The Shadow Of Kyoshi – Bend Me Break Me

Flameo, hotman, and welcome to the Fire Nation! F.C. Yee and Avatar co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino’s The Shadow of Kyoshi brings us to a pre-war Fire Nation riddled with political intrigue as the collaborators conclude the Kyoshi duology, which began with The Rise of Kyoshi last year. This sequel continues the story of Rise while expanding on the Avatar lore and deep-diving into Kyoshi’s growth as the Avatar. 

Shadow places Kyoshi in a precarious position. Kyoshi bursts onto the first pages with true earthbending flair as she raids the headquarters of a Ba Sing Se gang that’s been terrorizing locals. Kyoshi grapples with the trying political responsibilities thrust upon her as the Avatar while she recklessly charges into small criminal cells to disband them. Of course, every time she takes one down, another pops up. Her travels take her to the Fire Nation, where she’s reunited with her partner Rangi. As Kyoshi struggles to learn the elaborate customs of the Fire Nation capital, a strange threat from the Spirit World emerges and threatens to dismantle the delicate political tapestry of the country. Kyoshi must face the threat as she works to connect with the spirits of her past lives. If she doesn’t stop the Spirit World threat, the world could devolve into chaos and destruction. 

There are a lot of great elements in Shadow, but Kyoshi’s spiritual struggle is a real treat. Kyoshi’s spiritual journey is also intriguing and relatable. It’s reminiscent of Korra’s spiritual arc. Kyoshi is a proficient and strong bender, but she comes up against a wall when she tries to communicate with past Avatars. Her relationship with Kuruk, her immediate predecessor, represents this roadblock. Kyoshi’s perception of Kuruk is less-than-favorable, and this struggle often feels self-inflicted. Her negative opinion of him stands like a rock clogging the flow of his past-Avatar wisdom. Spiritual growth is a cornerstone of any Avatar’s narrative, and Kyoshi’s challenges mirror her attempts to resolve political quarrels. She can tip the scales to either side in the Fire Nation’s conflict, but she has to be decisive and, perhaps more importantly, ready to take action that will ultimately mean the demise of one of the parties involved. 

Throughout the book, Kyoshi’s position as the Avatar is cemented, but the world is still coming to terms with how she’ll handle the title. It doesn’t help that she seems unable to grasp what, exactly, an Avatar must do to keep the peace in both the physical and spirit worlds. One of the biggest appeals to the story, just like the prequel, is that Shadow drops plenty of lore bombs and extends the world of Avatar. It’s one of the areas where these prequel books really succeed and flourish, and it’s bound to please fans of the series. However, for me, I need more than some lore snippets to really immerse myself in a story, and this installment fell short of the mark for a few key reasons. 

The spiritual facet of Kyoshi’s story is by far my favorite part of Shadow, but it’s surrounded by a story that I frankly found hard to care about. The brunt of the story drops Kyoshi in the Fire Nation, where one clan vies for dominance over the Firelord. The Firelord’s illegitimate brother leads the would-be-usurpers, and Kyoshi exacerbates the already-tense situation by greeting the brother improperly at a reception celebrating her arrival. That’s a catalyst for various screw-ups to come, and the story unfolds on that web of political intrigue. The problem is that the web feels half-done. It’s as if whatever cosmic spider the universe hired to create the web showed up late and made a halfhearted attempt at creating it to meet his deadline. The result is a superficial game of political checkers when Avatar has previously shown that it’s capable of three-dimensional chess.

The worldbuilding has the same problem. I’ve come to expect vibrant, diverse cultures from the Avatar world, and Shadow zooms so far in on the Fire Nation that it’s hard to reconcile the story with the larger machinations at work. In all likelihood, this is a personal quibble. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sharply focused story in a well-established world. But, come on, it’s Avatar. I want a massive story with high stakes. This personal story, though serviceable, just isn’t that

The flipside of that argument is that we get hitherto unforeseen insight into the Fire Nation. Avatar gave us a glimpse of the propaganda-ridden country. Shadow gives us a compelling look at the pre-war Fire Nation and its intricate workings. Fire Nation folk value honor and integrity. Of course, when two clans define those words differently, problems arise. Kyoshi is the pebble that locks the well-oiled Fire Nation gears and sends the whole nation into disarray. And the spirit world threat (the identity of which will be familiar to readers of the first novel) exacerbates the unrest. 

To put it simply, I can’t decide where I stand on the focus of the story. I enjoyed holding a magnifying glass up to the Fire Nation, but I simultaneously longed for a world-spanning narrative that felt more true to Avatar. The characters of Shadow are well-formed and multi-dimensional, a step up from my primary issue with Rise. Kyoshi in particular is a fantastically multi-layered Avatar. Her partner Rangi and her mother Hei Ran get well-deserved spotlight moments, too. The supporting cast, particularly those who are new to the series, pale in comparison, but that felt right. The Fire Nation cast exists for a purpose, and their characters reflect that purpose.

Though I’m generally on the fence about Shadow’s components, there’s one piece I just flat-out didn’t like. The novel’s ending is rushed and features reveals that I felt were unearned. The villain, who is “meh” throughout, poses a threat, sure, but that arc fizzles. I didn’t ever buy into the motivations there, and the final encounter did little to sway me. 

All of this leads me to believe that The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi are best consumed as two halves of the same whole. I read them over a year apart, and I know there are parts of Shadow that 2019 Cole, fresh off of Rise, would have loved. For that reason, I am happy to recommend Shadow to Avatar fans. It may not be the Avatar world’s crowning achievement, but it’s still a fun story. Plus, Kyoshi is a straight-up badass. 

Rating: The Shadow Of Kyoshi – 7.0/10
-Cole

Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole

The Kingdom Of Liars – Fast Fun Fantasy Fodder

Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars delivers a strong debut that lays the foundation for a promising epic fantasy saga. Martell’s story of king killers, magic-induced memory loss, and political corruption springs off our Dark Horse 2020 list with fresh concepts and a high-speed narrative. 

Michael Kingman wears the fire-seared brand of a traitor thanks to his dad. His father, David Kingman, was executed ten years ago for the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son. Now, Michael and his siblings Gwen and Lyon are also branded and ostracized, their Kingman name disgraced. As Gwen and Lyon struggle to rebuild lives removed from the Kingman legacy, Michael begins to find inklings of evidence that may prove his father’s innocence and expose the corrupt royal family of Hollows. But as Michael explores the possibility of his father’s innocence, he finds his life at risk when he learns that the mercenaries, politicians, Nobles, churches, and royalty of Hollows all have a stake in the game. Meanwhile, Michael begins to notice gaps in his memory, usually a symptom of using Fabrications (magic) without learning to control them first. 

Michael tells his tale in the first person, ushering readers on a journey through Hollows (the primary setting) and the Endless Waltz, an extravagant multi-event celebration meant to pair High Nobles into political relationships and solidify powerful alliances. Michael joins the event thanks to the guiding hand of a rich maniac who the royals won’t dare defy. His presence alone sends ripples of discontent through the nobility, eventually reaching corrupt Prince Adreann, who makes his distaste for Michael abundantly clear. 

Naturally, I’ve managed to scratch only the thinnest surface layer of what this novel has to offer. Michael’s trek through Hollows and the details of his family’s past, present, and future feel like a supercut parkour video. The story jumps from one plot point to the next at a breakneck pace with the occasional pause for dramatic effect. I think this tone is the result of Martell’s succinct-yet-descriptive prose and the myriad plot elements that Michael needs to encounter for the narrative to work. The Kingdom of Liars is one of those books that you pick up for a quick 20-30 page reading stint, only to end up flying through 150 pages. And that feeling fits the style of the novel really well. There are so many moving parts that even Michael has trouble tracking all the information he receives, the conversations he has, and the events he attends. Michael’s experience mirrors the reader’s; the more invested he becomes in the events unfolding throughout the novel, the more I felt drawn to the story. This breakneck spiral of a story could be a massive draw or a significant detriment, depending on the reader. Personally, I loved being whisked from one locale to the next through Michael’s eyes. Each page gave me something more than the last.

Kingdom’s scattershot worldbuilding slots neatly into the narrative. It’s clear that Martell has a unique and vivid setting constructed in his mind, and for the most part that translates to the page. Hollows is a poverty-ridden city with a rich history of turbulent politics. The military factions and rebellion add some nice flavor to the personal story Michael tells. The magic system is a novel concept: overuse your magic, and you risk losing memories. Not just recollections of events, but possibly the muscle memory of how to see or how to walk. The world of Kingdom has two moons, one of which has shattered into 7 separate pieces. Bits of the moon fall from time to time, and the city has an alarm system to indicate where the piece will hit. 

All these worldbuilding tidbits offer refreshing takes on tried-and-true fantasy tropes. However, it’s tough as a reader to truly grasp what this world is like. Cogs turn and the story moves at a relentless speed, so much so that I often wished for a filler chapter that would tell me about one tiny aspect of the world. Martell constantly drops hints about the history of the shattered moon Celona, mercenaries, Hollows royalty, mythical beasts, and Fabrications. There’s a bigger picture here, but The Kingdom of Liars zooms so far in that it’s easy to miss things. 

Space to breathe is the one thing Kingdom is missing, but the end promises much more from this richly imagined world, and I think Martell’s second and third outings will up the ante big time. Michael as a character has a fun arc. He begins the book as a stubborn, overly-independent child, but he spends much of the book learning from his mistakes and trusting those he loves. So much of the book’s central narrative results from Michael’s own growth, so I won’t spoil much here. One thing is worth noting, though: if you find Michael an insufferable brat for the first half of the book, you’re not alone. The second half makes it worthwhile, in my opinion. The supporting characters, meanwhile lend some verve to the book, much needed considering Michael’s single-minded purpose and frustrating first half. Domet, an incredibly rich aristocrat with a secret, stands out among them. Michael takes a job with the rich, elite, functioning alcoholic Domet that eventually catapults him into the center of political unrest. Michael’s siblings Gwen and Lyon have great moments as well. They both dealt with their father’s execution in different ways, shaping their unique relationships with Michael. 

Like I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve left out some details–a few because they’re spoilers and others because they take a backseat to the main points of the story. There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion. For now, though, I’m happy I picked up The Kingdom of Liars, and I look forward to following Nick Martell as he explores his unique world. 

Rating: The Kingdom of Liars – 8.0/10

-Cole

The Book Rookie – The Hero of Ages

We’re back with another installment of The Book Rookie! This time, Alex and Andrew join cole to discuss The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson’s thrilling conclusion to the original Mistborn trilogy!

Just catching up? Listen to our discussions about Mistborn and The Well of Ascension before you dive in.

And enjoy our shiny new musical intro!

The Book Rookie is a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

The Book Rookie – The Well Of Ascension

We are back with part two of The Book Rookie – Mistborn. Today we’re talking about the second book in the series: The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson. Unlike our discussion of the first book in the series, this discussion inherently needs to have some spoilers – but we tried to minimize them as much as possible. However, if you have not read Mistborn, we recommend you hold off on listening to our highly entertaining discussion of book two.

The Book Rookie is essentially a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

The Book Rookie – Mistborn: The Final Empire

Today, we kick off a new series: The Book Rookie!

The Book Rookie is essentially a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen Bastards, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Broken Earth, The Stormlight Archive, The Expanse, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads.

We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers.

For our first episode, we dive deep into Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, a perfect fantasy gateway book that has something for everyone. Andrew and Alex accompany Cole on his first Sanderson excursion (we’ve linked each reviewer so you can get a feel for individual tastes and, of course, read our posts!).

Without further ado, here’s our first episode of The Book Rookie!