Since 2018, African rooted fantasy narratives been have been gaining exposure, and the first book of this YA Fantasy series doesn’t disappoint. In the letter to the reader, Rena writes “I can never truly recover what was stolen from them (ancestors) or indirectly from me, but in Kingdom of Souls I wanted to write a story that not only embraces West African culture but celebrates its beauty, complexity, and magic, and in some small way honors my ancestors who survived the impossible.” Growing up, I heard the many names of the orishas and was familiar with the different protection they offered but the author delves even deeper into West African roots creating an intricate world where magic, politics, theology, and spiritually intersect.
The majesty of African mythology reigns supreme in Rene Barron’s debut novel Kingdom of Souls. The novel opens in the tribal lands with teenage protagonist Arrah hoping that her sixteenth year will be the one she receives her magic. As the daughter of two powerful witchdoctors, Arti and Oshe, and granddaughter of the Aatiri chieftain with the gift of vision, Arrah is incredibly self conscious about her lack of magic. Her people believe that if the god Heka doesn’t grant his magic to someone by their sixteenth Blood Moon Festival, they probably won’t ever be gifted.
The author addresses the feelings of disappointing family expectations and how they can suffocate those they are placed on. If someone doesn’t receive magic as a gift, they can bargain for it with their life, shedding years for each ritual. At first, Arrah assures her father Oshe that she’ll never do this, accepting her inability to do rituals; however, when one of her closest friends is taken by a nefarious spirit, she immediately begins to entertain the idea. Telling herself she’s only hoping to help her friend younger friend Kofi, she goes through the deal. During her first spell, sees that the menace that’s been snatching children is her own mother. The reader is taken through the gray areas of perceptions of good and evil and how history is not only written but controlled. Arrah must confront her initial beliefs and evolve them not just to widen her own mind but to save existence.
The plot progress slowly but methodically, each sentence conveying a wealth of knowledge in description. At almost 500 pages, this isn’t a casual journey to be taken lightly. It’s slow burn that reveals itself in moments in every single chapter. The worldbuilding is impeccable. There’s so much care in the construction of this reality, and Arrah’s journey is handled delicately and realistically. This narrative examines feelings of unworthiness, self doubt and feelings of disappointing family expectations. Kingdom of Souls is a reminder of the power of believing in yourself and how the power inside can change entire worlds. This is a strong start to this series to release September 2019.