The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There haven’t been as many books in the mail lately so it’s been a little while since the last of these posts, but there are some recent arrivals to cover even if I am a day late. (I spent a lot of yesterday cooking and cleaning up the mess from cooking and ran out of time for wrapping this up!)

The first of these books is technically from the week before since I ran out of time to post it that weekend as well, but the other two came in last week. This includes the first of a few October releases I preordered—this is a great month for new speculative fiction books!

In case you missed them, here are the reviews that went up since the last one of these features:

  • Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm #1) by Kacen Callender — This US Virgin Islands–inspired novel is a fascinating character study that also explores the history of Black slaveowners in a fantasy setting. I felt its over-reliance on the main protagonist’s mind reading ability bogged it down too much, but I also appreciated the concept and the thoughtfulness that went into creating a deliberately unlikeable main character and her perspective.
  • The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart — This Asian-inspired fantasy novel is set in an empire ruled by a mad-scientist-like emperor who creates constructs sewn from assorted animal parts and animated by bone shards taken from his subjects. It follows five different characters from throughout the empire—the emperor’s daughter, a smuggler, a future governor, a bookseller, and a woman on a mysterious island—with a range of perspectives and roles. I really enjoyed this story, especially the two narratives that make up the bulk of the novel and the adorable animal companion.

On to the latest books!

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick - Cover Image

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook & Rose #1) by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy by Memoirs of Lady Trent author Marie Brennan and Adventures of Mr. Mystic author Alyc Helms, will be released on January 19, 2021 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

It may not be out until next year, but you can read a sample from it now: io9 has an excerpt from The Mask of Mirrors.

This sounds like fun and I’ve had my eye on this one since I first heard about it, so I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door!

 

The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a darkly magical fantasy adventure in which a con artist returns to the city that betrayed her, determined to have her revenge–only to find that her fate might be to save it.

This is your past, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
Arenza Lenskaya is a liar and a thief, a pattern-reader and a daughter of no clan. Raised in the slums of Nadezra, she fled that world to save her sister.

This is your present, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
Renata Viraudax is a con artist recently arrived in Nadezra. She has one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune.

This is your future, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
As corrupt nightmare magic begins to weave its way through the city of dreams, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart. And if she cannot sort the truth from the lies, it will mean the destruction of all her worlds.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear - Cover Image

Machine (A White Space Novel) by Elizabeth Bear

Machine, a space opera set in the same universe as Ancestral Night, will be released on October 20 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The Book Smugglers has an excerpt from Machine along with the cover reveal.

I love Elizabeth Bear’s writing, and I’m looking forward to reading this (and was glad to learn it’s a standalone since I’ve not yet read Ancestral Night!).

 

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Written in Elizabeth Bear’s signature “rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental” (Publishers Weekly) style, Machine is a fresh and electrifying space opera that you won’t be able to put down.

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner - Book Cover

Return of the Thief (Queen’s Thief #6) by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Thief, the sixth and final book in Megan Whalen Turner’s beloved Queen’s Thief series, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The Harper Collins website has a text excerpt and audio sample from Return of the Thief.

The previous books in the Queen’s Thief series are as follows:

  1. The Thief
  2. The Queen of Attolia
  3. The King of Attolia
  4. A Conspiracy of Kings
  5. Thick as Thieves

Although I’m a bit behind on this series, I had to preorder this because I LOVE the first half of the series—especially The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, the latter of which I enjoyed even more when I reread it a couple of years ago. These books are clever with wonderful characters, and I’m glad I have more books in the series to look forward to reading for the first time as well as a complete set for rereads.

 

The thrilling, twenty-years-in-the-making conclusion to the New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.

The epic novels set in the world of the Queen’s Thief can be read in any order.

This beloved and award-winning series began with the acclaimed novel The Thief. It and four more stand-alone volumes bring to life a world of epics, myths, and legends, and feature one of the most charismatic and incorrigible characters of fiction, Eugenides the thief. Now more powerful and cunning than ever before, Eugenides must navigate a perilous future in this sweeping conclusion. Perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, Patrick Rothfuss, and Sarah J. Maas.

Neither accepted nor beloved, Eugenides is the uneasy linchpin of a truce on the Lesser Peninsula, where he has risen to be high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. As the treacherous Baron Erondites schemes anew and a prophecy appears to foretell the death of the king, the ruthless Mede empire prepares to strike.

The New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief novels are rich with political machinations, divine intervention, dangerous journeys, battles lost and won, power, passion, and deception. Features a cast list of the characters in the Queen’s Thief novels, as well as two maps—a map of the world of the Queen’s Thief, and a map exclusive to this edition.

The Bone Shard Daughter
by Andrea Stewart
448pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.29/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.37/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in Andrea Stewart’s Asian-inspired debut epic fantasy trilogy, The Drowning Empire, set in an archipelago ruled by a mad-scientist-like Emperor. He creates beings known as constructs, which are sewn together from an assortment of animal parts and animated by bone shard magic powered by his subjects. These vary in complexity ranging from those ordered to follow straightforward commands to complicated structures that regulate different aspects of the Empire and report to the Emperor, allowing him to spend more time mastering the bone shard magic, working on mysterious projects, and monitoring the contest between his two potential heirs.

The Emperor’s network of constructs is made possible by Tithing Festivals, during which each eight-year-old child is required to “donate” a bone shard to the Empire. Even if they are one of the 96% who survive this procedure, they may still die prematurely: once a bone shard with commands engraved on it is inserted into a construct, it feeds off the life force of the one it was taken from.

There was a time when this bone shard magic protected the Empire and its residents from a powerful people, and it’s said that they may return one day. But with their threat long confined to the annals of history, many people do not see why they are still beholden to the risk and sacrifice required for the creation of constructs. Some have banded together with the intention of overthrowing the Emperor and his governors, who are—in not-so-shocking news—neither kind nor fair to the common people of the Empire, even aside from the bone shard tithe and its consequences.

The Bone Shard Daughter explores this world from five different perspectives, two of which are closely intertwined and only some of which come together by the end—but all of which work together to show a lot about the Empire. It hooked me immediately from its opening lines, and I appreciated that the characters started in the midst of interesting stories that rapidly became even more compelling. This is a novel that keeps moving; in fact, one of my little quibbles with it is that I actually would have liked for it to slow down a bit to deepen the character relationships and worldbuilding. However, I do think that’s more a personal preference than a major issue with the book, which succeeds at being an immensely fun, well-paced novel with a wonderful world, cast of characters, and story.

My favorite part of The Bone Shard Daughter is the characters (especially the adorable animal companion) and getting to see the Empire from a variety of viewpoints, although I did find some perspectives more engaging than others.

Lin, The Emperor’s Daughter: A Story of Memories Lost and Knowledge Found in a Palace of Creepy Secrets

Father told me I’m broken.

He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.

He taught me how to read a person’s thoughts on their face. And he knew that I knew how to read these signs. So between us, it was as though he had spoken out loud.

The question: “Who was your closest childhood friend?”

My answer: “I don’t know.”

I could run as quickly as the sparrow flies, I was as skilled with an abacus as the Empire’s best accountants, and I could name all the known islands in the time it took for tea to finish steeping. But I could not remember my past before the sickness. Sometimes I thought I never would – that the girl from before was lost to me.
— Page 1

Lin, the titular bone shard daughter, is the first character introduced and the one with the most chapters. It’s through her that we learn the most about the Emperor and the workings of constructs.

At the beginning of her story, Lin has spent five years trying to regain her memories in order to please her father and secure her place as his heir. Both she and her father’s foster son, Bayan, had an illness that left them unable to remember their lives prior to that, but while Bayan has since recovered some of his memories, Lin cannot remember anything about her life before she was 18 years old. This leaves her at a disadvantage when her father tests her to determine whether or not he wants to give her a new key to a room in the palace, which would allow her to learn more of the secrets of his magic that the next Emperor will need to know.

And now, Lin is trailing behind Bayan in her father’s competition: her foster brother has more keys than she does and has even begun putting together constructs of his own, while she’s not even allowed into the library containing books about bone shard magic. Fearing that her father favors Bayan and will name him heir, Lin decides to take matters into her own hands by stealing keys and sneaking around the palace to learn more about constructs and how to write their instructions.

Lin’s story, one of two narrated in first person, was a bit rushed but was also my second favorite to follow. It’s engaging because of her situation and determination, her insight into the functionality of constructs, and the thrill of exploring the palace to uncover her father’s secrets—which become increasingly disturbing the more she learns. Her quest for knowledge also takes her outside the palace, which is a new experience for her. Her interactions with the blacksmith she pays to make copies of the keys she gradually steals help her learn more about the concerns of the people she may rule one day and think more about the type of ruler she wants to be herself.

Although Lin doesn’t seem to give as much thought to what it means to rule as one may expect, especially earlier in the novel, I think it makes sense that she’s more focused on the here and now of winning the competition to become her father’s heir. That she would become the next Emperor was decided for her (at least, until Bayan was put forth as a potential candidate given Lin’s continued memory loss), and I don’t think she desired power. She did have a competitive streak that made her want to win, but mostly, she seemed to want her father’s love and approval. She wanted him to stop seeing her as a daughter who couldn’t remember her past and instead see her as a daughter who could be the Empire’s future.

Lin’s view of the competition as being more about winning her father’s favor than anything else made her dynamic with Bayan particularly compelling; in fact, this was one of my favorite parts of her tale, along with her creepy palace adventures. I loved the progression of their relationship from a cold impersonal rivalry to a potential allyship/friendship after Lin made a potentially unwise but compassionate stand that led to a deeper understanding of the situation Bayan faced.

Lin’s journey is ultimately about someone doing the best she can and becoming a kinder, braver, more thoughtful person in the process—someone who may be exactly what’s needed after her father’s rule.

Jovis, A Wanted Smuggler: A Story of Law Evasion and Heroics, Mysterious Powers, and Animal Companionship

I was a good liar – the best. It was the only reason I still had a head on my shoulders.
— Page 17

Jovis is the only character with a first-person perspective other than Lin, and he’s also the only one who has nearly as many chapters as she does. It’s from his viewpoint that we get the biggest overall picture of the Empire since he travels to different islands searching for his wife, who disappeared seven years before his tale begins.

Jovis has been chasing stories of disappearances just like hers: people who went missing with a few coins left in their place, often accompanied by descriptions matching the boat he saw on the day his own wife vanished. When seeking news of a recent missing person, a woman provides him with information in exchange for rescuing her visiting nephew from the Tithing Festival and bringing him back to his parents. Jovis not only rescues him from the Emperor’s tithe but also rescues him from drowning when the island unexpectedly starts sinking. As he rows away from the land rapidly being submerged, Jovis sees a kitten that seems to desperately want to get into his boat and picks him up.

When Jovis returns the child to his grateful parents, he tells them his name and shows them his recognizable navigator tattoo on a whim, knowing they won’t turn in the man who rescued their son despite the large bounty on his head. What he didn’t expect is that word would spread that he’s a heroic savior of children and people would start pleading with him to rescue their own from Tithing Festivals—or that he’d start developing magical powers seemingly tied to the animal he rescued, which just add to the legends of Jovis taking root throughout the Empire.

Jovis’ story is easily my favorite, not just because I enjoyed his viewpoint the most but also because I loved everything about his animal companion, Mephi, and their dynamic. Once Jovis is no longer fleeing for his life (at least, for a little while since this is not a condition that tends to last long for him), he realizes that Mephi is not like any kind of creature he’s seen before: he’s similar to an otter with an angular, cat-like face, which is why he mistook the baby animal for a kitten when he saw him struggling in the sea. At first, Jovis tries to get Mephi to leave since he doesn’t have time to care for a pet while searching for his wife, but Mephi always returns to him. Jovis eventually finds he’s grown rather fond of the little animal in spite of himself—and Mephi ends up bringing out the best in him, also in spite of himself, as Jovis is actually a cinnamon roll underneath the heartless shield he keeps trying to cling to.

As more people come to Jovis wanting his help, he keeps resisting since he’s just trying to find his wife and doesn’t want to get involved, but Mephi changes all that. It seems to please Mephi whenever Jovis gives in and agrees to aid someone, and it soon becomes clear that he’s more of a companion than a pet. Mephi seems to understand language (at least, when he wants to), and he starts learning to speak for himself as he grows.

Jovis’ friendship with Mephi is the heart of his story, and they both won my whole heart, especially together.

Phalue and Ranami: The Story of a Future Governor and Her Commoner Girlfriend

Phalue wants Ranami to marry her. Ranami wants to start a revolution.
From “Happily Ever Aftermath” by Andrea Stewart

Phalue and Ranami each have three chapters narrated in third person, and their stories are closely intertwined. Their perspectives show the everyday struggles of one island’s people under an uncaring governor and give some insight into the revolutionary group that wants to overthrow the government.

Phalue, the governor’s daughter and a warrior, keeps asking Ranami, a bookseller who grew up on the streets with other orphans, to marry her—and Ranami keeps turning down her proposals because she does not want to be a governor’s wife. Though Phalue has good intentions and the makings of a more thoughtful governor than her father, Ranami says she doesn’t truly understand the plights of the people she will one day govern. Ranami then gets both of them involved with the revolutionary group gaining traction in the Empire when she has them help her fake her kidnapping, bringing Phalue rushing to her aid prepared to run her sword through anyone standing between her and her girlfriend.

Although I felt that Phalue and Ranami’s shorter story would have benefited from delving more into their relationship and the islanders’ problems, I enjoyed that it explored whether or not true love is enough when two people have clashing worldviews. It also eventually ties into one of the other main characters’ chapters, and their interactions and observations of one another are fun to read.

Their part was especially rushed, but Phalue and Ranami’s story has a lot of interesting aspects between the focus on their relationship, complicity, and the necessity of working to expand one’s empathy and understanding.

Sand, A Mango Harvester: A Story of Awakening

A thought struck her, and it knocked out her breath as surely as the fall had.

Why was she on Malia at all? Why didn’t any of them leave?
— Page 54

Sand’s short chapters, which are also in third person, are interspersed throughout the novel. They’re puzzling at first, but as you read more of the other viewpoints and learn more about the world, they become clearer.

Sand lives on an island with several other people, where she spends much of her time picking mangoes. While doing so one day, she remembers something new: a time before her life on the island. She then begins wondering about where she came from, why they’re all here, and why they never leave and tries to find out if the others have any memories of a life before the island.

Although Sand’s story is separate from the others so far, its connections are more apparent by its end.

In Conclusion

The Bone Shard Daughter is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year with its sinister magic and engaging characters. Although some viewpoints were more compelling than others and the pacing moved a little too quickly for my taste, it’s an extraordinarily fun novel set in a fascinating world with main characters who are doing their best and trying to do the right thing (or who end up doing the right thing in spite of themselves, in Jovis’ case).

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Shard Daughter

Queen of the Conquered
by Kacen Callender
400pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.25/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.57/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Book Description:

An engrossing tale of colonialism, conquest and revenge, Queen of the Conquered starts a fantasy series perfect for readers of S. A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Tasha Suri.

On the islands of Hans Lollik, Sigourney Rose was the only survivor when her family was massacred by the colonizers. When the childless king of the islands declares he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.

But someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. And as the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender’s World Fantasy Award–nominated first novel for adults, is a US Virgin Islands–inspired fantasy book told from the first-person perspective of Sigourney Rose, the daughter of a freed slave and a man from the only family to rule one of the islands of Hans Lollik—and the last member of her family after the rest were murdered.

Like many from ruling families, Sigourney has kraft, a special ability that the colonizers view as a divine gift bestowed upon the worthy (although they apparently believe themselves to be better judges of worthiness than their gods, given that they also execute slaves who possess kraft). Since she was born free, Sigourney does not meet the same fate as other islanders, despite having an exceptionally strong and dangerous power: she can feel other people’s thoughts and emotions so keenly she can practically become them, and she can even erase someone’s memories or compel them to walk into danger.

Between her ability and position, Sigourney has rare privilege for an islander, but she’s not treated as an equal by the other rulers because of her race. The other islanders have no love for her, either, as she’s also cruel to her slaves, having them beaten for disobedience, ordering them executed for having kraft, and taking one to her bed knowing he can’t refuse her. She can feel their disgust and hatred toward her, but neither their loathing nor her own is enough for her to break the cycle of abuse, even as she dreams of eventually becoming the next queen and freeing her people.

Sigourney’s character was inspired by the history of Black slaveowners and imagining what one might be like, according to the excellent interview with Kacen Callender at the end of the book. They discussed the novel originating from “the idea of someone who could know the pain of their own people, but then cause that same pain when given the chance to gain power by oppressing others.” I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and courage that went into developing Sigourney as a deliberately unlikable character, especially after reading about how the author examined some uncomfortable truths in the process. The overall story arc and the way it relies on Sigourney’s perspective—or lack thereof—and the lies she tells herself is well done and makes for a fascinating character study.

But aside from those aspects, I didn’t find Queen of the Conquered particularly compelling as a novel. At first, I was intrigued by Sigourney with her rage over the massacre of her family and plot to become queen, which involved using her power to maneuver herself into a better political position. However, I went from being curious about where it was headed to finding it a struggle to turn the pages as it seemed that Sigourney’s story got more and more weighed down by both her own thoughts and others.

With her power, she sinks into others’ thoughts a lot, and this leads to reading a bunch of neatly organized, relevant infodumps on what made many of the other characters who they were rather than showing who they were through their actions and dialogue—which could have worked, of course, but these sections all seemed rather dry, dull, and similar, despite Sigourney’s ability to sink so deeply into others’ thoughts that she basically becomes them. One character whose mind Sigourney did not read was also the one she had the best interactions with, and although that’s probably largely due to the complicated relationship and history between them, it probably also helped that this was not divulged through mind reading.

Much of the big revelation about the mysteries of what had been happening on the royal island was also unveiled through a big mind-reading infodump toward the end. The revelation itself was great (predictable, but fitting nevertheless), but revealing it this way made it boring and removed all the tension from it.

Although Queen of the Conquered didn’t entirely work for me, I do appreciate the overall concept and that it had enough unique elements to stand out in my memory despite my problems with it.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Queen of the Conquered

 

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One ARC that I’m VERY excited to read showed up last week, but first, here’s the latest review in case you missed it:

  • The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson — Terror is twofold in this dark fantasy/Gothic horror debut novel combining mysterious witches with the everyday horrors of a patriarchal puritanical society. Immanuelle and her journey kept me turning the pages, and despite having some issues with the ending, I thought it was a strong first novel and look forward to reading more by Alexis Henderson (including the upcoming sequel!).

And now, the latest book in the mail!

The Ikessar Falcon by K. S. Villoso - Cover Image

The Ikessar Falcon (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #2) by K. S. Villoso

The traditionally published edition of the second book in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, an epic fantasy series whose “worldbuilding is a love letter to the Philippines” (which K. S. Villoso discusses in more detail on her blog), will be released on September 22 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

The Fantasy Hive has a short excerpt from The Ikessar Falcon, and the Orbit website has a longer excerpt from The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first book in the series.

I absolutely loved The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and found Queen Talyien to be a fascinating, complex character. You can read more about her in K. S. Villoso’s Women in SF&F Month essay from earlier this year, which opens as follows:

“Queen Talyien is a badass.

At least, this was the seed from which the entire concept of this series sprouted. She is the first woman I’ve written this way. Before Talyien, many of my women characters were not warrior types. Most were non-assuming, brimming with strength that bubbled beneath the surface as they faced their challenges with quiet resolution. Years later, when I started in the field of engineering, I learned the textbook definition of strength: a material’s ability to withstand load, to carry a burden.”

And Queen Talyien is made all the more compelling by the strength of her voice, as I discussed in my 9/10 review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro:

“It’s difficult to put into words just what precisely makes a voice work, but The Wolf of Oren-Yaro has one that works—one of the best I’ve ever encountered. Tali’s expressive, often poetic, flowing narrative carried me into the story and her psyche, made the world and surroundings real, and were a big part of what made this novel so engaging. It contains quite a bit of telling and flashbacks, but I actually enjoyed those parts most of all: they made the story richer by showing glimpses into the culture and events that shaped Tali, and they never seemed overlong or dull because of her compelling voice and the way they tied into her characterization.”

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is my favorite book I’ve read this year, and I’m eager to continue Queen Talyien’s story!

 

The stunning sequel to The Wolf of Oren-yaro where the queen of a divided land struggles to unite her people. Even if they despise her. K. S. Villoso is a “powerful new voice in fantasy.” (Kameron Hurley)

The spiral to madness begins with a single push.

Abandoned by her people, Queen Talyien’s quest takes a turn for the worst as she stumbles upon a plot deeper and more sinister than she could have ever imagined, one that will displace her king and see her son dead. The road home beckons, strewn with a tangled web of deceit and impossible horrors that unearth the nation’s true troubles – creatures from the dark, mad dragons, and men with hearts hungry for power.

To save her land, Talyien must confront the myth others have built around her: Warlord Yeshin’s daughter, symbol of peace, warrior and queen, and everything she could never be.

The price of failure is steep. Her friends are few. And a nation carved by a murderer can only be destined for war.

The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen
The Wolf of Oren-yaro
The Ikessar Falcon

The Year of the Witching
by Alexis Henderson
368pp (Hardcover/Ebook)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.93/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.04/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Note: You may want to read this review on the website (instead of by email or feed reader). There are spoiler tags toward the end that should be hidden on the website but may be visible elsewhere.

Terror is twofold in The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson’s dark fantasy/Gothic horror debut novel, with its story involving mysterious witch spirits as well as the everyday atrocities that occur in a patriarchal puritanical society—the latter of which is magnified for protagonist Immanuelle Moore, a biracial sixteen year old followed by her mother’s sins and connection to the witchy woods.

Immanuelle’s grandparents were among the wealthiest, most powerful people in their religious community until the Prophet, the leader of their faith, decided to take their daughter as one of his brides. After discovering she was having an affair during their betrothal, the Prophet had the farm boy she loved burned at the pyre, and she retaliated by attempting to murder him the night before their marriage ceremony was to take place. She escaped into the woods said to be haunted by Lilith and her coven and returned home months later, where she died giving birth to her beloved’s child. That same night, her father lost his rare Holy Gifts from the Good Father and had a severe stroke that left him in poor health—and because he and his wife did not shun their daughter and raised her daughter, they also lost their estate, their comfortable lifestyle, their status in the Church, and the respect of their community.

Nearly seventeen years later, Immanuelle’s family is struggling to make ends meet, and she, as their shepherdess, is sent to sell a young ram at the market. She does not find a buyer and ends up leaving with the yearling in tow, but on her way home, the animal breaks free and runs into the forbidden forest. Immanuelle fails to retrieve him but encounters two of the witches she’s heard tales of throughout her life, who give her a book that turns out to be her mother’s journal. From this, Immanuelle learns more of the parents she never knew but is also unnerved by it, especially as it becomes less coherent and eventually devolves into repetition of the words “Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.”

Soon, Immanuelle fears that these words were prophetic and what they foretold is somehow linked to her and the eerie woods that call to her. She determines to find answers and put a stop to the horrors to come—even if that means studying forbidden knowledge and returning to the forbidden forest.

The Year of the Witching drew me in immediately with smooth prose and a short atmospheric prologue setting the scene for darkness to come with Immanuelle’s mother, drenched in blood and dying, claiming a witch told her that her newborn daughter would be a curse. The main story then picks up nearly seventeen years after the night Immanuelle was born, and I was every bit as drawn into the tale of her everyday life in the religious community of Bethel as the ominous opening. It’s immediately clear that she’s an outcast, the Black daughter of a notoriously sinful woman, and the only people who care for her are her family and her friend Leah—whom she fears she’s about to lose since Leah will soon become the newest bride of the Prophet.

Not so shockingly, Bethel was not built for people like Immanuelle’s father—who, like most Black people, lived apart from the white community in the Outskirts until the Prophet killed him—or the women and girls who are part of the Church. The misogyny that runs rampant in Bethel is not at all subtle: the Father and his followers are good while the Mother and the witches who follow her are bad, the Prophet can add any he wants to his collection of wives, and when he does take a new wife, their marriage ceremony involves the bride lying on an altar while he literally carves a symbol into her forehead with a knife. (Warning: There is some heavy content related to abuse, including discussion of past childhood rape.)

Given her race, gender, class, parentage, and disgraced family, Immanuelle is among those impacted the worst by Bethel’s foundations, but at the start of her journey, she largely accepts the way things are and is not particularly rebellious. She’s not a fervent believer like her grandmother, but her numerous “sins” include breaking the same rules about swimming as famously pious Leah, not saying her prayers at night, and not being appropriately grateful for unpalatable food. I thought this was completely believable for many reasons: she’s grown up isolated, never having been outside of Bethel or among people who weren’t part of this community, and her outsider status worked to shield her from seeing a lot of the hypocrisy and larger atrocities that occur. Being raised with fear of hellfire and brimstone and burning at the pyre makes obedience into a matter of survival, and as someone who is particularly disdained and likely to be punished more harshly for less, it seems probable that Immanuelle would have learned to be wary of rocking the boat.

However, Immanuelle’s story is about discovery and transformation (in addition to witches and curses and spooky forests), and I also thought her growing awareness of the wrongness of their society was equally believable. She learns more about the past and present, helped in part by her developing friendship/potential romance with Ezra, the Prophet’s heir, and his access to his father’s library. As the two come to know each other better, Ezra challenges some of Immanuelle’s perceptions about their laws and treatment of women (and shocks her by reading a forbidden encyclopedia in the guise of Holy Scripture). I liked Ezra from his introductory scene when he laughed at Immanuelle’s sarcastic response to taunts about taking after her mother, but I did feel like it was too convenient that the next Prophet was critical of their religious practices at first. After learning more about Ezra’s upbringing and family relationships, I thought this actually did work as a general character trait, although I still felt he was too perfectly aware to ring true.

But then, I don’t consider this to be a particularly character intensive novel, and none of the characters were as fleshed out as Immanuelle herself. She’s one of the types of characters I enjoy reading about: one who grows and ends up in a different place from where she started, one brimming with determination and the desire to do what’s right, one who is loyal to those she cares about and generally compassionate yet has a sharp edge. The choices she made at the end said a lot about her as a person, and I loved that despite having a different outlook in the final chapters, she still seemed like the same character from the beginning—just one whose experiences had pulled a deeper part of herself from the shadows into the light.

But…My biggest problems with the novel were also tied to the conclusion, as well as later chapters since the last two parts seemed more rushed than the first and the supernatural thread was a letdown. I tried to keep the biggest reasons for this somewhat vague in the section below, but I wasn’t certain this was vague enough so they’re behind spoiler tags.

The latter of those, at least, may be addressed in the upcoming sequel.

Despite these problems and the dissatisfying ending, I did find Immanuelle and her journey engaging, and The Year of the Witching kept me turning the pages (no easy feat in the year 2020!). This immersive debut definitely made me want to look out for more of Alexis Henderson’s future work—including the sequel scheduled for next year!

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Digital ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Year of the Witching

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week, I added one book I pre-ordered to the TBR—one of my MOST anticipated releases of 2020, if not THE most anticipated!

Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud - Cover Image

Court of Lions (Mirage #2) by Somaiya Daud

Court of Lions, the sequel to Somaiya Daud’s fantastic debut novel, was just released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Tor.com has an excerpt from Court of Lions, plus an audio clip and transcript of Somaiya Daud’s discussion of lost culture and the Mirage duology from an interview at First Draft Pod.

The Macmillan website has an excerpt from Mirage, the first book, and if you’ve read it, you may also find Somaiya Daud’s Kindle Notes and Highlights on various quotes and scenes from Mirage on Goodreads interesting.

Mirage is an amazing, brilliant, memorable novel with complex, true-to-life characters and relationships and a main protagonist whose narrative voice is a perfect fit for her personality. As I wrote in my review:

Mirage is a quiet yet powerful, character-driven, feminist book and a finely crafted work of art. I loved it, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to those craving beautiful writing, realistically drawn main protagonists, hope shining through the heartbreak, and slow burn complicated sort-of-friendships.

For more from the author, Somaiya Daud wrote about why she set her story in space in her essay “Ideologies of Space,” which was part of last year’s Women in SF&F Month:

Why are they in space?

This is a question I receive often—most often in reviews that I shouldn’t be reading, but nevertheless, the question persists. It’s part of a constellation of questions that, at their root, share a common source. Why do they rely on the antiquated system of tribes? Why do they hold to old customs?

To me the root of these questions is a misunderstanding of the genre of futurisms often perpetrated by the genre itself. The future often presented to us is sleek and modern, presented as culturally neutral even as it embeds itself in the values and cultures of a specific class and culture. Everyone speaks English or is translated into English, everyone wears pantsuits or skirts, everyone’s hair is pressed or curled or cut into a particular bob. It’s rare that I see braids, dreads, jewelry, or culturally specific dress on anyone from Earth, and rarer still that those aliens who look human aren’t white.

Mirage is one of those books that remained with me long after I put it down, and I’m looking forward to reading more about Amani and Maram in Court of Lions (after rereading the first book!).

 

Court of Lions is the long-awaited second and final installment in the “smart, sexy, and devilishly clever” Mirage series by Somaiya Daud (Renée Ahdieh, New York Times bestselling author of The Beautiful)!

On a planet on the brink of revolution, Amani has been forced into isolation. She’s been torn from the boy she loves and has given up contact with her fellow rebels to protect her family. In taking risks for the rebel cause, Amani may have lost Maram’s trust forever. But the princess is more complex than she seems, and now Amani is once more at her capricious nature. One wrong move could see her executed for high treason.

On the eve of Maram’s marriage to Idris comes an unexpected proposal: in exchange for taking her place in the festivities, Maram will keep Amani’s rebel associations a secret. Alone and desperate, Amani is thrust into the center of the court, navigating the dangerous factions on the princess’s behalf. But the court is not what she expects. As a risky plan grows in her mind, and with the rebels poised to make their stand, Amani begins to believe her world might have a future. But every choice she makes comes with a cost. Can Amani risk the ones she loves the most for a war she’s not sure she can win?