Why You Need to Read: “Vengeful”

Villains, #2: Vengeful

By: V.E. Schwab

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Superheroes

            “Most Eos are the result of accidents,” he said, studying the snow. “But Eli and I were different. We set out to find a way to effect the change. Incidentally, it’s remarkable difficult to do. Dying with intent, reviving with control. Finding a way to end a life but keep it in arm’s reach, and all without rendering the body unusable. On top of that, you need a method that strips enough control from the subject to make them afraid, because you need the chemical properties induced by fear and adrenaline to trigger a somatic change.”

 –1: Resurrection, VIII: Three Years Ago: Capital City

            Authors and creators have many works which demonstrate the change and the divergence their careers have taken them through time. Each “period” of the artist presents both the influence and the expression of the artist(s) at that time. This is essential to know because the audience will have their favorite “periods” and/or their favorite work(s) from each “period.” This is relevant because the creator will work with either different mediums and/or different themes, while the author will write several stories of various genres for different readers. V.E. Schwab has written several books for children and young adults readers; however, it is her stories for adults in which fans and readers notice both the talent and the desire found within the narrative in that we all get the story we want so badly. V.E. Schwab does it twice, as we see in Vengeful, the sequel to Vicious, the second book in the Villains series. 

            There are 4 protagonists in this novel. The first 3 are familiar: Victor Vale, Eli Ever and Sydney Clarke. Readers meet up with them following the events at the end of Vicious. However, that end was just an end of those set of problems as new ones emerge. All three protagonists have experienced the wonders of their EO abilities, but now are understanding the consequences that come with them. Victor and Eli experience more physical pain now compared to all of the emotional pain they felt before they became EOs. Sydney’s difficulties are more long-term and obvious, but she experiences more loneliness after the death of her sister, Serena. Being an “Extra Ordinary” is wonderful and life-changing, until reality sets in. This truth transforms all three of these protagonists into vulnerable beings. And, while Sydney is no stranger to being vulnerable—she is 13-years-old at the beginning of this novel—both Eli and Victor are not. These “powerful” males are struggling to regain control over both their abilities and their lives. All the while, a new EO rises to become ‘The Villain.’ Marcella Riggins is the 4th protagonist, the newest EO, and the next villain to be dealt with in this series. The novel opens with her life, her death, her rebirth, and her EO abilities, which put her on the same level as Victor Vale and Eli Ever. The latter are examples of toxic masculinity, but Marcella Riggins is a perfect example of “a woman scorned.” When all 4 of these protagonists meet up—for 3 of them, it’s a dangerous reunion—chaos will ensue and A LOT of people will die. 

            There are several plots within this novel and it’s because there are so many protagonists, with different conflicts in the story. First, there is Marcella Riggins. Her life and her death are mentioned as they influence the EO she becomes. Readers have no choice but to sympathize with her, even when Marcella becomes drunk on power and seeks to seize control of the city her late husband would not. Eli Ever is in prison serving multiple life sentences for all of his crimes. However, he is kept in a “special” high secured prison where Eli becomes the obsession of physician whose toxic masculinity makes Eli’s (and Victor’s) look “normal.” Readers actually feel bad for Eli once his experiences at the prison, and in his life before he met Victor, are revealed. Victor Vale is enjoying his life as a free man, yet again. Only, his EO ability isn’t what it used to be. Not used to being not in control of his life, Victor seeks help for his EO ability in his way, which usually ends up with people dying. As for Sydney Clarke, she continues to hone her EO ability, which continues to strengthen. This is significant because Sydney’s ability grows while her body seem to remain the same. There are two subplots which help to enhance the story. The first is the introduction to other EOs who help with the development of who EOs are, their understanding of their abilities, how they use it and why, and who knows about EOs. The second subplot delves right back into the concept of negative emotions and how they are expressed. This subplot is a repeated one, but whereas males were observed in Vicious, females act out on them in Vengeful. And, there are just as many angry females as there are males. The subplots are necessary because not only do they enhance the story, but also they expand on the concept of EOs and their world which is hidden from most of the remaining population. Meanwhile, the plots develop as several individual rising actions are working their way towards a climax amongst the protagonists, which promises the reader(s) that something big is about to happen. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all 4 protagonists across a 5-year time frame, which jumps across various moments in time. While the novel starts with Marcella Riggins’ P.O.V., the narrative jumps back to what happened to Victor Vale 5 years ago—the ending of Vicious. From that point and for the duration of this novel, the time sequence goes from the present to one moment in the past to another moment in the past. This is not so much of a flashback sequence, but a narrative frame in order to explain to the reader(s) what is happening to a certain protagonist at a certain time, and then jump ahead to the consequences of those past actions. While it may sound confusing, it isn’t because as the past is explained so are the actions and the motivations of the characters. The points-of-view are in 3rd person limited (or, subjective). This means that during one character’s P.O.V. chapter, neither the readers nor that character knows the thoughts of another character. For the reader, the thoughts of the other character may or may not get revealed to them in another chapter. The characters will never know what the other ones are thinking (just like in real life). 

            The style V.E. Schwab uses in Vengeful is a continuation from what she did in Vicious. The characters had to lose something in order to become EOs; and yet, they continue to lose parts of themselves as they become more powerful. Similar to related themes found in comic books and superhero stories, the characters lose more of their humanity as they continue on the path to become separate entities. The mood in this novel is dread. From Marcella Riggins’ death and rebirth, a new sensation of awe and fear emerges and no one knows what will come from it, but it won’t be anything good. The tone in this novel is the preparation. The upcoming showdown that is foreseen due to the rise of Marcella Riggins will keep EOs (and readers) in anticipation. Readers know that Eli Ever and Victor Vale must reunite, but the reason for it remains unknown to all, even to the two former friends. If Vicious was the origins story, then Vengeful is the action movie sequel!

            The appeal for Vengeful have been positive. Fans of both V.E. Schwab’s other books, including Vicious, have claimed it is one of her best stories, yet. In addition to gaining (more) new readers, myself included, Vengeful has reminded readers not only of comic books and superheroes, but also of (great) action movies. V.E. Schwab is a huge fan of the John Wick movies (just like I am), and she has said more than once that both the fight scenes and the world-building were influences for her Villains series. And no, I have not located the John Wick Easter Egg in Vengeful, yet (DO NOT TELL ME WHERE IT IS!), it is obvious that the climactic scene was influenced by it A LOT! The author has promised her fans at least one more book in this series, with a publication date as early as 2023 (she takes 5 years to write each book). With at least 2 more John Wick movies scheduled to be released in between Vengeful and Book 3, I can only imagine the story that will emerge from V.E. Schwab’s imagination in response to those movies.

            Vengeful is the beautiful yet dark and twisted sequel to the story about the reality of the metaphysical. Fans and readers are reminded why possessing such powers and desiring to become extraordinary should remain restricted. Not only are there long-term consequences to gaining such powers, but also not everyone should possess such abilities. There was a reason this book made my list of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018! If I still enjoy this book now as I did then, then you will love it, too!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

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

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Ships”

The Tide Child #1: The Bone Ships

By: R.J. Barker

Published: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            Joron sat opposite the man who had made sure he was condemned to a ship of the dead, and, in so doing, he heard of the miracle that would make him part of a legend, (12: To All Who Serve, Comes A-Calling).

            The speculative fiction genre has gone from limited to selective, and because of this fans have only so much time to read all of the books published by all of the authors. R.J. Barker is one of the many authors whose books I’ve been struggling to make time to read. I’ve heard great things about the author’s trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom, and it’s in my TBR pile. Then, I won an early publication of The Bone Ships, the first book in The Tide Child Trilogy. I was excited, yet skeptical of what to expect from this book besides pirates. Then, the author told me on social media that I should expect, “a different story than other ones I’ve read before.” He was not exaggerating. This book is a fantasy adventure about pirates and warfare, and most of the action and the story occurs at sea, and it’s engrossing, not boring!

            The story follows Joron Twiner, who is about to lose his position of “shipwife,” or master and commander of a ship—“Tide Child,” to Meas Gilbryn, or as many others refer to her, “Lucky” Meas. Meas has a reputation of being one of the “most decorated, the bravest, the fiercest shipwife the Hundred Isles had ever seen,” (p.7). And, she was recently sent to a “ship of the dead”—the “Tide Child”—as a death sentence for a criminal act. “Ships of the dead,” which are typically made of the black bones of an arakeesian—a giant whale as big as a dragon, are operated by “criminal crews.” The crew consist of criminals who’ve committed a crime of some sort and are sentenced to a “black ship” to serve their term until death. In this case, a life of piracy, which will lead to one’s death at sea, at some point in the future. Joron, who starts as a wishy-washy sailor, and Meas, one of the best shipwives of the Hundred Isles, are the last people you would expect to be on a black ship, but they are. And, Meas just won a duel against Joron, which makes her the new shipwife, and Joron’s demoted to “deckkeeper,” or second-in-command. It turns out, Joron losing the duel is the best thing to happen to “Tide Child” because Meas immediately takes control of the crew and slowly transforms them into a presentable crew. Throughout the story, Meas remains a flat character, but she forces the other characters, especially Joron, to develop into the people they are meant to be. 

            The plot of The Bone Ships centers on the reconfiguration of the crew of the “Tide Child.” After Meas becomes shipwife, she makes numerous, but essential, changes within the crew. She reassigns roles, teaches them how to fight, and involve them in sea battle in order to improve their experience and their morale. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, so this training and refashioning take up the majority of the story. There are two subplots. The first focuses on the shift of the “Tide Child’s” goals from protecting the kidnapping of children to tracking down the first arakeesian spotted on the seas in centuries. A race ensues amongst all ships and their crews into locating the arakeesian, sailing as far as the uncharted waters. The second subplot, clues into society and the rules of the setting, which are relevant because they explain how both Joron and Meas ended up on a black ship. Joron’s reason is straightforward; Meas’ reason is more complicated. Both subplots are necessary for the development of both the plot and the characters. 

            The narrative in this novel is told in a sequence of an account told by the protagonist. The story is told from Joron Twiner’s P.O.V. in first person in the past tense. Although the narrative follows the events of Joron after they occur, readers get the stream-of-consciousness and an account of the events he witnessed. There are no passages or chapters of Mea’s account of the events, or any from any of the other characters or the crew. This makes the narrative more engaging (and maybe believable) because an individual’s account of events is based on what feelings they experienced at the location(s) they were at at that time. This type of narration make Joron a reliable narrator, and his account can be followed by the readers. 

            The style R.J. Barker uses in The Bone Ships is split between world-building and naval terminology. The word choice and the language used throughout the narrative presents life in hierarchical society, or at sea. The terminology included in the story is a lesson in sailing and ship maintenance which enhances the narrative and make it more realistic, and it’s based on knowledge, words and maintenance of ships in our world. For someone who knows nothing about sailing or boats (such as myself), this was very informative and helpful to understanding the narrative. In addition, the description of the battles transports readers into the middle of the action, swords, blood and all. The mood of this novel is stormy. Life in the Hundred Isles is attainable through strength, the weak bring down everyone and they have no place in the world. The tone is the competition for survival and recognition amongst those in society, a story that follows Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” to a teed. All of the characters are competing for survival in order to survive in their harsh environment, and strength is the coveted trait. All of the elements used by the author transport the readers to the sea. 

            The appeal surrounding The Bone Ships have been mixed. This is because readers of the author’s first trilogy probably weren’t expecting this change in story type from him. Then, there are readers who are not interested, or were confused by a book about life on a ship. For clarification, I’ll use The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Fans of the series have stated that that book was their least favorite one because they found the story to be “slow” and “uninteresting.” Not everyone is interested in stories about sailing, and I believe this is why there were some negative reviews from some of the readers. I didn’t mind this story because all of the terminology was explained and action occurred both on land and on sea. The elements of world-building kept my attention as well. Readers who are fans of pirates, Moby Dick and/or sailing will enjoy this book the most. For those who did enjoy The Bone Ships will be pleased to know that Book 2, Call of the Bone Ships, will be released in September 2020. I’m looking forward to reading what happens next. 

            The Bone Ships is a fantasy adventure about pirates and the tracking of a “legendary” whale. The novel is a different experience from what fantasy readers are used to, but the characters and the world-building will hook them into the story and wheel them in the end. R.J. Barker illustrates what life on the seas is really like and why some people are better off staying on land. But, if sentenced to a black ship, then it is the “Tide Child” you’ll want to be on!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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

Why You Need to Read: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Empire of Sand”

The Books of Ambha: #1: Empire of Sand

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 13, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Winner of the Brave New Words Award 2019

            The Emperor’s hatred had not grown suddenly, as Mehr had so foolishly believed when Maryam had warned her of his messages to his nobles. His hatred was a storm that had grown ever larger by feeding on itself, and Mehr had been protected from the full weight of it by the shelter of her privilege and of the very Ambhan walls that so stifled her. Now the storm was too great for even Mehr to ignore. Her status as the Governor’s daughter couldn’t protect her forever. She had Amrithi blood, and the Amrithi were being erased, (Chapter Two). 

            I’ll repeat what I’ve said about the speculative fiction released in 2018: it was the best year yet! There were many debut novels that gained the acclaim of fans and critics alike. In addition, there seemed to be a debut novel that represented each region of our world. Tasha Suri is one of many whose novel takes place in a historical fictionalized Middle East. Empire of Sand reflects on the notions of “old magic” and the oppression of the users that comes with it from those with political power. 

            Mehr, who is 18 years-old, is the eldest illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Mehr and her younger sister, Arwa, who is 9 years-old, live with their father and their stepmother, Maryam, at the Governor’s home. As daughters of a nobleman, the sisters live sheltered lives of luxury; as daughters of an Amrithi woman, the sisters have magic in their blood. Mehr is old enough to remember their mother and has accepted the customs of her mother’s people. Arwa is too young to remember their mother, but Maryam has no issue with raising and molding Arwa into an Ambhan noblewoman. Obviously, Mehr and Maryam are at odds with each other and it seems that the girls’ father is unaware of the relationship between his wife and his daughters. As paranoid as Maryam is, it turns out that she is right to be worried about Mehr’s rebellious behavior. When Mehr defies her family’s wishes and her mother’s cultural paranoia, she is married off and sent away to become a “tool” of the Empire. She is married to Amun, a full-blooded Amrithi who has been a captive of the Maha—mystics of the Religious Order—since he was a child. Married, isolated, and far from home, Mehr has to figure out how to survive her new life, to stay alive, to determine who is trustworthy, and to determine how much magic she has and what that means for her. Throughout the novel, Mehr grows into a powerful woman who embraces both her magic and her culture as she interprets the use of her power for the good of everything she cares about.

            The plot of the story follows the culture and the traditions of South Asia, along with its dark side based on historical events. “The rule of law and rule of faith are tied together. One cannot exist without the other,” (p.76). The Maha—the one in charge of the mystics—founded the Empire, so the Emperor and all of the Ambhan are “blessed” with their fortunes and lifestyles because of them. However, when angered, or demand something and are denied, the Maha can become anyone’s worse enemy. And, Mehr has alerted the Maha of her presence and her heritage. The mystics demand that she serves “for the Maha and the Empire.” Mehr knows that this goes against the practices of the nobles and her father threatens to rebel. Mehr gives into the demands in order to protect her family, especially Arwa. The plot develops as Mehr grows into herself and she learns more about the Maha and the Empire. She learns the reasons why her mother left her father, and her father’s neglect to teach her what she needed to know about herself and the Empire. Mehr soon realizes that power is determined based on who wields it. And, if the Emperor looks to the Maha for power, then does that mean the Maha hold the power? The subplot here is family and the bonds that come with it. Mehr sees herself as her mother’s daughter to the horror of her stepmother. Maryam, who has not been able to have children of her own, claims Arwa as hers and does everything in her power to keep the sisters apart. While her abuse of Mehr and harsh upbringing of Arwa is disturbing, her paranoia is justified when the Maha demand Mehr to be delivered to them. At the same time, Mehr learns more about her mother and father’s relationship as well as the decisions they made together and separately. This subplot is essential to the plot in that all of Mehr’s decisions are based on what’s best for her family. 

            The novel is told in real-time from the point-of-view of Mehr. With the exception of 3 chapters from 3 minor characters, the narrative is told in 3rd person free indirect discourse. In other words, readers are aware of all of Mehr’s thoughts, impressions, and perceptions—a.k.a. stream-of-consciousness—and, given the mistakes Mehr makes throughout the story and her known flaws, she is a reliable narrator. 

            The style Tasha Suri uses in her novel presents the various lifestyles people of different classes and faiths have even in modern South Asia. The descriptions of the different homes and clothes display the distinction between cultures and social classes. The word choice and the figurative language that illustrates the lands and the dances gives the beauty of the two to the readers. The mood in this story is the beauty of the Empire, which the Gods created. Yet, the tone in the novel is the balance of the world and the consequences of any unbalance in the world whether or not it’s from divine intervention, societal expectations, or parental influence. In all, the style presents how beauty in the world can remain if there is a balance. 

            The appeal surrounding Empire of Sand have been immensely positive. The novel has received positive reviews from critics, readers, and other authors. The novel has been nominated for several awards including the Locus Award; and, it won the Brave New Words Award in 2019! This fantasy novel is a beautiful debut and a wonderful addition to the speculative fiction genre. Fans will want to re-read Empire of Sand, especially before the sequel, Realm of Ash, is released in November 2019. I should warn readers that in addition to familial abuse and neglect, there is a scene in the story that contains non-consensual sex, and scenes of torture and murder. Other than those scenes of trauma, the novel is worth reading and the follow-up looks to be very promising, too.

            Empire of Sand is a beautiful debut novel about the history of an empire that struggles to maintain control of everything and how the bonds of love and family can help an individual endure suffering. Even though there were some flaws surrounding the pacing of the novel, my love of the characters is what kept me reading this novel. Empire of Sand was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018, and I’m really excited for the next book in the series, and any future books by the author!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!