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: “The Queen of Raiders”

The Nine Realms #2: The Queen of Raiders

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: February 18, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Deep”

The Deep

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

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Survival of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #2: The Survival of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: July 9, 2019

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Sequel 

WARNING: Spoilers from The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne. You have been warned.

            Molly Southbourne was a freak whose blood grew genetically identical duplicates of her. One drop of blood, and a new molly popped up, but it wasn’t cute. It wanted to kill her. Molly spent her whole life killing her duplicates just to survive, (Chapter One).

            Similar to many of the recent sequels in speculative fiction, The Survival of Molly Southbourne starts where its predecessor, The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off. In the sequel, Tade Thompson answers the questions Molly Southbourne (and readers) have had about herself. And, like other works of sci-fi horror (i.e. Alien), there are more eerie forces at work than anyone else knows. 

            Molly Southbourne is a protagonist who is “a fish out of water” because she has no identity and no purpose to her life. Molly Southbourne—the one who survived both the attacks and the fire—is now Molly Southbourne and is living as Molly Southbourne whether or not she wants to. While Molly is a duplicate of Molly “Prime,” as she calls her, she is NOT Molly Southbourne. She lacks both the knowledge, and the skills Molly Prime had. In addition, Molly does NOT have the same problem with bleeding like Molly Prime did (“hemoclones”). All Molly has are the looks and the memories of someone who is dead. Unfortunately, the new Molly Southbourne is the only one who knows, and it’s driving her crazy, literally. 

            The plot in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is how the new Molly Southbourne is adjusting to life as a 27-year-old woman who is supposed to be living as someone else. Molly has more questions about herself than Molly Prime did; and, unlike Molly Prime, Molly decides to get answers to those questions. To say that Molly’s discoveries come straight from a spy novel—complete with multiple conspiracies—would be an understatement. After she gets some answers to her questions from “several” people, Molly must decide how she is going to survive. She doesn’t have to become Molly Southbourne, but she cannot get rid of that part of herself. There is a subplot, and its focus is about a minor character from the first book who was intimate with Molly Prime. In this book, that character attempts to fight the fate Molly Prime left him with unknowingly. Will the efforts be successful? Will Molly be able to help him?

            The narrative in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an interesting one. While Molly is the protagonist, and the story of the aftermath is told from her point-of-view (1stperson), the sequence is a combination of Molly’s actions and daily life—told in present time—with the memories of Molly Prime—also her memories—bombarding her. The combination of the flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness, and the present gives readers insight to the adaption and the chaos that is Molly Southbourne. Her struggles and her inexperience make the narrative reliable and believable. As discombobulated as it sounds, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style Tade Thompson uses in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is the same as it was in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. The author continues with telling this story using tropes and style based on previous sci-fi horror stories. However, it is the mood—apathetic—and the tone—bizarre—that have changed in the sequel. Molly is making sense of everything that is happening around her, only this time those involved behave as it’s not a big deal. Molly is neither unique, nor lethal as Molly Prime was, but she manages to survive and to adapt to her life as we see through the author’s style. Readers will be pleased with this (continued) style of storytelling. 

            So far, the appeal to The Survival of Molly Southbourne have been positive. Released a month ago (at the time of this posting), readers who were curious as to how Molly’s story would continue is answered. The mysteries and the conspiracies are addressed, and the continuation of the characters from the previous book lets readers know that neither Molly Southbourne, nor Tade Thompson have forgotten about them. Both novellas can be read and enjoyed in one reading. Fans and readers of sci-fi horror need to read these books.

            The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an amazing follow-up to its prequel. While the narrative and the perspective have changed from what came before, the story is as fast paced and as haunting as The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tade Thompson does an excellent job in bringing Molly Southbourne’s story the resolution it needs. 

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