Orbit really be out here taking our money and leaving us ready to give them more, huh?
Today, I’ll be bringing to you three fantasy books that I recently read and absolutely adored. If you’re looking to diversify your adult fantasy shelf, definitely check out this post. I’ve got three underrated gems just waiting to catch your attention. 😉
As an added bonus, they’re all written by authors of colour! And as Leo Tolstoy once said, support authors of color.
Title: Realm of Ash
Author: Tasha Suri
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.
Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.
Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.
Content warnings: Violence, graphic injury
Second book syndrome? Tasha Suri definitely doesn’t know her.
Realm of Ash is a sequel to Empire of Sand (read my review here), picking up about ten or so years after the first book ends. The protagonist of this one is Arwa, the younger sister of the Mehr, the protagonist from the first book. Only she’s no longer the innocent child Mehr was determined to protect. Reeling from the loss of her sister, her husband’s death, and a power she must keep hidden if she doesn’t want to be ruined, Arwa finds herself at the mercy of a crumbling Empire struggling to discover who she is and determine what is the right thing to do.
If you’ve read Empire of Sand, then you’ll remember that Mehr – and consequently, Arwa – are descended from a tribe of people called the Amrithi, who have the ability to wield magic that allows them to communicate with the gods though special dances. Mehr was able to use this ability to wake the gods, who have been kept asleep by a mysterious priest known as the Maha in order to lead the Empire to greatness and prosperity – at the expense of the Amrithi, of course, who are captured, enslaved, or killed by the Empire for their powers. With the gods now awake and the Maha dead, no one can use Amrithi blood and magic to keep the Empire safe.
The royal family, determined to save the Empire, force Arwa into their service, working with an illegitimate prince who thinks journeying to the mystical Realm of Ashes, where dreams and histories and thoughts dwell, will provide them the answer. Through this forbidden magic, they hope to make contact with the Maha’s earliest memories and discover how he kept the Empire safe. But Arwa, slowly but surely, comes to the conclusion that maybe the return of the Empire to its former greatness was never meant to happen.
This book was immensely different from Realm of Ash, but I loved it just as much. It’s very much the story of someone reconnecting with a past they had forgotten, and learning to accept its place in one’s life. We have a saying in Tagalog – “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” The closest English translation I can make is, those who don’t look to where they came from will never get to where they’re going, and I believe this phrase perfectly encapsulates Arwa’s journey in rediscovering her Amrithi roots and a reunion with her people.
The romance of this book was also incredible. You all know I am the biggest fan of slow-burn romance, and this was slow-burn in the best way. Getting to see Arwa and Zahir slowly become comfortable with each other, eventually coming to rely on each other in a court full of spies, assassins, and ambitious politicians made me alternately squeal with joy and cry out of fear. When they eventually escape and try to make things right, their vows to care for each other and make things right is the one thing they each can hold on to. Certainty in an uncertain world, if you will.
The tension (both sexual and otherwise) between Arwa and Zahir is coupled so deliciously with what turns out to be a deep, unabiding devotion to one another and absolutely took my breath away. Their love story is a gift given to us through the use of the most heart-achingly beautiful and vivid prose, which we all know Tasha Suri is excellent at crafting.
Reading this book tore my heart into a million pieces and then put it back together again. I can’t recommend it enough.
Title: Queen of the Conquered
Author: Kacen Callender
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. 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.
Content warnings: Slavery, torture, violence, graphic injury, death, sexual abuse/rape
This book was incredible. It took me quite a while to read, but it was only because the story was so gripping that I wanted to savor it. Do note that this is quite a slow-moving book, but as I’ve said in a previous discussion, sometimes, a slow pace works well with the type of story an author is trying to tell. And the story that this author was trying to tell us deserved to be handled slowly and carefully.
In this fantasy version of the Dutch colonization of the Caribbean, Sigourney Rose is the daughter of one of the islands’ wealthy families and his slave-turned-wife. Her life changes forever when her entire family is murdered by the other wealthy white families of the islands because of their proximity to the crown. She vows one day to get her revenge, become queen of the islands, and kill all those who helped kill her family. Her chance finally comes when all the heads of these wealthy families are called to the royal island so the king can determine which of them will inherit the throne. However, her plans go awry when the nobles begin dying one by one, and Sigourney could be next.
I cannot get over the character of Sigourney Rose. She is the true morally gray character of 2019 and anyone else who claims otherwise is wrong. Think she wants the crown so that she can get rid of the colonizers and free her people? Nope! She chafes against the racism she experiences and hates the white people for treating her badly, but owns slaves herself, has them whipped or killed or mutilated when it suits, and also rapes them by coercing them into having sex with her. There’s even a particularly (and beautifully written) chilling moment where Sigourney is asked if she would free the slaves if she became queen, and she wonders how the islands will compete with the world economy without slave labor. From here, you can see how completely self-centered Sigourney’s motivation is. Although she insists that she wants freedom for people, what she really and truly wants is freedom for herself.
Interspersed throughout the narratives are stories of Sigourney’s childhood fleeing from those who want to kill her, hiding who she truly is, and enduring all manner of racism and threats to her safety – and it makes you understand why her freedom and self-determination matters to her so much. Her actions are not excusable, of course – and paint a very gripping picture of the oppressed joining the oppressor, in my opinion – but it gives a great background and insight into the character.
But my absolute most favorite part of this book is the final reveal of who exactly is killing off all these nobles. I 100% did not see that coming, and that’s not something I say very often in relation to a villain reveal. Part of the truly masterful handling of this villain reveal is how Kacen Callender subtly gets us to start thinking like Sigourney, adopting her thoughts, feelings, and even internal prejudices. The villain was someone Sigourney – and therefore we – would never have expected, but it all makes sense in the end.
Kacen Callender is an excellent writer, able to vividly paint the scenes in the reader’s image. I loved the descriptions of the islands, the juxtaposition of the beauty of tropical paradise against the reality of brutal slavery. This, combined with great characters and an ability to get the readers hooked into an incredible atmosphere of terror, made for a great reading experience.
Title: The Rage of Dragons
Author: Evan Winter
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
Content warnings: Violence, graphic injury, torture, sexual assault, slavery/indentured servitude, character death
This book joins The Poppy War in the ranks of truly excellent books about brutal military academies where the characters band together and are thrust into a war that’s so much worse. I am so, so glad I picked it up on a whim.
The Rage of Dragons is about the endless war between the Omehi and the Hedeni. The Omehi escaped the fall of their old empire by fleeing to a new peninsula, only to find it already occupied by the indigenous Hedeni. In order to get a foothold over them, they end up employing their greatest, most terrible weapon: dragons. But the fight isn’t over yet.
In the Omehi society, certain lucky people are born gifted. Gifted women have the ability to summon dragons. Gifted men can turn into berserker machines that are stronger, faster, and bigger. Everyone else serves as a foot soldier, destined to die in the never-ending war against the Hedeni. Tau, the protagonist, has a plan to get himself injured so that he can be excused from service without his honor suffering. But then when he offends a powerful noble and gets his entire family killed, he swears vengeance. From a young boy who just wants to marry his hometown sweetheart, Tau becomes a great fighter and commander, dealing with the challenges of fulfilling his promise to get revenge and fighting what seems to be a war the Omehi are slowly losing. He also needs to answer the question – does he even want to save this caste-based system that made him lose everyone he ever loved?
This is one of those books that makes you stay up really late to read “just one more chapter”. (Quotation marks in there because you and I both know it isn’t just one more chapter.) It starts off slow, but once Tau’s family are killed and he goes on his quest for vengeance, it gets really fast-paced and high stakes. This book completely and utterly swept me up into the story and completely took my breath away.
At the core of this book is the theme of revenge and social inequality. Evan Winter was utterly masterful at portraying feelings of anger and helplessness and determination. I adored Tau, and I rooted for him at every turn of the book. Throughout his entire journey, he is both strong and vulnerable, and I think that’s an important juxtaposition to show in male characters. We rarely get to see that, I think, so kudos to Evan Winter for imbuing his character with both “hard” and “soft” emotions, and showing the need to balance them both.
This book was already an excellent work of art, but the cherry on top that truly made it one of the best adult fantasies I’ve read in a while is the absolutely excellent close-combat scenes. The fights were easy to follow and highly vivid, but they weren’t written like a choreograph script from a movie. Honestly, along with Jade City by Fonda Lee, these are some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. If you’re a writer with close-quarter fighting in your WIP, I really suggest taking a peek at the The Rage of Dragons!
What did you think?
☕ Have you read any of these books?
☕ What diverse adult fantasy have you recently read?
☕ How are you doing during this lockdown?