Book Review: REAPER OF SOULS by Rena Barron
The last witchdoctor of the Tribal Lands grapples with the history she has been told her entire life, and the truth in this brilliant follow-up novel to Kingdom of Souls.
Title: Reaper of Souls
Author: Rena Barron
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: February 18, 2021
Hardcover: 448 pages
After so many years yearning for the gift of magic, Arrah has the one thing she’s always wanted—at a terrible price. Now the last surviving witchdoctor, she’s been left to pick up the shattered pieces of a family that betrayed her, a kingdom in shambles, and long-buried secrets about who she is.
Desperate not to repeat her mother’s mistakes, Arrah must return to the tribal lands to search for help from the remnants of her parents’ people. But the Demon King’s shadow looms closer than she thinks. And as Arrah struggles to unravel her connection to him, defeating him begins to seem more and more impossible—if it’s something she can bring herself to do at all.
Set in a richly imagined world inspired by spine-tingling tales of voodoo and folk magic, Kingdom of Souls was lauded as “masterful” by School Library Journal in a starred review. This explosively epic sequel will have readers racing to the can’t-miss conclusion.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Kingdom of Souls series
How did I get this book: Purchased
Warning: This review contains unavoidable spoilers for book 1, Kingdom of Souls.
After years of not having any magic at all, Arrah is now the most powerful–and last–witchdoctor in the Almighty Kingdom. Thousands were massacred by demons, thanks to Arrah’s sister Efiya, leaving Arrah amongst the last of the surviving Tribal Lands people. But even though she has sealed Efiya’s soul away, Arrah knows that the danger is not over. The Demon King is still desperate to break free from his prison and starts to bleed into Arrah’s mind, insisting that they are connected and that Arrah is, in fact, Dimma–the unnamed Orisha, who betrayed her siblings for love of Daho, the Demon King.
While Arrah tries to keep the Demon King out of her mind, she also struggles with her other relationships–as the most powerful magic wielder in the Almighty Kingdom, she is the natural successor to her mother’s role as High Priestess. (Not that Arrah wants any part of that business.) Forced to navigate the weight of expectation from the church, things are even further complicated by the fact that Rudjek’s father, the Vizier Suran Omari, has seized control of the Kingdom and declared Rudjek the Crown Prince. Arrah and Rudjek’s relationship is already under strain thanks to the discovery of their respective heritages–Rudjek, a descendant of and now a Craven himself, immune to magic and created to kill those who use magic; Arrah, a supremely powerful ancient god, whose magic spikes dangerously every time she and Rudjek are close. With Rudjek’s father actively conspiring to discredit and perhaps even harm Arrah, their star-crossed romance is in pretty dire shape.
Thankfully, Arrah’s preoccupation with the politics of the Almighty Kingdom is easily distracted when she discovers a lead suggesting that some people from the Tribal Lands were able to escape Efiya’s purge. Desperate to find and save those survivors, Arrah and her trusted friends Sukar, Essnai, and an unlikely companion in former crown prince Tyrek, make for the hills. Of course, saving her people isn’t as easy as it sounds–there are still powerful Demons that have been unleashed as a legacy of Efiya’s brief life, who are being controlled and guided by the Demon King’s will. There are also human enemies sent by Rudjek’s father to kill Arrah and wipe out the threat she and her people present to his power. And all the while, there’s the growing realization that Arrah is not just Arrah–she is also Dimma. And Dimma is no longer asleep.
The second novel in Rena Barron’s exquisite Kingdom of Souls series, Reaper of Souls unleashes a whole new slew of dangerous complications, powerful mythology, and the highest of stakes for young protagonists Arrah and Rudjek. And oh, how I loved it.
Easily, the best thing this series has going for it is its powerful, complex mythology. This is a multi-world, multi-generation spanning story, showcasing gods who are both petty and powerful, and whose decisions have cataclysmic repercussions. In this second novel, we learn more about Dimma and Daho–how they met, how they fell in love, and the choices that will shape so many deaths and losses in the centuries following their choices. We also learn more of the other orisha, and how they, too, are bound by their powers and choices. I especially liked getting to know more about Fram (orisha of life and death), though learning more about Re’Mec and Koré was also pretty neat. Mostly, I appreciate Rena Barron’s sense of scope–this is a complex story, with characters who have had eons to make connections and decisions that keep converging and snagging and crashing together.
Speaking of complicated, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the romantic entanglements in this particular novel. When I finished Kingdom of Souls, I expected a triangle between Arrah, Rudjek, and Daho. I did not expect a couple of other players to show up (Sukar, for instance), though I can appreciate the nuance–emotions aren’t always clear-cut and attraction isn’t always straightforward. Especially not when you’re a teenager channeling ancient gods and their centuries of indulgent choices.
Which brings me to the other reason Reaper of Souls works: Arrah. Arrah’s choices in this book (and in the first book, to be honest) are deeply flawed but for all of that feel immensely real. Under the auspice of finding the child snatcher in book 1, Arrah chooses to trade years of her life for magic–justifying the choice to herself through her first-person narrative that she’s doing it to find her friend, never mind the fact that she’s always yearned for magic her entire life and its the single most important point of friction between her and her mother. In book 2, Arrah’s choices are justified because she’s only doing things to save her friends, to save her people, to save Rudjek from death–nevermind the consequences of those choices, each and every time. To Arrah’s credit, she struggles with her newfound power and at one point knows she has crossed a line, reminiscent of her sister and mother’s use of their power… and yet, for all of that, Arrah continues to make the same decisions. Extrapolating Arrah’s choices beyond the locus of a teen who has been given immense power, Dimma and Daho’s choices (hell, even Efiya’s and Aarti’s) all make a horrible kind of sense.
For all of the reasons I love these books, there are some admitted drawbacks. This second novel now incorporates Rudjek’s first person narrative, which felt like a departure from the narrative style of the first book and a little pandering. Yes, we know both Arrah and Rudjek burn for each other, and his narrative/side-plot was frankly boring in comparison to Arrah’s. (That said, I loved the addition of Dimma’s perspective and memories to the narrative–I only wish we could have perhaps seen more of the other orisha’s vantage points, as we did in book 1.) There are plenty of plot twists, most of which are well-executed, though there are some fake-outs that felt gratuitous and under-developed. Similarly, I’m not entirely sure that the overall plot progression made a whole lot of sense–there are gates to other worlds that seemingly can be crossed at random, so why are they so important/impossible?–but because the characters, overall mythos, and huge hulking revelations at the end are so damn good, these plot holes are overlookable, in my humble opinion.
I absolutely loved this book, and cannot wait to find out what happens next. (Especially because of those enormous repercussions and revelations in the last 2 chapters!)
Rating: 8 – ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.
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