Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

Posted February 1, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

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Kingdom of Souls

Kingdom of Souls

by Rena Barron

Series: Kingdom of Souls #1
Publisher: HarperCollins on September 3, 2019
Genre: #OwnVoices, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Magic
Target Age Group: Young Adult
Rating: ★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

Arrah is a young woman from a long line of the most powerful witch doctors in the land. But she fails at magic, fails to call upon the ancestors and can't even cast the simplest curse.

Shame and disappointment dog her.

When strange premonitions befall her family and children in the kingdom begin to disappear, Arrah undergoes the dangerous and scorned process of selling years of her life for magic. This borrowed power reveals a nightmarish betrayal and a danger beyond what she could have imagined. Now Arrah must find a way to master magic, or at least buy it, in order to save herself and everything she holds dear.

 

I really, really wanted to love Kingdom of Souls.  I wanted to love it because I absolutely adore the African-inspired magical setting of Children of Blood and Bone and because Twitter is right – epic fantasy is far too whitewashed.  But I can’t good conscience say that this was an amazing fantasy story or that it answers Children of Blood and Bone and that I love it because… I didn’t.  I struggled through Kingdom of Souls.  I appreciate the diversity and I want ALL of the different cultures in fantasy novels because to me… fantasy is fantasy and I want to devour it all.  But I can’t in good conscience say “this book was amazing!” because… for me, it wasn’t.

I will admit that Kingdom of Souls had its moments.

The prologue itself was incredibly aesthetic.  Arrah’s time in the tribal lands was unique and well written. In fact, there are a lot of good things going for the novel.  I’ve been trying to think of the best way to explain it, and what I’ve come up with is that it’s like baking.  Rena Barron has all the highest quality ingredients and they’re all there to make an amazing, tantalizing batch of cookies.  But in baking, you must do things a certain way and in a certain order, or your cookies won’t come out quite right.  Instead of following the recipe, Barron’s thrown all her ingredients in a bowl at the same time and is mixing them on high power.  Batter’s splatting everywhere.  There are too many chocolate chips.  Things have gone awry.  The end result will still taste good, but it won’t taste great.

It’s not about the characters, or the setting.  The magic system she’s created is interesting and has consequences (yes!) but it’s also whimsical in its delivery.  I’ve concluded that all the faults of this novel fall back to the writing style, and in turn, affect the pacing.  Kingdom of Souls feels more like an early draft than a finished novel.  There are too many extended asides to justify plot directions or character development.  And there are far too many convenient events.

Take the pacing for example.  It jumped all over the place.  Sometimes it was incredibly slow and dragged on and on.  Other times, months passed between chapters.  Barron explained away these awkward transitions at one point by putting Arrah and her family in a city where time did whatever it wanted.  There were many moments where I had finally gotten used to the pacing only to suddenly be in the middle of something and be unsure how I got there.  I’d flip back and reread, certain I’d missed a page – but no.  That’s just how the book works.

So that’s one minor example of convenience?  Another would be the development of both Arti and Rudjek’s characters.  Events happened to both of these characters that were supposedly instrumental to the plot, but from a (jaded) reader’s perspective, I didn’t buy it.  To avoid spoilers, I can’t say precisely want it was about Rudjek that drove me crazy, but I’m never a fan of casually twisting characters’ fates for story advancement when there are many other more sensible (if less dramatic) paths.  And Arti completely broke character at the end of the book and I believe Barron was trying to give her some sort of redemption moment, but it was so out of the blue and uncharacteristic that it simply didn’t work.

I should also mention that there are chapters from the POV of supernatural beings.  This is fine, but stylistically these chapters are jarring.  They’re written in italics (again, fine) and without proper punctuation in dialogue.  Not all the supernatural asides had dialogue, but the asides that did made me cringe because of the chosen style and definitely took me out of the world.  Also, none of these chapters helped or advanced the story – early ones distracted – and could have been cut to help tighten the novel.

It was things like that which made me struggle through the book.  I’m objective enough to see deep down there’s an excellent story here.  Unfortunately, the unrealistic conveniences gave it a fan fiction feel, and the telling nature of world building and backstory made pacing inconsistent and felt like unnecessary threads that distracted from the story.  Kingdom of Souls read to me like a middle draft… it’s definitely edited and generally good in its bones, but it really needed to be tightened up before publication because while there’s a dark fantasy in there, it’s covered in random flashbacks and moments where Barron decided not to follow through on the consequences of some of her in-story choices.

Just… generally… this isn’t the worst fantasy I’ve read and like I said in the intro paragraph, seeing other cultures represented in fantasy was great.  I always have a difficult time giving diverse books a low rating because I want to support these authors in a world that seems dead set on putting them down.  But taking aside the culture that inspired the fantasy (which was wonderful, honestly) and the characters’/author’s ethnicity, this book was a bit of a mess as far as style and technique goes.  I am not inspired to pick up the next in the series.

But!  It is a diverse fantasy and many people are enjoying it, so if you’re curious, it’s worth a read.  I read a LOT of fantasy – it’s sort of my thing – so I’m particular about the rules of universes and what I like to see in these novels.  Many of my pet peeves from Kingdom of Souls may not be apparent to a less frantic reader, so therefore, it’s worth a go. 🙂

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★
Plot: ★★
Characters: ★★★ 
Writing:
Pacing:
Personal Enjoyment: ★★

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Kingdom of Souls will be Donated.

From a selfish POV, the cover of Kingdom of Souls is gorgeous (that copper foil!) and this is a signed copy, and there’s a stenciled snake on the side, so aesthetically?  This book is lovely.  But I know I won’t read it again because I didn’t like it the first time and I don’t particularly like punishing myself by re-reading books I didn’t like initially?

That said, I can confirm that my local library doesn’t have a copy of this book, so I’m hoping that in donating it to them, they’ll add it to the collection and help get it out there in the world.  I know realistically they’ll probably just sell it to raise money, but… then at least one other person will experience it and maybe they’ll like it better than me.

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Have you read any other African-inspired fantasies?  I believe the only one I’ve read besides this one is Children of Blood and Bone, but I’m game for more!  Leave me your recommendations in the comments!

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