Why You Need to Read: “A Spindle Splintered”

Fractured Fables, #1: A Spindle Splintered

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 5, 2021

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore

            …I’ve fallen out of my own story and into one that might have a happy ending. Because this is my last chance to have a real adventure, to escape, to do more than play out the clock, (2).

            Fairy tales have existed since oral and literary traditions became embedded in folklore and culture. For example, there is a “Cinderella” story for each region and culture in the world; and, it is one of the “oldest” folktales in human existence. In fact, anyone can recite a few fairy tales orally and include all of the “elements” within it. Disney movies aside, fairy tale retellings continue to exist, and there have been numerous stories released recently, which demonstrates how these tales continue to entertain us. In Alix E. Harrow’s novella, A Spindle Splintered, she fuses traditional variants with modern knowledge. 

            There are 2 things you need to know about the protagonist, Zinnia Gray. First, she is obsessed with the tale of “Sleeping Beauty”; second, Zinnia is dying from a rare genetic disease. In fact, she is not expected to live past her 21st birthday, which is today (in the story), and time is limited as Zinnia starts to process her “last days.” Fairy tales have been a coping mechanism for Zinnia—she earned a Master’s degree in Folk Studies—and, it is the story of “Sleeping Beauty” she finds most relatable to her. And yet, Zinnia’s best friend, Charmaine Baldwin a.k.a. “Charm,” has stood by her since childhood. Furthermore, Charm insists that her best friend attends the “Sleeping Beauty” themed birthday party she put together for her. There’s even a spinning wheel! But, what happens when Zinnia pricks her finger on it? And, who is the young woman claiming to be a princess? Readers learn quickly that Zinnia is more than just a “sick girl.” Her determination and her resilience allows her to view her current predicament as an opportunity to save her life, and another’s as well. 

            The plot of this story is Zinnia dreading her impending death. Her disease means that she won’t live past 21, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. That is, until a spinning wheel provides a rare chance to change her fate. At the same time, Zinnia might be able to rescue a princess from hers. There is a subplot in this story, and it is fairy tales: their origins, their evolution, and their “lasting appeal.” Remember, every story is a story unless it’s yours; that’s when the story becomes one’s experience. The subplot drives the plot in this narrative, which brings out the reality (and the magic) within the fiction.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Zinnia’s point-of-view, and it is told in the present. Zinnia’s stream-of-consciousness is vital to the narrative because her knowledge of the past helps her with her quest and her phone lets her (and us) know that all of the events within the narrative are happening—Zinnia is NOT under a sleeping spell. A few revelations throughout the quest leads to genuine moments of awe and of shock through Zinnia, which makes her a reliable narrator with a narrative that can be followed easily. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses in A Spindle Splintered is different from her novels. Instead of allusions to previous stories, myths, legends and magic, this novella delves into the evolution of fairy tales—also known as Märchen, or “magic tale” by folklorists—many in which, “expresses the escape from reality,” (Dégh 59). In addition, this story is NOT a fairy tale retelling, but a “fractured fairy tale.” A fairy tale is “a story involving the fantastic, usually involving familiar traditional formulas and often ending in eucatastrophe (after which people live happily ever after),” (Mendlesohn and James 253). A fractured fairy tale is the practice of breaking fairy tales (from as small as a split to as large as a chasm) up so that the storyteller can rewrite them to reflect the present world while maintaining key elements from the fractures that get used in them. In other words, new variants of the older variants of fairy tales must have something in it so that the audience can identify the (new) tale being told. The most popular example of this is Disney and how they took older variants of these folktales and retold them in a way in which the audience knows it’s the “Disney variant.” A fractured fairy tale is another way for stories to be “told and retold in many different ways. They are guised and disguised,” (Yolen 4). Another explanation is that the author has taken parts of the tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” kept the parts that would identify it as “Sleeping Beauty,” include the possible origins of the tale within a modern conflict that presents the tale as a new variant. In short, and I repeat, this is NOT a fairy tale retelling (per se), but a modern fairy tale. How many fairy tales have working smartphones in them? The mood in this story is dread. 2 young women are fearful of their impending 21st birthdays. The tone is resilience. Both young women actively seek out ways to change their fate.

            The appeal for A Spindle Splintered will be positive. Fans of the author’s previous works will enjoy this one; however, they should know that this book is closer to a fairy tale than a fantasy story—similar yet different. If you’re not a fan of fairy tales, then this book might not be for you. Fans of Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley will enjoy this book the most. But, fans Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Rena Rossner should consider reading this story, too. Anyone who studied folklore—such as myself—will appreciate all of the scholarly references mentioned throughout this tale. And, anyone who enjoys this book will be pleased to know that the follow up—A Mirror Mended—will be released next summer.

            A Spindle Splintered is a tragic yet entertaining story about the lasting affect of fairy tales, and what an individual should do when they find themselves in one. Once again, Alix E. Harrow reminds her audience of the significance of fairy tales and their everlasting impact throughout culture and humanity. This is the “Sleeping Beauty” tale for the 21st century.

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

                                                                        References 

Dégh, Linda. “Folk Narrative.” Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard M. Dorson, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 53-83.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Tachyon Publications LLC, 2018. 

Reading Check-In: July 31, 2021

What book have you finished reading recently?

O!M!G! This book…WOW!

I started reading this eARC at the beginning of the year, but I had to stop because of classes. It turns out that I stopped at the right spot because I was able to dive back into the story when the story, the plot and the characters continued to developed.

It’s not speculative fiction, but it’s still enjoyable so far. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I did read some of the Sherlock Holmes books as a kid so I had high hopes for this book. This is the 7th book in the series and the only one I’ve read so far; and, it’s an excellent spinoff!

What are you reading currently?

I’ll be reading this book throughout the weekend. I don’t know whether or not I’ll finish it by then, but I expect to make some more progress.

There are 2 plots within this story, but it seems like only one of them will continue onto Book 2!

What will you read next?

There is a reason why I started reading this book, which I can’t get into yet. That being said, I should have tried to read the eARC I received when I had the time.

I should read this book before the next one in the series is released.

I haven’t forgotten about this book!

I want to read this book BEFORE its publication.

I know my list of books keeps getting shuffled, but I read what I want when I’m in the mood and when I have the time.

Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read…My Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2021

How many books will I read in 2021? Let me rephrase the question: how many books coming in 2021 will I get to read in 2021? I ask this question because I’m still going through all of the books I didn’t get to read last year—including all of the books that came out in 2020. Yet, I can’t help myself because I’m so excited for all of the books coming out in 2021! These are just some of the numerous books I hope I get to read this year. Will I get to read them all in 2021? Probably not, but I’m going to aim to read these books at some point!

#1: Wayward Children #6: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire –> January 12th

            This next book in this fantasy series follows a girl who travels to a world where every horse creature resides. However, what happens there and whether or not the Visitor wishes to stay or leave has to wait until the book is released. Note: We’re getting 4 more books in this series!

#2: The Black Iron Legacy #3: The Broken God by Gareth Hanrahan –> May 20th

            It seems like we’re going to follow Carillon Thay’s adventures outside of Guerdon, which is probably for the best given what happened during the events in The Shadow Saint. Speaking of what’s going to happen to the city after all of the political and the divine betrayals? Looks like the world needs to be saved, again.  

#3: Bethel #2: The Dawn of the Coven by Alexis Henderson –> August 31st

            I was surprised and excited when I learned there would be a sequel to The Year of the Witching. I believe the story will focus on the aftermath of the events which occurred at the end of the first book. However, this is a dark fantasy series about witches and priests, so anyone can become powerful or die at any time. 

#4: A Chorus of Dragons #4: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons –> May 11th

            The way The Memory of Souls ended makes readers wonder how the author will continue her saga. What will the “heroes” do next to thwart the plans of the “threat”? And, is the House a place or an individual? 

#5: Magic of the Lost #1: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark –> March 23rd

            This is the first book in a new trilogy and it focuses on two young women. One is a soldier who was stolen from her home as a child. When her company has been sent back to her home to stop a rebellion, she doesn’t know which side she should be on. The other is a princess whose uncle has taken the throne which was meant for her. She needs a turncoat who is willing to balance treason and orders for what she sees as peace. All is fair in love and war. 

#6: Deathless #1: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna –> February 9th

            This debut novel—which I believe was delayed due to the pandemic—follows 16-year-old Deka, who is about to be tested. If her blood runs red—normalcy—then she can carry on with her life. If her blood runs gold—impurity—then she faces a consequence worse than death. When Deka’s blood runs gold, she is given a choice: stay in her village to die, or leave and join the emperor’s army of girls—alaki, near immortals with rare gifts—like her to fight. Knowing she can find acceptance by serving the emperor, Deka leaves her home for the capital, where she learns that nothing is what it seems. Sounds like a great combination of Red Queen and The Old Guard

#7: Burning Kingdoms #1: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri –> June 8th

            I LOVED the Books of Ambha Duology, so it should come as no surprise that I’m looking forward to reading Tasha Suri’s next book in her new series. A princess who is imprisoned by her dictator brother befriends one of the maidservants. When the princess discovers her maidservant’s secret, they join forces to get what they want—the former the throne and the latter her family. 

#8: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall –> June 22nd

            For several months, the author of The Border Keeper has been teasing her upcoming debut novel, and it cannot come soon enough. This book follows a female whose power must be preserved as ordered by her order. However, in order to preserve the magical bloodline, these women must give birth to the next generation, and the pregnancy kills these women. The protagonist is desperate for an escape, and she is granted the opportunity. All she has to do is spy on the highest ranks of her Order and learn their secrets. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right? 

#9: The Radiant Emperor #1: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan –> July 20th

            This debut novel is described as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles…(the) reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.” That description alone should be enough to grasp the attention of any fan of historical fiction and fantasy. The year is 1345, China is under the rule of the Mongols. The story follows the second daughter in a Chinese family, who was given the fate of nothingness, while one of her brothers—Zhu— was given the fate of greatness. After Zhu dies, the daughter decides to use her brother’s identity to escape her fate and enters a monastery as a young male novice. After the monastery is destroyed by Mongolian forces, Zhu decides to claim the future that was meant for her brother. This is story is going to be EPIC!!!

#10: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff –> September 14th (in the U.S.)

            This upcoming series by the Australian author combines vampires with the legend of the Holy Grail. The protagonist is imprisoned not only for murdering the Vampiric King, but also for unknowingly destroying the holy order—The Silversaints—he served. Recounting his life and the events which led him to his current predicament, readers will learn first and foremost that the Holy Grail was a person, a teenager. Please Note: This series is NOT YA!!!       

#11: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner –> April 13th

            This historical fantasy is a retelling of Rabbi Isaac and his family, particularly his three gifted daughters. After an accusation of witchcraft forces the Rabbi and his family into exile, they learn of a dark force making its way across Europe. The sisters must choose whether or not to face the threat. This book is the author’s follow up to The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and fans of Alix E. Harrow, Katherine Arden and Constance Sayers will enjoy this book the most. 

#12: The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec –> February 9th

            2021 continues the Norse-inspired books fantasy fans get to experience. This debut novel is a reimagination of Loki’s children as told by the woman who bore them and loved Loki—the witch, Angrboda. The story begins with Angrboda being burned by Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future—which Odin gains another way. After escaping and fleeing to the end of the world(s), Angrboda encounters Loki and fall for each other. Anyone who is familiar with Norse mythology recalls the role Loki’s children play in Ragnarök. Will Angrboda allow fate to happen, or attempt to change the future? 

#13: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace –> May 4th

            I learned about this book from author C.S.E. Cooney, and she had nothing but positive things to say about it. After reading the synopsis, I’m excited to read this book, too! The best way to describe this book is part 1984, part War Girls,and part Ready Player One. If you’re interest isn’t piqued after reading that, then I don’t know what else to tell you. 

#14: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara –> April 6th

            I didn’t get to read Docile in 2020 (but, I will this year!), but I’m just as excited for the author’s second novel. The plot of this book sounds like it was supposed to start off as an RPG, but the quest ended before it could start. I’m curious to read what happens to the characters in this book. 

#15: The First Argentines Series by Jeff Wheeler –> Book 1: Knight’s Ransom release on January 26th

I got to read an eARC of Knight’s Ransom (click here to watch my first livestream Q&A panel with the author) and it’s an amazing beginning to a new series. Set about 400 years before the events in The Queen’s Poisoner, readers learn about the struggles the Argentine Family had when they first became the rulers of Kingfountain. The story is told from the perspective of one of the knights, Ransom, who witnessed many political and familial feuds as the Argentines commit to gain control over the entire realm, and survive. 

#16: Rook and Rose #1: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick –> January 21

            This debut novel—written by a duo—presents a story of a con artist who hopes to secure a fortune and a future—for herself and her sister—by robbing a noble house. However, as this woman gets more involved with the family, she learns more about the aristocratic society, and the games they like to play. Soon, the protagonist has to choose between saving herself or saving an entire city. 

#17: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune –> September 21st

            After reading the beautiful book that is The House in the Cerulean Sea—I hope to read The Extraordinaries this year—I had to find out what the author’s next book is going to be. This book takes a page from Greek mythology as the subplot of the story. The plot is about a recently deceased man who isn’t ready to cross over to the afterlife, so he resides with the ferryman at his tea shop for 7 days. Question: who is the artist of the cover art? I know it’s the same one who did the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea

#18: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #2: The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell –> March 23rd

            This sequel to the author’s debut novel will focus on the aftermath of the events that occurred in The Kingdom of Liars. I curious to learn whether or not the queen really is two-faced. And, does she know what really happened to her father and her brother?  

#19: Wings of Ebony by J. Elle –> January 26th

            I won a copy of this book in a giveaway—which, will arrive on the book’s release day (an early birthday present for me!)—and I’m looking forward to reading it. This book focuses on a teenaged girl who is separated from her sister after their mother’s death to live on an island with her father and to learn about the heritage she never knew about. To me, this book sounds like a combination of Legendborn, Empire of Sand, and Percy Jackson, and I’m not complaining at all. 

#20: Wilderwood #1: For the Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten –> June 15th

            This retelling of the tales of Little Red Riding Hood and (Norse? or Greek?) mythology is the author’s debut novel. Red is the first Second Daughter born in centuries. This isn’t an issue for her family because while her older sister will get the Throne, Red is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood so he’ll return the world’s captured gods. Unfortunately, legends are not what they seem. The Wolf isn’t a monster, he is a man; and, Red isn’t a damsel, she has magic that she has to learn how to control in order to save her world. 

Additional Books to Lookout For: 

The Murderbot Diaries #6: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells –> April 27th

The Tide Child #3: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker –> September 28th

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers –> March 23rd

The Up-and-Under #2: Across the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker –> October 12th

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell –> February 2nd

The Bloodsworn Trilogy #1: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne –> May 4th

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1: The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley –> July 6th

The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett –> August 3rd

The Protectorate #3: Catalyst Gate by Megan E. O’Keefe –> July 13th

Small Spaces #3: Dark Waters by Katherine Arden –> August 3rd

            As I mentioned earlier, this is some of the several books being released in 2021. Which books did I miss? What are you excited to read the most in 2021? Any debuts and/or new series others and I should look out for? Let me know! Happy New Year!

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

What. A. Year. It was a great year for stories—not necessarily publication—but a terrible year for everything else. While the pandemic brought about more time for some readers, I did NOT fall into that category. If anything, then the pandemic had me being more occupied, which brought about less time for reading. Don’t get me wrong, I still met my reading goal (100 books), but I’m going to have to change the way I do these end-of-the-year lists. I didn’t get to read or to finish reading all the books I wanted to read this year (I lost some time because I no longer had a long commute), but I read just enough books to compile this list. These books were released and read—by me—in 2020. 

#15: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

            This novella didn’t get the same recognition similar novellas received, and that’s a shame because this standalone work is entertaining and brilliant from start to end. The story follows a troupe of thieves for hire who are completing a job when they are recognized and have to escape, with a nun following them. From there, several hijinks and revelations ensue until the big reveal at the end leaves readers wondering whether or not this book should be a standalone. 

#14: Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            This is a standalone novel, which serves as the English translated follow up to Vita Nostra. The story follows a DJ who saves a young girl from bullies, and by some hidden powers from the girl’s “family,” he becomes her legal guardian during her “stay” in “our world.” The girl is accompanied by a teddy bear and music strings, and her mission is to locate her missing brother while learning how to play the violin. However, the longer the girl stays, the stranger the world surrounding the DJ becomes until he is forced to behave like an adult—who is afraid of a teddy bear. 

#13: Wayward Children #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

            Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children sees the return of Jack, who has been betrayed by her twin sister, Jill. A few of the students embark on a quest—which is supposed to be forbidden—in order to save Jack from Jill. This story continues to look into how the children at the school continue to hope to return Home, while catching up with their former classmates who were able to do so. On top of this, the narration of present events continues to lay out the consequences to those who believe they can ignore the rules of the world. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

#12: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

            I didn’t know what to make of this debut novel. That is, until I read the first few chapters, and the title fits the story brilliantly. The story follows Michael Kingman, the younger son of David Kingman, who was executed for murdering the Crowned Prince. Living in exile with his older brother and sister, Michael is given the chance to reenter high society and to prove his father’s innocence. But, how is Michael going to complete these tasks when everyone is a liar, and several people want him dead?

#11: The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff

            Dr. Sarah Kozloff took her massive epic fantasy and gave it to readers as a quartet, so they could binge read the books without too long of a wait. The decision to present 4 “shorter” books instead of 1 huge one had me reflecting back to Tamora Pierce’s series. However, this series can be read by both teens and adults because the lead protagonist grows from girlhood (and exiled princess) to adulthood (and a queen). During the time, she has to learn how to fend for herself, avoid being recognized and captured, how to protect her kingdom by joining up with the rebel army, and using her “Talent” to reclaim the throne. The author gives an excellent balance between fantasy (magic) and reality (science) as readers are given a straightforward—as in no previous look back on what occurred in the last book—narration which allows for an enjoyable reading experience. 

#10: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

            Believe it or not, this is the first book by the author that I’ve read. Even though this book is a fantasy story, I will argue that the elements of magic realism make the story more realistic. The protagonist is a social worker who works for an agency that deals with “unusual” children. These children either have special abilities or are of a magical species, and our society deems that all of these children must be “registered” and “observed” so that they will grow up to be “productive adults.” The protagonist is given an assignment to observe a house where several “unusual” children reside. And, it is through this assignment that the protagonist begins to see the children as children and not just the nature of their species. This is a brilliant story about foster children, prejudice and family. 

#9: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

            What if you were caught in a precarious situation in another country? What if assassins and political powers were searching for you? What if you were the queen of your nation? How would you survive your ordeal? This book—a reprint of the author’s debut novel—presents readers with a realistic account of survival and being royal during a time of fragile establishment and foreign hostility. What happens when a queen is lured to another land only to be betrayed and left stranded there? It’s a good thing the queen knows how to use a sword.

#8: The Daevabad Trilogy #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

            Yes, this book is massive, but the story makes the pages go quicker. The last book in the trilogy takes place immediately where the last one leaves off. Nahri and Prince Ali find themselves far away from Daevabad as a rebellion and usurpation continues there. Under the rule of a new tyrant, Nahri and Ali must decide whether or not to save the empire and its magic. Meanwhile, Dara comes to terms with all of the decisions he’s made in his past and during his present as he determines whether or not loyalty outweighs being noble. This was a great ending to this Arabian Nightsinspired epic fantasy. 

#7: A Chorus of Dragons #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

            The 3rd book in this 5-book series—remember when I thought it was a trilogy? I’m so glad I was wrong!—has all of the characters from the first 2 books joining together in order to save the world from the “real threat.” All of the events from the previous books lead up to where all of the protagonists and the characters find themselves in, and the roles they are supposed to play in the near and the far future. Another prophecy is mentioned, another dragon is introduced, and ulterior motives are revealed. The question is—especially after THAT ending—what will the heroes do next? 

#6: The Black Iron Legacy #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

            I enjoyed this sequel to The Gutter Prayer—my #1 Favorite Speculative Fiction Book of 2019—and it’s an interesting book. One of the reasons for this is because of the new P.O.V. characters—and a few previous ones—the readers experience the events from. This book focuses on the aftermath of the end of the first book, and instead of magical forces, there are political conspiracies and familial backstabbing amongst all of the characters. Unfortunately, politics overshadow the real threat, which once again comes from the gods.

#5 (Tie): Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            This novella takes the history of a film which promoted racism—and revived the Ku Klux Klan—and added a supernatural element to it. There is the Klan, who terrorize Black Americans, and are human; and, there are the Ku Kluxes, supernatural beings who feed off of fear and hatred, and are only identified by those with the Sight. Because the Ku Kluxes look like White Americans, only the Black demon hunters are brave enough to fight them and to defend our world from them. However, what happens when the Ku Kluxes join the ranks of the KKK? 

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

            This novella presents the horrors and the consequences of institutional racism in Modern America. The story follows a sister and a brother who are “victims” of racism from their early childhood. After realizing that there is no avoiding becoming a “statistic,” the siblings have to decide on whether or not to use their gifts in order to change their world for the better. 

#3: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This standalone novel is the follow up to the author’s debut novel. This time, instead of one female protagonist, there are three sisters. After several years apart, they are reunited under circumstances and a cause—the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and, it’s not just about the right to vote, but the right to use magic. This historical fantasy presents a throwback to Camelot, fairy tales, spells and symbolism as well as practices which brought about the Women’s Vote, the (first) Civil Rights Movement, and Labor Laws. This is a fitting story to mark what was happening one hundred years ago.           

#2: Bethel #1: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

            This debut novel immersed my attention and had me completing the book within 24 hours! This dark fantasy story presents the protagonist who is her community’s reminder of past sins and upcoming retributions. The author gives readers an amazing take on the hypocrisy surrounding religion, family, race, sex and leadership. The ending to this book has me excited for the upcoming sequel, which we will be getting in 2021!

#1: Between Earth and Sky #1: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            There are times when the synopsis of a book isn’t enough to snag a reader’s interest, so the emphasis shifts to the book’s cover. And, what a cover! Even if you hadn’t read Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series—which is a dystopian urban fantasy series—then reading this series—which is dark fantasy—will introduce readers what a talented storyteller the author is to all who must become familiar with her books. The novel starts with the past, jumps forward to the last moment within the narration, and then jumps back to the aftermath of the opening chapter. Readers get are presented with several characters from different backgrounds and positions, and where the Winter Solstice is a date in which something is about to happen and decisions have to be made before the moment—and, once they’re made, there is no going back. This book begins and ends the way you believe it will, which makes it all the more shocking and entertaining. Book 2 is expected sometime in the future, which will answer the question: What will happen next? 

            There were so many books that came out in 2020—miraculously—I didn’t get to finish reading them all! I want to read all of the books I missed this year and in previous years, but I want to be able to read all of the upcoming books (in the new year) as well. I’ll find a way to pull it off! Hopefully, this pandemic will end within the next several months—I’m not holding my hopes or my expectations too high—so some normalcy can return. Otherwise, here’s to another great year in reading. Which books of 2020 were your favorites?

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “Æsahættr”

            The season finale for Season Two opens with the witches talking about the attack from the Specters. Will and Lyra are with the witches as they all agree that they should leave Cittàgazze right after they find Will’s father. Meanwhile, Ruta Skadi overhears a group of creatures talking about the army Lord Asriel is building up and what that means for them. It turns out, a similar war occurred millennia ago, but the Authority was victorious. They say that without the Æsahættr, Asriel will lose the war. 

            Lyra and Will talk about their few—or, lack of—friends from their worlds and early childhoods. Both Lyra and Will admit being around each other has led to some changes in themselves for the better. Will is beginning to understand everything his mother told him about his father while growing up without him. 

            Mrs. Coulter and her daemon continue to wander through the city of Cittàgazze, which is now deserted—the children have returned to the mountains to be reunited with their parents (which doesn’t happen in the books)—and she finds more clues to her daughter’s whereabouts. She comes across one of the witches, and Mrs. Coulter tortures the witch to learn of Lyra’s location and her role in the upcoming events—which is why the Magisterium is targeting her. Mrs. Coulter believes she has a reason to protect her daughter.  

            Dr. Mary Malone escorts the children back to their parents before continuing onward with her quest. Dr. Malone continues to consult her books—both reference and spiritual—as she determines where she should go next. Blue flower petals keep appearing wherever she goes. 

            Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala discuss what Ruta has learned about Asriel’s war. While they agree Lyra is the child of the prophecy, they realize the Authority could win the war again, so they go their separate ways hoping to meet up again during the Great War. Meanwhile, Serafina gets called to help another ally. This leaves Lyra and Will alone with one witch. Then, Will leaves. 

            Lee Scoresby and Doctor Stanislaus Grumman—a.k.a. Jopari, a.k.a. Colonel John Parry—survive the attack on the balloon, but they can no longer fly in it. The Magisterium soldiers are gaining ground, and the two travelers hurry to find the children. Lee and Jopari flee from the Magisterium until they have no choice but to hold them off for as long as they can. Lee Scoresby stays behind to fight while Jopari continues to end his search for the Bearer. This heartbreaking end is straight from the books, Lee and Hester have their last moments together knowing it’ll be worth it—for Lyra. 

            Will answers the calling which leads him straight to his father. Dr. Grumman cannot believe his teenaged son is the Bearer. Will cannot believe his father has a daemon. This reunion while different—and brief—in the books, is more meaningful and more heartfelt in this episode. They catch up on everything: Will’s mother, John’s travels, Will’s travels, the Subtle Knife, the Great War, etc. Then, the last soldier from the Magisterium appears and takes aim. 

            The episode ends with Seraphina Pekkala giving Lee Scoresby his last rites and Will burying his father. Lord Asriel makes his manifesto to the Angels for wanting to go to war; and, they stand with Asriel. Mrs. Coulter reunites with Lyra and takes her away from her allies. Unfortunately, Mrs. Coulter has Lyra and Pantalaimon drugged and locked inside a trunk. During Lyra’s unconsciousness, she hears the voice of a friend. 

            In all, this is one of the best episodes of Season Two. The season finale almost matched the last few chapters in The Subtle Knife to a tee. Yes, there are more questions viewers will want answered, but overall all of the plots and the subplots were wrapped up to where they had to be, and the presentation made it clear the Æsahættr episode ended the way it had to. I’m looking forward to Season Three.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “Malice”

            The episode opens with the witches in the same world as Lyra and Will. And, they see angels traveling through the world. They see this as a sign that the prophecy is coming closer to fruition. This is another sign that the war—led by Lord Asriel—is about to begin. 

            Meanwhile, Will continues to suffer from the loss of his fingers—he never received any medical attention of any kind. Lyra tends to him until she comes across Angelica and the rest of the children who want revenge on her and Will for getting the Knife from Angelica’s brother, which led to his death by the Specters. Before any harm can happen to them, Serafina Pekkala arrives to Lyra and Will’s aid. 

            The children and the witches rally beyond the city. They treat Will’s injury as best as they can, but the witches say that the plants in their world—Lyra’s world—will help Will recover. Lyra consults the Alethiometer regarding the location of Will’s father, and he’s made it into the same world they are in. There is more dialogue in these scenes as the visitors continue their journey to find Will’s father, before the Specters come after them.

            At the same time, Lee Scoresby and Doctor Stanislaus Grumman arrive in a new world where they know Lyra is in. They discuss what Grumman learned while deserted in Lyra’s world—shamanism, witches, academia, spirits, etc. As they get closer to locating Lyra, so does the Magisterium, who have entered the world as well. Both Lee and Dr. Grumman work together to get the Magisterium out of the way before they can harm Lyra and the Bearer. 

            Meanwhile, Dr. Mary Malone arrives in the city where Lyra and Will just left. She consults some of her books about…hiking and camping(?) in order to survive her journey. Fortunately and unfortunately, she meets Angelica and her friends—who know she’s not from their world, but cannot understand why the Specters don’t attack her—who explain how their world has changed since the Specters arrived causing all of the adults to flee into the mountains. Dr. Malone agrees to take the lost children to their parents.

            Cardinal MacPhail receives an answer from the Magisterium’s Alethiometer about Mrs. Coulter. The Alethiometer tells the Council what Mrs. Coulter is up to, as well as the question everyone wants an answer to: Who is Lyra Belaqua? The hints and the answer leads to the Magisterium to take action and to track down Lyra in order to kill her and to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled. Their forces head towards the opening Lord Asriel created to stop Lyra before she completes her task(s), and her destiny. 

            Mrs. Coulter and Carlo Boreal arrive in another world in order to track down Lyra and Will. Mrs. Coulter discovers very quickly as to why Lord Boreal is afraid of the world. Mrs. Coulter face off against the Specters, and they don’t attack her; in fact, she is able to gain some control over them. Mrs. Coulter’s revelation on how she was able to do this is a throwback from Season One. Note: this scene is a step closer to answering the question I had about the ending of The Subtle Knife. As for the last scene between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Boreal—before they go their separate ways—is NOT in the book. Actually, if I recall, then I believe Lord Boreal has a different fate in the books. 

            In all, this episode is a buildup to the finale, which should be closer to the books than what viewers received so far in this season. That being said, the episode was great in presenting the strengths and the abilities of all of the characters, and the dangers they all possess. The ending of this episode leaves the audience in high anticipation for the final episode in Season Two.

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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

This episode opens with Carlo Boreal giving Mrs. Coulter a description of our world, which is extremely accurate—“Their government is more corrupt than ours; their world is built on consumerism, not faith.” Boreal continues to explain how our world operates to Mrs. Coulter, and that includes her getting a makeover so she can blend into our world while searching and waiting for Lyra.

Meanwhile, Will and Lyra make plans on getting back the Alethiometer without handing over the Subtle Knife to the man who stole it. Will practices cutting and closing windows into our world. During their plans, Will and Lyra learn what happened to the older boy who stole the Knife from the Last Bearer; and, he happens to be Angelica’s older brother. The two children and the two adults prepare themselves to get what they want from the other party.

All the while, Cardinal MacPhail is starting to understand what he must do in order to maintain control in his world, as well as the Council of the Magisterium. The “anomaly” is no longer the Magisterium’s main threat to their power: the witches, Lord Asriel, and now Mrs. Coulter are working “against” the Magisterium, and they don’t know what to do.

Mrs. Coulter is the focus of this episode. Viewers learn more about her life before she was a married woman. I’m not sure whether or not this is in the books—I haven’t read The Secret Commonwealth, yet—but, discovering more about Mrs. Coulter’s character, her knowledge and what the social norms—misogyny—of her society (the Magisterium) did to her, brings an understanding to how and why she was attracted to Lord Asriel in the first place. She visits Dr. Mary Malone, where she learns more about her daughter’s character and the life she could have had if she lived in our world instead of hers. This is an essential realization because the audience discovers the numerous restrictions the Magisterium has placed within their world on all its denizens, and what Lord Asriel’s war is all about. 

Dr. Malone is given her task by the Dark Matter—“You must play the Serpent. Protect the Girl and the Boy,”—meaning, the (female) scholar is about to embark on her journey across other worlds, and learn more about Dark Matter. Dr. Malone makes the preparations and she is able to locate another window, and travel into the next world. But, which world does she end up in?

Lyra and Will wait until nighttime to return to Will’s world and steal back the Alethiometer. They have Boreal’s house memorized and they are ready; except, they didn’t expect Lyra’s mother to be there as well. Mother and daughter confront each other, and the two males fight over the Knife. This is different from what happened in the book, but it makes for an interesting scene. Lyra is in the position where she wants to be different from her parents, but cannot avoid behaving like them. Will understands where Lyra is coming from and he tells her she doesn’t have to be like the adults in her life. Meanwhile, what else does Mrs. Coulter know? 

In all, I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of the story for this episode was taken from the book, while the fillers were expansions into character development. The end of the episode had me thinking about an unanswered question about the ending of The Subtle Knife. After all these years, I believe I might get my question answered. Otherwise, all of the characters have their tasks—and their tools—and are ready to do see it done.

My Rating: 9 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “Tower of the Angels”

            This episode opens with how the Subtle Knife was created and the history of the world where it was created, and how both fell to corruption. The narration is similar to the opening scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film, and I believe this was done intentionally in order to keep the audience’s attention, or to note the deliberate parallels between Pullman and Tolkien. 

Lyra and Will return to the world where the Knife is said to be found. Unfortunately, someone else has found the Knife and its bearer. They all fight over the knife (which includes a throwback to Season One). The Subtle Knife has chosen Will to be its new bearer, and Will wears its mark. The Last Bearer has to teach Will about the Knife and how to use it before the Specters claim him. It takes some time, but Will learns how to cut into other worlds. Now, both Lyra and Will are ready to come up with a plan to get the Alethiometer back.

            At last, Lee Scoresby locates Doctor Stanislaus Grumman and they discuss their plans involving Lord Asriel. Lee states that he’s interested in Lyra’s well-being and her role in whatever is about to occur during the upcoming war. Dr. Grumman tells Lee of his past and how his knowledge of the other worlds has cost him his family. Next, he explains to Lee how and why Asriel’s cause is a reasonable one. Then, the lost traveler tells the aeronaut about the Knife, why Asriel needs it, and why they need to find its Bearer. 

            Dr. Malone’s research continues to gain a lot of attention by “questionable” investors. She fights off those who would do harm with the knowledge she’s uncovered so far, but she knows until she makes her breakthrough, Dr. Malone won’t be able to fight off investors forever. At last, Dr. Malone does make a breakthrough with her Dark Matter research and it’s more than she expected. 

            The witches gather the last of their forces to search for Lyra, and to fight the Magisterium. At the same time, Mrs. Coulter has found Lyra, too. Both parties crossover into the next (our) world. Who will find Lyra first?

            In all, this episode was very well done. A lot of the content from the books made it into this episode. I’m concerned about some of the filler material, but we’ll see how they’ll playout in the future episodes and the plot development. 

My Rating: 9 out of 10.

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

The episode opens with the devastation left behind by the Magisterium on the witches, who swear vengeance against them. However, the clans acknowledge that their priority is to search for Lyra Silvertongue before the Great War begins. Unfortunately, they have no idea where she could be. 

            Lee Scoresby continues his search for Lyra—in his world—by searching for Doctor Stanislaus Grumman, in which rumors say that he is in possession of a “weapon” that offers protection. It seems that Scoresby is more of a gunslinger than an aeronaut in this adaptation, yet his conviction for finding Lyra and helping the witches continues to bring out the best in him. His interrogation with Mrs. Coulter is very interesting because viewers gain more understanding of Lee’s character as well as how and why he became an aeronaut (on the TV series anyway). As for Mrs. Coulter, I believe it’s safe to say that she recalls what it’s like to have the Magisterium looking for you. 

            Meanwhile, Lyra decides to return to Will’s (our) world, without him, which leaves Will searching through the World of Specters for her. These scenes are altered so that Lyra appears more careless in Will’s world and disregards Will’s warnings about “people searching for them.” Lyra loses the Alethiometer because she ignores her instincts and does what she shouldn’t do. In the books, Lyra is unaware anyone from her world is familiar with Will’s world. 

            Dr. Malone continues her research on Dark Matter based on what Lyra told her about Dust. In these scenes, viewers learn more about her character, including her lifestyle as a scholar, and what she must do in order to make the breakthrough in her research. And, she’s closer than she realizes.  

            As Will continues to search for Lyra, he meets up with Angelica who continues to warn Will about the Specters. Angelica explains to Will why the Tower is so significant in her world. It seems that scholars are very significant to the plot of this story. The scene at the movie theater is straight from the books. After Will finds Lyra, they go in search of the man who took the Alethiometer. They find the man who stole the Alethiometer, and he offers to trade it for another item, which both Will and Lyra have to retrieve. 

            In all, this episode is more in line with the chapters from The Subtle Knife. The expansion of character development and dialogue demonstrates where all of the characters stand at this point in the mini-series. Readers of the books know what to expect in the next episode, but the viewers are about to learn more about the workings of Dust.

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10