Book Review: Scorpica by G. R. Macallister

Title: Scorpica
Series: The Five Queendoms, #1
Author: G. R. Macallister
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 22, 2022
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A centuries-long peace is shattered in a matriarchal society when a decade passes without a single girl being born in this sweeping epic fantasy that’s perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Circe.

Five hundred years of peace between queendoms shatters when girls inexplicably stop being born. As the Drought of Girls stretches across a generation, it sets off a cascade of political and personal consequences across all five queendoms of the known world, throwing long-standing alliances into disarray as each queendom begins to turn on each other—and new threats to each nation rise from within.

Uniting the stories of women from across the queendoms, this propulsive, gripping epic fantasy follows a warrior queen who must rise from childbirth bed to fight for her life and her throne, a healer in hiding desperate to protect the secret of her daughter’s explosive power, a queen whose desperation to retain control leads her to risk using the darkest magic, a near-immortal sorcerer demigod powerful enough to remake the world for her own ends—and the generation of lastborn girls, the ones born just before the Drought, who must bear the hopes and traditions of their nations if the queendoms are to survive.

In this ambitious novel, historical fiction author Greer Macallister turns her talents to the world of fantasy, writing as G. R. Macallister. Because I’ve enjoyed her historical novels, and since I generally enjoy fantasy fiction, I thought I’d give Scorpica a try.

In Scorpica, the known world is divided into five queendoms, each with its own strengths and gifts. The land of Scorpica raises and trains warriors; Arca is known for magic; The Bastion is a stronghold for scholars and archives; Paxim is a crossroads and a center of trade and negotiation; and Sestia is a fertile land with thriving agriculture. The different lands worship different gods and goddesses and have different cultures and societal structures, but one thing they all have in common is that women rule.

The queendoms are matriarchal societies, where power belongs to women alone. From queens to warriors to any and all positions of power, all roles of importance are held by women. Men are subservient, there to support women and offer pleasure and participate in making babies, but they do not wield authority or take any role in combat.

The coexistence of the five queendoms and their continued survival are thrown into turmoil when baby girls stop being born. Known as the Drought of Girls, this lack of girl babies means there can be no future queens and no future warriors. As each of the queendoms struggles to figure out what to do if the drought doesn’t end, there’s another force at work in the shadows seeking to overthrow the queendoms entirely.

As the story progresses, we see events unfold from multiple perspectives, mainly through the Queens of Scorpica and Arca and various women of their queendoms. We get to learn the customs of the different lands, their superstitions and fears and politics, and for some of the characters, get insight into their more personal emotions and challenges.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and that’s not always easy. Fortunately, there’s a map of the Five Queendoms included at the front of the book, which helps a lot in terms of visualizing the basic geography and how that influences the plot. This is one of the rare occasions where a glossary of characters would have been helpful, although usually I shy away from those.

The premise of the book is quite interesting, and I liked a lot about the development of this world, how the queendoms interact, and the internal functioning of Scorpica and Arca. Where I think there’s some weakness is in the individual character development and, perhaps consequentially, in the emotional impact.

While there are some characters we spend more time with than others, this is a big book with a lot of ground and time to cover, and the individuals often get lost in the shuffle. There weren’t many that I felt I really knew well, and so I wasn’t able to develop an emotional connection with more than two or three of the characters — and even with these few, they only appear from time or time or in limited capacities.

The fantasy-world-speak is a little over the top at times:

She’d returned to Scorpica with a belly set to swell, as did so many warrior sisters, their seed watered with a man’s rain.

Okay, I’ve never heard it called rain before… Still, awkward phrasing like this (which makes me laugh despite — I’m sure — not being intended to be funny) doesn’t really detract from the generally well written world-building, descriptions, and forward motion of the major plot points.

I did enjoy the overall concepts of the book. It’s quite large in scope, and is supposedly the first in a series. I’d guess that there will be a book titled for each of the five queendoms, and that should help fill out and broaden the world quite a bit. In Scorpica, we mainly spend time with characters from Scorpica and Arca, and I imagine that there’s future action planned that will bring the other three lands into greater focus and importance.

Assuming the next book in the series comes out soon enough that I’ll still remember the details, I’d like to keep reading. Scorpica ends with a lot of loose-ends — major conflicts and problems are resolved, but there’s a sort-of cliff-hanger about what comes next, and plenty more to explore in this fantasy world.

Book Review: Soulstar (The Kingston Cycle, #3) by C. L. Polk

Title: Soulstar
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #3
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With Soulstar, C. L. Polk concludes her riveting Kingston Cycle, a whirlwind of magic, politics, romance, and intrigue that began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Assassinations, deadly storms, and long-lost love haunt the pages of this thrilling final volume.

For years, Robin Thorpe has kept her head down, staying among her people in the Riverside neighborhood and hiding the magic that would have her imprisoned by the state. But when Grace Hensley comes knocking on Clan Thorpe’s door, Robin’s days of hiding are at an end. As freed witches flood the streets of Kingston, scrambling to reintegrate with a kingdom that destroyed their lives, Robin begins to plot a course that will ensure a freer, juster Aeland. At the same time, she has to face her long-bottled feelings for the childhood love that vanished into an asylum twenty years ago.

Can Robin find happiness among the rising tides of revolution? Can Kingston survive the blizzards that threaten, the desperate monarchy, and the birth throes of democracy? Find out as the Kingston Cycle comes to an end.

In the third and final book in the Kingston Cycle trilogy, we pick up within weeks of the end of book #2 (Stormsong), this time with the character Robin Thorpe serving as our narrator.

Robin was introduced in the previous books, but here takes center stage. She’s a nurse at the veteran’s hospital, but also comes from a witch clan and has strong ties to the activist movement within Kingston. As the book opens, Robin is very involved in the mission to free imprisoned witches from the horrific asylums where they were kept for the past twenty years and bring them home to their families. Among the freed witches is Zelind, Robin’s spouse, whom she hasn’t seen in all these years.

Society within Kingston is in turmoil, as the aether powering the city has been cut off, the lower classes are suffering, and demands for social justice are on the rise. Meanwhile, the new King has promised change, but seems especially focused on slow, incremental change that doesn’t challenge the status quo in a significant way. Robin’s people want dramatic action, and she becomes in political activism that threatens to overturn the entire government structure of Aeland.

The book very much focuses on activism, political change, and reparations — but the thematic elements don’t seem to mesh well with the fantasy elements. The witches are present as an oppressed class demanding justice, but the politics take precedence. As in the previous books, I was frustrated by the lack of clarity over some basic questions around the fantasy world, such as the presence of ghosts and who can see them, the significance of soulstars, and even the question of who knows what about magic and witches. Additionally, the various political and social and community-based factions introduced all become one big blur over the course of the novels. At times when there was a big reveal, rather than feeling the impact, I first had to go back and check to see who these people were and what role they played.

Wrapping up the trilogy:

I’ve had my eye on these books ever since Witchmark (book 1) was released, and picked up paperback editions over the years. With all three books on my shelf, I was determined to make 2022 the year I finally read them.

Sad to say, I was for the most part underwhelmed. While I liked key characters, I was disappointed to see the main characters from the first two books shunted aside in the narrative from book to book, relegated to supporting roles and with no further exploration of their inner lives.

For a fantasy world, I expected much more in terms of the fantastical elements and the world-building. Instead, I’d describe these books as a story of political change and social justice that happens to be set in a fantasy world.

I had hoped to love these books. I didn’t. I was interested enough in the characters to see the trilogy through to the end, but I can’t say that this trilogy will ever make a list of my favorites.

Book Review: Stormsong (The Kingston Cycle, #2) by C. L. Polk

Title: Stormsong
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #2
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 11, 2020
Length: 346 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After spinning an enthralling world in Witchmark, praised as a “can’t-miss debut” by Booklist, and as “thoroughly charming and deftly paced” by the New York Times, C. L. Polk continues the story in Stormsong. Magical cabals, otherworldly avengers, and impossible love affairs conspire to create a book that refuses to be put down.

Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her people to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.

Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?

Book two of the Kingston Cycle by C. L. Polk continues and builds upon the story begun in Witchmark. In Witchmark, we’re introduced to the world of Aeland, an early industrial-age country coming out of a brutal war with neighboring Laneer. Our point of view character is Dr. Miles Singer, a traumatized war veteran who himself treats suffering war veterans, all the while keeping his true identity — son of one of the most powerful families in Aeland — a tightly held secret.

In Aeland, the ruling families control the climate through magical rituals, maintaining the even, pleasant seasons year-round and enabling good harvests and a strong economy. By the end of Witchmark, certain truths have come to light, among them the fact that the aether powering Aeland (basically, electricity) is generated via a truly heinous conspiracy. Through the intervention of Miles, his lover, and his sister, the conspiracy is broken apart, but that’s resulted in the shutdown of aether power.

As we pick up in Stormsong, the country is facing a harsh winter without heat or power, and the food supply is threatened as well. Aeland is a country of haves and have-nots, and outside of the royalty and the inner circle of ruling families, almost eveyone is in the latter category.

In Stormsong, Miles’s sister Grace takes over as the point of view character. Dame Grace Hensley is a powerful mage and political leader, but she faces a growing circle of enemies and obstacles. The conspirators behind the aether atrocities are all imprisoned, but their influence is still widely felt. The remaining power players are jockeying for key positions, and Grace’s leadership may come apart at any moment if she can’t solidify her political alliances.

Stormsong is very much about enacting social change. Grace knows that certain horrible laws need to be overturned, but at the outset, she thinks the country needs to ease into it. Yes, the persecution of witches (as revealed in Witchmark) is a travesty, but she fears that the outrage that will erupt when this becomes widely known will have a devastating effect on the country. Slow and steady seems to be her initial approach — maybe stop the badness, but still keep it a secret?

Over time, though, a courageous journalist and other activists push the agenda forward and force Grace’s hand. It’s a complex set of considerations and actions — social justice issues, political power, and the stability of the reigning monarchy are all at play.

The author finds a way to blend the personal and the political here in Stormsong, showing us the stakes for the society as a whole as well as the personal risks to Grace and those she cares about. Grace as an individual is fascinating — a young professional woman who seeks to stay in power because she knows she can do good, but who’s also very much aware that her family’s privilege, built over many years of corruption, are what gave her access to power in the first place.

I would have liked to have seen Miles more in this book (I became very attached to him in book #1), but he does participate with Grace in key scenes, and it’s nice to see that he’s doing well and that his love life is thriving!

One of my complaints about Witchmark was about insufficiently clear world-building. I felt that there were too many concepts that were introduced but not well explained. Some aspects are clearer to me now after reading Stormsong, but I’d still like certain things spelled out even more — especially the Amaranthines, a race (?) or species (?) of people (?) who are feared by all, seem to have unfathomable magical powers, and who intervene in the conflicts between people when they seem fit. I’ve seen other bloggers and commenters interpret them as being this world’s equivalent of the Fae, which helps me make better sense of them, although I think they’re maybe also supposed to be some sort of celestial (?) beings, and their world is called Solace (?) but also has something to do with where souls of the dead go, so maybe some sort of heaven (?).

As you can see, I’m still somewhat confused!

I like the overarching story and the characters enough that I want to know what happens next, so I’ll be continuing onward to book #3, Soulstar. Here’s hoping it all comes together and that everything is crystal clear by the time I finish the trilogy!