narrative follows a present sequence with moments of recounting the past (which is not the same as a flashback). It is presented in 3rd person omniscient from the points-of-view of Christopher, Cora and Jack. Readers learn how the Moors affect these characters who either reside in the Moors, or traveled to worlds similar to them—the Trenches and Mariposa. The streams-of-consciousness of the characters allow for the readers to experience Jack’s OCD, Cora’s attraction to the Drowned Worlds, and Christopher’s admiration and creepiness for the Moors make them all reliable narrators. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Come Tumbling Down is a return to the concept of duality. However, unlike the idea of binary—which, was explored in Down Among the Sticks and Bones—the concept of oppositions is the focus. Identical twins find themselves on opposing sides of a challenge, which could evolve into a war, and their mentors are based on 2 of the most popular classic literary books and film characters: Frankenstein and Dracula. The allusions to both Vincent Price and the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, lets readers know there has to be a victor. The realization Jack admits about Jill make it obvious as to what must happen. The mood in the story is one of urgency. Everything in the Moors from the residents’ safety to Jack’s sanity is on the verge of being destroyed and Jack and her companions have 3 days to set things right. The tone in this story revolves around the outcome based on the urgency to answer the challenge. Jack and Jill are on opposing sides and the victor will determine the outcome of the balance within the Moors. There is more at stake than a stolen body, but one side doesn’t seem to care as long as they get what they want. Rovina Cai’s illustrations provide the extra context to the story as required. 

            The appeal for Come Tumbling Down have been positive. Fans of the Wayward Children series enjoyed this latest installment in the series as they travel with the students on another quest—remember, it’s against the rules to go on quests. And, while this portal-quest fantasy novella is a great addition to the fantasy canon, fans of horror will enjoy this book, too. The next book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields, will bring readers back to the past.

            Come Tumbling Down is a fun story which balances adventure and rule-breaking as the characters and the readers return to the Moors. While it seems like this is the end of Jack and Jill’s story (for now?), I have an inkling we could return to the Moors. It might not be anytime soon, but readers will be satisfied with the ending, until the next adventure.

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

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

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

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

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

e- book, Bantam, 2009. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Queen of Raiders”

The Nine Realms #2: The Queen of Raiders

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: February 18, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I could lend my Talent to (the) Raiders. I could attack the Oros in their lair, (Chapter Thirteen, Slagos to Alpetar).

            The wait between books in a series are often long. There are times when the book comes out the next year, or in two or three years. Then, there was the case of Alan Garner’s Tales of Alderley Trilogy which had a 50-year wait between the 2nd and the 3rd books! And, of course fantasy fans still await for the next books by both George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, patiently. Meanwhile, author Sarah Kozloff gifted her fans and readers with a one-month waiting period between each book in her The Nine Realms Quartet! And, The Queen of Raiders begins where A Queen in Hiding ended.

            Book 2 starts off with Thalen and the other survivors of the invasion of the Oromondo army. Thalen decides that a small group of raiders instead of a large army would work more to their advantage in fighting back. Once the first rounds of recruitment are over, Thalen and his Raiders travel into Oromondo in order to liberate the Free States. Meanwhile, Wren—now under the alias of ‘Kestrel’—escaped detection from Lord Matwyck but had to leave her foster family. She arrives in the Green Isles and Kestrel must decide her next move before she is recognized again and captured. Gustie, one of Thalen’s friends from the Scolairíum, has been captured by the Oros and is forced to serve one of the generals, but she decides to fight back with the other captors. And, Lord Matwyck continues to increase his power and corruption as Lord Regent of Weirandale, leaving only his son, Marcot, to question his governorship without fear of losing his life. Each of these characters develop more into themselves due to the Oromondo aggression. Out of all of these protagonists, only Matwyck ignores the Oromondo threat, which serves as a reminder that Matwyck is ruling for himself and for power, and not for the benefit of his country or its people. Thalen, Kestrel, Gustie and all of the other characters are aware of the extent the Oromondos can have on their nations if they’re not stopped. The only thing Marcot can do is work behind his father’s back and learn how Matwyck’s selfishness is affecting everyone else in Weirandale. No one is safe from either Matwyck or the Oro army. The complexity lies not amongst the characters, but how they deal with their complex scenarios. These characters develop because of these hardships and conflicts.

            The main plot in The Queen of Raiders is the resistance and the retaliation against the Oromondo army. Thalen is the Commander of the Raiders and he leads his small army into enemy territory knowing that the odds are stacked against them. Gustie uses her location amongst the Oros to her advantage and plots various attacks on the Oro army from the inside. And, Kestrel decides to participate alongside the Raiders in order to protect her citizens and to get vengeance for Weirandale. There are two subplots within this novel. The first is the continued corruption of Lord Matwyck and his “council.” It’s been over a decade since Matwyck seized control of Weirandale and he’s become obsessed with power. Matwyck’s corruption and desperation to maintain power has him posting bounties of the missing heir in other realms and executing the nobles who remain loyal to the Nargis Throne. The citizens suffer and Cerúlia remains in exile. The second subplot focuses on both the survival and the world-building in the other realms affected by the Oromondo invasion. The army didn’t just invade the Free States, but the realms bordering Oromondo as well. It turns out that because the Oromondos suffered, it lead to the suffering of the neighboring realms in the name of survival. So, these other realms decide to fight back as well, and the protagonists (and the readers) learn about the culture and the livelihood of the denizens of those realms, and what they need to do in order to survive the war and the occupation. Kestrel doesn’t return to Cascada due to the Oromondo invasion. She knows that the bigger conflict must be dealt with first before she reclaims the Nargis Throne. This is necessary to know because Kestrel is aware of her responsibilities as the queen she hopes to become. 

            Once again, the narration is told from several points-of-view. The protagonists and the other characters are reliable narrators as they provide this chronological sequence from first-person P.O.V. and their stream-of-consciousness. Just like in A Queen in Hiding, the readers will know everything that is going on everywhere consecutively. Only this time, the motivations and the actions of the characters aren’t as complicated and justified as they were in the first book.   

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Queen of Raiders focuses on military occupation and military strategy. Other recent military fantasy series written by R.F. Kuang and Myke Cole are about the realities of war. War isn’t just fighting and dying. Not all soldiers are trained fighters and are able to survive harsh conditions and injuries. Supplies run out, wounds become infected, horses die, etc. The stories told afterwards mentions all of the heroics and the battles; however, what occurs in the present are the planning, the struggling, the decision making, the suffering and the dying are often left out of those tales. The author presents war and occupation as a long-term conflict, not a quick battle. Anyone who participates with the fighting unit—cooks, medics, etc.—is just as vulnerable as the soldiers to the costs and the conditions of war. Success is often paid with death. The mood in this book is the occupation of hostiles and the terror that comes with it. Victims of the Oromondo army are held as slaves within their own homes and the denizens of Weirandale are suppressed by Matwyck and his “council.” The tone of the novel is rebellion. Both groups of oppression rebel in catches as opposed to one large group. This is done in order to derive suspicion from everyone else while succeeding with smaller victories; victories that garter hope for the oppressed and reflect the same fear back to the oppressors. Sometimes warfare becomes a necessity for survival.  

            The appeal for The Queen of Raiders will be a positive one. I say this because both the narrative and the pacing continues where A Queen in Hiding ended, leaving no open questions to be asked by the readers. Anyone who enjoyed the first book in The Nine Realms will be pleased with the short waiting period so that they can start back where they left off. And, with the cliffhanger at the end of this book, many readers will be happy that the wait for Book 3—A Broken Queen—is a short one! I want to mention that the final publications of the books do contain maps of the realms so following along the treks of all of the characters makes it easy for the readers to keep track of the events everywhere in the author’s world. 

            The Queen of Raiders is an excellent follow-up to A Queen in Hiding. Fans will appreciate how the conflicts continue in their own direction while all of the characters develop and participate in maintaining order through those conflicts. This action-packed part of the series reminds readers that there are other responsibilities individuals must rise up to in order to becomes the leaders they must be.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Daughter from the Dark”

Daughter from the Dark

By: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Published: 2006 in Russian; February 11, 2020 in English

Translated by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Genre: Metaphysical/Speculative Fiction/Psychological

            Aspirin had to admit—he was his own worst enemy. He’d brought it on himself: the first time when he did not leave the girl alone where she was, and the second time when he refused to give her back to his camo-clad guest,(Tuesday).

            As you know, Vita Nostra is one of my favorite books of all-time. This translated book—from Russian and translated to English by Julia Meitov Hersey—introduced some readers and I to the metaphysical fiction genre—that is NOT a graphic novel—and to the creative minds of the authors: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Daughter from the Dark is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series, but a standalone story about a girl from another dimension, and the man who is assigned to be her guardian. 

            The main protagonist is Alexey Igorevich Grimalsky, who goes by his radio sobriquet—Aspirin, is a radio DJ host and a nightclub DJ who lives his life carefree with small comforts that keep him satisfied. One Sunday evening, he finds a young girl shivering in an alley holding a teddy bear. He asks the girl where her parents are before they are attacked by a group of hoodlums and their Pitbull; but, before anything can happen, a large shadow appears on the wall (the teddy bear?) looms over everyone and attacks the dog in self-defense. Shaken up and confused, Aspirin brings the girl into his apartment as a gesture of goodwill. However, the next morning (Monday), the girl refuses to leave or to say anything about herself or where she came from. Then, a stranger appears at his door with intention to take the girl back with him. When Aspirin refuses to let the girl—Alyona—leave with the man, Aspirin finds himself holding a birth certificate stating that he’s the father, which he is not. In a blink of an eye, Aspirin goes from carefree man to father, and it seems everyone else around him believes Alyona is his daughter from Pervomaysk. At the same time, Alyona has no intention in playing the role of “daughter.” Instead of attending school, she cleans the house and listens to CDs (remember those?). Alyona left her home so that she can find her brother, who is a musician. Alyona not only brought her teddy bear, “Mishutka,” but also “special” music strings. Her plan is to learn how to play the violin so that she can play a song, which will call out to him. That means Aspirin has to register Alyona for music lessons, to buy her a violin, and to put up with her aloofness and her eccentricities: feeding Mishutka, ignoring her pain and illness, making “claims” about other people, etc. Meanwhile, Aspirin sees Alyona as an annoying houseguest who keeps interfering with his life and daily lifestyle: going to work, attending parties, hooking up with women, etc. And, Alyona views Aspirin as a coward who is nice but afraid of commitment and wastes his musical gifts. The two characters become more like college roommates than father and daughter, but that living arrangement seems to work for them. Neither Aspirin nor Alyona develop much as characters, but they do demonstrate growth with help from Whiskas—Aspirin’s friend and colleague—and, Irina—Aspirin’s neighbor. Then again, complex characters (and people) don’t change their behaviors overnight, it takes several months. 

            The plot of Daughter from the Dark is straightforward. Aspirin becomes the guardian for 11-year-old Alyona and must learn how to put her needs before his own. It sounds like something from a movie or a T.V. sitcom, but that’s where the similarities end. This leads to the two subplots. The first one involves Alyona’s music. She learns how to play the violin at a rate in which she’s called a music prodigy, but she quits music school so she can focus on learning to play the song which will call her brother and send him home. The second subplot is Aspirin’s slow maturity during the duration of Alyona’s stay. Aspirin considers his music gifts more and more. He even starts a long-term relationship with Irina instead of hooking up with random women. Yes, Aspirin tries to get Alyona to leave more than once, but he learns how to deal with her and everyone who gets involved with her: their neighbors, her music teacher, etc. These subplots are essential for the plot because they explain the reasons and the reactions to Alyona’s unexpected arrival. It is obvious Aspirin doesn’t have a daughter, so allowing the subplots to become part of the plot is necessary and it allows for it to go at an appropriate rate so that the story seems believable. 

            The narrative is told from Aspirin’s point-of-view and his stream-of-consciousness. So not only do readers experience everything from Aspirin’s perspective, but also his thoughts as everything happens around him in real-time. Given the strange occurrences involving Mishutka, Alyona’s music and birth certificate, and the changes involving Alyona’s identity, Aspirin—for all of his flaws—is a reliable narrator. This is because several moments throughout the narrative leave us asking the same questions Aspirin asks himself: What’s happening? Is this real? Where did Alyona come from? Is Mishutka really a teddy bear? Readers are able to follow the narrative because they understand how confused Aspirin is because they feel the same way. The book is in 3 parts, which presents the length of time both Aspirin and Alyona live together. Part I is in days and Parts II and III are in months. These breakdowns are marked by what happens to both characters during those days and months. This sequence is significant because it illustrates ALL of the changes that occur around Aspirin and Alyona. 

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use follows the rules of metaphysical fiction, but it’s written and presented differently. In Vita Nostra, a handful of individuals possessed talents which could bend reality and defy physical laws. In Daughter from the Dark, there are several moments where the extraordinary occurs, and there are several witnesses who experience those moments, but they react with discomfort and questioning whether or not that event actually happened. At the same time, the longer Alyona remains in Aspirin’s world (our world), her identity alters to match the “cover story” she and Aspirin came up with. So not only does Alyona have a time limit to learning the song and finding her brother, but also there is a time limit concerning Alyona’s connection to her world and when or if she’ll be able to go back there. This type of metaphysical fiction trope is similar to the theory about parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. The novel, and the authors, demonstrate what could happen if one or two “other worldly” beings find their way into another world. The mood in this novel is imperfection. Alyona points out constantly how imperfect our world is, which it is, and how it is inspiration for the creative mind. The tone is how a gifted individual can use creativity to seek perfection in an imperfect world. Aspirin, Alyona, Alyona’s brother and all creative artists seek their art in our imperfect world. Music is the central theme in Daughter from the Dark and the authors do an amazing job incorporating music and its techniques and truths within the story.

            The appeal surrounding Daughter from the Dark will continue to present English readers and fans of speculative fiction what they’ve been missing out on. I will reiterate that this novel is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series! This novel is a separate story about characters and metaphysical tropes. In other words, don’t read Daughter from the Dark expecting Vita Nostra! Readers of speculative fiction should know better than to expect identical stories form the same author! Daughter from the Dark is its own example of metaphysical fiction and translated work of speculative fiction. This novel is another great addition for the canon, and we have Julia Meitov Hersey to thank again for taking the time to translate the book. And, she is already translating another book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and I can’t wait to read it! Readers and fans of Vita Nostra and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire will not be disappointed with this novel!       

            Daughter from the Dark is the latest translated work by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and the focus is on music instead of a hidden school. The narrative and the plot are more relatable and more action-paced than Vita Nostra, but fans of metaphysical fiction will enjoy this book the most. This novel is the most down-to-Earth mind-bending work by the husband and wife duo so far, and the books keep coming! Anyone who is interested in reading anything by them should start with this book. For everyone else, it’s not at the same level in terms of genre, but the experience is worth reading. Now, all I have to do is wait for the next book to be translated into English!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: Kids of the Black Hole”

Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

            It’s the buildup to the final showdown and the kids decide to have fun before the big fight, which is during Christmas Break. Chester has gathered his posse at the house he has taken over and continues his torture, with Chico’s head still in the ice. Saya is able to track down Chester to his hideout, which he’s turned into a fortress. Chester is expecting a retaliation from Marcus and his friends for his actions. Marcus has been making plans in order to get revenge and to prove his conviction. 

            When Willie decides not to take any part of the upcoming showdown between Marcus and his former roommate, it’s a reminder to the audience that the characters do have a choice to their actions. Maria and Marcus made decisions because they believed they didn’t have a choice. Saya chooses her friends over the assignment Master Lin gives her. Willie does have a choice and his decision to leave is vital; at the same time, we know that Willie isn’t one to abandon his friends completely. 

            Meanwhile, Master Lin’s efforts to protect his family has reached its end. Yes, he didn’t want his daughter to have the same upbringing and lifestyle as his sister and Saya, but he underestimated the need for his family to be able to defend themselves. It is not clear who tipped off Chico’s father and the rest of the Cartel, but the cliché narrative about the consequences of secrets and making the decision that should have been made in the first place will play out in the season finale. 

            Kids of the Black Holegives viewers the title of the episode. The lifestyle of assassins sucks people into a vortex. And, when presented with the opportunity to avoid that vortex, the decision to either go in, or stay out can be a matter of life and death. And, like with every decision every character has made throughout this season, there will be consequences for all of those involved.