Book: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin (A Song of Wraiths and Ruin #1)
Author: Roseanne A.Brown
Narrator: AJ Beckles (Malik), Jordan Cobb (Karina)
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Karina and her mother talk about the barrier surrounding Ziran.
Content Warnings: Anxiety, panic attacks, grief, death of parents, murder, violence, self harm, alcohol dependency, colonialism, human sacrifice, emotional and physical abuse, animal death, immigration raids, mentions of slavery
I first became aware of Song of Wraiths and Ruin way back in June when everyone was sharing their Black author reading lists, and added it to my TBR for later reading. I finally got around to it this November and it turns out the hype around it was definitely not misleading, I really enjoyed it! There were a few problems with pacing and the magic system was a little confusing in places but all in all it was a fun read and I’m looking forward to the sequel next year. Here is a short synopsis of the book (I’m actually only going to include a small section of the Goodreads synopsis as I think what they went for was too spoilery!):
The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction – from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. Perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir.
I’m going to start with what I loved most about this book which is the characters. Malik and Karina are both great protagonists and I really enjoyed following them throughout the book. I want to touch on Malik especially because he’s the kind of male main character that you don’t get to see a massive amount of in YA. He is SO SOFT, sweet and sensitive and he suffers from anxiety (more on that later) and you basically want to do everything that you can to protect him. I feel like the alpha male lead has become so commonplace in YA, so it was nice to find a book where the male lead is genuinely lovely and doesn’t display any of the toxic masculine qualities that are unfortunately all to prevalent in a lot of Fantasy books.
Karina on the other hand seems at first like your classic rebellious princess, who wasn’t born to lead and doesn’t want to and is seen by everyone around her as a bit of a spoiled brat. It would have been so easy for this book to make Karina completely unlikeable, but the more I read of her, the more I feel in love with her. Once you see past the bratty princess exterior to the grief and loneliness and insecurity that lies beneath, it’s quite easy to root for her. I liked that Brown wasn’t afraid to give her flaws, women can be just as messy and complicated as men and Karina definitely embodies that.
As always, I did have a couple of pacing issues with this book but weirdly they’re not the ones you would think? This book is very fast paced, we move through the action pretty briskly and never I felt bored or like nothing was happening. The problem that I had here was that sometimes it felt like we were moving through things so fast that occasionally I missed what happened? I mean I still followed the story for the most part, but there were a few places were I just missed a bit because the narrative went over them a little too fast.
Speaking of confusion, the magic system. The magic system is massively confusing. We have Zawengi and Telraji, elemental magic users and those who manipulate the mind. Simple enough? Sure, but then you add in the fact that these two groups are rivals, that not everyone in the world has magic, that there are patron deities for the different Zawengi magics, basically it all just got a little complicated and I found it difficult to follow exactly how the magic worked in this world. The same went for the worldbuilding, there was all this lore and history and it was just a little hard to keep track of throughout the book. There are also some names that are a little too similar, Malik’s fake name for the contest is Adil and the villain’s name is Idir, and I kept getting those confused.
There are also a couple of plot holes to do with the Rite of Resurrection that I can’t really talk about because spoilers, but there were definitely a couple of things that it didn’t seem like Brown had thought all the way through.
I also felt like it took FOREVER for Karina and Malik’s paths to properly cross? They bump into each other at the beginning but don’t officially meet and then it takes ages for them to properly meet again. For a good portion of the book it feels like we’re following two different stories and it’s only when they meet that they really intertwine. I mean I appreciated that the romance aspect of this was limited, but when you have a dual POV book, you don’t expect to be waiting till about halfway through for the two POV characters to officially meet!
Speaking of the romance, it was VERY INSTALOVEY. This book only takes place over the course of a week, and yet Malik is considering not killing Karina pretty early on because he likes her which would in turn endanger his sister’s life? That felt very out of character given how much Malik clearly cares about his family.
There is a lot of representation in this book, obviously the cast is all Black (yes!) & Karina suffers from a chronic illness (migraines). But the one I really wanted to talk about was Malik, and his anxiety. Anxiety is definitely something that it’s becoming more common to see in contemporary books, but mental illness is still something that isn’t touched on as much as it probably should be in fantasy. Malik’s anxiety and panic attacks are a central point in the story, and though I don’t have anxiety so I can’t really speak to the authenticity of the representation, it certainly felt like it was handled with real care, especially in a chapter at the end which is key to the climax of the book so I can’t talk about it in more detail for spoilery reasons, but I loved how Brown took Malik’s anxiety and turned it into his strength.
I do appreciate that Brown made it clear that LGBTQ+ relationships are completely normal in this world (the prize for winning Solstasia is Karina’s hand in marriage and she makes it clear that she would marry whoever won, man or woman), and there are a couple of LGBTQ+ characters in this book, though none are in relationships.
Karina’s grief was also really well drawn, often when characters lose someone in a fantasy book, it can be quite brushed over, but her grief for her family is a really important part of her character and I loved that. In fact in general, I love how important family is in this story. Both Karina and Malik are driven ultimately by love for their families (though Karina’s reasoning may seem a little more selfish than Malik’s on the surface, it still comes down to love). They’re both also dealing with a lot of trauma, and this is handled pretty well.
The narration in this was really good, I haven’t actually read many multiple narrator books, but I think both Beckles and Cobb did a really good job in making the voices seem distinctive and hooking me into the story.
I’m not massively familiar with West African culture, but I definitely feel like I learned a lot from this book! The food descriptions made me feel so hungry and everything in this world sounded so vibrant, it was a joy to read about! I loved all the references to creatures from African mythology like the Serpopard. I also loved how much African storytelling tradition played into the storyline, with the griots and oral storytelling being a huge part of the world.
I always love magical contests, and I did like some of the Solstasia challenges, but I feel like others let me down a little? The first challenge with the masks for instance, I found it kind of hard to follow. The one that really stood out for me was the second one where Malik weaves all the illusions, I thought that was super well done.
I was really glad that Brown included content warnings at the start of her book, it made my job so much easier finding them for my review, and it should just be the norm anyway!
The writing style was pretty good, I had no real complaints about it, Brown paints a very vivid sounding world and it kept me engaged throughout.
I loved that this world was an established matriarchy, more royal matriarchies in YA please! The gender roles in this book in general were really pleasing, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of sexism in this world which I absolutely love!
There are a lot of great plot twists in this which kept things exciting, I was never entirely sure how things were going to turn out, even when I predicted a couple of them. There were a few that felt a little deus ex machina, but I can forgive that for a debut author.
It touches on a lot of topics that are relevant to our world really nicely, like immigration, and colonialism and police brutality. I hope that Karina has to face her privilege a little more in the next book though, whilst she’s clearly against what the Ziranis are doing to the Eshrans, she doesn’t really face her own complicity in the system.
The book definitely left off in a really exciting place and I look forward to seeing where Brown takes the characters in the final book in this duology!
Overall this was a really exciting fantasy debut, and whilst it did have its problems, I generally really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the final instalment in the duology.
My Rating: 4/5
My next review will be of Jodi Picoult’s most recent release, The Book of Two Ways.