Back in June, in an effort to support black authors, I sought out a handful of books that I might add to my reading shelf. Of the five of them, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin was the book most aligned to my usual tastes: an epic fantasy tale promising some in-depth world-building. That said, I walked into this with low expectations. The marketing team did not do this book any favors, because let me tell you, this is exactly the kind of book I want to see more of on the shelves.
Author: Roseanne A. Brown
Genre: High Fantasy
For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.
But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.
When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?
Gold Buried in the Dirt: Hiding a Masterpiece
There are three key things that will sway a reader to buy a book or set it back down. They can’t read the whole story in a bookstore, so the title, book cover, and synopsis have to do that job instead, promising the reader it is worth their time and their money. It has to tell the reader that this book is different from the other books, and I don’t mean that in that tropey “I’m a girl not like any other girl” kind of way; I mean actually different.
A (Blank) of (Blank) and (Blank)
Think: (Children) of (Blood) and (Bone) by Tomi Adeyemi or the A (Court) of (Thorns) and (Roses) series by Sarah J. Maas. Admittedly, both were super hyped books that most people liked. But you don’t want a trendy title. You want a standout title. Although A Song of Wraiths and Ruin does relate to the overall work, and of the three items listed above, this one at least is in the hands of the author, I just… I wonder if there were other title options. It made me think this would be a book with storybeats I had already read before, a fear that, while ungrounded, might have otherwise turned me away had I just been browsing some bookshelves.
Uninspired Book Covers
The fontwork is beautiful, I will say that much. It’s just the background that killed it for me. I’ve seen so many book covers floating around the internet of books written by black authors that had absolutely stunning art. ASoWaR just has Karina surrounded by billowing…sheets? I’d have forgiven the title immediately if the publishers had tried even a little harder on the cover. As it is, it’s like they were just trying to bury this book.
A Synopsis That Doesn’t Understand The Book
The synopsis sets this book up to be about an enemies to lovers type story and it is completely and utterly not about that. I know a lot of people like a good romance. Me? I could take it or leave it. A fantasy book almost entirely about romance? I’d really rather not. I’m so glad the synopsis was wrong, that this was not really about trying to convince me Malik and Karina would put their love of each other over their own families, but rather about what it means to take a life when they’re no longer just an “idea” but rather an actual human being.
Earning its Five Stars
If you thought it had earned anything less than five stars, you haven’t been paying attention.
Unapologetically Flawed Characters
I don’t think I’ve ever read fantasy characters who were allowed to be their own obstacles, their own worst nightmares. Karina is impulsive. She acts the way an entitled, rich kid is expected to act, brazen, and without stopping to think of the consequences or of who might worry about her. She’s the heir to Ziran, but it was not supposed to be her title, and she has already decided it’s not worth trying to prove everyone else wrong.
Malik is almost her complete opposite. He is Eshran in a world that looks down on Eshra. He is boy with panic attacks, and it never feels like a quirk, but an actual defining element of his character, something he even manages to turn into a weapon. More than that, he is ostracized for his weakness, for the things he can see that no others can.
Both characters have their own motives for their actions, yet when they hesitate, it is realistic and aligned with their own character morals. The other characters in the book feel relatively realistic, but Malik and Karina are practically tangible.
Delivering its Promised Immersive Setting
With high fantasy, I want to be swept away by its world-building, and Brown managed to do just that. The extent was so thorough that on occasion, it threatened to pull me out of the story so I could figure out what was going on, but honestly, it was just so good. The problems I had with Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are nowhere to be found here. It is just familiar enough to be grounding, with just enough mystique to remind the reader that this is a completely different world. Or is it?
You know how with A Song of Ice and Fire (oh! That’s another one! Re: Titles) and Wheel of Time, there’s just enough references to the real world that the astute reader might wonder if the fantasy novel is actually taking place on a strange, future earth? With talk of Pharaohs conquering lands a millennia ago, and allowing for the names of countries to change over time, one might just be able to make such a case. It would just be a more magical past Earth than the one a modern reader would be familiar with.
Additionally, the culture of Ziran is just so visceral and real, right from the beginning of the pages, with mentions of story-telling griots (WoT fans, think gleemen), massive chipekwe creatures, a week-long Solstasia festival, and seven elemental deities whose signs are akin to a real-world Zodiac.
So Much More Than Just a Bad Romance
This is truly the most frustrating element of them all. To think I might’ve passed this book up because I thought it was just another romance story is tragic. Malik loves his little sister, Nadia. He wants to save her. But Solstasia, and being a Champion, give him the chance to dream for things he’s never had before. And despite his harsh background, he is still kind, still wants to help the downtrodden, the people like him. And Karina, as she changes from concept to living, breathing, human in his mind, proves to be more like him than he had any reason to expect.
Karina, conversely, doesn’t have a specific target in mind. She needs the heart of the victorious Champion, and all she knows is that it’ll be one of seven people. Her relationship with her mother is strained; the “Kestrel” does not easily show outward affection, and they are not close. But Karina’s determination to bring her mother back has nothing to do with some contrived sense of burning love for her; rather, it’s that same feeling of inadequacy that fuels practically every other action of Karina’s.
Basically, this is a book about two characters who do not feel like they are worth anything. They’ve been told most of their lives that their shadows pale in comparison to the people around them, that they are not and never can be good enough. Karina cannot rule; Malik cannot do anything right. But in this quest, at least, they are determined to prove themselves right.
A Promising Up-and-Coming Author
I won’t say that the book is flawless, because to do so would be to lie. Truly, though, the only thing that Brown struggles with on several occasions is her syntax. Frequently, there are clunky sentences that tell more than they show, where a simple rephrasing might have made it more natural. Yet this is Brown’s debut, and of all the things that go into writing books, syntax is the least worrisome, because all it requires is more practice. I really think Brown’s future books will be something to truly take your breath away, because this book did that for me even with its occasional writerly slips. If you haven’t read this book, and you like your fantasy books with intense world-building and just a dash of romance, trust me. You will love this.