Category: Speculative Fiction

The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3)

Cover image for The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakrabortyby S.A. Chakraborty

ISBN 978-0-06-267816-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“I find that those who look on politics with contempt are usually the first to be dragged down by them.”

Daevabad has fallen to the machinations of Banu Manizheh, and her Afshin, Darayavahoush. Nahri and Ali have fled, leaving the city in the hands of a brutal conqueror who seems poised to be even crueler than the tyrant she overthrew. But Suleiman’s Seal was never meant to leave Daevabad, and the consequences reach across much of the magical world, stripping the daevas of their powers. Only Dara and Manizheh’s ifrit retain their magic, leaving the people of Daevabad helpless, though the Geziri and the shafit try to mount a resistance led by Zaynab al Qahtani. Even Ali’s mysterious marid powers seem to have been affected in strange ways, though perhaps this is because he now bears Suleiman’s Seal. Thrust unexpectedly into the human world, Ali and Nahri must decide whether to return to Daevabad and fight for the throne to which each of them might stake a claim.

While five years passed between The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, Empire of Gold picks up in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Daevabad. After five years as a prisoner of the al Qahtanis, trapped in a political marriage to Ali’s brother Muntadhir, Nahri is finally free, and unexpectedly finds herself back in Cairo. Returned to her human home, and stripped of her Nahid powers, Nahri seriously considers letting Daevabad fade into memory, and apprenticing herself to her old apothecary friend Yaqub. Meanwhile, Ali’s thoughts turn to Ta Ntry, and the possibility of reuniting with his exiled mother, Queen Hatset. He has questions about his marid magic, and suspects that the answer lies in his Ayaanle heritage, which he has long been subsuming in favour of his father’s Geziri bloodline. But with Ghassan dead, and his djinn magic snuffed out, the water is calling to Ali in new ways. Neither Nahri nor Ali ever expected to be called to rule, but now the question of that potential responsibility weighs heavily on them as they look to an uncertain future.

One of the stand out features of this series has always been the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty created between the different magical beings of the world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. Those rivalries come to a head here, as Manizheh takes revenge for the deposed Nahids, having conquered Daevabad by unleashing a genocidal magic against the Geziri in The Kingdom of Copper. Though she has reclaimed the palace of her ancestors, and nominally rules the city, the various quarters remained locked tight against her, with the daevas fearing to trust such a brutal takeover, even by one of their own. Once, Manizheh was Ghassan’s prisoner, bent to his purposes, and fighting desperately to prevent the union she knew he desired. But while her past is tragic, she now she seems determined to visit that abuse upon others, willing to pay any price for power.

In the midst of all this, Dara takes center stage. As Manizheh’s long-trusted servant, and one of the only magical beings left in Daevabad, it is up to him to control the city his mistress has conquered. If he refuses, control falls to the conniving ifrit Aeshma, whose influence with Manizheh Dara already deeply mistrusts. Chakraborty delves deeper into Dara’s backstory, revealing the scene in which as a young Afshin, the Nahid council called him to Qui-zi, the massacre that would earn him the moniker Scourge. Dara may be even more hated in Daevabad than Manizheh herself, and it seems impossible for one person to hold the city against the inevitable uprising forever. Worse, Dara is tortured by the question of whether he made the wrong choice when he remained loyal to Manizheh rather than following Nahri. Manizheh seems to be turning ever further towards darkness as she seeks to replace the power she lost when Suleiman’s Seal slipped through her fingers. And Dara must face the question of what further horrors he is willing to perform in the name of the loyalty he swore to the Nahids long ago. Although a sympathetic character, Empire of Gold calls Dara to account for the orders he has willingly obeyed.

In the final volume of the Daevabad trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty delivers a whopping 784 page series ender that upends the established politics of Daevabad by delving into questions of family legacy, intergenerational trauma, monarchy, governance, genocide, authoritarianism and the distribution of power. Dara, Nahri, and Ali share narration through rotating perspectives with escalating cliffhangers, though many of Chakraborty’s other conniving, memorable characters appear as well as she brings this sprawling Islamic fantasy to its epic conclusion.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5)

Cover image for Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9930-4

“Have you noticed that the doors come for us when we’re young enough to believe we know everything, and toss us out again as soon as we’re old enough to have doubts? I can’t decide whether it’s an infinite kindness or an incredible cruelty.”

In the fifth installment of the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire continues the story of Jack and Jill, twin sisters who found a doorway to another world in a trunk in their attic. The door opened onto the Moors, a world under a crimson moon where dark powers hold one another in a constant battle for balance. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we followed Jack and Jill through their door, and to their eventual expulsion from the Moors. In Every Heart a Doorway, we witnessed their bloody return to that world, and were left wondering about the consequences. Now Jill has snatched Jack’s body, and the twin sisters are locked in a battle for the future of their world.

At the heart of Come Tumbling Down is the nature of evil and monsters. Meditating on Jill’s deceptively innocent appearance, Christopher reflects that “Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.” Jack finds herself trapped inside this “charnel house” of a body, ostensibly identical to her own, and yet terrifyingly different. Coping with her OCD proves to be a particular challenge in these unique circumstances, and yet the battle must go on. Returning to Eleanor West’s school, Jack recruits several of her former classmates to help stop Jill before it is too late.

Thanks to the events of Beneath the Sugar Sky, it is great to have Sumi back amongst our adventurers. We know that sooner or later her door will come for her, and she will go back to Confection, but for now she joins her school friends on yet another forbidden quest. As a character who travelled to a Nonsense world, Sumi gets a lot of the best lines, coming out with bizarre yet accurate comparisons and strikingly observant insights. As someone who would almost certainly find a Logic world behind my own door, I always find her peculiar forthrightness strangely refreshing.

The other adventurers are Cora, mermaid heroine of Beneath the Sugar Sky, and Christopher, lost love of the Skeleton princess, and Kade, Goblin Prince in Waiting, and heir to Eleanor West’s school for wayward children like himself. They are none of them suited to the world of the Moors, but as heroes who once answered the call of their own doors, they are no less ready to answer the call of friend in need. It also hints at a school that might be very different under Kade’s management. Eleanor tries to persuade them from the quest, lamenting “I should have reminded you of the rules when Rini fell out of the sky. No quests. It’s so easy to become addicted to them, and so hard to break the habit once it takes hold.” But heroes are not so easily dissuaded.

Come Tumbling Down also draws some parallels to the previous installment, In an Absent Dream. Just as Lundy and Moon’s friendship is slowly poisoned by inequality and debt, Jack keeps saving Jill, even at a terrible cost to herself, and those around her. True, Sumi “got over” being dead at Jill’s hand with a little help from her friends, but Lundy and Loriel are never coming back.  Alexis will never be whole and healthy again, despite her resurrection. The outcome of Chester and Serena Walcott’s petty insistence on differentiating their twin daughters and pitting them against one another plays out on a grander and more terrible stage than those wayward parents could ever have imagined, leading the sisters into a final, fateful confrontation with inevitable casualties.

You might also like Temper by Nicky Drayden

In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children #4)

Cover image for In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9929-8

“You can’t save anyone if you neglect yourself. All you can do is fall slowly with them.”

One day, Katherine Victoria Lundy will be a teacher at Eleanor West’s school for wayward children. One day, she will help teach and guide the children who come back from impossible adventures, and spend every day hoping that their door will return to take them back to their true home. But once, a long time ago, it was Lundy who found an impossible door, one that came back for her again and again. But always, she had to remember the curfew; on her eighteenth birthday, the doors would close forever, and she would have to choose which side of it she would be on. Once, that choice would have been easy, and Lundy would have chosen Moon, the Archivist, and the magic of the Goblin Market without hesitation. But a bargain must always give fair value, and it wouldn’t be a bargain without a cost.

The Wayward Children series began in 2016 with Every Heart a Doorway, in which a series of murders took place at the school, including those of Sumi and Lundy. 2017’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a prequel, recounting Jack and Jill’s trip to the Moors before they landed at the school. Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) was an impossible sequel, in which a dead girl’s unborn daughter arrives at the school looking for her mother, Sumi. In the fourth installment, Seanan McGuire takes us back further still, to Katherine Victoria Lundy’s quiet, 1960s suburban childhood. Friendless by virtue of her father’s being the school principal, Katherine is a self-sufficient girl who “keeps her own company” and finds her solace in books, until one day she looks up from Trixie Belden and the Black Jacket Mystery and finds an impossible door. I am probably not alone in feeling that of all the wayward children we have met so far, Lundy is the most like me, giving this installment a particular resonance.

The Goblin Market is the strictest and most fae-like of the portal worlds McGuire has presented Wayward Children readers with so far. The rules are clearly laid out, and with each trip through the door, Lundy becomes more bound to them. She is slowly growing out of the grace the world allows for children on their first, or even second visit. Above all, she must Be Sure. But if Lundy is well-suited for the Goblin Market, the same cannot be said of her best friend Moon, who was born to it, rather than chosen; it was her mother’s door, and she left her child there. Moon was the first person Lundy met when she came through her door, and that bond will never fade, but Moon only follows the rules because she fears punishment, and whenever Lundy isn’t around, she can’t seem to help herself getting into debt with the Market.

In an Absent Dream is fundamentally about unequal friendships. Differences that seem small and inconsequential when we are children grow with us until they overrun the relationship, and even a shared history can no longer bind us. Lundy keeps paying Moon’s debts, even when she is warned that Moon will one day resent owing her so much, even when it comes at Lundy’s own danger and expense. “No one serves their friends by grinding themselves into dust on the altar of compassion,” but Lundy seems determined to try. She binds herself tightly to those few she chooses, and remains loyal to the bitter, inevitable end. Even more so than Down Among the Sticks and Bones, In an Absent Dream has a tragic sense of inevitability. We know that Lundy will eventually make a bad bargain, and we know the end it will lead her to. But, as ever, it is the journey that provides the fascination.

Full Excerpt: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Thanks for joining me yesterday for the unveiling of part three of the To Sleep in a Sea of Stars sneak peek series. Christopher Paolini’s new science fiction novel is coming September 15, 2020. Part one was revealed by Tor.com on Tuesday, and part two was unleashed by The Mary Sue on Wednesday. Now, if you want to read the full excerpt all in one place, here it is!

Cover image for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher PaoliniCold fear shot through Kira’s gut.

Together, she and Alan scrambled into their clothes. Kira spared a second of thought for her strange dream—everything felt strange at the moment—and then they hurried out of the cabin and rushed over toward Neghar’s quarters.

As they approached, Kira heard hacking: a deep, wet, ripping sound that made her imagine raw flesh going through a shredder. She shuddered.

Neghar was standing in the middle of the hallway with the others gathered around her, doubled over, hands on her knees, coughing so hard Kira could hear her vocal cords fraying. Fizel was next to her, hand on her back. “Keep breathing,” he said. “We’ll get you to sickbay. Jenan! Alan! Grab her arms, help carry her. Quickly now, qu—”

Neghar heaved, and Kira heard a loud, distinct snap from inside the woman’s narrow chest.

Black blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, painting the deck in a wide fan.

Marie-Élise shrieked, and several people retched. The fear from Kira’s dream returned, intensified. This was bad. This was dangerous. “We have to go,” she said, and tugged on Alan’s sleeve. But he wasn’t listening.

“Back!” Fizel shouted. “Everyone back! Someone get the Extenuating Circumstances on the horn. Now!”

“Clear the way!” Mendoza bellowed.

More blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, and she dropped to one knee. The whites of her eyes were freakishly wide. Her face was crimson, and her throat worked as if she were choking.

“Alan,” said Kira. Too late; he was moving to help Fizel.

She took a step back. Then another. No one noticed; they were all looking at Neghar, trying to figure out what to do while staying out of the way of the blood flying from her mouth.

Kira felt like screaming at them to leave, to run, to escape.

She shook her head and pressed her fists against her mouth, scared blood was going to erupt out of her as well. Her head felt as if it were about to burst, and her skin was crawling with horror: a thousand ants skittering over every centimeter. Her whole body itched with revulsion.

Jenan and Alan tried to lift Neghar back to her feet. She shook her head and gagged. Once. Twice. And then she spat a clot of something onto the deck. It was too dark to be blood. Too liquid to be metal.

Kira dug her fingers into her arm, scrubbing at it as a scream of revulsion threatened to erupt out of her.

Neghar collapsed backwards. Then the clot moved. It twitched like a clump of muscle hit with an electrical current.

People shouted and jumped away. Alan retreated toward Kira, never taking his eyes off the unformed lump.

Kira dry-heaved. She took another step back. Her arm was burning: thin lines of fire squirming across her skin.

She looked down.

Her nails had carved furrows in her flesh, crimson gashes that ended with crumpled strips of skin. And within the furrows, she saw another something twitch.

 Kira fell to the floor, screaming. The pain was all-consuming. That much she was aware of. It was the only thing she was aware of.

She arched her back and thrashed, clawing at the floor, desperate to escape the onslaught of agony. She screamed again; she screamed so hard her voice broke and a slick of hot blood coated her throat.

She couldn’t breathe. The pain was too intense. Her skin was burning, and it felt as if her veins were filled with acid and her flesh was tearing itself from her limbs.

Dark shapes blocked the light overhead as people moved around her. Alan’s face appeared next to her. She thrashed again, and she was on her stomach, her cheek pressed flat against the hard surface.

Her body relaxed for a second, and she took a single, gasping breath before going rigid and loosing a silent howl. The muscles of her face cramped with the force of her rictus, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes.

Hands turned her over. They gripped her arms and legs, holding them in place. It did nothing to stop the pain.

“Kira!”

She forced her eyes open and, with blurry vision, saw Alan and, behind him, Fizel leaning toward her with a hypo. Farther back, Jenan, Yugo, and Seppo were pinning her legs to the floor, while Ivanova and Marie-Élise helped Neghar away from the clot on the deck.

“Kira! Look at me! Look at me!”

She tried to reply, but all she succeeded in doing was uttering a strangled whimper.

Then Fizel pressed the hypo against her shoulder. Whatever he injected didn’t seem to have any effect. Her heels drummed against the floor, and she felt her head slam against the deck, again and again.

“Jesus, someone help her,” Alan cried.

“Watch out!” shouted Seppo. “That thing on the floor is moving! Shi—”

“Sickbay,” said Fizel. “Get her to sickbay. Now! Pick her up. Pick—”

The walls swam around her as they lifted her. Kira felt like she was being strangled. She tried to inhale, but her muscles were too cramped. Red sparks gathered around the edges of her vision as Alan and the others carried her down the hallway. She felt as if she were floating; everything seemed insubstantial except the pain and her fear.

A jolt as they dropped her onto Fizel’s exam table. Her abdomen relaxed for a second, just long enough for Kira to steal a breath before her muscles locked back up.

“Close the door! Keep that thing out!” A thunk as the sickbay pressure lock engaged.

“What’s happening?” said Alan. “Is—”

“Move!” shouted Fizel. Another hypo pressed against Kira’s neck.

As if in response, the pain tripled, something she wouldn’t have believed possible. A low groan escaped her, and she jerked, unable to control the motion. She could feel foam gathering in her mouth, clogging her throat. She gagged and convulsed.

“Shit. Get me an injector. Other drawer. No, other drawer!”

“Doc—”

“Not now!”

“Doc, she isn’t breathing!”

Equipment clattered, and then fingers forced Kira’s jaw apart, and someone jammed a tube into her mouth, down her throat. She gagged again. A moment later, sweet, precious air poured into her lungs, sweeping aside the curtain darkening her vision.

Alan was hovering over her, his face contorted with worry.

Kira tried to talk. But the only sound she could make was an inarticulate groan.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Alan. “Just hold on. Fizel’s going to help you.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

Kira had never been so afraid. Something was wrong inside her, and it was getting worse.

Run, she thought. Run! Get away from here before—

Dark lines shot across her skin: black lightning bolts that twisted and squirmed as if alive. Then they froze in place, and where each one lay, her skin split and tore, like the carapace of a molting insect.

Kira’s fear overflowed, filling her with a feeling of utter and inescapable doom. If she could have screamed, her cry would have reached the stars.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be published by Tor on September 15, 2020. Can’t wait? Check out interviews, excerpts, wallpapers and more right now!

Excerpt: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira Navárez dreamed of finding life on new worlds. Now she has awakened a nightmare.

Author photo Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini was born in Southern California, and has lived most of his life in Paradise Valley, Montana.

Have you heard? Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, has a new science fiction novel for adults dropping September 15, 2020! Given that Paolini might be described as the first SFF author of my own generation, I was pretty excited to hear this news from Tor. For those not in the know, Paolini published his first novel in 2003 at the age of 19, and quickly became a publishing phenomenon. His Inheritance Cycle—Eragon and its three sequels—have sold nearly 40 million copies worldwide. It’s been nearly a decade since Inheritance was published, so I’m thrilled to feature the final installment of a teaser excerpt from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. You can find part one of the excerpt at Tor.com and part two at The Mary Sue. So what is the new novel about? 

According to the publisher, this epic novel follows Kira Navárez, who, during a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, finds an alien relic that thrusts her into the wonders and the nightmares of first contact. Epic space battles for the fate of humanity take her to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and, in the process, transform not only her ― but the entire course of history.

One woman. The will to survive. The hope of humanity.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Cover image for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini“Jesus, someone help her,” Alan cried.

“Watch out!” shouted Seppo. “That thing on the floor is moving! Shi—”

“Sickbay,” said Fizel. “Get her to sickbay. Now! Pick her up. Pick—”

The walls swam around her as they lifted her. Kira felt like she was being strangled. She tried to inhale, but her muscles were too cramped. Red sparks gathered around the edges of her vision as Alan and the others carried her down the hallway. She felt as if she were floating; everything seemed insubstantial except the pain and her fear.

A jolt as they dropped her onto Fizel’s exam table. Her abdomen relaxed for a second, just long enough for Kira to steal a breath before her muscles locked back up.

“Close the door! Keep that thing out!” A thunk as the sickbay pressure lock engaged.

“What’s happening?” said Alan. “Is—”

“Move!” shouted Fizel. Another hypo pressed against Kira’s neck.

As if in response, the pain tripled, something she wouldn’t have believed possible. A low groan escaped her, and she jerked, unable to control the motion. She could feel foam gathering in her mouth, clogging her throat. She gagged and convulsed.

“Shit. Get me an injector. Other drawer. No, other drawer!”

“Doc—”

“Not now!”

“Doc, she isn’t breathing!”

Equipment clattered, and then fingers forced Kira’s jaw apart, and someone jammed a tube into her mouth, down her throat. She gagged again. A moment later, sweet, precious air poured into her lungs, sweeping aside the curtain darkening her vision.

Alan was hovering over her, his face contorted with worry.

Kira tried to talk. But the only sound she could make was an inarticulate groan.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Alan. “Just hold on. Fizel’s going to help you.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

Kira had never been so afraid. Something was wrong inside her, and it was getting worse.

Run, she thought. Run! Get away from here before—

Dark lines shot across her skin: black lightning bolts that twisted and squirmed as if alive. Then they froze in place, and where each one lay, her skin split and tore, like the carapace of a molting insect.

Kira’s fear overflowed, filling her with a feeling of utter and inescapable doom. If she could have screamed, her cry would have reached the stars.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be published by Tor on September 15, 2020. Can’t wait? Check out interviews, excerpts, wallpapers and more right now! Or check back tomorrow for the full excerpt!

Chaos Reigning (Consortium Rebellion #3)

Cover image for Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalikby Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280242-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“I dared to dream of more.”

With all her siblings out fighting or spying in the war between House von Hasenburg and House Rockhurst, youngest sister Catarina is stuck at home on Earth, serving as a political surrogate for her conniving parents. Protected and beloved by her older siblings, Cat longs to make a more substantial contribution, but her carefully constructed public mask as a vapid socialite means that all she can really do for House von Hasenburg is marry someone who will back them in the war. But then an invitation from House James to a particularly exclusive party offers Cat the chance to find out if House James was responsible for her brother Ferdinand’s kidnapping. But her older sister Bianca is on to her maneuvering, and she insists on sending two mercenaries, Aoife and Alex, to guard Cat’s back. Only, in order to get Alex into the heart of House James, Cat will have to pretend he is her date, not her body guard.

Like Bianca in Aurora Blazing, Cat has a secret, only in addition to being afraid of being used by their ruthless father, she owes her life to illegal genetic modifications that would make her very existence criminal under Royal Consortium law. Despite the efforts of her older siblings to protect her, Cat has had to become a ruthless dissembler, using social power as a pointed weapon. But the events of Chaos Reigning call for Cat to tear down her carefully crafted public façade, and reveal the intelligence and competence she has been hiding. No doubt the really interesting part of her story comes later, when she has irrevocably revealed the truth, and has to carve a new path forward alongside her ambitious best friend, Ying Yamado.

As a love interest, Alex is more in the tradition of Aurora Blazing’s Ian than Polaris Rising’s Marcus. In fact his main weakness might be that he isn’t sufficiently distinguished, and the fact that he and Cat are keeping secrets from one another means that we don’t really get to know him better. The reader actually knows more about him from his side role in Aurora Blazing than Cat does, and that is still precious little to go on in terms of character development. His main appeal is that he is handsome, and that he will back Cat’s manoeuvres even when they are dangerous. Luckily, I’m a bit of a sucker for a fake dating trope, so I put aside my skepticism and went along for the ride, which was slower burn on the romance, and rollicking in the adventure department.

Consortium Rebellion is a trilogy, making this the final installment in the series. Honestly, it seems like it could go for another book, in order to resolve the Syndicate plotline, not to mention the final fate of the faster than light technology that started the war to begin with. I know I would definitely read a team up novel where the von Hasenberg sisters take on the galaxy together! But it seems that instead Jessie Mihalik will return with a new series about intergalactic bounty hunters, due out in 2022.

You might also like Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Race the Sands

Cover image for Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durstby Sarah Beth Durst

ISBN 978006269085

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Does it truly benefit people to know what their souls will become? What does it matter? Shouldn’t they just be good people because they love their family and they care about the people around them? People should be good because it’s right, not because an augur tells them it’s what they should do.”

After losing her rider in a tragic accident at the Becaran Races, disgraced Trainer Tamra Verlas has been reduced to teaching the children of the wealthy to ride kehoks, the monstrous souls reborn as condemned beasts that are too evil to ever reincarnate as humans, or even lesser beasts. But Tamra needs the money to help her beloved daughter Shalla continue her training with the augurs, the soul readers who guide Becaran society, and try to help its citizens avoid damaging their souls to the point that they are reborn as monsters. But as Shalla’s tuition becomes increasingly expensive, and Tamra’s debts to her sponsor mount, she knows that they only way to avoid having Shalla become a permanent ward of the temple is for her to find and train a rider and racer that can win the Becaran Races. With the prize money, but she will be able to repay her debts, cover her daughter’s tuition, and ensure her future. But the rider and racer team she puts together draws Tamra into the midst of a plot that goes beyond the Becaran Races, threatening the very future of the Becaran Empire.

The fire at the centre of Race the Sands is Tamra, an independent, determined woman, a fierce single mother, and a force of nature on the race track in her younger days, before an injury put an end to her racing career. In the acknowledgement, Sarah Beth Durst reveals that Tamra’s namesake is fantasy author Tamora Pierce, the mentor who made Durst believe she really could become a writer. Similarly, Tamra becomes the mentor to Raia, a seventeen-year-old girl on the run from an arranged marriage that her parents tried to force upon her after she flunked out of augur training. Although Tamra normally despises the sons and daughters of the wealthy as too soft to ever actually win a race, in Raia she sees a fire that she believes she can bend towards victory.

Although the plot centres on Tamra and Raia, another interesting character is Yorbel, who has spent most of his life safe within the augurs’ temple, studying philosophy and ethics. He has only ever met the public in closely controlled one-on-one readings, where citizens may meet with an augur to have their auras read, and the fate of their soul revealed, in the hopes that they will mend their ways. With Yorbel’s character, I appreciated the exploration of what happens when the academy meets reality, and high flying theoretical principles clash with the grey reality of real world choices. Taken from his farmer parents when he was a child, Yorbel has ever since known only the soft and sheltered life of the augur temple, where everything is provided for him. Being sent out into the world on a secret mission by Prince Dar, the Emperor-to-Be of Becar, proves to be a more complicated venture than Yorbel could ever have dreamed of, and his journey is one of the more interesting aspects of Race the Sands.

While the primary characters are intriguing, the secondary characters here are a bit flat. We never so much as learn the name of the rider Tamra lost the previous season, making this person into more a of a tragic backstory than any sort of actual character. Raia’s parents and they man they want her to marry seem flatly villainous, in part because we don’t see enough of them to really understand their characters or motivations. Durst also introduces three other riders who are supposed to be Raia’s friends, but they feature so little it is hard for these characters to feel like more than an afterthought. However, from a character perspective, the book is well worth reading for Tamra alone.

Becaran society, and the very premise of Race the Sands is built on a problematic system of value judgements that cry out to be overthrown. Humans, for example, are at the top of the chain of reincarnation, and animals are lesser creatures for the rebirth of those whose souls were not pure in their previous life. Kehoks are monsters whose physical ugliness and malformation is a visual representation of the evilness of their souls, thus implicitly equating beauty with goodness. The kehok Tamra buys for the races at first seems poised to undermine the idea that the soul of a kehok is irredeemable, but in the end the truth about the black lion only reinforces this structure. While the plot of Race the Sands does call into question some aspects of this problematic system, ultimately tearing down corrupt institutions, I wanted to see Durst go farther, and burn down the ruins of this bankrupt concept.

You might also like The Deepest Blue 

Sing the Four Quarters

Cover image for Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff by Tanya Huff

ISBN 0886776287

“Annice had been fourteen when she left the palace for Bardic Hall in Elbasan and while she never regretted the decision, she did occasionally wish that some things could’ve been different.”

Travelling to every corner of the kingdom of Shkoder, it is a bard’s calling to carry news, gather intelligence for the crown, and help administer justice by binding witnesses to speak only the truth at trial. Bards are also magicians, Singing to the Elements to call the kigh of Earth, Air, Fire, or Water to their service. Most bards have a strength, but some rare talents such as Annice, can Sing all four. Or at least, Annice could until she discovered she was pregnant. As the child grows, so does her affinity for Earth, until soon the other Elementals will have nothing to do with her. But losing her talent isn’t Annice’s only problem; ten years ago her brother, King Theron, disowned her and forbid her from bearing any children that might muddy the line of succession. Worse, the father of Annice’s child, Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid has just been accused of treason as well. Now Annice must not only find a way to mend the break from her family, she must also convince the King that the father of her child has been framed.

As becomes evident early in the novel, Annice is pregnant, although it takes her much longer than the reader to realize it. I wasn’t sure how I felt initially about Tanya Huff’s choice to hamstring Annice’s abilities simply because she was pregnant. However, it did add some interesting conflicts and limitations to the story while helped me reconcile to the decision. For instance, eliminating her ability to call the Air kigh is the fantasy equivalent of taking away Annice’s cellphone; she can no longer send or receive messages from other bards while she is out on the road. The positive trade-off is that the King’s Guard cannot command the other bards to use the Air kigh to locate Annice when she goes on the lam with Pjerin at seven months pregnant.

Although the book is primarily about Annice’s estranged relationship with her family, and the looming war with the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, she also has two romantic interests, Pjerin and Stasya. Pjerin is the father of her child, and the two bicker like an old married couple once the plot finally gets them in the same place, but it quickly becomes evident that they don’t actually like each other that much, at least not romantically. Back home at Bardic Hall in Elbasan, Annice also has a longstanding liaison with Stasya, a fellow bard who seems partly bemused and partly annoyed by Annice’s interest in men. In general, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry or pull towards either love interest, but fortunately this is not the focus of the story, and in many ways actually adds to rather than detracts from the novel.

As is common in Tanya Huff’s fantasy novels, same sex relationships are common and unremarkable. In Sing the Four Quarters, this is true not just in Shkoder, but in other kingdoms as well, as evidenced by the early off-hand comment that one of Theron and Annice’s brothers made a marriage alliance with a distant nobleman. Homophobia is simply not a factor here. Instead, prejudice is attached to the ability to command the elements. In the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, this ability is viewed as unnatural, leading to tensions between the two countries. Annice also has an open relationship with Stasya; though the two go out separately to Walk the roads of Shkoder, they always come home to Bardic Hall and one another. Both their open relationship and Annice’s bisexuality are treated as entirely unremarkable, so if this is something you find enjoyable and refreshing in your fantasy, I can recommend this book in particular, but also Tanya Huff’s work more generally. Although this is the first in a series of books set in this world, each of the subsequent books follows different characters, so that Sing the Four Quarters can easily be read as a standalone.

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