Friday, November 15, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

A dense, twisty and satisfying West African-inspired fantasy with a great magic system

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Kingdom of Souls continues the recent run of great West African-inspired fantasy, with a mystery that quickly becomes something greater, driven by the whims of gods and monsters. Its central character is Arrah, a woman who, despite having family with strong magical bloodlines on both sides, has yet to come into her own magical powers - a subject of increasing frustration to her and to her mother, Arti, whose expectations for her daughter are far greater than Arrah has any hope of living up to. After another failed magical ceremony, Arrah returns to the city of Tamar, only to get caught up in a plot in which children are disappearing - what follows is a hunt for answers that quickly brings Arrah and her family into the orbit of the powerful demon king, prevented from being with his now-lost Orisha lover an age ago, and now back for revenge on both the Orisha and humanity as a whole.

Although I had fairly limited assumptions about Kingdom of Souls' plot going in, its a book that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short time, at least once the relatively slow set-up begins to pay off. It takes a while to establish all the relevant pieces in Arrah's world: her mixed tribal heritage, and the traditions of both her mother's Mulani people, and the Aatiri tribe of her father and grandmother; the ceremonies of the tribal lands and Arrah's frustrated participation in them; the different reactions she receives among the Mulani and Aatiri compared to the more diverse and ostensibly less magical circle of friends in Tamar, and her relationship with forbidden love interest Rudjek. On top of that, there's the mixed system of belief and Gods - the Mulani worship only Heka, the God who brought magic to humans, while others worship a pantheon of twenty Orisha (not to be confused with the "canonical" Orisha of Yoruba myth - these are entirely Barron's creation), and a whole set of legends around the Demon King and his desire for human souls. Putting all of this together, setting the wheels in motion for the kidnapped children plot, and setting up the decision whereby Arrah decides to become a "charlatan" - someone without inherent magic who trades years of their life in order to cast spells - takes around a third of the book. It's an impressive amount of set-up and my suspicions that it was being done for a series rather than a book were proved correct when the ending resolved some, but far from all, the plot threads that get built up from this start.

Once the plot gets going, its done in a way that pulls the rug out from reader expectations more than once. For one thing, the inciting incident of the missing children gets an answer much sooner than expected, although its a gut punch of a reveal. From there the story twists into something quite different, which is difficult to describe without spoilers but much more than I expected on the relationship between Arrah and her mother Arti, and the trauma that her mother suffered which contributed to the choices she made for Arrah and for her entire family's future, as well as involving the demons and Orisha mentioned above. It makes for a story that offers a much broader perspective than the average first person teenage protagonist fronted story (although Kingdom of Souls is definitely in "crossover" rather than firm "YA" territory), forcing Arrah to look beyond what she wants (acceptance, to be with her love interest, not having the world destroyed by soul-sucking demons, making sure all her loved ones are OK) to the motivations and desires and difficulties of other people - be they humans or... well, soul-sucking demons. Despite that, it definitely doesn't let anyone off the hook for their terrible choices, and trust me there's some terrible choices happening here.

There were definitely elements of this that I liked more than others - despite the necessity of the set-up, the first third of the book dragged for me, and I also didn't have much time for the doomed love affair between Rudjek and Arrah, due to their parents' rivalry and other magical factors that become clear later on - perhaps because I wasn't paying enough attention during the parts of the book this was initially set up, I just didn't have a whole lot of time for their particular brand of relationship within a novel that already had plenty of nuanced, engaging, non-romantic relationship stuff going on. Rudjek also felt upstaged by Arrah's magical friend Sukar, who I felt I could have spent much more time with.

All in all, this debut kickstarts a series which has some serious potential, both in terms of worldbuilding and direction, and while this first volume has a lot of work to do in putting it all together, it pulls it off in an inventive way which mostly maintains the pace that a story of this urgency needs. Worth digging into, especially for those looking for an interesting take on magic, love and coming-of-age in a very well-realised fantasy world.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A twisty plot which doesn't go in the expected directions

Penalties: -1 Lots of worldbuilding to get through makes for a slow start

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Barron, Rena. Kingdom of Souls (Harper Voyager, 2019)