Kingdom of Souls

Book cover: Kingdom of Souls - Rena BarronArrah is the heir to two great lines of witchdoctors, but she has no magic of her own. When children begin disappearing, she faces a terrible choice: sacrifice her years for a charlatan’s powers or lose those she loves. It’s no choice at all…

I know, I know, it’s only three weeks since I said I didn’t expect to write a full review for this book, through no fault of its own. My head is a mess, and reviews are difficult right now, so I was going to prioritise ARCs. However, I’ve said many times I’m here for books by authors of colour and right now – more than ever – that means being here for authors of colour.

So, let’s get right to it: Kingdom of Souls is really good. I don’t understand why I haven’t seen more people talking about it – especially after all the attention lavished on Children of Blood and Bone. There’s plenty of room on the shelves for multiple West African-inspired YA fantasies (or there should be) and frankly this is head and shoulders above Children. So, having made the inevitable comparison and made it quite clear where I stand, I’ll stop talking about that other book.

Meet Arrah: brave, principled, privileged, but weighed down by a great burden of expectation. Her grandmother is a tribal chieftain; her father is a powerful healer; and her mother Arti is the Ka-Priestess of the orishas in Tamar. But year after year – in spite of her grandmother’s loving efforts and the lash of Arti’s scorn – Arrah leaves the Blood Moon festival without Heka’s gift of magic. At sixteen, she must accept the fact that she will never wield magic. Outside the tribes, having no magic is the norm; as the daughter of the most powerful woman in the Almighty Kingdom, it won’t hold Arrah back. But it’s a lot to come to terms with.

Battling feelings of inadequacy, Arrah returns home to find a shadow over Tamar. Children are disappearing off the streets and Arti is using the tragedy to score political points against her rival, the Vizier. The markets are haunted by Familiars: harbingers of death that promise even worse to come. When a friend is snatched off the streets, Arrah is prepared to do anything to ensure his safe return – but without magic, there’s little she can do. Determined not to turn her back on those in need, she turns to the dark arts of the charlatans, who bargain their very lives away for brief tastes of magic they can never master.

There’s enough going on right there for a fabulous fantasy arc: fabulous world-building, personal stakes, coming of age, family feuds, a whodunnit, city politics – and did I mention that Arrah’s best friend is the youngest son of her mother’s enemy? No, I didn’t think so, so let me just add that Barron does a fantastic simmering friends to lovers. But this is just the set-up for the first act. No, not the first book. The first act. Kingdom of Souls is EPIC in scope, with enough plot packed into its 400-some pages to fill most trilogies.

Once the stage is set and the principal cast established, Barron is relentless in upping the ante: Arrah’s mission grows from rescuing a friend to saving her family to preventing the return of the long-banished Demon King, whose long-ago defeat was dearly bought with the lives of gods. With each gear shift, the tone becomes darker and the mood bleaker. Having little magic and less influence, Arrah is hopelessly outgunned and outmanoeuvred at every step – and Rena Barron doesn’t stop adding spice to her soup right up until the very last chapter.

Poor Arrah is by turns (magically) powerless, subjected to mind control, blackmailed into submission and threatened into compliance. Whilst she’s often riven by doubt (even self-loathing) and understandably overwhelmed, she never gives up. She’s the sort of protagonist it’s easy to root for, but who you mostly want to give a big hug and reaffirm that she’s a far stronger person than she gives herself credit for.

However, she’s also very much a teenager. Those of you who don’t particularly enjoy teenage perspectives, be warned. The first person present narration will keep you firmly centred in Arrah’s sometimes-frustrating point of view – it can be repetitive (oh, the brooding), with bouts of self-pity, pining and occasional lapses of judgement. She’s sixteen, and her world is falling apart. It’s allowed.

In sharp contrast, many of the storylines and themes are very adult (CW: psychological abuse, torture, child murder, genocide, the almost Rosemary’s Baby impregnation WTAF – not of Arrah, I hasten to add), which left me slightly off-kilter. I never fully reconciled the darkness of the material with the YA narration, not least Arti’s back story, which is full of nope (although the portrayal of Arti in general made me sigh: when can we stop equating ambition in women with emotional unavailability?) However, I appreciated the contrast between Arrah’s often-difficult family relationships and her supportive friends.

Unusually for me, given how much of a romance curmudgeon I am, I delighted in Arrah’s relationship with Rudjek in particular. They know the odds are stacked against them given their parents’ animosity, and they recognise the prejudice each brings to their friendship, but they desperately want to make it work. The simmering attraction is as adorable as their awkward dance around it, with their amused friends acting as a sort of Greek chorus urging them to get over it and kiss already.

Kingdom of Souls isn’t an ‘overcome your challenges, save the world’ fantasy that finishes book one on a high then pulls the rug from under you in book two. It starts pulling rugs early on, until you can be forgiven for wondering how big a pile you’re standing on. But they’re good rugs. well pulled. While it rarely wrong-footed me, when it did I was left reeling in a good way, wondering how on earth Arrah could thwart the forces arrayed against her.

Come for a richly-imagined world built entirely on African foundations and a dogged heroine determined to save it; stay for the difficult themes and intriguing relationships with family and friends. And don’t worry – as far as I can tell at the end of the book, you’re still stood on a mountain of rugs. This trilogy is going to be one hell of a ride.

Kingdom of Souls is nominated for Best Fantasy in this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards