Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Once and Future Witches is the second book by Alix E. Harrow, and I truly enjoyed her first book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, having read it out loud to my wife and teenage son.  Full disclosure: these are two very different books.  They are different in topic, in style, and in mood.  I would imagine that there will be many who enjoy both books, but I don’t necessarily think it is safe to say that if you enjoy one you will enjoy the other.  Let me elaborate …

The Once and Future Witches is set in 1893 in New Salem in a time just before the women’s suffragist movement had brought a measure of equality to the plight of women in our country.  This outcry was met with considerable resistance both from the men who held much of the power, and the women who were unwilling to overturn the status quo or were perhaps afraid of the backlash.  This tension is at times front-and-center, and at other times lurking just out of sight throughout this story.  In fact, that tension is what dominates the mood for the book.  It is brood-y, and angst-y, and tangible.

The story is told of three sisters who find themselves swept up into the changing climate of the day, one as an instigator and provocateur, a second as docile, resistant rule follower, and the third who just wants to be free to be herself and live her own life.  There is a terrible shared familial history that has left resentment and deep pain.  There is also a link to the ways of witchery that has passed through the women in their heritage.

At this point I want to pause and discuss how this book impacted ME.  As a disclaimer, I am NOT a minority in virtually every aspect of who I am.  I am a white, middle-aged man who is married to my high-school sweetheart.  I am a Christian, and middle/working class.  With that said, I have always tried to be sympathetic to those in the minority.  While I am not an activist, I am at least very cognizant of avoiding any thoughts or behaviors that would be considered racist, sexist, etc.  My standard for who I want to associate with has nothing to do with skin color, gender, sexuality, wealth or any other distinction, but rather if the person is good and kind and is making the world better than they found it.

With that said, there is a certain amount of guilt by association that I felt when reading this book.  Throughout, women are portrayed as brave, heroic, and noble, fighting against suppression and injustice (and rightfully so).  Part of me felt accused, targeted and harassed in this, given just how predominant the suffragist theme was used in the book.  But there was also a deeper part of me that was cheering them on, celebrating their small victories, and grateful for the progress that has been made since this era of our country.  I was conflicted over whether I (as a man) was the bad guy, or whether this was a simple plea for more understanding of the plight of women.

In the end, I was conflicted.  I wanted to like this book more.  (It was well-written, with compelling characters enduring an intriguing, multi-layered, surprise-filled story.)  But then, it also felt like I was lumped in with the evil based on my gender.  After much thought, I consider this unsettled feeling good, at least for me, because it forces me to consider any inappropriate biases I might still have, and required me to confront them.

For all these reasons, I think there will be many who will love this book, but others that may not.  Ultimately, I gave it a 4.5 out of 5 stars, knowing that this will be a book that will stick with me.

(Thank you Orbit for the copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

Review: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The Fires of Vengeance continues The Burning series where The Rage of Dragons left off.  Obviously you will do yourself a great disservice if you jump into this book without first reading the first book in the series.  However, assuming that you have done that, this book easily falls into the category of: What you thought of the first book will probably be true with book #2.  That does not mean that it offers the same experience as The Rage of Dragons and that it offers nothing new.  Heavens no!

As a point of clarification, if the reader of the first book enjoyed the nuance of the world from the first book, then this offers a deeper exploration into its history and the various castes within the world.  If the reader loved the emotional tension and the thirst for revenge from the first book, then this will see what happens when the goal and focus of that wrath moves nearer to its fulfilment, and whether or not satisfaction is found in that journey.  Finally, if the reader found the African-inspired world as either familiar or at least easy enough to immerse themselves into, and if they did not struggle with names and cultural rhythms, then this one will feel like coming home.  In contrast, if any of these tripped up the reader in the first book (even a little), they run the risk of the same in this new installment.

For me, I truly believe this book was well worth any awkwardness, any un-ease, and effort I found myself in as I continued into this next installment.

So much of this story hinges on the character of Tau.  Where the end of the first book saw an end to his training period, it did not diminish his quest for vengeance.  In fact his new position complicated everything.  On one hand he now has responsibilities and a different role.  Now, he has some authority, but within a greater loyalty to the queen which doesn’t always compliment his own desires and objectives.  There is still a compulsion and fierce determination within him, only now it is in uncharted territory and an unproven direction, as he learns how to do travel into and do combat in the realm of Isihogo (the demon world).

We also get a shift in Tau in how his relationship with the queen evolves.  As the story unfolds, Tau is forced to reconsider what is most important, and he is faced with the consequences of his singular motivation of revenge.  This is one heart-breaking scene 2/3 of the way into the book where we see what happens when he places his own selfish plans above the greater good.  He is traumatized with guilt over this and he is clearly affected.

Where much of the fighting in the first book was in the realm of training, this is truly war.  There are real enemies who are both powerful and intent overthrowing Tau’s world.  There is much more combat, and while it is very well done, it did come a bit too much for my taste.  It certainly felt like it fit the escalation that was happening in the story, and it was given reprieves at times to help the reader catch a breath, but it was definitely a much more intense story than the first book.

In this book, the stakes are higher, the threat is greater, and the emotional toll it takes on Tau is more severe.  Again, if you liked the first book you’ll love this one.  It worked for me.  4.3 stars out of 5. Very much recommended.

(A special thank you to Orbit for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

Review: The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

I had mixed feelings going into this book.  On one hand, I had seen a number of positive reviews from sources I trust, it’s published by Orbit and I tend to really like nearly everything I read from them, and it is set in an African inspired world which fits my intent to read more books set in non-European or American-stylized worlds.  However, based on the little I knew going in, there were some possible red flags, namely that this is a debut author which is unproven to me, it supposedly featured dragons which feel over-saturated in recent fantasy books and which can be done poorly, and that it apparently contains excessive action/fight scenes which I can easily find myself glazing over.  Also, as much as I want to read books set in non-traditional fantasy worlds making that quality a positive one, I have found that it can also be a negative when it becomes an uphill battle as I struggle with names as well as cultural practices that are not within my experience.

Fortunately I was able to read the book from both the audio and the print copies of the book.  The audio book was an excellent resource in that its narrator spoke with an African accent, which helped with pronunciation as well as creating a mood that complemented the world in which it took place.

As I went through the book, several things stood out.  The most prevalent aspect that dripped from every page was the caste system of this world.  This context was so integrated into the story, and it fueled the motives of many of the character actions.  To be honest, it kept me in a state of irritation, frustration, and at times disgust, given the disparity between the elite and the inferior who had virtually no hope of a better life.  This was most troubling in the scenes when the “Greaters” treated the “Lessers” with such deep scorn, often speaking as though they are less than human.  While I credit the author that this was well written, it kept me uncomfortable for large portions of the book.  (As an aside, in evaluating my emotions and why it bothered me, I believe I discovered new insights into myself and my world.  Being uncomfortable perhaps was the point.)

Another standout element to this book was the depth of commitment Tau had to his goals.  In part this drove him to achieve higher levels of self-growth, becoming a trained fighter that eclipsed his Lesser status.  However, his thirst for revenge often clouded his decision making, creating a singular focus and not allowing him to choose a small sacrifice of personal objective to do what would be the greater good.  This both bothered me as the reader because he could become so driven to accomplish his motives, making him seem like a brutal weapon.  But it also filled me with compassion for him because his intent was birthed out of great loss and grief.

There were several other themes that I appreciated.  I love how crucial teamwork is portrayed throughout the book as well as the importance of hard work and a “no quit” attitude.  I also appreciated how central the concept of familial heritage and societal obligations wove throughout the story.

Given that the title of the book includes the word “Dragons” there is not much actual screen time with the creatures.  There is a reasonable amount of coverage for their place in this world, how their magic works, how certain humans interact with and control the dragons, and the threat of their use in the warfare.  I much prefer this subtle usage over page after page of these mighty beasts eating people left and right with one bite, killing dozens at a time with a sweep of the tail, or incinerating everything in its path.  I was glad to see nuance, and tension, and conflict.  I like how it built anticipation rather than jumping into the action.

The African inspired component to the book ended up largely as I expected.  While I was very eager to discover a world unknown to me, it came only thorough a deliberate amount of effort and focus.  It also felt in places that I was not able to grasp the full depth of the plight of the characters.  I was very glad for the exposure to this world, but I can see that it is still well outside my comfort zone, and it took a fair amount of effort at times to stay on page.

Finally, while there were a large amount of fight scenes, the majority of them were relatively short, and they were typically separated with plenty of story points between the fighting.  The fighting scenes were well written, allowing a sense of dread since a number of low to mid-level people end up dying.

Ultimately, this book worked for me, not because it was just like so many other books I have read and enjoyed, but because it was able to stretch me into uncharted territory.  It worked because of the emotional gamut it led me through.  It worked because it exposed me to a new culture full of both beauty and injustice.  And the effort of pushing through uncomfortable emotions in a culture that was foreign to me paid off with an enriching experience.

While this book might not be for everyone, I like the fresh direction it takes the fantasy genre, and I think it will appeal to many.  Recommended!  4.1 out of 5 stars.