Book Review: KINGDOM OF SOULS by Rena Barron
The daughter of two powerful magic-users in a long legacy of witchdoctors strugglers with her lack of power–especially when the fate of the world is at stake.
Title: Kingdom of Souls
Author: Rena Barron
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
A girl with no gifts must bargain for the power to fight her own mother’s dark schemes—even if the price is her life.
Crackling with dark magic, unspeakable betrayal, and daring twists you won’t see coming, this explosive YA fantasy debut is a can’t-miss, high-stakes epic perfect for fans of Legendborn, Strange the Dreamer, and Children of Blood and Bone.
“Magnetic and addictive. This book is black girl magic at its finest.”—New York Times bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton
Heir to two lines of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. Yet she fails at bone magic, fails to call upon her ancestors, and fails to live up to her family’s legacy. Under the disapproving eye of her mother, the Kingdom’s most powerful priestess and seer, she fears she may never be good enough.
But when the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, Arrah is desperate enough to turn to a forbidden, dangerous ritual. If she has no magic of her own, she’ll have to buy it—by trading away years of her own life.
Arrah’s borrowed power reveals a nightmarish betrayal, and on its heels, a rising tide of darkness that threatens to consume her and all those she loves. She must race to unravel a twisted and deadly scheme… before the fight costs more than she can afford.
Set in a richly imagined world inspired by whispered tales of voodoo and folk magic, Rena Barron’s captivating debut is the beginning of a thrilling saga about a girl caught between gods, monsters, and the gift and the curse of power.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Purchased
Trigger Warning: Abuse, Rape
Arrah is the daughter of two worlds. Her father is a kind-hearted and powerful healer descended from a proud line of witchdoctors of the tribal lands. As High Priestess, Arrah’s mother is the third most powerful person in the Almighty Kingdom–and far more invested in her job at the heart of the Kingdom than in her disappointing daughter. Arrah is tempted to listen to charlatans and trade years of her life in exchange for the ability to work a single piece of magic… and yet, she is still holding onto hope. Now sixteen years old, she knows that this Blood Moon Festival is her last chance to receive the gift of magic from Heka, god of the tribal lands.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. Another Blood Moon Festival, another day without any magical ability whatsoever.
To make matters worse, when her Grandmother tries to understand why Arrah’s powers won’t manifest, she is greeted with a vision of a green-eyed serpent–a demon, the likes of which should all be destroyed, killed in the great war with the vanquishing orisha (gods). Arrah’s father is, justifiably, terrified, but her mother has bigger, more political concerns on her mind. They leave the Tribal Lands and head to the Kingdom, where Arrah soon finds herself in the middle of a power play between her mother and the second most powerful person in the Kingdom, the Vizier. In a ploy for maximum dramatic effect, the Head Priestess makes a shocking revelation–children are disappearing in the Kingdom, and her magic isn’t able to discern the identity of the culprit.
When one of Arrah’s friends is the latest victims in the string of disappearances, she decides to take matters into her own hands–trading years of her life in exchange for magic to uncover the abductor.
And then, things get really complicated.
As it turns out, demons aren’t gone. The fate of the Kingdom–of the world–hangs in the balance, and Arrah is the only one with even a glimmer of a chance to save the world.
Allow me to begin this review in the most professional manner possible: WHY AREN’T PEOPLE RAVING ABOUT THIS BOOK IT IS SO GOOD. PLEASE, EVERYONE, READ IT NOW.
Ahem. Now that’s out of the way, I promise to form more cohesive (and hopefully, persuasive) thoughts. Kingdom of Souls is dark, and desperate, and beautiful. It is the story of a young woman who struggles to live up to her lineage, and who desperately does not want to disappoint her parents. It’s a story about family, both blood and found–one of the key things that Barron nails in this book is that sometimes the family you choose can be closer than the family you are born into. Finally, it’s a story about fate, history, and deception. So much of history is subject to the person who is doing the telling, and this becomes appallingly clear throughout this brilliant novel.
It’s hard to speak to more specifics within this novel without revealing enormous spoilers, but I will do my best:
From a character perspective, my heart ached for Arrah, her family, and her friends. Kingdom of Souls is split into five parts, with some interstitial chapters told from the perspective of the orisha (gods of the Almighty Kingdom, who may or may not have a stake in this game), as well as some others who shall remain nameless. But most of the story is told from Arrah’s perspective, which works pretty beautifully, especially as she discovers more about the child abductions and her world. Through Arrah’s vantage point, we see an unpacking of the legacy of abuse in a respectful, but unflinching way. We also see very clearly how history is written by the victors, and how the truth is often shades of gray instead of some clear black and white solution.
From a worldbuilding perspective, Kingdom of Souls posits an intriguing magic system, where orisha are gods born of the Great Cataclysm but are not all there is. There are gods like Heka, who choose to bestow magic, but who are not orisha; there are demons, whose heritage is a little more complicated. I love the cost-mechanism of magic in this setting, where you either have it and can wield it, or you cannot but you can certainly try at great physical (and, presumably, spiritual) damage to yourself. It’s a cruel and unfair system, but the rules do work.
There are some shaky moments in Kingdom of Souls–but overall, Barron finds her footing and delivers. There are many unexpected twists, leading to some really cool revelations that I am dying to talk about, but won’t for fear of spoilers.
BUT TRUST ME, FELLOW READERS. The twists are good. They are worth it.
And the best part? Book 2, Reaper of Souls, just came out.
Rating: 8 – ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.