Why You Need to Listen to: “The Original”

The Original

By: Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal                Audiobook: 3 hours 24 minutes

Released: September 14, 2020                                                       Narrated by: Julia Whelan

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

            Have you ever listened to any audio story or audio narrative without the text or any visuals to follow along to? I believe the most familiar example of this would be Peter and the Wolf. This Russian “symphonic fairy tale” is presented with specific orchestra ensembles representing each of the characters with a narrator telling the rest of the story. There are audiobooks which are standalones (as in no written edition) and it relies on an excellent narration and an engaging story so that the audience’s attention is maintained from start to finish. The Original by both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal demonstrates a strong collaboration, but it is the talent of Julia Whelan that gives life to the story through her narration. 

            Holly is the protagonist. She wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there; and, her husband, Jonathan, isn’t with her. She is told by doctors and by Detective Skylar that she is a Clone of the “Original” Holly, and that she was created on the orders of a warrant because Holly murdered her husband. On top of that bit of news, Holly learns she is an “Edited Clone,” which means that changes were made to the body and the DNA that can make a Clone “better” than the “Original.” Finally, Holly is told one more thing: no one can locate the real Holly, and she has to find her and kill her in order to survive. Holly leaves the hospital with her mission to carry out with a set of skills her “Original” doesn’t have and didn’t ask for. The Clone Holly has to shift through shared memories, to survive attacks from people she doesn’t recognize, and to find her Original within 4 days or cease to exist. Does Holly want to live the life of her Original? Can she find her? And, if she does, then will she be able to kill her? 

            The plot is very interesting. A clone awakens, learns the reason for her creation, told her purpose, and is sent to carry it out. Of course, that’s the short version of it. Holly has less than 4 days to find her Original before she ceases to exist because a Clone and its Original cannot exist at the same time. Detective Skylar explains to Holly that after she finds and kills her Original she can live her life for the duration of hers. Meanwhile, Holly is trying to figure out what led her Original to kill Jonathan. She goes through her memories of her relationship and love for Jonathan, his occupation and hers, the last time they were together before the murder, and the murder itself. This leads to Holly having more questions than answers, but she decides that finding her Original and demanding to know why she killed her husband before killing her is how she is going to complete her mission. The subplot is the elements of world-building, many of which includes the idea behind clones and other scientific practices the society performs. In addition to clones, nanotechnology exists so that people can reverse aging and accelerate healing. Yet, Holly discovers that nanotechnology and clones are not wanted by everyone, including Jonathan. So, if Jonathan was against the idea of clones, then why is Holly being promised with a clone of Jonathan after she kills her Original? The subplot develops alongside the plot in which both the society and the conflict are explained further as the story continues. 

            The narrative follows the point-of-view of Clone Holly. This makes for an interesting P.O.V. experience because none of her past experiences are hers, and she cannot remember everything of her past before she was created. This is important to know because this means that when Holly remembers something, it is NOT a flashback! It is NOT amnesia! This is because, one, the memory isn’t hers; and two, Holly can’t remember all of the details surrounding those memories. Holly knows that she was created without all of her memories intentionally. This revelation does make Holly’s stream-of-consciousness very interesting because in between Holly’s confusion and exhaustion, the audience knows how frustrated Holly is throughout everything that is happening to her. This knowledge and the experience Holly goes through makes her a reliable narrator. As a clone, she is dependent on what is being told to her. It is obvious she is being manipulated, but it is not her fault. The audio presentation makes the narration easy to follow. 

            The style both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal used for The Original delves into two “traditional” conflicts: individual versus society, and science versus nature. Reiterating these conflicts within this story not only demonstrates the reality within the fiction, but also leaves the audience to question their identities as well. The word choice used throughout the narrative was done intentionally by the authors so that the audience can comprehend the story with the scientific terminology, which allows for a thought-provoking story without too much thought. The mood in the story is anxiety. Both the protagonist and the audience are anxious throughout the story as both the truth and the existence is at stake for a clone who isn’t sure whether or not she wants to live. The tone gives the vibe of a cautionary tale. This story serves as a warning against scientific advancements and government control over individuals within a society. 

            This audiobook was narrated by Julia Whelan, and I have to say that I am beyond impressed with how she presented this story. Her voice of the characters are easy to distinguish and her voice for the narrative is enough to keep the audience immersed in the story. If it weren’t for the chapters, then it would have been easy to get lost in the story until the very end. I’m looking forward to hearing her narrate other stories in the future. 

            The appeal for this audiobook have been positive. Many listeners seem to enjoy the story, but have mixed feelings of it being just an audiobook. I know many readers don’t always listen to audiobooks, but what makes The Original standout is that it’s only available as an audiobook. I was able to keep up with the story with the narrator’s pace, but I understand if other listeners did not feel the same way. That being said, both Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal have confirmed during a livestream on YouTube that there is no hurry for a written edition of The Original. If an adaptation were to be done for this audiobook, then I could see it as a graphic novel—both the action sequences and the story’s tone is enough to visualize a graphic novel. Fans of science fiction and readers of novellas will enjoy this audiobook the most. In fact, anyone who is on a long commute and/or are doing household chores should listen to this audiobook. This is because by the time you’re done with the commute or with your chores, you should be done with the story and not have to worry about losing your place within the audiobook. 

            The Original is a brilliant collaboration between two bestselling authors of the speculative fiction genre. Do not be intimidated by the fact that this is an audiobook. If you’ve listened to Broadway musicals on audio, then you can handle a sci-fi thriller novella on audio. At least listen to the story for the second twist in this story! Did you really believe these authors would include only one twist? I’m not going to tell you what it is, so you’re going to have to listen to the story to find out what the other twist is, and it’s not what you think it is!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Harrow the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir                                                                    Audiobook 19 hours and 51 minutes

Published: August 4, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Horror/Gothic/Dark Fantasy

            The Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus ought to have been the 311th Reverend Mother of her line. She was the eighty-seventh “Nona” of her House; she was the first Harrowhark. She was named for her father, who was named for his mother, who was named for some unsmiling extramural penitent sworn into the silent marriage bed of the Locked Tomb. This had been common. Drearburh had never practiced Resurrection purity. Their only aim was to keep the necromantic lineage of the tomb keepers unbroken. Now all its remnant blood was Harrow; she was the last necromancer, and the last of her line left alive, (3).

            Series are an interesting concept. They allow for the continuation of a story either with the same characters from the previous story, or with new characters, or both within the same world. At the same time, the plot (and, at times, the subplot(s)) continues to develop so that both the audience and the characters know what has to happen and what will happen by the end of this part of the story. Harrow the Ninth—the sequel to Gideon the Ninth—by Tamsyn Muir follows Harrowhawk after she achieves Lyctorhood and what it means to serve the Emperor. 

            Harrowhark Nonagesimus has achieved her goal (at 17 years-old). She has become a Lyctor and the Ninth Saint to serve the King Undying. However, she learns quickly that there are conditions for serving the Emperor; one of them is that Harrowhark cannot return home to the Ninth House. This means that her goal of restoring her House can no longer happen. Not to mention, Harrow must start training and using her abilities as a Lyctor as well as learn the responsibilities of her new role. The main one is protecting the Emperor from all threats. She learns about these threats as well, and Harrow is astonished to learn what they are. Overnight, Harrowhark goes from being in charge and knowing almost everything to finding herself at the bottom of the pyramid and answering to those who believe Harrow became a Lyctor at too young of an age. In addition, Harrow begins to suffer from hallucinations and memory loss. This puts Harrowhark in an even more vulnerable position than she is used to. Then again, it seems that Harrow was expecting this because she left several letters to herself so that she could remind herself of everything that led up to her current predicament. But, is it enough? Accompanying Harrow with her Lyctor training are: the Emperor, Augustine, Mercymorn, Ortus and Ianthe—all are the surviving Lyctors who train Harrow while serving the Emperor. Harrow is a very complex characters who develops throughout the story. 

            The plot is jumbled and confusing, but it does develop as the story is presented. The story is Harrowhark’s training as a Lyctor, which will remind readers of a combination of military boot camp and pledging for a fraternity or a sorority. While this form of training is brutal, it is the sort of training Harrow needs in order to survive her “work” for the Emperor. The plot of the story are the events which lead to the murder of the Emperor. The King Undying has reigned for 10,000 years; so, why and how would the Emperor meet his end? There are two subplots which are the main focus in this book. The first one focuses on the ongoings within the First House. This includes Harrow’s training, her missions, and the interactions amongst all of the Lyctors and the Emperor, which are essential due to Harrow’s memory loss. The second subplot is about the mysterious individual who is lurking throughout the First House. The individual seems to know of everything that is going on, but manages to remain unseen by everyone except for another mystery person who is unknown as well. The subplots are necessary for the plot, and the story will keep the reader(s) engaged, but neither one helps with the plot development. In fact, it is not until the end of Act Four where all of these plot devices come together into something more coherent.

            The narrative in Harrow the Ninth is very difficult to follow, but it’s supposed to be that way. This is because the sequence jumps from streams-of-consciousness and flashbacks (amongst more than one character) as well the points-of-view moving amongst 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. All the while, the reader(s) are attempting to figure out who the other narrators are besides Harrowhark. One of the narrators is someone readers did not expect to appear, but—in my opinion—the character’s revelation took too long to be confirmed by the author. I mentioned that the narrative is difficult to follow, but it is supposed to represent everything that is happening to Harrowhark. The narrative represents memory, trauma, and life, which are not always coherent, even to the individual experiencing it. In other words, Harrowhark is not a reliable narrator, but the other ones are; and, they take over whenever Harrow’s narrative begins to falter. 

            The style Tamsyn Muir uses in Harrow the Ninth is similar, yet different from the one she used in Gideon the Ninth. While the author continues writing her story following Gothic elements, she includes horror and science fiction in order to expand the world she has created. I mentioned Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my review of Gideon the Ninth as one of the books that fall under the Gothic genre. I’m mentioning this book again because some aspects from that book can be found in this one. Another Gothic horror story that the author was influenced by as well is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story is familiar to many people, but the book contains more of the reality of what was happening within the community and not just the “relationship” between the two “men.” Once you read both stories, then it should make (some) sense. The mood in this novel is one of anxiety. While it is clear Harrowhark suffers from anxiety, she is not the only one who is dreading the outcome of a potential end. The tone in this novel is a blueprint. Every character within this story was planning something; and they all carried it out. Whether or not the results came into fruition has yet to be determined. 

            Once again, I listened to the audiobook. Moira Quirk returns as the narrator and her performance and her pronunciation of the characters and the names were amazing and a huge help. It needs to be said that while the audiobook helped me with following along with the story, I still had to open the book (which was given to me by a friend) and reread portions so that I knew that I was keeping up with the story. So, in this case, I needed both the book and the audiobook in order to read this story. 

            The appeal for Harrow the Ninth have been mixed. Many fans who enjoyed Gideon the Ninth, loved the sequel. At the same time, other fans found themselves either torn or confused with how they were supposed to feel about the narrative. While everything falls into place by the story’s end, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the readers have more questions than answers. Hopefully, these questions will be answered in the third and final book, Alecto the Ninth. It should be mentioned that this book is a great addition to the horror and the Gothic canon. Harrow the Ninth should be reread so that the readers can group everything that happened in the book. 

            Harrow the Ninth is a rollercoaster reading experience. There are several moments when your head jumbles and your thoughts move in loops, but once you reach the end, you are left with an unforgettable experience. I found this narrative to be confusing and incomplete compared to the first book, but the story kept my interest until the end. Everything starts to make sense towards the end, so I suggest that you don’t ignore everything leading up to that point. Other than all of that, my curiosity remains piqued. So yes, I will be reading the final book in this series. 

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Ring Shout”

Ring Shout

By: P. Djèlí Clark

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Horror/Folklore/Supernatural/Historical Fiction

Thank you Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book.

            “The Birth of a Nation” had delivered all the souls they needed to stir up them old evil powers. Across the country, white folk who ain’t even heard of the Klans surrendered to the spell of them moving pictures. Got them believing the Klans the true heroes of the South, and colored people the monsters, (TWO). 

            They are one of the most infamous groups in modern society; yet, for some reason, American society fails to call them what they are: a hate group. The Ku Klux Klan emerged during the Reconstruction Era and sought destruction, especially against several Black American communities throughout the U.S., particularly in the South. While their white hoods presented and hid their identities, the freed slaves had a new fear, and they weren’t from their folklore, but from actual fears which manifested. P. Djèlí Clark combines two fears—the known and the unknown—into his latest novella, Ring Shout

            Maryse Boudreaux is a 25-year-old monster hunter. However, she and her companions have “The Sight” so that they can distinguish one monster—the Klan—from the other one—the Ku Kluxes. To everyone else, they are one and the same, but Maryse and the other monster hunters know better. There is Sadie, the best shooter in the group; and, Chef, a war veteran who has a talent for explosives. Nana Jean is a Gullah woman who uses her skills to offer protection from the Ku Kluxes. And, Michael George, the man who provides Maryse with reprieve from and motivation for fighting. Then, there are Aunties Jadine, Ondine and Margaret, “spirits” who guide Maryse on her quest to eradicate the Ku Kluxes, including gifting her with the sword she uses throughout the war against the supernatural threat. Maryse has her reasons for hunting the Ku Kluxes, but she cannot grasp how far these monsters are willing to go for domination. And, who is conjuring them? The revelation pushes her to make “deals” so that she and her companions have a chance to survive. Maryse is a fighter, but she knows all too well that she cannot do it alone. Her companions allow her to develop into the person she must become in order to defeat this threat. 

            The plot is straightforward. It is July 1922, 7 years after The Birth of a Nation was released, and 4 years since the Great War (a.k.a. World War I) ended; and, there is to be a re-release of the film in Stone Mountain, Georgia. What many people—White and Colored—do NOT know is that the movie is based on a book written by a sorcerer. The sorcerer uses moving pictures in order to conjure a spell so that evil beings can be summoned and walk amongst humanity. The cost: human souls. The Klan offered their souls and became Ku Kluxes, which go on to terrorize Colored people. So, monster hunters—consisting of a group of Colored people with “The Sight”—continue to fight them off after the Ku Kluxes make their return to power. The storyline within this plot is how the characters fight, live, and survive during these trying times where a force of evil—which is fueled by hatred—is unseen by almost everyone. It is the subplot that drives the plot in this book. The subplot focuses on the Black American Experience during the 1920s, and it is not an easy time for them. In addition to fighting the supernatural, the characters have to maintain their way of life while remaining segregated. Jim Crow laws and lynchings are a common and an everyday practice. Combined, both the subplot and the storyline allows for the plot to develop an appropriate rate. 

            The narrative is told from the point-of-view of Maryse. The sequence is a combination of stream-of-consciousness and flashback, which are necessary for the story. The events and the sequence occur in the present. However, it is the dialogue (and the dialect) of the characters that will keep the readers engaged throughout the narrative. 

            The style P. Djèlí Clark uses in Ring Shout includes allusion, history and folklore. The history is obvious to anyone who is familiar with (actual) American history and Southern culture. The allusion refers to historical moments such as: Prohibition, the reemergence of the KKK, the construction of the Panama Canal, the Black Wallstreet Massacre, etc. Yet, it is the folklore that influences the story. The mention of fairy tales as cautionary tales are mentioned throughout this book (i.e. Bruh Rabbit, eating strange food, sharing stories, etc.) and drive the story in a way so that both the characters and the readers are familiar with all of the story’s ongoings. Another factor the author wants his audience to consider are the similarities between Black American and Caribbean cultures, particularly the practices of the Gullah and the Obeah. The mood in Ring Shout is hatred; and, the tone within this book is manipulation (for power using hatred). Readers should know that the book’s cover is essential to the events which occur towards the end of the story. 

            The appeal for Ring Shout will be positive. This is because the author does a great job fusing fear and hatred with folklore and dark magic. The former are human emotions which often lead to harm, while the latter are elements of several cultures that are believed and are practiced. Fans of horror, paranormal and supernatural stories will enjoy this story. Fans of recent and related novellas such as The Deep by Rivers Solomon and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi will appreciate the continuation of the Black American experience being told blatantly and directly in the speculative fiction genre. However, Ring Shout will be canonized alongside The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson in the horror genre. This book can be read again and again, and it is a great addition to the genre. It should be mentioned that this book can be read and enjoyed by historians and folklorists as well due to the information written into the pages of the story.

             Ring Shout is a brilliant horror and supernatural story which will force you to recall all of the “stories” and the “magic” you’ve been exposed to throughout your life as you try to come up with an explanation for “the unknown.” Once again, P. Djèlí Clark has found a way to present readers with a story combining history and folklore into a believable, yet scary, tale that serves as a cautionary tale against hatred and sorcery. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 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 Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “Gideon the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb #1: Gideon the Ninth

By: Tasmyn Muir                                                                   Audiobook: 16 hours 50 minutes

Published: September 10, 2019                                              Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Gothic

            When as a young and disinclined member of the Locked Tomb Gideon had painted her face, she had gone for the bare minimum of death’s-head that the role demanded: dark around the eyes, a bit around the nose, a slack black slash across the lips. Now as Harrowhark gave her a little palm of cracked mirror, she saw that she was painted like the ancient, tottering necromancers of the House: those ghastly and unsettling sages who never seemed to die, just disappear into the long galleries of books and coffins beneath Drearburh. She’d been slapped up to look like a grim-toothed, black-socketed skull, with big black holes on each side of the mandible.

            Gideon said drearily, “I look like a douche,” (5). 

            Hype and marketing for a book is an interesting feat some people find themselves in. Publishers and bookstores—usually through marketers—are paid to advertise such books for sale. Librarians read these books in order to determine whether or not the book(s) are “appropriate for their library and/or community.” And, reviewers—including book critics and bookbloggers—read these books and give an opinion on why each book should or should not be read. There are moments when reviews are controversial because they don’t match with the public’s opinion or the hype surrounding the book. That’s not to say that the book is “bad” or written poorly, but it didn’t meet the expectations of the reader. For me, this is what I felt while reading/listening to Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

            The protagonist is eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav, an indentured servant of the Ninth House, who are the Keepers of the Locked Tomb. Gideon’s life at the Ninth House has been nothing but harsh, neglectful, and mysterious. Readers meet Gideon as she tries to leave the Ninth House for the 33rd time. Instead, Gideon is bribed by Harrowhark Nonagesimus—the daughter and heir to the House of the Ninth—to train to be her cavalier so that she can train to become a Lyctor, one of the Imperial Saints for the Emperor. Gideon is promised her freedom if she does this “for the Ninth,” so Gideon and Harrow travel to the House of the First to train and to serve. There Gideon meets and interacts with: Teacher—one of the Keepers of the First House and servant to the Necrolord Heights; Abigail Pent and her cavalier, Magnus Quinn, of the Fifth House; Coronabeth Tridentarius and her cavalier, Protesilaus Eldoma, of the Seventh House; and several other heirs and their cavaliers from the other Houses, and a lot of skeletons. Gideon—while reluctant to serve the Ninth House—does take advantage of being away from the only place she’s known, leaves the planet, and trains in swordsmanship. Gideon does have to follow Harrowhark’s orders—to an extent—but, through her interactions with the other Houses and the tasks she manages to complete with Harrow, Gideon grows into the person she wants to be without interference from the Ninth House: helpful, caring, and strong (in a fight). Meanwhile, the other Houses learn that there’s more to the Ninth House than its titular role. 

            The plot of the novel is straightforward: The Emperor (of the First House) has called for the heirs of the other eight Houses to train to be Lyctors in order to serve as replacements for the current Lyctors. So, each heir and their cavalier travel to the First House where they are trained and are tested to the best of their knowledge and their strength. The nominated Hands must figure out the “puzzle” of their House with their cavalier so that the Hand can become a Lyctor. All of this is easier said than done, but all of the Hands are willing to do it. There are a few subplots in this novel. The first surrounds what it takes and what it means to be a Lyctor. Harrow wants to become one, and she is an extremely talented necromancer, but the testing to become a Lyctor is a process that must be solved by the Hand and the cavalier working together. This is interesting because Gideon and Harrowhark do NOT get along. So, in order to get what they both want, they’ll have to put up with each other to accomplish the goal. The second subplot is the mystery of the Ninth House and its establishment, from the Locked Tomb to the childhoods of both Gideon and Harrow. The other Houses are more curious by this than Gideon is, but Gideon doesn’t know, and Harrow isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Or, will she? The last subplot focuses on the strange occurrences that begin to happen to the Hands and their cavaliers. Everyone is interested in new recruits arriving at the First House, right? All of these subplots work alongside the plot of the novel in order to embellish the world, the characters and the current predicament within this novel. 

            The narrative in Gideon the Ninth follows a present sequence from Gideon’s point-of-view. Her stream-of-consciousness gives readers insight into her thoughts (cynical, yet curious) while learning about the other eight Houses, which is something that didn’t interest her until now. The world-building—which includes the history and the culture of each House—comes from Gideon’s learning of them. The fight sequences and the many revelations come from Gideon’s P.O.V. Some of what is presented to her is told as a recitation and not as a flashback. This means that Gideon’s reactions are genuine and relatable, which make her a reliable narrator. The narrative is intriguing and is easy to follow. 

            The style Tasmyn Muir uses in her debut novel follows Gothic romance. In short—and, according to A Glossary of Literary Terms—“The locale was often a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels; the typical story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences,” (p. 151). Fans of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë are familiar with this genre of literature. However, I’m saying that Gideon the Ninth has elements of a gothic novel, NOT that it is one! The “villain” isn’t lustful, the supernatural occurrences—necromancy—is part of the world, and while it does have dungeons and secret passages, the First House isn’t described as being gloomy (when compared to the Ninth House). These gothic elements enhance the story the author is telling, which she does very well. The mood in this novel is anticipation. The summons from the First House does not only contain orders to attend, but also a chance to serve the Emperor, which is something the heirs are taught to do from childhood; and, their cavaliers get to serve their Houses. The tone in this book is dread. In a world where necromancy is the magic used and the setting is gothic, readers should expect more than a few unpleasant things to occur throughout the narrative. 

            I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Moira Quirk. She does a great job with narrating the story, voicing the various characters, and with the pronunciation of the characters’ names. I would not have been able to pronounce ANY of those names on my own, so to say that the audiobook was a huge help would be an understatement. The narration kept me engaged with the story as well.

            The appeal for Gideon the Ninth have been positive. Not only has the book, and the author, received a lot of fan and critical acclaim, but also has been nominated for several awards including the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. I can see how this book can become part of the (dark) fantasy canon and how it will have lasting appeal. However, this book neither was worth the hype nor was the best debut novel I’ve read. I’m not the only bookblogger who feels this way about this book. Then again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read it. The story itself kept my interest to the end; enough so that I want to read the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, when it is released in September 2020. This book wasn’t my favorite one, but my interest is piqued to where I’m okay with rereading parts of Gideon the Ninth in order to understand the sequel.

            Gideon the Ninth is an ambitious debut which hits enough marks to make for a good and fun reading experience. While I did not enjoy this book as much as other bookbloggers, the story and the world intrigued me enough to finish this book and wanting to read the sequel. Please understand that just because I didn’t enjoy this book doesn’t mean that you’ll feel the same way. That being said, if you want to read a story about necromancers and sword fighting, with gothic elements, then this book is for you.

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Works Cited 

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 

            2012. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Stone Sky”

The Broken Earth 3: The Stone Sky

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 15, 2017

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Fantasy

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2018, Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2017, Winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel 2018*

            The job you “have” to do is the easier of the two, you think. Just catch the Moon. Seal the Yumenes Rifting. Reduce the current Season’s predicted impact from thousands or millions of years back down to something manageable—something the human race has a chance of surviving. End the Fifth Seasons for all time.

            The job you “want” to do, though? Find Nassun, your daughter. Take her back from the man who murdered your son and dragged her halfway across the world in the middle of the apocalypse, (1: you, in waking and dreaming). 

            N.K. Jemisin has done what very few authors have managed to do, present a good and believable ending to a series that leaves readers with a sense of both accomplishment and satisfaction. What started with The Fifth Season and continued through The Obelisk Gate ends with The Stone Sky, the third and final book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Readers and critics learn what must be done in order to put an end to an apocalypse. 

            The protagonists are once again Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, and two of the most powerful orogenes in the world right now. Both mother and daughter have made their choices regarding themselves: Essun decided to grow her powers to the fullest, and Nassun decided to identify herself as an orogene. And, both mother and daughter have to live with the consequences of their decisions—both physical and emotional. All that’s left is for the two orogenes to determine the path of the Moon. One orogene and her companions hope to save the world, while the other orogene is coaxed by her companions to destroy it. Mother and daughter will face off after they’re reunited. Essun just wants to know whether or not her 10-year-old daughter is traumatized, and Nassun wants the world to know that those with power can and will determine the ways of the world. The daughter has become as powerful as her mother, and her mother isn’t with her to provide guidance. 

            The plot of the story is a race to an underground network in order to restore “order” to the Earth. This can be achieved with orogeny and there are 2 orogenes who are powerful enough to restart it. So, who will get there first? And, what will happen once the obelisks are activated? Another plot of the story involves Essun and Nassun preparing for action when the Moon is closest to them in “orbit.” Essun has succeeded in activating the Gate while at the comm, and Nassun travels to one that’s been lost and forgotten to history. There are two subplots in this story which answers some of the remaining questions in the trilogy. The first subplot is the origin of the Stone Eaters, which leads to how the Seasons became so dangerous. The second subplot answers the question regarding the purpose of the Guardians and their relation to the Seasons. These subplots are necessary because they provide the bits of information required for the plot’s development and resolution.

            The narrative continues to shift between 1st, 2nd and 3rd points-of-view. And, the sequence falls back into flashbacks and present time. The flashbacks provide both background information and answers to the questions to how everything came to be and how it will all end. The streams-of-consciousness of all the characters make them all reliable narrators. Yes, not all of their motivations are morally good, but it’s understandable given the circumstances. These elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses for The Stone Sky tells that an end is coming. Now, whether or not that end is for the Seasons, or for the characters, or both is to be determined. But first, the author lets the audience know how the Seasons came about. At the same time, Jemisin lets her readers know that oppression of any form does not ensure safety and/or order within a society. Instead, fear and suppression take place, which can lead either to a life of secrecy or to a life full of anger. The mood in this story is one of readiness—the need to make it on time to save the world, to save the last surviving member of one’s family, and to finish preparations in order to survive the Seasons. The tone in the novel is dread due to the choices and consequences of saving the world and reuniting with estranged loved ones. However, if it came down to two possibilities, then which choice would you make? This is what the author has her characters do, they must make a choice and live, or die, with the consequences. 

             The appeal for The Stone Sky have been massive and monumental! Not only did this novel win the Nebula Award (2017) and the Locus Award (2018) for Best Novel, but also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2018)! This means that The Broken Earth Trilogy has won the Hugo Award in the same category in three consecutive years! N.K. Jemisin is the first author to accomplish this feat; and, it’s well-deserved! The Broken Earth Trilogy is not only a must read for readers of speculative fiction, but also is a magnificent work of literature overall. There have been people who’ve read this series and found it to be an excellent story regardless of its genre. The message of the cost and the resistance that results from oppression and the end-of-the-world is received—although it’s not practiced in our world, yet—and is the reality within the fiction. The Stone Sky completes this trilogy and is a must read within the canon of speculative fiction.

            The Stone Sky is a strong and powerful end to this ambitious trilogy. N.K. Jemisin has managed to raise the expectations and the standards of writing and presenting a work of speculative fiction. This book series is one of my all-time favorites. Not to mention, I’ll be re-reading and recommending these books for years to come! Everyone needs to read this amazing trilogy!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Velocity Weapon”

The Protectorate: Book 1: Velocity Weapon                          

By: Megan E. O’Keefe                                        Audiobook: 18 hours 22 minutes

Published: June 11, 2019                                  Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Genre: Science Fiction/Space Opera

I am called “The Light of Berossus,” the voice said, (Chapter 1, The Aftermath of the Battle of Dralee). 

For every individual in a fandom, there is the moment, in which they were hooked, thus beginning their membership. For me and science fiction, it was my parents’ love for the two Star Trek shows which aired during the 1990s: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine—yes, Star Wars was part of my introduction to the genre, too. From there, I started reading science fiction novels, until I stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a fan of the genre, but I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to (there were plenty of movies, TV shows and video games, but that’s for another time). Sometime later I got back into the science fiction by reading the recent releases by different authors which had my exploring the genre again. Yet, it was Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe which kept my interest to the point where I bought the audiobook so that I could know what happened after my “stop point” in reading the print book. This space opera reintroduced me to the science fiction genre and reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place!

There are 3 protagonists in this novel, who narrate the events over the course of several years from 3 different settings. First, there is Sanda Greeve. She is a sergeant for the Ada Prime System, and the last thing she remembers is being shot by the Icarions before her evac pod allowed her to escape, onto an enemy ship—an A.I. Smartship. When she wakes up she learns is the only living being on the ship—The Light of Berossus, or Bero—and, when she asks how and why this is possible, she learns that it’s been 230 years since her ship was shot down. Sanda processes this shocking bit of news as she figures out a way to survive in space with a smartship for company. Next, there is Biran Greeve, Sanda’s younger brother, who has just graduated from the academy at the top of his class. This means that Biran will become a Keeper—a member of the Protectorate who leads Ada Prime and is one of the “keepers” of secrets and knowledge of the Star Systems, which are embedded in a chip that gets implanted inside their skull. However, as Biran is giving his speech, the Battle of Dralee—the same battle his older sister ends up fighting in—breaks out. Biran must behave as a Keeper before his indoctrination and before he can wonder whether or not his sister survived the battle. Last, there is Jules, a thief. During the latest heist with her crew, Jules and the others stumble upon two things: a dead body and a room filled with test tubes. There are other characters who interact with these protagonists throughout the story: Lolla and Harlan, Tomas Cepko, Anaia, and Callie Mera; and, they all help the protagonists develop into the people they need to be given their circumstances. Then, there is Bero, who is more than a smartship. It is aware of what’s going on more than its letting on to everyone else. 

The plot of this novel is an interesting one. The Battle of Dralee in the Prime Standard Year 3541 starts the story and the plot emerges from there, from the Greeve siblings. Biran must step up into his role as Keeper, while he breaks protocol in order to search for his missing sister. Sanda is drifting towards another Star System injured and alone on a damaged smartship. She must rely on her training and instincts, and on Bero to survive her situation. There are two subplots, which are related to the plot. The first one is the secret, in which Jules and her crew stumble across and what it could mean for them, for Icarion and for Ada Prime. The second one focuses on Bero and his motivations. Why is an enemy smartship drifting in the middle of Space? And, why did he rescue Sergeant Sanda Greeve? The plot and the subplots develop alongside the characters and the world-building at an appropriate rate, which make it impossible for the readers to lose track of everything that is going on in the story. 

The narrative jumps across 3 different years from 3 different locations from the points-of-view of several characters. All of the narratives are told in first person from the protagonists and the other characters perspectives. Readers must pay attention to the sequence of the narrative because while the narrative is the present for one character, it may be occurring in the past or the future for another character. The sequence of the narrative starts off with puzzlement for both the readers and the characters, but the events within the sequence keep the narrative in one constant motion where it can be followed by the readers and the audience. The characters’ streams-of-consciousness allow readers to know the thoughts of the characters and the reasons they make the decisions and perform the actions they do. There are moments of flashbacks within the narrative, and they provide clues of the bigger story that is being told. 

The style Megan E. O’Keefe uses in Velocity Weapon consists of the jargon of science fiction, the colloquialism of the armed forces, and the terminology for the world of space she cultivated for this series. The idea that two-star systems have been at war with each other for hundreds, or thousands, of years, with Earth as the potential beacon for the establishments for these star systems is an interesting factor to consider for the sort of story the author is presenting to her readers. The author is not presenting a science fiction story about two warring nations, she is writing a space opera—”a space story involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful technologies and abilities on a very large scale”—and about the consequences of hidden technology, which is the tone of this novel. The mood is hostility, including what it entails and how it is dealt with. While it is not that different from other space operas, it’s the way the author writes it that makes it very engaging.

The appeal for Velocity Weapon has been positive for sci-fi fans—which is good—but, minimal for the rest of the speculative fiction community. And, what I mean by that is that it is a great story that seems to be limited to one part of the literary fandom. There is enough of the same themes and ideas found in other works of science fiction and in fantasy fiction, yet it seems that more people would read this book and others like it if given the chance to learn about this story. There is a reason why this book was one of My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019. When I wasn’t able to continue reading this story, I finished it by listening to the audiobook. Joe Jameson’s performance of the characters make them easy for listeners to make out which character is speaking and narrating the story; and, his narration and voice is appropriate for the story that is being read by the listeners. The next book in The Protectorate series, Chaos Vector, will be released in July 2020. Fans of the first book are waiting eagerly to learn what happens next.

Velocity Weapon is an entertaining space opera about family, government conspiracies, A.I. ships, and an ongoing military campaign between nations that will keep readers’ interests from beginning to end. Megan E. O’Keefe demonstrates her abilities for writing engaging stories across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Sci-fi fans should consider adding it to theirs. This book is a reminder that space is a fascinating frontier!

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