Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “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: “Vengeful”

Villains, #2: Vengeful

By: V.E. Schwab

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Superheroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Name of All Things”

A Chorus of Dragons #2: The Name of All Things

By: Jenn Lyons                                                                       Audiobook: 25 hours 46 minutes

Published: October 29, 2019                                        Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld, Dan

Genre: Fantasy                                                                                   Bittner, Lauren Fortgang

                                                      

            In the twentieth year of the hawk and the lion, beneath the silver sword, the sleeping beast’s prison shatters. The dragon of swords devours demon falls as night takes the land, (61: Under The Waters). 

            Cliffhangers have always been an interesting method of maintaining the attention of an audience, etc. Narratives in all formats—oral stories, books, movies, TV shows, and video games—continue to use this method of storytelling in order to let the audience know when one part of the story ends and when another begins, or to continue the action and/or the pacing of a story where it left off. In the case of Jenn Lyon’s A Chorus of Dragons series (not a trilogy, but will be 5 books), readers get both and so much more in Book 2: The Name of All Things.

            The protagonist in this story is Janel Theranon, a noblewoman from Jorat (a dominion in the Quuros Empire). She has been looking for Kihrin D’Mon since their first meeting, which was during the events involving Kihrin, his family, and the Emperor. Unfortunately, Kihrin doesn’t remember meeting Janel—with good reason—but, Janel doesn’t hold that against him. Ironically, the two outlaw nobles have been searching for each other without knowing where to locate the other one. Janel had lived a simple life as the granddaughter and heir of Count Jarin of Tolamer. She identifies herself as a “stallion,” or a Joratese whose gender—not sex—and gender expression is male. After an attack on her home and the citizens, Janel masquerades as “The Black Knight” in order to bring the culprits to justice. Instead, Janel’s true identity is revealed and she is sent on a quest to find a mystical spear so she can kill a dragon. Accompanying Janel is her friend, Brother Qown, who is a chronicler. The two friends have a long and arduous journey in locating Kihrin and the spear. Janel is from Jorat, a dominion known for its horses, and she was raised to become the next Count of Tolamer. Janel is smart, headstrong and combative, and she is known for her fighting skills and her willingness to protect her people. 

            The plot in The Name of All Things has four parts. Part I introduces Kihrin (and readers) to Janel’s life as a Count and the first of the events which caused her to leave Tolamer. Part II has Janel learning about her heritage, her abilities, and about “The Name of All Things,” another one of the eight Cornerstones. Not to mention, Janel meets and puts up with Relos Var. Part III has Janel reciting prophecies while surviving captivity without her abilities and while “conforming” to her opposing gender. Part IV brings all of the events back to the present and has Kihrin and Janel fulfilling prophecies whether or not they want to do so. The plot delves into Janel’s life, especially after it’s been uprooted, which takes place at the same time Kihrin’s life was upended. This is essential to know because this lets the protagonists (and the readers) know that more was happening throughout the Quuros Empire, and it seems that Relos Var is the central figure. The subplots include Armageddon, and the quest for magical artifacts and mystical weapons, which is familiar to readers. Another subplot is the idea of gender and its practices in Jorat. While gender is binary amongst the Joratese (and in our reality), it is NOT determined based on genitalia, but on the societal role and how each individual expresses their gender. These subplots are necessary in order to keep the plot going at an appropriate rate and they keep the narrative going as well. Just like Kihrin, Janel has a role to carryout for a prophecy, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. 

            Once again, the narrative jumps between the past and the present, with 3 different narrators. Kihrin serves as the narrator for the present mostly because he’s the person everyone is looking for. The flashbacks of events are told from the points-of-view of both Janel Theranon and Brother Qown. It is important to know while both of these characters are recounting the experiences to Kihrin, Brother Qown is a chronicler, so most of his recounts have been written down already (probably). This means he’s writing down Janel’s experiences as they overlap his in order to provide a complete story. Remember, someone else is reading this completed chronicle. The world-building comes from Janel’s P.O.V. as she explains Joratese culture, magic, and the events that occurred while Kihrin was with the Black Brotherhood, and there is a lot. We learn more about Relos Var, and about a few recurring characters both new and old. The narrative can be followed and this is because the audience (remember the reader) knows the narrator(s) is reliable. Given everything that’s happened so far, it seems to be the only choice.

            The style Jenn Lyons uses for The Name of All Things follows the method of chronicles. Early written narratives were written down in order to include as many details as possible. In other words, whatever was said by the oral storyteller was written down by a chronicler. Early epic stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid were told orally and then written down, so however the length of the story was determined by the oral variant. A recent example of this style within a fantasy novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A chronicler is writing the story of the protagonist as it is being told to him, so the length is determined by how much the storyteller is willing to say to the chronicler. The mood in The Name of All Things is hostility and chaos. The former is due to the demons and the dragons set loose within the Empire, and the latter is due to how and why Kihrin had to flee the Capital. The tone is motivation after enduring traumatic events. We know Kihrin’s story and we learn Janel’s. Both leave us with questions and admiration for them being able to continue living their lives, even if it is as fugitives. Please note: the maps, the Foreword, and the Appendices are essential for the reading of this book.  

            The appeal for this book have been positive. There are many readers who enjoyed The Name of All Things just as much or more than The Ruin of Kings. This series continues to explore the tropes of prophecies and the ideas and the origins regarding them. Plus, Jenn Lyons does an excellent job incorporating the themes of gender—not sex and sexual orientation—into her story. This is a reflection of the reality in fiction in that the concept of gender is more complex and more fluid than it being binary. The world-building is done in a way where readers know another character from a different region within the same country/empire is the focus. Not to mention, we get an update on what happened to some of the minor characters from the first book. Once again, I listened to the audiobook, and this time, there were 3 new narrators. It took some time getting used to the “new voice” for Kihrin, but after telling myself that Kihrin is supposed to sound “more mature,” it made the listening experience go smoothly. Saskia Maarleveld, Dan Bittner, and Lauren Fortgang keeps the narrative going at a good pace, and keeps the listeners engaged in the story. The cliffhanger at the end will have fans excited for The Memory of Souls, which is the third book in a 5-book series and NOT the third and final book in a trilogy as I stated in my review for The Ruin of Kings. Remember, authors will answer your questions. The Memory of Souls will be released in August 2020.

            The Name of All Things is an achievement in world-building and in overlapping narratives. The characters remain as engaging as before, the dragons and the magic remain deadly, and the immortals are in it for themselves. Not to mention, the world won’t end due to just one prophecy. I’m looking forward to reading what happens in the next book, and I know the chaos will continue to grow.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Shadow Saint”

The Black Iron Legacy: Book 2: The Shadow Saint

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            Ten months ago, at the height of what some call the Crisis and others the Gutter Miracle, a new city exploded into being within Guerdon, (Chapter 2).

            When you read a book that becomes one of your favorite books of all-time, you’re left with a sense of satisfaction. When you learn that book is part of a series, you become anxious. This is because you’re hoping the next book in the series is just as good as the current one while dreading the possibility that it’s not. Well, that’s not the case here! Gareth Hanrahan found a way to go beyond readers’ expectations and gifted us with The Shadow Saint, a strong sequel to The Gutter Prayer—his debut novel. The sequel takes place several months after the events in the first book, but a new conflict is the focus in this story.

            There are 3 new protagonists: Eladora Duttin, Carillon Thay’s cousin, who is struggling to strive and to survive in the New City; Terevant Erevesic, the second son of House Erevesic and (failed) Lieutenant of the Ninth Rifles; and, a spy, who goes by many aliases, whose latest assignment has him traveling into the New City. As the protagonists converge in the city formerly known as Guerdon, other characters are introduced in order to present the protagonists as complex and rounded with desires, regrets and failures, and a sense of responsibility. First, there is Effro Kelkin, the “Chair of the Emergency Committee and de Facto Ruler of Guerdon” and Eladora’s boss, whose biggest concern is the Parliament Election. Next, there is Olthic Erevesic, the Haith Ambassador and Terevant’s older brother, whose main concern is another election, one that puts him at odds with his wife, Lyssada. Last, there is Emlin, the “task” assigned to the spy and the chosen saint of the Fate Spider, a deity worshipped in both Severant and Ishmere. Not to mention, one or two relations to Eladora makes an appearance as well. While the protagonists might come off as “weaker” than the characters they interact with, it is the minor characters who present the protagonists as relatable, as they are forced to develop into themselves as a result of these interactions. 

            The plot in The Shadow Saint delves into the aftermath of a crisis. “The Gutter Miracle” has turned Guerdon into a hotspot for power-hungry politicians and religious leaders. For the politicians, two upcoming elections will determine both the dominance of one party and the directions Guerdon will go in. For the religious leaders, Guerdon is one of the last neutral territories in the Godswar. While some of these leaders try to form alliances with the politicians, others search the streets of Guerdon for a weapon that is rumored to have the power to destroy a god. The subplot focuses on the protagonists, who are victims of being used and abused by other people, including members of their families. All of these protagonists have been taken advantage of by others, but it’s how they manage to move on from those traumatic experiences—whether or not it’s through forgiveness, forgetfulness or vengeance—and deal with what’s happening in the present. This subplot is necessary for the plot because the protagonists find themselves thrust into the spotlight and they must decide whether or not they want to remain as “tools” for those who want to control them. The plot develops at an appropriate rate and it’s due to the subplot. 

            Once again, the narrative follows a chronological sequence of events which are told from multiple points-of-view. The flaws and the mistakes made by the protagonists and their ability to overcome them—and proving that it’s not as easy as it sounds—make them reliable narrators. The narrative explores the protagonists’ streams-of-consciousness—which include some flashback scenes—through 3rd person limited. This means that the P.O.V. character knows what’s happening where they are at that moment in the story, but the readers know everything that is occurring to everyone at the same time. Both the narrative and the emotions are easy to follow.

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is divided into world-building fantasy and political reality. Because Guerdon was saved, everyone is showing interest in it. Those people come from other places that have their own religion and reasons for gaining control of Guerdon. However, in order to understand why, world-building is required. The various cultures and religions as well as the events of the Godswar is presented through the world-building by the author. The politics struggling for power demonstrates the reality within the fantasy by using numerous events throughout human history as a source. The mood in the story is chaos. The city of Guerdon was saved, but that has led to more conflicts and even more conspiracies involving gods, saints, war, and elections. The tone here is resilience; which of the characters demonstrate it and why they do so. If the story wasn’t identical to current events, then this could almost be a satire. 

            The appeal for The Shadow Saint have been positive. Fans of The Gutter Prayer and/or grimdark will appreciate the direction the author decided to go for in the sequel. Readers who are curious, yet unsure whether or not to read the sequel should know that the difference is the characters and their P.O.V.s. This means that everything fans and readers enjoyed in the first book is in this one, too. The sequel is not only a great addition to the grimdark and fantasy canon, but also cements Gareth Hanrahan as an accomplished author. And, based on the ending and the revelations at the end of this book, readers will be eager to reader the 3rd book in the series, when it comes out. Please note: According to the author, there will be 4 books in this series.

            The Shadow Saint is a sequel which demonstrates the triumph accomplished by the author who delivers on the expectations of the fans, the readers and the critics. The shift from thieves to forgotten relatives proves that the characters are just as well-written as the story and its world. If you haven’t already done so, then start reading this series! You won’t regret it!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Middlegame”

Middlegame

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Metaphysical

            Dodger was never going to be a linguist, any more than Roger was going to be a mathematician, but they could cope, which was more than some of their fellows ever learned. They balance each other, (Variation). 

            Seanan McGuire is an author whose books you’ve heard of, but you probably haven’t read, or maybe you have and didn’t know it. Known for her two urban fantasy series—October Daye and InCryptid—they are some of her most popular books. Under her pseudonym, Mira Grant, her paranormal horror stories—Newsflesh and Parasitology—brought more readers and fame to her. Once you start reading her books—the Wayward Children series is my favorite books by her—you become curious as to which books to read next by her. Middlegame is a standalone novel, which is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date, and is the story she claims she’s “been working on for years.” Well, the wait was worth it, and if there is any book to be read by this author, then look no further than Middlegame

            There are three protagonists in the novel. First, are the twins, Roger and Dodger, child prodigies who were “created” in a lab and separated to be raised separately so that their “abilities” can manifest apart from each other, and from those who created them for their purposes. Roger is adopted by a couple and is raised in Massachusetts. To him, words and languages come to him as easily as breathing, but don’t ask him for help with math. One day, when he is seven years-old, he is struggling with his math homework and he cannot come up with the answers as he can with his spelling. And then, he hears a voice in his head, which gives him the answers to the questions. The voice belongs to a girl named Dodger. She is the same age as Roger and she lives with her adopted parents in California. She’s a prodigy too, but math is her subject. The two children think nothing about their “ability” to speak to each other with their minds, and they help each other with their schoolwork. Unbeknownst to them, they’re twins who’ve been kept apart from the day they were born. They don’t know that they’re being watched by members of the Alchemical Congress, too. Dr. James Reed—our third protagonist—is the one who created the twins and monitor their “growth.” He is the former student, and “son,” of Asphodel Baker, and his goal is to finish the work of his mentor: seeking a way to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, to enter the Impossible City, and to harness the omniscient power that lies within it. So far, Reed has accomplished the first goal in the twins. As Roger and Dodger develop as characters and grow (up) as people, Reed’s goals and motivations develop and alter alongside them. While readers witness the harsh upbringing of the twins, they comprehend Reed’s goals and his reasons for achieving them. He is a monster and a mad scientist in one embodiment, but he earns some sympathy throughout the narrative; some. There are several other characters in the story, but Erin is the liaison between the twins and Reed. She is the most complex character in this story and one of the reasons is because she has a love-hate relationship with all three protagonists, which means her motivations are unknown to everyone, including the readers. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first one follows the growth and the development of Roger and Dodger from childhood to adulthood. Readers witness how the twins are raised as prodigies and the pressures that come with it; the pattern of their friendship, including all of the highs and the lows that match any other friendship; and, the development of their powers and what it means for them and those who have been observing them. The second plot follows James Reed and all of his actions over the years as all the “embodiments” of the Doctrine of Ethos develop, and what it means to him and all of his desires. Throughout the story, readers experience all of Reed’s failures and triumphs as he does everything in his power to keep his project going, while remaining one step ahead of the Alchemical Congress so that everything will come together the way he wants it to be. There are two subplots that go along with the plots at their own rate. The first is all of the events surrounding the Alchemical Congress from the council, to Reed and his “other” projects, to Erin’s actions and influences on the work and the legacy of Dr. Asphodel D. Baker and how all of her research is the catalyst of this story. Everything comes together as the story develops along with these plots. The second subplot focuses on Dr. Baker’s “research” and the lengths she went to in order to have her work “published.” 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all of the main characters using 3rd person omniscient, which allows for everything to be witnessed by the readers from their streams-of-consciousness to their flashbacks. Given the narration and the P.O.V.s, all of the characters are reliable narrators (even though they’re not reliable individuals). While the narrative has a sequence that can be followed by the readers, it can get confusing at times, especially to those who are not familiar with elements of the metaphysical genre. There are jumps in the timeline, but they don’t happen randomly; otherwise, the narrative flows at a rate that matches the development of the characters and the plot. 

            The style of Seanan McGuire will be familiar to her fans and captivating to other readers. Her word choice and sentence structure reflect the jargon and the ongoings of the characters’ occupations. Math, science and literary technology are used at the given moments. In addition, the novel is an allusion to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (yes, The Wizard of Oz movies are based on books), and anyone who is familiar with those books will appreciate both the reference and the criticism of the series by the author. Other pop culture (i.e. movies) and literary (i.e. authors) references will be recognized by readers who will comprehend their usage. Another thing the author does is criticize the gender bias surrounding both child prodigies and female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workers. The sexism experienced by both Dodger and Dr. Asphodel D. Baker should not by overlooked. Instead, readers should be aware that such occurrences are still ongoing and have traumatic and long-term consequences. The mood in this novel is authority: who has it, who wants it, and who fights against it. The tone is the idea and the question of whether or not authority should be claimed at all. If an individual gains control of authority, then what would it mean for everyone else? Should authority be given to one person, even if they don’t deserve it? I want to point out that the theme of the creator being betrayed by their creation is well done here as well.

            The appeal for Middlegame has been extremely positive. Not only have fans of the speculative fiction genre have had praise for the book, but also several critics have given their own positive feedback. NPR and Amazon called the book, “one of the best of 2019” and has received praises from other literary critics. It’s already getting hype for the upcoming literary awards. Middlegame is a recipient of the 2019 Alex Awards, which makes Seanan McGuire the first author to win this award three times! And, Middlegame was one of My Favorite Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books in 2019. In addition, fans of this book can expect, Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker, a companion book to this novel, which may or may not provide further insight into the fictional work referenced throughout the real one, in Fall 2020. Middlegame is a great addition to the canon and should be read by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. All of the pop culture and literary references will have readers of other genres picking up this book, too. 

            Middlegame is a brilliant work which combines all aspects of the speculative fiction genre into one story to be enjoyed by all readers. The plot, the characters, and the narrative are elements that fans of the genre will love, but the allusions to pop culture and other influences will pique the curiosity of readers of other genres as well. The book is a story about knowledge, ambition and failure, and the consequences of acceptance and perfection. These themes of the human heart are why Seanan McGuire continues to buildup her fandom with readers who love a good story about people and their desires.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: "A Broken Queen"

The Nine Realms #3: A Broken Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: March 24, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

NOTE: There are minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. You have been warned. 

            …sure that she was dying with her task unfulfilled, her people condemned to suffering, and the line of Nargis Queens judging her harshly, (Chapter Nine, “Aboard Island Dreamer”). 

            All great stories and storytellers know how to present the events and the plot to the audience. And, in the age of online streaming services, modern audiences started to forget what it’s like to have a cliffhanger and it being drawn out to where one wants their suspicions to be either confirmed or debunked. The Queen of Raiders—Book 2 in The Nine Realms—ended with this type of cliffhanger. Readers suspected that the protagonist did not meet her end, but the mystery of “what happened” and “what is going to happen” is addressed in A Broken Queen, Book 3 in The Nine Realms

            Thalen, Skylark and the Raiders have defeated the Oros in Oromondo. Unfortunately, Skylark is injured during the escape, falls into and is lost to the sea. Believing Skylark is dead, Thalen and the Raiders return to the Free States in order to lift the siege and to end the occupation of the Oros. Meanwhile, Gustie and Hartling do all they can to keep the Resistance going until the Oro army leaves; Matwyck has become drunk on power, finally, and has taken on interfering with the blossoming romance of his son, Marcot; and, the Spirits are becoming more active in their influence on the affairs of their Agents and the other mortals. All the while, Cerúlia—now using the alias, Phénix—ends up in Salubriton in the Realm of Wyeland, which is on the other side of Ennea Món. It is there Cerúlia is able to heal from both her injuries and her traumas. Even though Thalen and all of the denizens of the Free States now have to deal with the aftermath of the war and the occupation, and Matwyck becomes more and more devious with his “regency,” it is Cerúlia who develops the most in this book. This time, she learns empathy through her interactions with the other patients at the recovery house as they heal from ailments that plague the body, the mind, and the soul. At the same time, the Spirits present themselves to being as petty as stagnant as any other divine being. Then again, the conflicts of the Spirits are just as complex as their worshippers! 

            The plot in A Broken Queen is Cerúlia’s determination to reclaim the Nargis Throne after being hidden and in exile for 15 years. Once again, she’s shocked to learn of the lengths Matwyck goes to in order to prevent her return. But first, Cerúlia must regain her strength and come up with a plan for seizing control of Weirandale from the usurpers. There are several subplots as well, and they tie into the plot. First, there is the occupation of the Oromondo army in the Free States. Even though the war is over with a victory for the Free States, the Oros have no plans to leave the place where there is no famine or poisoned water. The war did not resolve the reason for the invasion, which is now becoming the dilemma to be solved by both the Free States and the Oros. Second, is the “Regency” of Matwyck and the toll its taking on the remaining citizens of Weirandale. With more arrests and disappearances, those who remain secretly plan on what to do when the Queen does return to Cascada. At the same time, Matwyck is losing control over his Council as they show themselves to being just as greedy and deceptive as him. This leads him into trying to maintain his last bit of control he has, which he believes is his son. Last, the Spirits—who are upset by the recent events involving Cerúlia—are arguing with each other over grudges of the past and the present. And, they have gone from using their Agents to act on their wills and behalves to overreaching into each other’s Realms: fires and tornadoes, sea storms and lightning, earthquakes, etc. All of these subplots go back to the plot of the Nargis Throne, which remains in chaos because of Matwyck and the other usurpers. It all traces back to what happened at the very beginning of the story. 

            Once again, the narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view. This is a chronological sequence told in first-person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of these reliable narrators. Readers will know what is going on everywhere all at once. It should be mentioned that attention should be placed on the characters Cerúlia meets during her recovery in Wyeland because it represents the reality that injury and trauma are not always obtained on a battlefield. And, there are two cases in which readers will see manipulation as an act of desperation to maintain control over what cannot be controlled. Desperate individuals do desperate things. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in A Broken Queen focuses on both the recovery of the injured from the traumas of war and other unspeakable events, and the growing instability amongst the Divine. Although the main focus shifts back to Cerúlia, she’s not the only one who learns empathy through her interaction with other people (and animals). Thalen, Gunnit and Marcot learn how individuals don’t overcome their traumas overnight. Time is essential for recovery, and there are some who never recover. In addition, the reason one country would invade another one is readdressed here and it cannot be overlooked. All of their issues and themes reflect the reality of life as mentioned in history and in journals (both personal and professional/academic) by: soldiers, doctors, nurses, civilians, psychologists and survivors. The mood is somber and bittersweet. This is because while the war is over, the survivors have to deal with the traumas and the aftermath of everything that happened to them and rebuild their lives knowing it’ll never be the same. The tone is resilience and recovery, especially how all of the characters go through the process of becoming whole again. The maps—which were not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist readers in keeping track of who’s who and where all of the characters are throughout the narrative. 

            The appeal for A Broken Queen will be positive. This is because it is in this book in which the story reaches its climax and some of the plots and the storylines are wrapping up. Fans and readers of The Nine Realms must continue reading the series because the pacing and the narration do not stop and we need to know what happens to our favorite characters. And, while it’ll be sad and difficult to say goodbye once The Cerulean Queen is released, we will all need the closure to the end of the author’s story.

            A Broken Queen continues the adventures and the turmoil wroth throughout The Nine Realms. Only this time it’s not only politicians and armies at work. The characters have grown into who they are and what they have to become given the circumstances. Emotions and trauma are the focus in the book, but the author incorporates them in a way which works with the story instead of it dragging it down. I’m already counting down the days for when I can read The Cerulean Queen! Luckily, we all don’t have to wait too long!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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