The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
No Spoilers! (Promise)
Usually books that feature an author and/or historian tend to present a very romanticized, unrealistic version of it. They're all Indiana Jones tromping around in jungles and getting into fist fights, or effortlessly cranking out manuscript after manuscript and never even heard of writer's block. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they're washed-up alcoholics writing about how joy is fleeting and that death comes for us all.
Carrie McClelland is a bit of an ideal writer, in that she can afford to go bouncing around Europe without worrying about the hole in her finances. But otherwise, she's spot-on. She buries herself in books, letters, and articles in order to get every detail of her historical novel right. The first quarter of the book is her being unable to even start the damn manuscript because writer's block is a bitch. Her sleep schedule is a mess--in part because of the whole ancestral memory thing slowly driving her insane, but mostly because of the writing. She subsists almost entirely on coffee and ramen noodles. In short, I've rarely found myself more represented as a writer in any media, even if Carrie has much more of a pantser style than my planner style of writing.
But while I appreciate Carrie, her ancestor/fictional character Sophia is much more interesting, in part because her story is more interesting and the actual focus of the book. But don't worry, you'll never get confused. While Carrie and Sophia's stories echo each other in many ways, Kearsley uses both stylistic and POV differences to make it easy to tell when you're switching from one to the other. If it's first person POV and modern lingo, it's Carrie's story. If it's third person POV with long, antiquated sentences, we're dealing with Sophia.
The idea of ancestral memory is an interesting one, and its affects on Carrie have some unique story points. She goes from denial to acceptance quickly, thanks to the mountain of evidence put before her, but refuses to tell anyone else except on a need-to-know basis because she's very well aware of how insane it all sounds. While originally the memories affect her only as she's working on her book, they quickly consume the rest of her life, resulting in her almost falling off a cliff at one point because her Sophia-memory tells her the foot path leads one way when it actually goes another.
Despite what the back cover would have you believe, the politics and international drama is mostly background noise. And while it does have an impact on the story, the main focus of Carrie and Sophia's stories is very small scale and intimate. It is a romance novel, after all, so the primary focus is going to be Sophia's relationship with Moray and Carrie's with Graham. And while I personally think both relationships move a little too fast, they're both realistic, engaging, and natural. Sophia's is especially marked with hardship, given that she falls for a soldier in the middle of a war, and he, of course, gets sent out to fight.
Also, slight trigger warning: there is an attempted sexual assault about three quarters of the way through. It lasts about a page before she's rescued, but it does exist.
Here's how good this book is: it manages to cram in two--two!--love triangles and still keep me interested. It helps that everyone acts like adults about the whole thing, keeping the tropey ridiculousness to a minimum. And while Sophia's resolution is a little far fetched...it's romance, and by the time I got there I really wanted her to have a happy ending.
So if nothing else, the characterization, accurate-if-ideal portrayal of how an author works, and a surprisingly good plot twist are all good reasons to read The Winter Sea if you want to read a fantasy that doesn't scream fantasy. Or if you want a historical romance with a twist.
Oathbringer, Book 3 of The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
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Edgedancer, a novella by Brandon Sanderson
(Book 2.5 of The Stormlight Archive.
Book 1 is The Way of Kings.
Book 2 is Words of Radiance.)
Three years ago, Lift asked a goddess to stop her from growing older--a wish she believed was granted. Now, in Edgedancer, the barely teenage nascent Knight Radiant finds that time stands still for no one. Although the young Azish emperor granted her safe haven from an executioner she knows only as Darkness, court life is suffocating the free-spirited Lift, who can't help heading to Yeddaw when she hears the relentless Darkness is there hunting people like her with budding powers. The downtrodden in Yeddaw have no champion, and Lift knows she must seize this awesome responsibility.
No Spoilers (Promise!)
Unlike all the other books in The Stormlight Archive, Edgedancer is a huge departure from form in that it focuses exclusively on one character, with no detours or side-stories. It's actually kind of nice. Simple in a way this series isn't. And the character Sanderson chose--Lift--is phenomenal. She's extremely whacky, impulsive, and doesn't care about any kind of rules or structure. But she's also kind and compassionate, doing her best to keep people safe even as she goes to great lengths not to get attached to anything or anyone.
If you're reading The Stormlight Archive and are wondering who the hell this Lift character is, she's the thief who can turn Slick, has an obsession with food, and her spren Wyndle is the one that's made out of vines. If you're still drawing a blank, the short story that she first appeared in in Words of Radiance--where she helps a bunch of other thieves break into the Azish palace and ends up accidentally making one of them the new emperor--acts as the prologue to Edgedancer, so you get a nice refresher.
That's one of the things that's a downside to Sanderson's work. This series is incredible, the world-building is insane, and there's so much going on. Too much. More than once I've come across a name or place or concept that we've seen before, and it's supposed to be this big reveal, but I'll be drawing a complete blank because the thing was last seen a thousand pages ago and I have no idea what's going on. When book four comes out, I'm probably going to have to re-read the first three books to have half a chance of keeping everything straight.
Also in Edgedancer, Sanderson touches on mental health. Lift gets some food at an orphanage in the city of Yeddaw and befriends one of the other kids, who has a cognitive disability because of head trauma (i.e. head smacked bad, make brain sad). This is something I've noticed Sanderson doing more and more of, which is really good. Mostly. So far, every physical disability that's popped up--lack of limbs, paralysis, head trauma, etc.--has been fixed via magic. That's kind of a bummer, because we have people running on walls and flying and whatnot, and I would've loved to see a guy in a tricked-out wheelchair doing that, or a deaf bridgeman teaching everyone sign language so all the Windrunners can communicate in the sky, or someone with chronic pain calling the shots at a war meeting. Stuff like that. But no; magic glowing light fixes all that before it can become plot-relevant.
However, mental health has been handled better and more realistically; that is, it doesn't get a quick fix like a missing limb in this world. Kaladin still has seasonal depression, which is a pretty big deal considering the fact that he's one of the main characters. One of the men of Bridge Four is revealed to be an addict who keeps falling off the wagon. Shallan...probably should be more messed up than she is, but her development in light of her abusive family life is pretty true to form.
Anyway. Back to Edgedancer. According to Sanderson, this was more of a fun side-quest than anything else, as he loves the character of Lift and wanted to explore her more in depth. But in the main series, she barely pops up, and when she does it's after most of her character development. So basically, this was an author just having fun showing us the backstory of a minor character in a great series. And it shows. It's probably not critical to read this book to understand the series as a whole, but it's definitely worth the read.
The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People by Robyn Bennis
I met the devil at a Motel 6, poolside.
The devil—call her Dee—followed Jordan home, and decided to keep her. Now, while Dee claims to be helping get her life in order, Jordan has to live with a houseguest who complains constantly, eats all her pudding, and can incinerate her in a pillar of hellfire.
It’s super awkward.
No spoilers (Promise)
Of course, I've also only been getting published for the last handful of years, and none of my published works are novels. So, we're pretty much in the same boat, there.
The Signal Airship books are enjoyable for a variety of reasons, and they're hard sci-fi/steampunk military dramas. The Devil's Guide is a huge departure, with Bennis deciding to try her hand at paranormal comedy. Where Signal Airship is a drama with a thread of comedy, Devil's Guide is a comedy with a thread of drama. (Well, more like two or three threads, but you get the general idea.) But while some authors would be completely unable to pull it off, Bennis does a pretty damn good job. Despite the fact that the Devil gives absolutely no instructions on how to manage difficult people.
Jordan has basically lost her passion for life. She's kind of depressed, bored, honestly only looking forward to trying to date a guy that she's pretty sure is a spy (this suspicion is neither confirmed nor denied in the book, which I found kind of funny but also kind of disappointing, because that could have been a pretty good joke, like if he did work for a spy agency but was their accountant, or something). In short, she's leading a fairly unpleasant existence before Dee shows up. And Dee...kind of makes it worse.
Oh, who am I kidding. Dee makes her hide a body within twenty-four hours of meeting her.
In the name of making her life easier, of course.
Each character is unique and goofy in their own way: Jordan has a dark sense of humor to deal with past trauma, her friend Gabby has a soup lawyer (that is, a lawyer who specializes in cases revolving around soup), and Dee is Dee. And they each have their own conflicts. Jordan's is sorting out her conflicted feelings for her late, abusive mother, a task that she would prefer to reschedule for the month of never, which Dee is not having.
It's a page-turner, in part because it's such a fast pace, and in part because the situation gets so bad so quickly that you just have to know how it ends. It's like when a friend is telling a really funny story about the most embarrassing moment of their lives. You kind of don't want to know, but you have to.
Normally I don't read comedies. But I'm glad I read this one. It's not as good as Signal Airship; Bennis set herself a pretty high bar with that one, and if asked whether I wanted her to write another comedy or write a third Signal Airship book, the answer would be a very solid "option B, please." But if you're looking for lighter read, something that will make you laugh at every other page and put your life in perspective, then I do recommend The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People.
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
"There is a very old story, rarely told, of a wolf that runs into the ocean and becomes a whale."
Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect his people.
But the gods have stopped listening and Omat's family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When he meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter Omat's world...or save it.
No spoilers. (Promise)
I actually changed the description up there. The actual description uses female pronouns for Omat, which makes no sense because he spends the majority of the book using male pronouns. In modern culture he'd probably be considered FTM transgender, except that implies that he was assigned female at birth. But despite having a "woman's body," he was raised as a boy, because he inherited his father's soul. The whole thing boils down to "This baby is trans because magic."
This of course leads to excellent conflict and exploration of gender, gender roles, and sexuality. One of the villains is a cis woman who is very masculine. One of the good guys is a cis man who is very soft, gentle, and therefore somewhat feminine. Omat goes from strictly adhering to gender roles in order to claim and verify his manhood to "fuck the rules, I do what I want."
In terms of pacing, the book is a little slow. The first hundred pages are spent establishing Omat's world, the Inuit culture and mythology, and his magic and family dynamics. We don't even meet one of the main villains until page 103.
Once the book gets going, though, shit gets real. Omat has to overcome a tall order of villains and obstacles in order to achieve his goals, which vary from survive to rescue my brother to save my people. There are Inuit villains, Norse villains, godly villains, and nature itself is a bit of a villain at times.
One of the most interesting things about this book is its theme of sexual violence. Thanks to some transphobia and misogyny on the Inuit villain's part, Omat is raped. It's not graphically described, but it's still very upsetting. While it's the only time it happens to Omat, it's not the only time it's talked about in the book. It's also talked about from the other side: a rapist who is trying to seek forgiveness and redemption, and has to work for it. You rarely see that in fiction--or anywhere, really. Needless to say, even the "good guys" in this story are very grey.
The whole cast of characters are amazing. The Inuit are a tight-knit group and adore each other, but they're willing to sacrifice Omat if the alternative is death. The Norse are fierce warriors and mostly considered villains, but many of them are victims themselves. The gods are a mash-up of good and evil, created by humans and in turn affecting humans in both positive and negative ways. (This book adheres to the rules of American Gods to a T.)
I know shamefully little about Inuit culture and even Norse culture, but considering the fact that Harvard grad Brodsky goes ham on research by actually visiting the places she's writing about and (gasp! shock!) talking to people in those cultures, I think we can trust it. Maybe not the part about a vengeful god living on the moon and a massive snake wrapped around the world, but the more historical aspects.
Honestly, my only complaint about this book is that it's exhausting. In a good way, but still. The book hangover is not appreciated. While there is no gratuitous violence, the story itself is brutal. Rape, character deaths, animal deaths all get thrown at Omat like a never-ending parade of misery. The poor kid just can't catch a break, and neither do we. I need a nap.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems
No spoilers (promise)
The other reason I avoid historical fiction is because, as someone who has a bachelor's in history and continues to study it, I usually find half a dozen major problems with the historical setting within the first few chapters. The most common crime is that the time period is very idealized. We're seeing it through the thick lens of nostalgia (specifically, white and/or male nostalgia) rather than how it really was. Basically, the writer just doesn't do their research, which is extremely important even if you're doing an alternative history.
Justina Ireland side-steps these problems very neatly. Firstly she brings zombies into the equation, which is a surefire way to get my attention because I love zombie stories. It's rare that a story cannot be improved by adding a bit of the undead into the mix. Secondly, she definitely did her research on the Reconstruction Era. For those who are drawing a blank on what that is, the Reconstruction Era is that bit of time right after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to piece itself back together, fix up the destroyed South, end the slavery thing, and failed horribly on all accounts. Historians disagree on when, exactly, the Reconstruction Era ended--if indeed it's ended at all--and most agree that it could have gone a lot better, especially for the newly freed slaves, many of whom were forced to become indentured servants employed and abused by the very whites who owned them as property a few years ago.
Ireland takes that time period, adds a healthy dose of zombies, and goes to town. While it's definitely a YA novel--with the teenage protagonist, lightning-fast speed, critical view of authority and government--it's a story that readers of almost any age can enjoy and learn from. She's also got the language down perfectly. Several historical fiction authors have their characters and narrator talk either too contemporary or too blandly. Jane McKeene--who is both the main character and the narrator--talks exactly the way someone raised in 1870 Kentucky and educated in 1880 Maryland would talk.
Jane herself is an awesome character. She's a badass fighter, notorious troublemaker, and is one of those stupidly brave people who you respect for Doing The Thing, but at the same time you kind of want to strangle her because you're going to get yourself killed, you idiot! Kind of like Jon Snow, but more interesting.
Playing her foil and partner is Kate, her fellow classmate who is Jane's opposite in every way. Well, not every way, seeing as Kate isn't a horrible racist with dangerous delusions on how a society should overcome the zombies. That position goes to the villain, who we actually don't meet until halfway through the book. I won't go into detail because spoilers, but I will say that he's the perfectly crafted villain, in that I want to beat him over the head several times with a dictionary. He's the guy who just has to die. And I say that as an anti-death penalty advocate and pacifist.
The other characters are well-written, too: enemies, allies, the crush and ex-boyfriend who both cause an absolute minimum of tension, thank God. Actually, there's not much of a romantic subplot here, for which I'm glad. The ex--named Red Jack--is someone that Jane sees only as a mistake, refuses to get back together with despite his repeated advances, and while she still has some lingering feelings for him and gets jealous whenever someone else gives him goo-goo eyes, she ruthlessly squashes them down to concentrate on the task at hand. That is an attitude sorely lacking in many YA protagonists that I deeply appreciate, especially in a zombie story, where the most common mistake an author makes is focusing on the petty drama rather than the very real threat of imminent doom.
(We also find out about three-quarters of the way through the book that Jane is bisexual, or at least fluid and flexible enough to have made out with a pretty girl. Yay, diverse characters!)
My only complaint about this book is that there are a couple of loose ends, namely the fate of one of Jane's friends who goes missing. She spends a good amount of energy looking for him before she's forced to leave, so it's not like Ireland forgot he existed. She just refuses to tell us where he went off to, which is frustrating. Though I think she plans on bringing him back if she ever publishes a sequel, which is a distinct possibility. Watch me not complain about that.
So, yeah. Welcome to the Favorites page, Dread Nation! Please don't eat my brains.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
No Spoilers! (Promise)
This was largely because of the book's ending, which I will not get into because I have a strict no-spoiler rule on this blog. Suffice to say, even though the entire book has been leading up to that specific decision of the main character's, it still caught me off-guard. Because I'd never seen a book go that direction without warning before.
The Poppy War centers around Rin, and is told almost exclusively from her point of view (third person limited). Right from the start she's an extremely captivating character, despite the fact that most of what she does is react, making her a passive character. Her taking the test, going to Sinegard, becoming a soldier and fighting in a war, all of those are her reactions to what the world throws at her. It's not until the very end that she acts first, forcing the world to react to her.
Normally, I hate passive characters. They're boring. Best case scenario, they get dragged along with the plot and their primary function is to complain about how horrible the world is. But Rin is different, and it's the way she reacts that sets her apart. We learn very early that she doesn't do anything half-assed. Her foster parents tell her she's to marry someone three times her age for their criminal enterprise? She risks her life to steal opium to bribe a local tutor to help her study for the exam. Her period cramps are so bad that she's going to miss at least three days of school every month? Better drink a potion to make herself infertile so she doesn't have to deal with it. Enemies attacking the school? Burn the whole place down with newly-discovered magical powers!
Rin is impossible not to watch. Half of the time, she knows the thing she's about to do is a horrible decision, but she does it anyway because, in her mind, the alternative is even worse. She's very self-aware, even though, as a teenager, she can still be kind of stupid.
She's supported by a wide variety of supporting characters: her teachers, her rivals, and the few friends she manages to make. Several of these people die, because this book is definitely grimdark, and they're all very well crafted. I do wish that I could see more of Rin's young foster brother, largely because she feels guilty for leaving him when she goes to Sinegard and thinks about him later in the book. But we only get one scene with him, and that's when she leaves for the academy. Another scene or two showing them together would have gone a long way toward showing Rin's more human side that she becomes in danger of losing.
The worldbuilding leaves something to be desired. Not the magic or the gods, those are fine, but the history and political climate need work. I'm not as well-versed in Chinese history as I should be, but even I knew after one glance that this "fantasy world" is basically 19th-century China. The real world saw two Opium Wars; this world has two Poppy Wars (poppy being the plant that opium is made from). Japan used to be militarily aggressive and constantly fought with China; in this universe they're the Federation of Mugen. China had an ancient strategist named Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War; Rin studies a guy named Sunzi who wrote The Philosophy of War, whose lessons and parables match Sun Tzu word-for-word.
I am all for using history as a stepping stone in worldbuilding. Hell, I do that all the time! The most famous example is George R. R. Martin, who based his Game of Thrones series off of the Wars of the Roses. But there's a difference between using something for inspiration like Martin and just copy-and-pasting like Kuang.
But that's honestly my only real complaint about this book. The characters and plot are both more than strong enough to carry the otherwise weak worldbuilding. The theme is also very well done. Kuang does not shy away from the horrors committed by the supposed "good guys." Considering the atrocities that Rin's nation and, eventually, Rin herself commits, the overall message is "war, oppression, and drugs really suck, guys, so maybe let's not?"
But while Kuang's book laments the horrible conditions that war brings out, she doesn't use it as an excuse to dismiss the negative aspects of her characters. She puts the responsibility for the characters' actions squarely on the characters, not letting them fall into the "oh, it was just a bad time, so it doesn't really count as my fault" mindset. Rin herself admits that her actions are inexcusable, morally atrocious, while also, in her mind, necessary.
One last thing, and this is probably one of the best things about this book: THERE'S NO ROMANTIC SUBPLOT. You could argue that Rin has a crush on one of her classmates, but that's a lot less romantic and a lot more hero-worship. I mentioned earlier: she destroys her own uterus as a teenager just to stay in school. Romance and family are the last things on her mind.
The Poppy War is landing solidly on my Favorites page. I would recommend it to anyone who's looking for a non-traditional military fantasy story, and/or is looking for a femme protagonist of color, and/or likes it when things get set on fire, because that happens a lot.
Words of Radiance - Book 2 of The Stormlight Archive - by Brandon Sanderson
Now the Assassin is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin's master has much deeper motives.
Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status "darkeyes". Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.
Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.
No Spoilers for Words of Radiance (pinky-promise)
While Way of Kings focused primarily on Kaladin's story, with flashbacks to him growing up and joining the military, Words of Radiance focuses on Shallan. This makes sense as, out of the three main characters in series so far (her, Kaladin, and Dalinar), she's the one who undergoes the greatest change in this book. A lot of it is her learning how to use her magical abilities, the way Kaladin learned to use is. While Kaladin's powers are about "Lashing" and strength, Shallan's powers are kind of like Loki's from the MCU. She can create illusions. The problem is she needs to be able to balance the lies she tells with what the truth is, which involves delving into some pretty nasty secrets in her own past.
Also, she finally meets the other characters (after a shipwreck that delays her for half the book) and gets an arranged betrothal to Dalinar's son Adolin. Now, this little rom-sub is really cute. Adolin likes how Shallan is different from the other girls, Shallan likes how Adolin is hot and a decent human beings--unlike all the other men in her life--and they're just really adorable together.
What is not cute is the hints Sanderson is throwing about a possible love triangle with Kaladin. I want to give a firm no on that for multiple reasons, the first being that love triangles are inherently lazy, and Sanderson is better than that. The other reason is that Kaladin and Shallan work amazingly well as pseudo-siblings, not a romantic couple. Kaladin's first positive thought about Shallan is that she reminds him of his brother. And him silently stewing like an older brother while Shallan and Adolin make kissy faces at each other is the funniest thing.
But that's a problem for another time. As I said, Sanderson has only hinted at that, and there are eight more books in this series.
Bottom line: this book is just as good as its predecessor, expanding on the world and characters. We see things from the Parshendi side for the first time, which is really fun. Kaladin has to decide whether or not they should assassinate the king--you'd think that'd be an easy answer, but while the king is no Joffrey Baratheon, he's definitely the cause of a lot of problems. Dalinar learns that running a country is similar to running a babysitting service. And Shallan goes from adorable cinnamon roll to adorable badass. It's a fun time all around.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, book one of the Stormlight Archive
Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.
Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar's niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan's motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.
The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.
No spoilers. (Promise.)
My attention was drawn to this series by one of my favorite YouTubers, Hello Future Me. In addition to being a super-geek, he also does some writing videos (which is why he's mentioned in my For Writers page). It was during one of these videos--I forget which one--that he mentioned the world-building of the Stormlight Archive.
In addition to the unique geography, Roshar also has a social structure I had never seen before. It's a pseudo-patriarchy that is extremely binary, nothing new there. But while men are pushed toward "masculine" traits such as leadership, military, labor, et cetera, the women have their own equally important "feminine" traits, such as architecture, science, engineering. Reading is, in and of itself, a feminine art. None of the men in this story--Kaladin, Dalinar, the king--know how to read! It's hilarious, but it also launches women into leadership roles themselves, as they're the advisors and creators of their society.
This, of course, begs the question: what about the people of the LGBT+ community? So far there has been no mention of same-sex relationship or genderqueer people, and I will be disappointed but unsurprised if that holds true for books two and three. But if, by chance, Sanderson has added them, then I imagine they'd be facing a lot of social adversity.
On a related note: romantic subplots are near non-existent! There's one with Dalinar and the king's widowed mother that's a little cliched, but it serves as some character development for Dalinar and introduces another awesome woman to the story. Even though he uses the word "beautiful" to describe her way too much. (We get it! You think she's hot! Maybe focus on some other traits, or at least pick up a thesaurus to mix it up a little.)
The story, at first, seems to be everywhere. It doesn't help that the novel is chopped up into parts that are divided by short stories. These stories seem random (except the ones about the Assassin in White, as he's very important despite his minor appearances), but they are very helpful in establishing the world itself and the political and social rules that influence the main characters. When one of the short stories includes a couple of scientists studying a type of magic, that type of magic becomes very important later in the book. A couple of servants talk about a mysterious woman who specializes in another type of magic, she ends up being the answer to a mystery that plagues one of the main characters. It's a very handy type of exposition.
After about two or four hundred pages, you see how all the different threads--Kaladin, Dalinar, Shallan, the Assassin--all start to weave together. There is some predictability; it's not like Game of Thrones where you have almost no clue which main character is going to get slaughtered next. But it's the good kind of predictability, the kind that drags out the tension. (Oh no, one of the major characters is in critical danger in the climax of the story, and only this other major character can save them, but only if they get over the major internal issues that have plagued them the whole book...WHY IS THIS TAKING A WHOLE CHAPTER. GO GO GO!)
It helps that all of these characters are very different from each other. Kaladin and Dalinar are probably the tropiest (most trope?) of the bunch, being the depressed hero with rotten luck and the super strict yet kind lord, but they're still extremely engaging. I cared about them, I worried about them, I cried with them through all their ups and downs. (Although, content warning, Kaladin seriously contemplates suicide relatively early in the book, and references it a few times later.) Shallan is a walking mystery; despite hundreds of pages we still know very little about her, and her last few chapters only raise more questions. Hell, the last fifty pages were dedicated to raising more questions and leaving cliffhangers, which is why as soon as I can, I'm purchasing book two.
Well played, Sanderson. Well played.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means "Who fears death?" in an ancient language.
It doesn't take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.
No spoilers. (Promise.)
And I was not disappointed.
It's rare--or at least, rare for me in my little corner of America--to find popular SFF books that have a post-apocalyptic or fantasy setting outside of the U.S., or even Europe. So the setting itself of a fantastical, post-apocalyptic Africa was intriguing to me. I wish Okorafor had gone into just what, exactly the apocalypse was that completely reshaped the world and set up whole new religions and ethnicities, or even just the history of the world in general. We're given the religious version that everyone is told growing up and that main character Onye has little respect for, but not a definitive This is what happened, and this is why the world works this way now. But that's probably just the history major in me.
The magic system used is very unique and interesting. It's a soft magic system, which is the kind that basically allows the author to make it up as they go along (kind of like Tolkien or Game of Thrones), compared to the hard magic system where the rules are explained and strictly adhered to (i.e. Avatar: the Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist). But while Onye and the other sorcerers' powers are many and varied, there's no deux ex machina that goes on. She still has limitations, especially in the beginning when she has no control.
The story itself starts out pretty slow. Onye is obviously very special and eventually has to set out to topple the unjust system of oppression and war that her mother's people is subjected to. But she and her friends don't start their journey until halfway through the book. The first half is Onye coming to terms with who and what she is (for the most part, at least), worldbuilding, and describing the struggles and conflicts between Onye, her mother, and everyone around them. So even though the pacing of the overarching story is very slow, there's still a lot that goes on that kept me turning the pages.
Oh, and in case you didn't get the hint from the book description, this story is not something to flippantly give to children. More on this later.
There are a lot of characters here. While the entire story is told in first person point of view by Onye, she runs into a lot of characters. There's her beau, Mwita, another sorcerer who knows more about magic but isn't as powerful as she is and functions as team healer. She has three best girlfriends, her mentors, her mother, her stepfather, and of course, her rapist father. Who is a real piece of work. Just...wow.
All of these characters are deeply flawed. Onye has some severe anger issues that are a direct result of how horribly her society treats her and her mother, leading her to do several things that she almost immediately regrets. The friends she sets out on her journey with turn out to be less than ideal travel companions, given that half of them abandon the quest out of fear. (Though the one that sticks around, while not magical in any way, is a total badass.) Mwita himself has some inferiority complexes. I mentioned that he's not as powerful as Onye is, and while it's clear that these two characters deeply love and go to great lengths for each other, Mwita has some sexist views that come out every now and then. He believes that he should be the sorcerer while Onye hangs back as the healer. Needless to say, this is a bit of a conflict between the two of them.
In addition to expert storytelling, captivating worldbuilding, and engaging characters, Okorafor also weaves in several themes throughout this story. And when I say several, I mean all of them. I thought I was impressed by how many topics she was able to cover in Lagoon, but that's nothing compared to when she has an extra three hundred pages to play around with. Who Fears Death unflinchingly talks about rape, war, slavery, genital mutilation, misogyny, racism, religion and tradition used as tools of oppression, love, hope, death, and probably a dozen others that I missed in my first reading or just can't think of right now.
Bottom line, this is an amazing book. It is a bold, beautiful story that deserves to be on bookshelves everywhere.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!