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 Cerulean Queen”

The Nine Realms #4: The Cerulean Queen

By: Sarah Kozloff

Published: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

            I am Cerúlia, the daughter of the late, brave Queen Cressa the Enchanter and the heroic Lord Ambrice. 

            I. Am. Your. Queen, (Chapter Five).

            When the end of a story draws near, there lies a range of emotion from sadness to anxiousness. It is sad when a great story comes to an end, but there is anticipation in that the story will have a great ending. Many series that were well-received and started out well do have great endings, but there are a few that have excellent endings, and some whose endings fall short on everything. Sarah Kozloff delivers an excellent ending in The Nine Realms with the fourth and final book, The Cerulean Queen

            Cerúlia—once Wren, Kestrel, Skylark and finally, Phénix—has returned to Weirandale in order to claim her birthright, the Nargis Throne. Unfortunately, arriving in Cascada was the easy part. Cerúlia still has to get into the throne room, get Dedicated, seize control back from Matwyck, liberate the captured citizens, and begin her reign. All of this is easier said than done. Especially since Lord Matwyck, General Yurgn, and others have no intention of allowing Cerúlia to become queen. General Sumroth of Oromondo seeks power and vengeance towards the Nargis Queen for crimes new and forgotten. In fact, with some divine guidance, an alliance is made in order to destroy Weirandale. Meanwhile, Thalen, the Raiders, and the rest of the denizens in the Free States start to rebuild after the Oros had left their land after war and occupation. Thalen and the Raiders travel to the Scolairíum in order to resolve the remaining dilemma concerning Oromondo, the famine and the cause of it. In this part of the story, Queen Cerúlia presents the most development. She is no longer a child, but Cerúlia has neither knowledge nor experience with being a monarch; and, part of that lies in the fact that she spent more time with the common people instead of nobles. However, Cerúlia has always known who she is and what she would become, so she rises to all of the challenges of being a ruler and, she won’t have to do it alone. 

            The plot in The Cerulean Queen is Cerúlia’s rise to Queen amidst all of the threats a monarch has to put up with. Cerúlia has enemies in and beyond Weirandale who do all they can to stop her reign before order can be maintained. Not only must she gain control of all of the affairs of Weirandale, but also demonstrate her diplomatic abilities and desires for maintaining peace with the other realms. Cerúlia has the Nargis Throne and she must begin to consider the future of her kingdom. There are two subplots that coincide with the plot. First, is the divine intervention that continues to occur in Weirandale, especially now that Cerúlia is Queen. A few of the Spirits desire an end to the Nargis Line and they use both their Agents and the mortals to carry out those desires (with others opposing them at the same time). Second, is the consequences surrounding Cerúlia’s revelation to her friends, her allies and her foster family. Cerúlia’s true identity is shocking, but other secrets have yet to be revealed and the fallout begins once everything is known. The plot and the subplots develop alongside the narrative in order to start wrapping up the rest of the story. In addition, readers start saying goodbye to all of the characters as the plot(s) and the subplots are resolved. 

            The narrative is told from multiple characters and their points-of-view; however, much of the narration focuses on Cerúlia. Readers do experience the on goings of the other realms from the other characters, but Cerúlia’s reign is the subject of the Spirits and all Nine Realms, so more attention is given to her. That being said, the narrative is in a chronological sequence told in 1st person P.O.V. and in the stream-of-consciousness of reliable narrators. Most of the narration focuses on Cerúlia’s reign at its beginning. This means that she’ll have “challenges” to her status as Queen, leaving her to demonstrate her ability to rule. Readers should pay attention to the characters who support and who oppose her rule and why. Some of the characters are justified in their beliefs, others not so much. Some of Cerúlia’s opponents are not corrupt or greedy, they believe in their ambitions, and some of it is understandable. 

            The style Sarah Kozloff uses in The Cerulean Queen focuses on the politics that comes with a monarchy with familiar fantasy tropes. Cerúlia becomes Queen, but still must weed out all of those responsible for Matwyck’s usurpation and tyranny while forming peace and alliances with the other realms and her subjects. Cerúlia and her allies know that changes must be made so that history doesn’t repeat itself; and, they have to determine when to be ruthless and when to be merciful. Towards the end of the book, fantasy tropes emerge, and they will remind readers of books by J.R.R. Tolkien and Tamora Pierce. The final battle, magic and the divine will playout in this book. It’s cliché, but it works well within this story. The mood is hope and all that comes with it. Even though Cerúlia is Queen, that was one factor of hope. The denizens of Weirandale are hoping for a peaceful reign, but all they can do is hope for a better future. The tone is strength and determination demonstrated by all of the protagonists and the main characters throughout the narrative. Cerúlia is not the only one with something to prove to everyone. The maps—not included in the eARC—and the glossary will assist the readers with keeping track of all of the characters and the locations mentioned throughout the story. 

            The appeal for The Cerulean Queen will be positive. Not only has Sarah Kozloff presented readers with a fulfilling ending to this epic fantasy series, but also managed to pull it off by convincing the publisher—Tor Books—to release these books in consecutive months in order to keep the interests of the readers. And, this proves that reading an epic fantasy series is doable—there are several standalone books and series to choose from—and it should no longer be seen as a daunting experience. I believe The Nine Realms will remain in the fantasy canon because of the world-building and countless female characters presented throughout the series. I hope we’ll see more stories by the author in the future. 

            The Cerulean Queen is the novel that wraps up The Nine Realms saga; and, the author does a great job delivering an appropriate conclusion to the story and the characters. It is sad to see this series reach its end, but readers will not deny that they found the experience enjoyable and magical. Sarah Kozloff should be proud of what she has accomplished! And, when the anniversary omnibus edition is released, I’ll be purchasing a copy as well!

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

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)!!!

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Betrayal”

The season finale of Season One begins with both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel—Lyra’s parents—preparing for what they’ve been planning for since the first episode. The former is planning to kill Lord Asriel under the orders of the Magisterium, and the latter is planning something that involves the aurora—a.k.a. the northern lights—and this involves his strange interest in Roger. 

            Lyra’s reunion and confrontation with her father does not go the way she wants it to go. Lord Asriel admits that he is Lyra’s father, but he’s not going to be the sort of father she wants him to be. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter admits that her abandoning Lyra was a mistake and she’s been trying to rectify it. Lyra goes from being an orphan to knowing she’s an abandoned child, and she doesn’t know how to deal with either the knowledge or the rejection of it. It is Roger who comforts her when she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings. Roger tells Lyra that they can “pretend to be orphans” again, knowing life for them has changed and things won’t ever be the same. 

            Lord Asriel makes the decision to explain to Lyra the purpose of his research and his reason for him being absent. The discussion of Dust and its origins comes from the novel. The Magisterium believes that Dust is Original Sin and that it begins to affect humans once they start puberty. Lyra begins to understand why the Magisterium conducted the experiments on the missing children, and Lord Asriel explains his beliefs on Dust and his discovery about the aurora and Dust—it can build a bridge between worlds. He asks Lyra if she wants to go with him, but Lyra has already decided to return to Jordan College with Roger. 

            Meanwhile, Lord Carlo Boreal continues his search for the Parrys and the letters. Will is hiding in town knowing that the police are looking for him because of the man he killed. What Will doesn’t know is that the reason he’s being tracked is because Lord Carlo Boreal is using the police to find him. It’s interesting how far the power of the Magisterium stretches across the worlds. Will manages to stay hidden, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he’s found, and he needs to hide somewhere where no one can find him. 

            Lyra wakes up when the Magisterium has arrived to arrest her father, but her father has already left taking Roger with him to the peak of the mountain. Lyra realizes that her father didn’t need the alethiometer, but Roger. Lord Asriel needed a child whose daemon hasn’t settled yet in order to use the energy from the bond to create a bridge. Similar to how Mrs. Coulter wouldn’t sacrifice Lyra to the intercision, Lord Asriel refused to sacrifice Lyra. This could be viewed as a twisted type of love parents have for their child.  

            Lyra rushes to save Roger. She dodges the Magisterium’s attacks thanks to Iorek Byrinison and the other panserbjørnes; however, not even Iorek can travel across the thin bands of ice. Lyra Silvertongue says goodbye to Iorek not knowing what will happen once she reaches the top. Pantalaimon tells Lyra that Roger is in a cage similar to the one at The Station and Lyra knows what her father plans to do. Unfortunately, she’s too late. Lord Asriel creates the bridge at the cost of the life of his daughter’s best friend. 

            Mrs. Coulter arrives too late as well, but she resists her orders to kill her former lover. Lord Asriel tells her of his plans to end the Magisterium and asks her to join him. It’s a brief, yet strange, reconciliation between Lyra’s parents (in which, Lyra witnesses firsthand in the book). However, Mrs. Coulter rejects Lord Asriel in order to stay with Lyra. Lyra regains consciousness in time to avoid her mother and she goes to say goodbye to Roger. Lyra decides that she needs to find Dust before her father and the Magisterium. At the same time, Will goes to the park, the same one where Lord Carlo Boreal travels from, where he finds a cat that disappears into thin air. Lyra and Will go through the bridges at the same time not knowing where they’ll end up. 

            Betrayal is an appropriate season finale because it wraps up all of the plots throughout the season going back to the events of the first episode. All of the questions asked from that first episode are answered. The deviation from the books works for this episode as well because it fits with the adaptation presented to us by the BBC and HBO. The only question left is “what happens next?” There will be a season two, which will be based on The Subtle Knife. Hopefully, the next season will continue to follow the darker tones left by season one.

My Rating: 9.0 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Fight to the Death”

This episode picks up where the last episode, and the books, left us. Lyra survives her fall from Lee Scoresby’s balloon, only to be captured by the panserbjørne—the name the Ice Bears call themselves in the books (and in the movie)—and brought before King Iofur Raknison. Lyra learns her father is alive, her friends survived the attack on the balloon, and Iorek Byrinison is on his way to rescue her. 

            However, Iorek is in exile and he was the previous king. Lyra uses her cunning, her ability to lie, and the alethiometer in order to trick Iofur Raknison into fighting Iorek Byrinison. This scene is interesting for two reasons. The first is we learn more about Lyra’s character and how she resembles both of her parents—as she is told constantly by other characters—especially, in her drive to succeed. The second is that Iofur Raknison is duped by Lyra—and Mrs. Coulter—because of his desire to behave like a human (this is explored more in the film, and in the books). 

            With the exception of Mrs. Coulter’s role and relationship with Iofur Raknison, everything follows the books from how Lyra tricks Iofur Raknison (which Iorek now calls her Lyra Silvertongue), to the fight between the two panserbjørnes, to the use of bloodmoss (read the books). Iofur Rakinson has been defeated and Iorek Byrinison has reclaimed the throne. Now, Lyra has to travel further North in order to rescue her father before the Magisterium kills him. She leaves with Roger and Iorek. 

            Meanwhile, the plot involving Will Parry catches up to the books—The Subtle Knife—in this episode. Will’s mother is visited again by the man from the Magisterium (his name is Lord Carlo Boreal). She is driven to the edge of a breakdown, and when she refuses to give the man any answers, he allows his daemon to scare her. She meets Will at his school, and he manages to calm his mother down. However, when they return home, they find it’s been broken into and searched. They flee to the home of one of Will’s teachers, but Will returns to the house to retrieve his father’s letters—which is what the Magisterium has been searching for. Will finds the letters as the thieves enter the house. He is able to defend himself, but he kills one of the men. Not knowing what to do, he packs some of his belongings and leaves town, with his father’s letters. 

            The Fight to the Death ends with Lyra arriving where her father is staying. Lord Asriel is NOT pleased to see her and tells her to leave. However, he changes his mind once he sees that she brought her friend, Roger, with her. Lyra is trying to process what just happened. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter barters again with the Magisterium to allow her to speak to Lord Asriel instead of killing him. And, both Lee Scoresby and King Iorek Byrinison prepare to face off against the Magisterium as they make their way North. What is Lord Asriel up to that has everyone scared? There’s one episode left in Season One and we’ll see how this adaptation decides to end.

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Daemon Cages”

This episode follows the order of Lyra’s “stops” in the North. In the books, Lyra ends up at “The Station” before she searches for her father. So, to those who haven’t read the books, but saw the movie, this is the sequence that the story follows. It’ll all make sense in the finale.

            Lyra—using the alias Lizzie Brooks—finds herself at “The Station” but doesn’t know its exact location. The other children—including Roger—tell her what’s been going on and warn her to be careful. While Lyra remains confident that the rescue party will arrive soon, she must stay vigilant because she can be chosen next for intercision. 

            This episode is essential for many reasons. First, we learn what the Magisterium has been doing to the children and how they do it. But, we don’t know why. Intercision is the process of separating one’s soul from the body (no, NOT like in Harry Potter, or in other fantasy books). Only, in this case, an individual’s soul is manifested as a daemon; so, not only is there a physical soul for the separation process to occur, but also it is a total separation. And, severing one’s connection with their soul leaves the person exactly as you would expect them, a vacant form of who they used to be. Lyra snoops around to the point where the Magisterium selects her to be next for severing. She is saved by Mrs. Coulter. 

Next, we find out how involved Mrs. Coulter was in with this experiment and how it affects her relationship with Lyra. It seems that her involvement with the Magisterium runs very deep, but it’s obvious she’s not devoted to them, or their cause. Unfortunately, her saving her daughter from a terrible fate doesn’t mean that their relationship is going to improve. It’s just the opposite, Lyra doesn’t want to have anything to do with someone who commits taboo. By the time Lyra runs away from her (again), the Gyptians, Iorek Byrinson, and Lee Scoresby, arrive to save the children. Yes, I’m know the fighting was done off screen due to budget constraints, but it was a rescue mission, not a battle. Lyra’s first goal in the North has been accomplished and she’s ready to go and save her father from the same people.

Last, The Daemon Cages see the end of one of the subplots; and, it’s the one with the Gyptians The Gyptians completed their task. They traveled North to rescue the missing children. The episode ends with them starting the journey back to London and back home. They’re also willing to take care of any child who will be rejected by their parents because of what happened to them. This is a reminder that what the Magisterium did was inhumane and taboo. 

This episode gets to the heart of the series’ name. It is a coming-of-age story and that means learning hard truths about the world. Many of the children experienced the authoritative control the Magisterium has in their world and it left them traumatized. This is the beginning of the end for the Magisterium, but what will the Magisterium do in order to maintain their power? And, why did the Magisterium perform such horrific experiments on children? 

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Spies”

The episode starts with a reminder that “The Gobblers” are kidnapping children—and keeping them in nets, cages and locked rooms—and have been discreet, until the Gyptians started to track their movements. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter abuses her connections with the Magisterium in order to find Lyra. And, it’s obvious that while Mrs. Coulter wants Lyra back, she’s doing it in a way which presents her in a way everyone can see why Lyra ran away from her in the first place. 

            Lyra Belaqua is rescued and taken into the care by the Gyptians. They have connections to Lord Asriel and are planning to rescue the missing children—as soon as they discover where they are being kept. It is during her stay with them that Lyra learns more about her origins and the alethiometer. Her reaction to the truth about her parents is believable and appropriate. Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to Lyra running away from her is not. Even the Magisterium is horrified by what Mrs. Coulter does in order to find her. It seems that it’s not only the alethiometer that the Magisterium has aversions against. 

            The Gyptians are willing to do more to figure out what’s going on with the missing children than the authorities. They have a plan—and allies—waiting to be carried out. Two of the Gyptians decide that having concrete evidence is better than traveling on gossip, so they continue their investigation against orders. At this point, it’s clear that the Magisterium is involved, but as to the how and the why, viewers will have to wait and see. 

            In our world, Lord Carlo Boreal—the man who works with the Magisterium—continues his search into the identity and the mystery of Dr. Stanislaus Grumman and whether or not he managed to “crossover” from one world to another, a theory Lord Asriel insists is the truth. The results his informer uncovers is interesting and shocking. This scene is essential to the plot of the story because it delves more into the idea of “other worlds” and why it remains a mystery to everyone. Book readers will know exactly what I’m getting at, but that’s all I’ll say, for now.  

            The Spies is the episode in which the plots in London wrap up and the story and the characters travel to the North to rescue the children and to learn why they were taken in the first place. This is the shift in the story in which the audience—both readers and viewers—have been waiting for since the cast was announced. This episode reiterates the dangers Lyra has been shielded from her entire life, but with her recently acquired knowledge, she knows she cannot return to Jordan College without Roger. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Idea of North”

The episode wastes no time resuming where it left off. Lyra Belaqua arrives in London with Mrs. Coulter, and Roger arrives in London to where the other kidnapped children are being held, including Billy Costa. Both children have no idea why there are wanted, but they have no choice but to go along with their circumstances. But, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter is NOT to be trusted. 

            Mrs. Coulter is a villain whose motivations remain unknown, for now. Yet, this adaptation presents her in a way that wasn’t seen before in the movie or in the books. It’s obvious Mrs. Coulter is struggling with both the actions and the position she’s found herself in, but she is hard to read by everyone, so she remains a mystery. As of right now, Mrs. Coulter is breaking because for all of her composure, she has moments of rage. Something Lyra experiences firsthand, and it scares her. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium is investigating Lord Asriel’s “discovery” and the true purpose of his research. The crypts at Jordan College seem to be a very popular place because everyone finds themselves there eventually. I would use the terms heresy and hypocrisy to describe the Magisterium. While it is obvious the scholars at Oxford wonder about Lord Asriel’s theory about Dust and other worlds, it appears that the Magisterium has some knowledge about it already, and they use it to their advantage. 

            Billy and Roger are minor characters whose roles are emerging into the plot. The Gyptians are searching for the children in London, but they always arrive just too late to rescue them. After they are moved, Mrs. Coulter arrives and a scene from the books is presented for the readers; then again, the viewers see more of Mrs. Coulter’s character in the scene as well. 

            Lyra is known for being an explorer, like her uncle(?), and she knows something is going on with Mrs. Coulter. However, everything is kept under lock-and-key, so Lyra finds another way to get the information she seeks. What she finds leaves more questions than answers, but she knows that she’s not safe, especially with the Magisterium hanging around Mrs. Coulter. 

            The Idea of North is an episode that focuses on world-building and character development. A lot of it comes from the books, but there are several additional scenes that embellish the adaptation further. The episode moves towards the darker side of the story, the same dark side that Lyra was shielded from at Jordan College. We get a look into what is happening in London, in Oxford, and in Oxford (not a typo). Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Billy and Roger, the Gyptians and the Magisterium are participating in something bigger than they believed originally. And, there is more to come. The plot develops too, but this is the chance to learn how the characters fit into the plot as it continues to develop.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Why You Need to Read: “Holy Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Three: Holy Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Trilogy

            Lessons were over. The closed world of the convent was about to be broken open. The endgame had arrived, (Chapter 9). 

            Any literary series—whether or not they’re duologies, trilogies, quartets, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 15 books—follow similar formats in order to bring the story to a close. In many cases, the ending has a “good” ending for the remaining characters—and the dedicated readers. And yet, there are times when a “believable” ending is what is required for certain stories to have appropriate resolutions for everyone. Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence provides a “believable,” yet satisfying ending for the characters and the readers alike. All of the characters have an ending. 

            Nona Grey—our protagonist—is now around 19 years-old and is preparing for her examinations in Holy Class in order to become a nun at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. A lot has happened since the events in Grey Sister including: the escape from Sherzal’s Palace, the war that’s occurring on two fronts in Abeth, and Nona’s growth spurt. Through it all, Nona not only has to prepare for war (which, she is more than ready for), but also has to keep the promises she made to her friends and to her mentors. Nona matures throughout this novel as well. She is about to leave her teenaged years (but, NOT her adolescence) and she is making choices that will have a long-term effect on not just herself but everyone else, similar to Abbess Glass’ choices. At the same time, readers and Nona learn more about Zole (finally) and her ambitions. Zole is an ice-triber who was “found” be Sherzal and educated by her before attending Sweet Mercy. She was declared to be the “Chosen One” by Sherzal (and by Sister Wheel) at the time. While Zole did prove to be a 4-blood and very powerful, she never said she had plans to remain at Sweet Mercy beyond her education. Through Nona, we learn about Zole, her ambitions, and her culture. Zole does call herself Nona’s friend and she proves that to her over and over again. Both girls learn from each other and grow in both their powers, and their character. By the time the friends go their separate ways, we learn more about Zole and Nona, their roles in the prophecy, and their ambitions for themselves and all of Abeth. 

            There are 2 plots in Holy Sister. The first, Nona, the nuns and her friends—the other novices and her “cage mates”—are preparing to fight in the war that is moving closer and closer towards them. The second, follows Nona and Zole as they continue their escape from Sherzal’s Palace, with the Noi-Guin shipheart, immediately after the events of Grey Sister 3 years earlier. While in Holy Class, Nona gathers her friends in order to steal a book containing secrets about the 4 shiphearts, the Ark, and the prophecy of the “Chosen One.” However, the novices are not alone in seeking this book and the information within it. In addition, neither Nona, nor readers have forgotten about Sherzal, Lano Tacsis, Joeli Namsis, the Noi-Guin, Yisht, and Queen Adoma. Once again, grudges and ambitions take precedence over the problems at hand. The question is, who will be the victor as the war rages around them? Meanwhile, 3 years prior, Nona and Zole are leading the Noi-Guin away from the others who survived the assault on Sherzal’s Palace. With the Noi-Guin shipheart in their possession, the “Argatha” and her “Shield” make their way towards the Ice—where the ice-tribers, including Zole, reside. Throughout the escape, Nona learns about Zole, the ice tribes, and the shiphearts. Nona learns where Zole fits into everything that has happened at Sweet Mercy, and the power of the shiphearts. These two plots present the growth of the characters and the on goings in Abeth. At the same time, there are two subplots. One is Abbess Glass’ continued influence and plans for the endgame; two is the prophecy of the “Chosen One” and its interpretation and its (true) meaning. Both plots and both subplots converge into this final moment in Nona’s education. Everything fits together as the plot hits the climax and moves towards the resolution. Everything moves at an appropriate rate and all is revealed in due time. 

            The narrative is limited omniscient narration—only from Nona’s point-of-view—with a sequence that moves from “Present Day” to “3 Years Earlier.” Nona Grey is out reliable narrator as she continues on her journey to fulfill her role in the war (and in the prophecy). Her stream-of-consciousness goes from the war to the escape (which, is told in present tense) and her powers determine where and what Nona witnesses and experiences. At first, readers will wonder as to why the story is being told from one point in time to another one, but what Nona experiences in both narratives determine her actions as the war reaches its climax. Once this is realized, then the narrative can be followed easily. 

            The style Mark Lawrence uses changes slightly from what readers have gotten used to, but it remains relevant to the story he is telling. The prophecy and its interpretation and its meaning continues, but the significance and the importance of playing the endgame for the long run is essential in this story as well. Readers already know that the prophecy will come to pass in Holy Sister, but how will it affect the other characters? The author reminds his readers that prophecies and war focus on one event in particular, while ambitions last beyond the short term. Behind the frontlines, each character is thinking about what they will do if they survive the war and whether or not the prophecy comes to pass. The mood is war and what it brings with it; the tone is the choices individuals make as a result of war. And, the choices are not always for the good of all of the denizens. Power determines the victor in most wars, but once the war is over, what happens next? This is the importance of the endgame. Planning before and during should being a reasonable after in the long run. 

            The appeal of Holy Sister matches those in the rest of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, positive and satisfying. Mark Lawrence has delivered a trilogy with magic, history and action alongside strong, yet flawed female characters. This series is an amazing addition to the fantasy genre, and Nona Grey is right alongside Alanna of Trebond and Lyra Belacqua as resilient and powerful female characters who proved themselves against all perceived notions against them. The popularity of this series has given readers a surprise from the author. Readers will get the chance to return to Abeth when The Girl and the Stars, the first book in the Book of the Ice is released in April 2020. 

            Holy Sister is satisfying end to the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. Both the plot and the characters are given reasonable and believable ends to their stories. The pacing and the world-building provide answers to the questions the characters and the readers had previously. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy the conclusion to this series. Mark Lawrence presents another brilliant series. 

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