Why You Need to Read: These Books While Waiting for “The Winds of Winter”: Part II

Here we go again. It’s been almost 3 years since I complied the 1st list of book recommendations; and, we’re still waiting for The Winds of Winter, the next book in A Song of Ice and Fire series. Many of us continue to wait, patiently, for this book by reading similar books by authors who write fantasy stories. There have been numerous books released since I compiled my 1st list of recommendations; yet, I know some of the readers enjoyed the latest releases from Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson, etc. Within the last decade, several new authors have made a name for themselves through their works, and others have continued to release books for us to enjoy as well.

            This is my 2nd list of book recommendations for those who are waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish and to release the next book in his fantasy series. Please note that I couldn’t include all of the fantasy authors for this list, and there are a few “obvious” authors who are not on this list (i.e. Sanderson, Jordan). I am reading books by Joe Abercrombie and Ben Galley for the first time, so they will be on the next list I compile, hopefully. In addition, if there is an author you don’t see on this list, then please refer to the first one I’ve written and posted. 

  1. The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang

This trilogy is a retelling of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and is as grimdark as A Song of Ice and Fire. The story follows Rin, who studies to enroll into a prestigious military university to escape an arranged marriage and poverty. As she studies to become a soldier, Rin studies shamanism, which ignites a power linked to her heritage. Then, a war breaks out and Rin—and her classmates—soon realize that war is NOT what you learn in a classroom.

Based on the speculative fiction books I’ve read so far this series is the most identical to A Song of Ice and Fire. This is because the mood and the tone in both series follow both warfare and social mobility. The politics are the subplot which carries the narrative through the series in both the characters and the conflict.

2. The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire have heard of this series because Martin has read this series and praised the author for her storytelling and for the narrative. This trilogy is a retelling of one of the tales from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and it is full of political intrigue and backstabbing. The world-building alone will keep you invested in this trilogy.

The trilogy follows 3 protagonists who represent different tribes with overlapping histories. As their heritages are revealed, so are the conflicts amongst those groups of individuals. And then, there are all the “mythical beings” mentioned throughout the series—the ones we heard about in tales such as Aladdin, Sinbad, etc.—play a role as well. In addition, the twists presented throughout the series could rival the ones written by Martin!

3. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The standalone epic fantasy novel has everything A Song of Ice and Fire has in one massive tome: dragons, prophecies, secret societies, political conspiracies, strong female characters, and a historical timeline. While the story follows 3 female protagonists, there are points-of-view chapters from several other characters that will feel familiar to any and all fans of Martin’s series. And, before you ask: yes, there are a TON of references to historical events, many of which you will recall from your school days. 

4. Book of the Ancestor by Mark Lawrence

I would describe this trilogy to fans of Martin as a religious combative school for girls. While the protagonist will remind readers of Arya Stark, I would say these female characters resemble the Free Folk. These characters are strong, intelligent and combative females who are, or are training to become, nuns. 

This trilogy delves into the “idea” and the “expectation” of prophecies—especially the concept of “the chosen one”—how and why they come into existence, when they become relevant, and who they are about. In addition, this series presents a different look into “heritage.” Yes, political and social hierarchy play their roles in the narrative, but both magic and social hierarchy is inherited through blood. So young girls with magical abilities are sought after by these nuns so they can learn about their magic and how it relates to the religion they practice. And yes, there are plenty of battles that present these powers and fighting skills in action.

5. The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff

I describe the protagonist in this trilogy as a female Kratos. For those of you who don’t play video games, you will be reminded of a bloodier and an angrier Arya Stark. From the opening pages, you can expect one of the ultimate tales of betrayal, family, vengeance, love, conspiracy, and murder—lots and lots of murder—from this trilogy. 

This trilogy is one-part dark fantasy and one part folklore. The magic in this series is as twisted as the foundation of the school of assassins the protagonist trains and then works for. And, if that’s not enough for you, then know that the footnotes are guaranteed to make you laugh. One final thing to know about this trilogy: IT’S NOT YA!!!

6. The Books of Ambha by Tasha Suri

Some of you might be reading this author’s latest book, The Jasmine Throne, but how many of you read her debut novel, Empire of Sand, and the sequel, Realm of Ash? This duology delves into colonialism, family relationships, colorism, buried history, magic, and political corruption and gameplay. The duology follows 2 sisters—one per book—who are the illegitimate daughters of the governor in a historical and a magical India. The sisters possess magical abilities which are coveted by both the royal family and their mystics. The elder sister reveals her magic, which leads to the mystics separating her from her family, leaving her younger sister behind. Several years later, the younger sister offers her services to the royal family where she learns about the dark history of the Empire and what happened to her sister. 

7. The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff

Anyone who is a fan of Tamora Pierce should pick up this series—think of following a strong female protagonist from childhood through early adulthood. This comparison is valid because instead of one thick tome, the author insisted on a binge-reading experience, providing readers with 4 novels: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen. The story follows a princess who must live in exile after her mother—the Queen—uncovers a plot for her Council to seize power through the princess. The princess grows up amongst commoners, evades capture from her enemies, and makes allies along the way so that she can reclaim her family’s throne. 

This series will be enjoyed by those who’ve read the Dunk and Egg series (still incomplete). The protagonists travel and reside in the Nine Realms where each realm has its own culture and conflict. All of the plots, the characters and the conflicts revolve around individual realms, politicians, magic, gods, warfare, history and science. And yes, you must read one book after the other in order to grasp the entire experience. 

8. A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons

If you’re a fan of intricate world-building with matching histories that rival both Tolkien and Martin (yes, I said it), then, this series is for you! This series delves into prophecies, family trees (think of the Lannisters) and magical artifacts as the narration jumps back-and-forth between the past and the present with several characters to tell the story as it progresses. Did I mention the dragons? 

The series follows several characters from different regions of the world whose “circumstances” brings them together in order to save the world as per the prophecies. However, those “prophecies” are questioned by all of the characters—“who came up with them,” “are they relevant right now,” etc.—but, they understand that there is a force that will bring about the end-of-the-world, and they are the ones “chosen” to save it. Note: this is a 5-book series. 

9. The Black Iron Legacy by Gareth Hanrahan

This series started as a 4-book series and was announced recently that it will be a 5-book series. This series is part dark fantasy and part grimdark (NOT THE SAME SUBGENRE) in which the characters within the series who are morally gray must survive a harsh society (that reflect ours) and have a dark portrayal of magic. If the series needs more reason to be read, then know that there will be at least 1 character you will want to learn more about throughout your reading. 

Each book in the series focuses on a cast of characters who end up playing a pivotal role with events in their society, but not in the “traditional fantasy” narrative. Each of the characters have a backstory which in turn influences the reasons for the actions they take (sound familiar?). In addition, the gods—from various cultures throughout the world—are at war with each other for dominance; and, they need “vessels” to assist them with their plans. 

10. The Tide Child Trilogy by R.J. Barker

This series is about pirates, but not the ones from the movies or in real life. Fans of the nautical, and House Greyjoy, will appreciate this unique narrative of sea life and sea dragons. And no, this series is NOT like The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” These pirates are on these ships serving because they all committed crimes and were convicted of them.

As you may have guessed, this series isn’t about piracy, but about a crew who is on a mission to protect their home (even though they are no longer welcomed there) and to search for the source of their ships. This series offers an interesting look into life on the seas, which match the harsh lifestyles of the land dwellers. Not to mention, there are plenty of battle sequences that place you right in the middle of it all. This is one of the best nautical fantasy books yet!

11. Chronicles of the Bitch Queen by K.S. Villoso

You are the daughter of the Empire’s most notorious war lord, who on the eve before the coronation with your husband—the would-be king—he abandons you and your young son, which makes you “the Queen” while leaving you to deal with a new kingdom, numerous enemies, and parenthood by yourself. A few years later, your husband asks to meet in order to reconcile, in another country. After an attack by unknown enemies, you find yourself alone in a foreign land with no one to trust and with no way to return home. 

This series presents several political conspiracies which go back to before the protagonist was born. And, the narrative presents realistic scenarios with realistic dilemmas on what the protagonist must do if she wants to survive and to return home. Did I mention the queen is also a kickass warrior? 

12. The Burning by Evan Winter

Both fantasy and folklore mention the origins of dragons as from both Europe and East Asia. That being said, have you ever wondered whether or not dragons could have existed elsewhere (in our world)? Who said dragons couldn’t have come from Africa? If they did, then why haven’t we heard of them until now? 

The 1st book in this quartet—The Rage of Dragons—begins with a battle between 2 tribes—one of them has women who have the power to summon dragons. Then, the story heads in the direction of a military fantasy with a protagonist driven by vengeance (especially against the social hierarchy), which sees the pace of the narrative zoom until you realize that the series is about 2 warring nations and an in tribal struggle amongst social classes and magic users. This series will leave you with a new appreciation for battle sequences.  

13. The Poison War by Sam Hawke

This series is part political fantasy and part mystery. The 1st book in this series—City of Lies—follows a brother and a sister as they try to figure out who murdered the lord they serve and their uncle, who was his closest friend and his poisoner. That’s right, the plot of this novel delves into various poisons. So, fans of Dorne and the Red Viper will find this narrative very intriguing. 

This series delves into the world’s politics, civil war and lost magic. At the same time, the siblings must step into the roles they’ve trained for their entire lives. All the while, who poisoned their uncle and their lord, and why? 

14. The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings by Nick Martell

The newest book on this list focuses on a group of siblings who are struggling to survive after their family was stripped of their status after their father murdered the crown prince, supposedly. The protagonist—who is the younger brother—is determined to prove his father’s innocence. How is he going to do it? By re-entering the royal court and gaining the attention of the royal family, or what’s left of it.

The world in A Song of Ice and Fire has “unusual seasons” and this trilogy has a fractured moon. Fans of the former will enjoy the latter due to the political system, the political backstabbing (and there are A LOT of them), and the political corruption (A LOT of that, too). And, all of that doesn’t compare to the series’ magic system and the twist at the end of the 1st book. 

15. Die by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, Clayton Cowles, Rian Hughes & Chrissy Williams

I would describe this graphic novel series as a cross between Jumanji and Dungeons and Dragons. The premise of this series follows 6 high schoolers who meet up to play D&D only to disappear for 3 years; then, 5 of them return to our world. 20 years later, the players reunite when a package arrives for them, which returns them back into the “game.” 

So far, this is an on-going series, which narrates the darker side of a fantasy world. The images illustrate the world the main characters are trapped in. However, the story is about these traumatized individuals, their dual personalities, and their desires. Kieron Gillen has written numerous graphic novels, and this series is character driven that is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re a fan of this graphic novelist and you haven’t started reading this series, then you’re missing out on an excellent one! 

            As you can see, there is a reason why it took me a while to compile a 2nd list of recommendations. And no, I was not able to add more books and/or series to this list without it being too long. That being said, I am reading my way through other books I hope to recommend in a future post. Hopefully, by then it will be when we’re waiting for A Dream of Spring to be released. Not to mention, many of these “in-progress” series should be completed by that time as well. 

            If it does come to another list, then I hope to have one compiled of books and series by indie authors; and, I believe you have an idea of which ones I might include on that list. And yes, they’ll be another list because there are so many more books to read and to enjoy as we continue to wait for Martin to finish writing his series, patiently.

            Which books and/or series do you recommend reading while waiting for the next book in this series? 

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: “Empire of Sand”

The Books of Ambha: #1: Empire of Sand

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 13, 2018

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

Winner of the Brave New Words Award 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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