Reviews · Summaries

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown (Book 1)

# of Pages: 466

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 67

Rating: 5 out of 5

Malik and his two sisters have traveled far from their homeland in hopes of a better life. Leaving their mother and grandmother behind at a refugee camp, the siblings travel to the powerful, wealthy city-state of Ziran with forged papers, hoping to earn enough money during the week long festival of Solstasia to bring their mother and grandmother to join them.

But when their falsified papers are stolen before they can even get inside the city, things seem hopeless until a wish is granted by a mysterious storyteller. The wish has consequences, however, and a powerful spirit entity kidnaps Malik’s younger sister, Nadia. The only way Malik can get her back is by killing the princess of Ziran, Karina, before the end of Solstasia. Malik agrees, thinking that the princess who is rumored to be spoiled and cruel is worth the price of saving his sister.

Karina has long dreamed of fleeing her oppressive role as the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. But when her mother, the respected sultana of Ziran, is assassinated the night Solstasia begins, Karina finds herself in the position of having to run the festival herself. Thinking only of bringing her mother back, Karina comes upon an ancient resurrection ritual that is said to raise the dead during the week of Solstasia. But the main ingredient needed is the heart of a king, which Ziran has not had since her father died. So if Karina can’t find a king, she’ll have to make one. By marrying the champion of the Solstasia competition, she’ll have the heart she needs to bring her mother back and free her from the responsibility of ruling Ziran.

Without knowing it, Karina and Malik are set on a collision path, each determined to kill the other. But there are greater forces at work, and this will be one Solstasia the people of Ziran will never forget.

Review:

I want to start out by saying that I think this is the best new book that I’ve read this year. I’ve done a number of re-reads as well as new books by favorite authors, but even though it’s early in the year, I believe this is a strong contender for my book of the year 2021.

This is the second fantasy book that I’ve read in the past few years that is based in African cultures, and world-building is stunning. The land of Sonande has a variety of storied, unique cultures with detailed histories that had me practically wiping the gritty sand out of my eyes as I felt myself standing with Malik in the vast Odjubai desert. I could spend an eternity talking about the detailed and magical world Brown has created, but I have so many other things I want to say that I’ll leave it at that.

I really want to talk about how much I love Malik as a protagonist. I don’t often read books with male protagonists, but even when I do find them I’ve never come across one anything like Malik. He’s the “man” of the family, but he suffers from panic attacks and cries at multiple times throughout the story. He is very conscious and always doubting himself. He suffers through a mental affliction, while the female protagonist suffers through a physical one, and I feel as though often times those would be reversed in other books I’ve read. But even with all of these “weaknesses”, Malik is determined and never ever wavers from his goal of saving his sister, no matter what the cost. If only all male protagonists could be as unique but also realistic as Malik. He is a breath of fresh air.

Karina, as well, is a well-rounded protagonist. She has a history of being irresponsible, drinking too much, and having a temper. These are attributes that are often given to male characters, but it’s fitting that they are given to Karina, especially since Ziran is a matriarchy. From the very beginning, Karina suffers from devastating migraines that often try very hard (and sometimes succeed) in putting her out of commission. But she is fierce and independent and willing to stand up for what she believes in, never willing to back down from a challenge. I also love that it’s stated very clearly that she’s experienced with boys and is not a virgin in the slightest, while Malik is yet to have his first kiss. Also non-traditional, which I think is well-suited to each of their characters. Karina isn’t a warrior, but she has been trained in staff fighting. Malik, on the other hand, has no fighting training whatsoever, and I found myself being startled at the fact that this is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve read in a while where neither the protagonist or the love interest is a trained fighter.

The only thing I can really say that is even close to a criticism is that there is so much lingo in here (which I love), but I wish there was a glossary in the back. Or at least I wished there was initially, as this book does not ease you gently into the beautiful but intense language of the story. Now because this book is written by a woman from Ghana and I am a white woman, it is very possible that I only struggled due to my ignorance of African culture, so that is certainly on me rather than on the author. But even I was able to get a handle on it by the end, so I wouldn’t want anyone who struggles with books that have a lot of lingo to be frightened away by this.

I, like many people, have had to consciously work on diversifying my bookshelf. Publishing, particularly YA, is almost entirely dominated by white people, and while I do feel like the YA section has gotten a bit more diverse in the last year or two, there is still much work to be done. But I am so glad I found this book at my local bookstore last month, because not only is the setting beautiful and very unlike others popular in YA, but the characters are equally unique and have seated themselves firmly in my heart. Roseanne A. Brown is truly a brilliant force and I cannot recommend this book enough.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast:

Malik – young Eshran refugee that travels to the city-state of Ziran with his older sister Leila and his younger sister Nadia in order to make a better life for their family. He has always been able to see spirits in the world around him, though nobody else can, and he was beaten as a young child until he stopped admitting it. He has a major anxiety disorder and often succumbs to panic attacks. Love interest of Karina.

Karina – only living daughter of the sultana of Ziran, heir to the throne. Lost her older sister Hanane and her father to a terrible fire when she was a young child, and grew up not really knowing her mother, both of them dealing with their grief in flawed ways. Suffers from terrible migraines. Finds out at the end of the story that she has the ability to summon storms with her magic that has been repressed most of her life. Love interest of Malik.

Leila – older sister of Malik. Controlling, but kindhearted and fiercely protective. Used to being in charge, she has been the parental figure ever since her and her siblings left their mother and grandmother behind at the refugee camp. Left school to take care of the family farm after their father abandons the family.

Nadia – Younger sister of Malik and Leila, about six or seven years old. Makes the wish that gets the three siblings into Ziran, but is kidnapped by the evil spirit Idir as the price of her wish.

Farid – ward of the sultana of Ziran and the royal steward. Raised like a brother to Karina, he was in love with her older sister Hanane, though supposedly Hanane didn’t love him back that way. Orchestrated the death of the Kestral with the help of Idir and kills Tunde in order to resurrect Hanane on the final day of Solstasia. A powerful sorcerer, one of the few left, he betrays Karina and blames her for the death of Hanane and the king.

Aminata – Karina’s best friend and personal maid. Cautious where Karina is brash, they don’t speak for most of the book after a fight. But it is Aminata who helps save Karina from being killed by Farid and aids her escape from Ziran. Aminata stays behind to be eyes on the inside of the palace under the rule of Farid and Hanane.

The Kestrel – the sultana of Ziran, the Kestrel is called such by many in Ziran due to her fierce and respected nature. Karina believes the Kestrel to be cold and disappointed in her, but the Kestrel simply let her grief at the loss of her eldest daughter and husband turn her away from being close to her daughter. Assassinated close

Idir – found later in the story to also be the Faceless King who is the villain of the founding legend of Ziran, Idir is a powerful spirit who was trapped in another realm by Bahia Alahari, his wife and the first sultana of Ziran. He takes Malik’s sister Nadia prisoner and says he will only release her if Malik kills the princess by the end of Solstasia. When Malik attempts to do so, he finds that he cannot kill Karina, but his attempt releases Idir from his prison realm. Malik is able to trap Idir within Malik’s mind where he resides at the end of the story, and his background is more complicated. He claims Bahia only trapped him in the spirit realm because he objected when she killed their son in order to create the magic barrier that protects Ziran.

Tunde – former lover of Karina, he is the Water champion for Solstasia. He makes friends quickly and easily with Malik, but fights with his lingering feelings for Karina. In the end, Karina choses him as the Solstasia victor and the two are married, despite Karina wishing she could chose Malik. Tunde is killed by Farid for his heart, the heart of a king, to be used in a ritual to resurrect Hanane, Karina’s elder sister who died ten years before.

Afua – eleven year old daughter of the ambassador to Arkwasi, come to Ziran for Solstasia. Tells Karina about magic, being one of the few magic users left herself. Helps Karina escape Ziran at the end of the story to take her back to Arkwasi, the only nation with an army to stand up to that of Ziran, and home to some of the few magic users left in the land.

Nyeni (Hyena) – Appearing throughout the story as Nyeni the griot (storyteller), she reveals herself to Malik and Karina to be Hyena, the mythological figure from Sonande’s legends. She is a renowned trickster, but provides some aid to both Malik and Karina.

Summary:

Act 1

Malik and his older sister Leila and younger sister Nadia arrive at the gates of the city-state Ziran after traveling a long way through a dangerous desert. They have come to try and make enough money to send back to their mother and grandmother back home to bring them to Ziran to join them eventually. They have made the journey using expensive, forged identification papers. The siblings are from Oboure, which is a territory overseen by Ziran. They are not citizens, and are seen as a lower class of people who would not be let into the city without their forged papers. Malik and his sisters have arrived just in time for Solstasia, the week-long festival that only comes along every 50 years to celebrate the comet that can be seen crossing the sky for a whole seven days. The festival is very important because it comes with a competition. The people of Ziran worship seven patron deities, one for each day of the week, and the day you are born signifies what alignment you are. Each alignment temple chooses a champion to compete in Solstasia, with the winner gaining ultimate glory and a position in court, and their alignment will be the alignment that defines the next era until the next comet cycle.

As they are standing in line to enter the city, Malik helps a boy who is about to get crushed by the crowd, but the boy repays him by stealing the bag containing their identification papers and disappearing. It appears hope is lost, when a griot (storyteller) grants Nadia her wish to get into the city. A giant beast stampedes through the wall, allowing the crowd to pour in. During the scuffle, Malik and his sisters find themselves in a strange hut, where a powerful spirit manifests before them. Taking advantage of Nadia’s wish, the spirt who calls himself Idir captures Nadia. Malik says he’ll do anything in exchange for her release, so Idir says he must kill Karina, the crown princess of Ziran, before the end of Solstasia. He agrees, and Idir gives Malik the “mark”, which can move all over his body and manifests into a dagger when he needs it. Leila and Malik are left to figure out how they are going to get close enough to the princess to kill her and save Nadia.

Karina is the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. Her father and older sister Hanane were killed in a fire ten years before, and Karina has been grieving them ever since. Karina suffers from frequent and violent migraines. Her mother, known as the Kestrel, is the sultana of Ziran, and the only family she has left except for Farid, a ward of her parents and raised as her brother, he now works as the royal steward of the palace. On the eve of Solstasia, Karina has escaped the palace with her maid and finds herself in a competition with a man from the tavern for a bag of gold coins, which Karina dreams of using to escape her life in Ziran. Being a talented musician, Karina wins not only the money from her opponent, but also what appears to be an ancient book of magic. Thinking the book nothing more than a relic, she accepts it as payment.

Back at the palace, her mother brings her to a secret cavern under the palace and explains why she can never leave Ziran. Their ancestor, Bahia Alahari, the founding sultana of Ziran, created a Barrier around Ziran to protect it from enemies, but the current sultana and her heir powered the barrier and thus could never leave Ziran. In awe of the magic but frustrated by her lack of freedom, Karina and her mother argue.

Later that evening, just before the comet arrives, assassins sneak into the palace and attack Karina and her mother, and the fight ends with the Kestrel dead, making Karina the new sultana of Ziran. Her mother’s counsel want to bury the Kestrel at once and cancel Solstasia, but Karina won’t have it, insisting news of her mother’s death should be kept secret and Solstasia should continue as planned. Karina hatches a plan to use the book she was given to conduct a resurrection spell that will bring her mother back. She main ingredient she needs, however, is the heart of a king. The only way Karina can think to get that is to marry someone and then kill them. At the opening ceremony of Solstasia, she announces that whoever wins the festival will win her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Malik has come to the conclusion that the only way for him to get close to the princess is for him to be the champion of his alignment for Solstasia. Using magic that had long been dormant but was awakened by Idir, he creates an illusion of his patron deity naming him champion in front of everyone in the temple. The priestess choses him, believing him chosen by their patron. He calls himself Adil, because his name will identify him as Eshran. All of the other champions are named and Solstasia begins.

Act 2

The first challenge of Solstasia is a scavenger hunt where the instructions are a riddle. Malik has no idea where to even start looking, even after he figures out he is supposed to be looking for masks. He gets distracted when he sees a carriage that is carrying the princess cross an abandoned bridge, and he thinks to end her life right there, calling forth frightening spirits which cause the carriage to crash, and they are very close to pushing Karina off the edge of the gorge, but his illusion fails at just that moment and he is unable to complete his task that way. And just as he thinks he’s going to fail the first challenge and be eliminated from Solstasia, the griot Nyeni who was part of the reason they got into this mess with Nadia and Idir appears and offers him the final mask of the challenge, and he arrives just in time to complete it.

Karina wants to find out who had her mother killed. Signs point to someone from Arkwasi, but it seems too obvious to her. Karina believes the council is responsible, but has no proof. Regardless of who had her mother killed, none of it will matter if she can manage to bring her back, so she sets about trying to find someone who can help her learn more about magic. Shortly before her mother died, she met a young girl named Afua, who was the daughter of the Arkwasi ambassador, and she mentioned offhand a magical term on their meeting. Karina sneaks out to go and meet with her, but her friend Aminata catches her and advises her not to leave. They get in a fight which ends with Karina putting a firm line between them as mistress and maid. Karina regrets it once her friend leaves, but she is often hotheaded and very stubborn, so can’t call her back to fix it.

She flees the palace and goes down to the district where all the Arkwasi visitors are staying. She finds Afua with her family in a tent that is magically enlarged on the inside. Afua explains that she is one of the very rare magic users left in Sonande who are descendants of sorcerers who were common 1,000 years ago. After admitting that her mother is dead, Karina enlists Afua’s help with the eventual ritual that needs to happen. Afua reluctantly agrees.

Chaos erupts when the elite warriors called Sentinels raid the district where the Arkwasi’s are staying and Karina has to flee before she is found. She happens upon Malik, who fled from the pub where he was having drinks and discussing an alliance with two of the other champions, Tunde and Driss. Malik and Karina, neither knowing who the other is, end up hiding together in an abandoned building and having a bit of a connection. Malik stitches together Karina’s dress when it rips. After the raid when they’re heading back, they overhear some merchants talking badly about the Kestrel and Karina herself, and Karina tries to break up the fight by revealing her identity, but just when Malik is trying to get himself to strike her from behind with this opportunity, someone else throws a rock at her, and she is hurried away by guards before she is further hurt.

Just before the second task of Solstasia there is a wakama competition that anyone can compete in. The Fire Alignment champion, Dedele, is an expert wakama player and in front of everyone challenges Karina to a match. Being herself a pretty good wakama player, Karina accepts. They strike a wager that the loser has to do one thing, anything, the winner asks of them. Dedele agrees, and the two young girls fight. Dedele has Karina on the ropes, but Karina is unwilling to lose and with a burst of vicious power physically beats Dedele down and wins the match, gaining the admiration of her people.

Shortly after that, the second challenge begins. Karina discovers that Malik (as Adil) is the Life Alignment champion and feels as though he deceived her by not saying anything once he knew who she was. The second challenge is essentially a talent show that revolves around doing a performance based off of a random item drawn from a box. They have the afternoon to prepare then they must perform. In the interim, Malik has an encounter with Idir, and Malik attempts to gain the upper hand with his illusions, but Idir is too powerful. However, the illusions do give him an idea of what to do with his talent. Since no one believes magic really exists, Malik performs a story about Hyena, the popular mythical trickster, using his illusions as accents to his story. The crowd goes wild and he wins that task. The other two champions who will move onto the final challenge are Driss (Sun champion) and Tunde (Water champion). Dedele does not even perform, dropping out of the competition, as this was Karina’s win condition for wakama. Karina is enchanted by Malik’s story, but she is now sure that he may win Solstasia and she’ll have to kill him for his heart.

Act 3

At the midpoint of Solstasia there is a large carnival thrown by the royal council. The champions and their families attend. Malik and Leila arrive, and Malik immediately drinks too much and worries about when to take his opportunity to kill her, especially now that after getting to know her a bit he finds that he likes her as a person. When Malik is chatting with Tunde, Karina arrives and whisks him away to dance, where she not so subtly lets him know why he doesn’t want to win Solstasia. Malik thinks it’s because she wants Tunde to win so she’ll marry her former flame, but really it’s because Karina doesn’t want to kill this boy she also likes. At the end of a very sexually charged dance, Karina pushes him into the lake in front of everyone, where he has to be fished out.

Malik then is speaking with one of the council members who is verbally abusing one of the Eshran workers, not knowing of course that Malik is really Eshran. Malik stops the council member from striking the boy. Malik is trying to justify his response, and Karina is about to jump in when Afua arrives out of nowhere, attacking Karina and crying that her family has been taken prisoner because of the raids by the Sentinels. Karina tries to order the council to release all of the Arkwasi prisoners, but they defy her and carry her essentially kicking and screaming back to the palace.

Malik, thinking this may be his opportunity and realizing he can use his illusion powers to essentially make himself invisible, follows shortly after back to the palace.

Desperate to escape the prison of her bedroom and find the other ingredients needed for the resurrection ritual, Karina starts a small fire in her room, which causes panic since it was a big fire that killed Karina’s father and sister. Karina uses this distraction to her advantage, trying to get back to the cavern her mother took her to right before she died because Karina suspects there is a clue there about where she can find the other ingredient she needs. But right as she’s about to get into the chamber she is attacked by a Sentinel, and Malik becomes uninvisible in order to save her, but this rescue attempt sends them both tumbling into the cavern, plunging into the river that runs under the city.

Once they get out of the river, they find themselves in a necropolis built for the last pharaoh of the empire that ruled Sonande before Ziran. Depicted in this necropolis are images of the Faceless King, who is shown here with a face and Malik recognizes him as Idir, though none of this is revealed to Karina at this time. Karina finds the blood flower, the ingredient she needs for the ritual, though this is not revealed to Malik. They also find and have to fight a giant serpant-like creature that was thought to be only myth but has been residing under the city all this time. Malik and Karina really connect during this time and almost kiss. Malik really considers whether he’ll be able to bring himself to kill her.

To escape the cavern, they have to throw themselves at the mercy of the river and hope it brings them outside. It works, and Karina knows how she can blackmail the council into revealing who the traitor is that hired the assassin to kill her mother.

Karina calls the entire council to order, including Farid, who she has not revealed her plan to. She tells the council that she has poisoned their tea, and only she has the antidote. If they do not reveal which one of them hired the assassin, she will let all of them die (including herself as she has also drunk the tea). They reveal that they were all in on trying to pin the assassination on Arkwasi in order to start a war because all of them are in industries that would profit. But only one of them outs himself as the one who hired the assassin, though he swears it was only supposed to be an “attempt” to scare the Kestrel into starting war herself with Arkwasi. Karina gives them all the anti-venom and tells them to call off all of their warmongering efforts or she will reveal their darkest secrets, all of which she knows thanks to Farid. They come to an agreement and bind it with a blood oath. And thus Karina takes care of the power struggle she has with the council.

As the time for the third and final challenge draws near, Malik is in his room with Leila when Driss barges in, claiming he knows Malik is not who he says he is and that he’s going to report him as being Eshran. Leila tries to reason with him but Driss throws her into a wall. Malik sees red and shoves Driss, who falls so hard that he tumbles over the banister and dies just as Tunde and soldiers arrive. Leila claims that it was an accident, but that she did it, begging Tunde to back her up. Tunde does, hesitantly, and the soldiers take Leila away because Malik is the only one who can save Nadia.

The third challenge is a maze, and Tunde and Malik are the only ones left. They enter the maze, and Tunde is suspicious of Malik because he knows that it was he who killed Driss. Malik doesn’t know what to tell him, so the two go their separate ways. The maze challenges them with their greatest fears, and Malik has to deal with his childhood trauma and anxieties head on, but he comes out stronger. He and Tunde race to the finish, Tunde having decided that he does in fact want the opportunity to marry Karina.

Malik finishes the maze first and appears to have won. Karina knows now that she can’t kill Malik, not with the feelings that she has for him, so she declares Malik disqualified because of a technicality and declares Tunde the winner, even though she doesn’t want to kill him either. She had really wanted Driss to win because she really didn’t like him, but he was already dead before marrying her.

So Malik feels entirely betrayed, because he is starting to fall for Karina, but this just hardens his resolve to kill her and save his sister. Karina and Tunde are married quickly and secretly, and they consecrate their marriage (it’s revealed that Karina is not a virgin, she and Tunde had slept together many times during their previous relationship). Tunde genuinely still loves her, and Karina realizes she can’t kill him and that she’ll just have to accept that her mother is gone.

Later that day Malik lures Karina to the roof where they share a kiss, which Malik ends by stabbing her with his magic dagger, apologizing as he does it. But this does not kill Karina, it only frees Idir from his prison realm and breaks the barrier that protects Ziran, and darkness briefly falls over Ziran as Idir disapears, but not before revealing that he (nor anything crafted by him like the blade he gave Malik) can kill her because she’s his descendant. Karina attacks Malik for trying to kill her and has him arrested. Malik is defeated because he cannot complete the deal he made with Idir and it appears Nadia is going to die.

Karina tries to warn Farid about Idir, but he doesn’t seem to believe her. They argue, and Karina realizes that it was Farid all along, Farid was the one who had her mother assassinated and has been pulling the strings the entire time. Why? Because he is a powerful sorcerer who has been working with Idir himself and wants to perform the resurrection ritual on Hanane, his true love. So right in front of Karina he slits Tunde’s throat and carves out his heart.

In prison, Malik thinks it’s all over when Nyeni, the griot, comes to him. She reveals herself as Hyena and says that it is up to him to defeat Idir. Malik and Leila escape from prison and race to find Idir.

At the closing ceremony of Solstasia, Farid accuses Karina, who he has subdued, of killing the queen in front of the whole kingdom. Then Idir joins Farid and they conduct the ritual to bring Hanane back from the dead. But as part of his deal to Idir, Farid has to kill Karina on his behalf, which he doesn’t seem to have any remorse for because he blames the death of Hanane and the king on Karina. It comes to light that though Karina has repressed both the memories and her magic (causing her migraines), she has powerful storm magic and summoned the bolt of lightening that caused the fire that killed her father and sister. Just as Farid is about to strike down Karina, Malik appears and offers to let Idir possess his body so he can kill Karina himself. Idir can’t resist this offer, but once Malik has Idir inside his mind, he is able to trap Idir there and take back over. In order to keep Idir imprisoned forever, Malik puts the dagger through his own chest.

In that moment, the ritual works and it appears as though Hanane rises. But as soon as Karina sees her eyes, she knows that it could never have worked and that this being isn’t truly her sister, though it looks and sounds just like her. Farid is about to finish Karina off when a crowd of those loyal to Karina, including Afua, Aminata, and Commander Hamidou of the Sentinels.

Aminata revels that she has been spying on Farid and wants to maintain her position, so she hustles back to the palace while Afua and Hamidou hustle Karina out of Ziran. Commander Hamidou stays behind, sacrificing herself so that Afua and Karina can escape Ziran with the help of Dedele, who is also loyal to the princess. Her magic unleashed, Karina releases a storm that allows them to get away. They’ll travel to Arkwasi, where Karina will learn to control her powers and hopefully get the help of the Arkwasi army to help Karina take her place on the throne of Ziran and put Hanane back to rest.

Farid, however, has managed to save Malik from dying. It is revealed that they are the same kind of sorcerer, and Farid offers to teach him what he knows. Malik doesn’t really know of Farid’s role in all that happened with Karina, so he agrees. After consulting with Idir, who is still trapped in his mind, Malik finds that he is able to summon Nadia out of her prison, and the three siblings are reunited.

End of Book 1

!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!

Well, that was absolutely the longest review/summary I’ve ever done, but I have no regrets. I love, love, loved this book, it is a masterpiece and I cannot wait until the sequel A Psalm of Storms and Silence, which will be released on November 2nd of 2021.

If you liked A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, try:

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Reader by Traci Chee

Carival by Stephanie Garber

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

P.S. I’m out here trying to diversify my bookshelf, and I realized really the only other fantasy series I had on my shelves that was written by a black author is Children of Blood and Bone. So if you’ve got any other fantasy novels to recommend that are written by black/POC authors, please drop them in the comments, I read a lot of novels by white ladies, which is fine, but certainly not the only YA fantasy perspective out there and I really want to broaden my horizons. Thanks!

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