The Ballad of Perilous Graves

by Alex Jennings

Book cover of The Ballad of Perilous Graves in front of a keyboard

The two things I splurge on are books and music, so a book based on the magical powers of music seemed right up my alley.  The Ballad of Perilous Graves is centered in a fantastical world with connections to our own in which music and art are at the foundation.

The titular Perilous Graves is a young boy who goes by the name Perry and recently finished fifth grade.  His younger sister is Brendy and a super-powered girl named Peaches is his best friend.  They all live in Nola, which appears to be very much like our New Orleans.  There are significant differences, however, such as flying trolley cars, a city of the dead, and everyday existence of magic.  Musicians, like Doctor Professor, pop up out of thin air.  But when Doctor Professor shows up in front of Perry’s house in the opening scene, it seems that something isn’t quite right. 

 In fact, something is very wrong.  Nola is built on an album of songs, which keep the city humming.  But someone – or something – is kidnapping the songs and destroying them, taking bits of the city with them.  When Perry’s grandpa disappears too, Perry feels compelled to solve the mystery.  Despite their youth, he, Brendy, and Peaches begin to scour the city, trying to knit together all the seeming disparate threads floating around them.  Additionally, Perry must surmount the feelings of fear and inadequacy stemming from some unknown traumatic even earlier in his life. 


The adventures in Nola would be enough for a book on its own, but there’s more!  While Perry and his friends race around Nola searching for the missing songs, things are afoot in “our” New Orleans.  Casey, who left New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has returned to his roots.  He begins to reconnect with his cousin Jaylon and their shared history of street art.  But New Orleans is at risk as well, and slowly, Casey and Perry draw together. 


The Ballad of Perilous Graves tackles a lot.  The magic of music and art permeates the entire story.  In addition, Jennings explores the deep scars left by big storms.  In Casey’s story, it’s Katrina, but Nola has endured its share and is gearing up for another possible killer.  Race, gender, family, tourism, and gentrification are all wrapped up in here as well.  In addition to our two settings, multiverses make an appearance and expand the settings even further. 

At times, it’s a bit much and the story threatens to buckle under the weight.  But Jennings’ love for New Orleans radiates through the pages and makes both version of the city characters in their own rights.  I suspect that for people who have a connection to New Orleans, this book will hold a deeper meaning.  Having unfortunately never been myself, I can’t speak to that with any authority, but if you have and read this book, let me know!  

I struggled a bit with this one.  I was completely lost on the connection between Nola and New Orleans for most of the book or whether there was supposed to be one or not, although I was ok with waiting to see where it went.  It wasn’t always clear how Nola worked, but it was still a fun place to get lost in.  Things started coming together a little after the halfway mark and then nearly came apart again.  Yet Perry is a compelling character and I really wanted to know what was going to happen to him.  I’m glad I stayed with it.  Maybe at some point I’ll read it again – I have a feeling it’s the kind of book that you can get more out of with subsequent readings. And for a debut novel, it’s very impressive!

So as we come up on Mardi Gras and you’re looking for a magical New Orleans tale, check out The Ballad of Perilous Graves!

Find it here

The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin

The World We Make book in front of an iron statute of a female figure carrying a book.
Photo taken at the Cleveland Public Library

First things first: The World We Make is a sequel to The City We Became.  Highly, highly recommend you go read that if you haven’t yet.  In both books, Jemisin tackles the very real and present issues of gentrification, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, etc., but with a sci-fi/fantasy twist.  I’ll give a brief review of The City We Became, which I read a few years ago when it came out. Then I’ll jump into The World We Make.

Mini-Review: The City We Became

The City We Became book against a hazy gold background and a shadow of some kind of tentacled monster.
I took this photo ages ago and I’m not sure I could ever pull it off again.

Jemisin is the kind of author who will throw you right into the deep end. You may spend time flailing to get to the surface, but once you learn to swim, you never want to get out of the water. In this book, we learn that cities become living things, represented by human avatars. New York City is undergoing this process, but something’s different this time. Each of the boroughs must come together to protect the city.  A different person represents each borough and each has a connection to their part of the city. 

As a result, the chapters jump between the various characters’ perspectives. Manny, Manhattan’s avatar, who has lost most of his memories.  Brooklyn, who fittingly represents Brooklyn. She’s a former rapper and now a councilwoman, fighting to save her family’s brownstone. Bronca, an artist, represents the Bronx.  Pamini, a mathematician on a student visa, embodies Queens.  And from Staten Island, Aislyn.  Aside from Aislyn, all the avatars are people of color, and many are queer.  In addition to the avatars of the boroughs, there’s a primary avatar, who is missing. 

Then there is the Enemy, a force committed to city infanticide. The avatars are the only ones who can see this Enemy, but civilians are unknowingly impacted by its actions.  Despite being strangers to one another, the avatars must find each other and beat back the enemy. 

Jemisin does a great job using Manny’s amnesia to stand in for our complete loss as to what’s going on without being heavy handed about it.  Each character has such a different personality and background, yet they all feel like complete people right off the bat.  Jemisin is a master at writing stories from different perspectives.  Each time I start with one character, I don’t want their chapter to end, but by the time I start the next one’s, I’m now committed to them.  It takes a lot of skill to pull that off and Jemisin makes it look easy.    

I’ve only been to NYC once, and it was a brief trip.  I only visited Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I would love to go back for a more in-depth visit someday.  Jemisin write a fantastic love letter to the city and its people.  She doesn’t hide from the city’s struggle, but she dwells in the glory of all of its people, all their diversity, their myriad backgrounds, and their overarching identity as New Yorkers.

Ok, now on to The World We Make.

Cover of The World We Make on a stone wall with a few buildings visible through the fog.
Just a fun note, I delayed posting this review because I wanted to take the book to work with me and get some shots of it against the backdrop of downtown Cleveland (I know, definitely not New York, but this blog doesn’t make money so no travel budget). And then of course the day I went was the day it was completely covered in fog. There’s supposed to be a skyline back there.

There’s a lot I want to talk about, but I’m not sure what would count as a spoiler.  So I’m creating a World We Make spoilers page and I’ll go into some of the things there.  If you want to go into the book mostly blind, then just stay here.  But if you’ve read it or don’t mind learning more details ahead of time, check it out!

While it should probably go without saying, from here on out, there will be spoilers for The City We Became, so if you haven’t read that one yet, beware!

The book picks up pretty much right where we left everyone after The City We Became.  The borough avatars (minus traitor Staten Island, but picking up sixth borough Jersey City) along with the primary New York City avatar (going by the name Nyc, pronounced Neek) are adjusting to life as the living embodiments of a city.  While they have unique powers, they also still live their regular life.  And over all that looms the Enemy’s stronghold, hovering over Staten Island.  The Woman in White might not be able to directly enter the NYC, but the avatars (and the city) are not safe by any means. 

There are personal challenges – Brooklyn needs to save her family’s brownstone home from a tricky gentrification grab.  Manny is slowly figuring out his past, as well as struggling to figure out whether he can make a future with Nyc.  Pamini has work and visa issues, and so on and so forth.  But the bigger existential crisis is the Woman in White and the rest of the world’s avatars seeming unwillingness to address the problem. 

In this book, we branch out a bit and meet some other cities, including Tokyo and Istanbul.  We see a dead and lifeless city, a victim of the Enemy.  And we spend some more time with Aislyn and see how her deal with the devil is working. 

Current events drive the narrative of this book. (Though it should be noted that reality stole from Jemisin, as she was writing this first.)  A new mayoral candidate has appeared, claiming he will make New York great again and bring it back to “real” New Yorkers. But of course, the  so-called “real New York” he claims to represent is simply a figment of a hateful imagination.  It would be comforting to think this is simply the Woman in White’s doing but, as we know all too well, this kind of hate can thrive on its own without outside assistance. 

Overall, I thought this was very well done and I really enjoyed jumping back into this world. I appreciated the insight into why the Enemy did what it did and where it came from.  I also thought Jemisin did a great job of giving us an understanding of Aislyn without excusing or condoning her. 

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the characters got short shrift in this one.  We almost never heard from Bronca, for instance.  Overall, I felt like there was more emphasis on events rather than characters this time around, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different.  I missed feeling as connected with everyone this time around though.  I also felt the conclusion was a bit rushed, but as I’ll discuss in the spoiler section, additional knowledge clarified why. 

All that said, this was a powerful follow-up to a fantastic concept started in the first book.  And now that both are out, you can enjoy reading them back-to-back.  And if you haven’t read any of N.K. Jemisin’s other books, I strongly recommend them all. 

Find it here

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Book cover of Master of Poisons with a tiger lily flower on the right.

I love entering new fantasy worlds.  As terrible as I am with learning new languages, I enjoy puzzling out a society’s hierarchy, the slang, the idioms, the power structures, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. Andrea Hairston creates a fantastic world to puzzle through. I’ve written previously that I’m also a big fan of fantasy based on something other than medieval Europe, and Master of Poisons, with its African foundation, checks that box too. 

“We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own.  Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky?  So we twist every story to preserve our faith.”

Djola is the Master of Poisons for the Arkhysian Empire and the right-hand man of Emperor Azizi.  He has spent the last twenty years trying to convince the Emperor and the rest of his council that if the empire didn’t start caring for the environment and make the necessary, but difficult, changes, the consequences would be dire.  Slowly at first, and then more quickly, poison deserts expanded, destroying forests and rivers and displacing people.  But:

“As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night win, everybody promised to change – tomorrow or next week.  Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust.  Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible.  Who could fight the wind?”

The allegory for our current climate crisis is clear.  Djola’s frustration is one shared by anyone who paid attention to scientists since the 70s regarding greenhouse gasses.  No one wants to make the necessary changes, which might require some short-term pain or disruptions, to prevent disaster 50-100 years down the road.  But once they start living with the actual effects of their inaction, they become paralyzed, thinking that there is no way to change their trajectory and they are doomed.  They still don’t seem to understand that even if they can’t go back to a better time, they can at least work to prevent things from getting worse.  Instead, they’ll listen to short-term cons that might provide an illusion of improvement, but create even more long-term crises.  Djola finds himself exiled, searching for magic that might finally solve the problem.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa already has a significant connection to alternate spirit realms.  With an affinity for bees, Awa can make journeys into Smokeland, which creates dangers for her.  Sold off by her father at age 12, Awa is all too aware of society’s views of women, non-binary folks, and non-male magic users.  Thankfully, she was sold to a group of griots (storytellers), who help her develop her skills. 

Overall, Master of Poisons is a fascinating world.  Or worlds, when you consider the Smokelands.  I also really appreciated that these characters aren’t solving the problem overnight.  Years can pass between chapters or segments of the book and characters still aren’t even sure where to start.  In addition to the climate issue, Master of Poisons also tackles issues of race, gender, empire, and family.

In a lot of ways, though, this was a book that I felt more like I wanted to like rather than one I actually did like.  There were a lot of things that still seemed a little unclear or that I didn’t quite gel with.  It’s possible that part of that reason is that the climate situation is too close to reality and knowing that there isn’t a magic spell that could turn things around is disheartening. And yet, the point of the story is that even in a world of magic, fixing systemic problems requires a lot of work, dedication, and cooperation between diverse groups. 

I felt like this was a stand-alone book, which I appreciate it. Series are wonderful, but sometimes I just want a complete story in one book.  Master of Poisons is the type of book will probably benefit from multiple re-reads.  So while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it and maybe at some point, I’ll be back to visit it again. 

Find it online here.

Black Sun and Fevered Star

by Rebecca Roanhorse, the first two books of the Between Earth and Sky series

Book covers of Black Sun and Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse with shadows of birds in the background.

I love it when fantasy stories take place somewhere other than a medieval England/Europe setting.  Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Tolkien and his influence and the many streams that branched off from there.  But whether it’s N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology (ancient Egypt), S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy (Middle East/North Africa), or Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder (India, and with a trans heroine), creating fantasy worlds drawn from different societies, different geographies, different cultures, and different time periods is so much fun. (And there are so many more I could talk about, but then we’ll never get to the actual review.) 

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky series (Black Sun and the recently released Fevered Star) takes Mesoamerican/borderland societies/settings (with some Polynesian sailing influences as well) as her steppingstone in a story about a corrupt political structure, religious zealotry, magic, superstitions, and survival.

Black Sun follows four characters, bouncing between their perspectives: Serapio, destined to be the Crow god reborn and avenge his people, the Carrion Crow; Captain Xiala, a Teek sailor who we meet in jail after her night of drinking and seducing, hired to transport Serapio to the city of Tova; Naranpa, the Sun Priest, head of the Watchers who rule Tova and keep the peace, determined to root out corruption and guide the Watchers back to their original purpose; and Okoa, son of the matron of the Carrion Crow, trained as a warrior in a society that has forsworn war.

As we soon learn, the convergence approaches, aligned with a solar eclipse on the winter solstice.  Prophecy hints that when the sun is at its weakest, the Crow god will destroy it.  And as the planets move into position, so too do our characters converge on Tova.

I can’t talk too much about the plot for Fevered Star without giving away major plot points for Black Sun, so suffice it to say that Roanhouse delivers a solid sequel that gives us more insight into the world she created.  There’s the usual second book issue of feeling like it was really setting up even bigger things while leaving them for the next installment.  It definitely left me impatient for the next book.  Since this was just released a month ago, however, I’m going to have to wait. But it’s clear the gods aren’t done yet with the people of Meridian and the people have their own plans as well.

Overall, I enjoyed both books.  I really liked the world that’s created and most of the characters.  There are assassin priests, non-binary and queer characters, and a nice dose of various kinds of magic.  Serapio and Xiala are both fascinating and I loved reading their chapters.  I sympathized with Naranpa, but found Okoa’s chapters a bit of a weak link.  Thankfully, Serapio and Xiala get a lot of page time in Black Sun, though not as much in Fevered Star.  When you read Black Sun, by the way, pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter – there’s a lot of jumping around, timewise.  Fevered Star is more straight-forward, chronologically speaking, and gives us some additional character voices. 

There’s a line from a Tori Amos song (“Bliss”) that asks “what it means to be/made of you but not enough of you” that kept floating back into my head as I read.  There is a theme of exploring culture and blood while being an outsider, raised away from your family or your people.  Fevered Star in particular delves into what happens when a child who never had a chance to be part of their community can finally return as an adult, with mostly only second-hand knowledge about their heritage. 

There’s a hint of Roanhorse’s own background in that, but it also ties in to a much longer and darker history in the United States and Canada of white governments stealing indigenous children, shipping them off to boarding schools, and quite literally trying to beat their culture and language out of them, not only physically separating them from their families, but linguistically and culturally as well.  (Some ties to themes from Almanac of the Dead fit in here as well.) It’s deftly handled and not a blunt object with which you’re hit on the head, but if you know, it’s a connection that you can glimpse and ponder.  Or you can focus on a fascinating fantasy world sailing seas, climbing cliffs, and watching the sun go black, wondering what comes next. Or both!  Regardless, it’s a great way to spend your time. 

When I bought Fevered Star, I debated whether I should jump right into it or if I should re-read Black Sun first.  I ended up going back to the beginning and I’m glad I did.  I liked being able to revisit the world and I especially liked being able to move straight into the next book when it ended.  (It’s so hard reading series as they come out because I hate waiting for the next one, but I also like knowing that there’s still going to be more.  Also, it’s better for the author if we’re reading stuff as it comes out, since it reassures publishers that it’s worth sticking with!) So do yourself a favor and make sure you have Fevered Star on hand as you approach the end of Black Sun! And then when the next book comes out, we can do it all again.     

Find them online:

Black Sun

Fevered Star