Review: Kingdom of Souls

20 Sep

  • Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls is one of those books that is quite difficult to review.

It was actually mentioned to me by someone who read The Zero Blessing, with a suggestion that Rena Barron copied my work. That isn’t true. Save for skin colour and (apparent) powerlessness, Caitlyn and Arrah – the heroine of Kingdom of Souls – have very little in common. They come from different worlds, have different backgrounds, different magics … in short, they’re not the same.

Kingdom of Souls is set in a very African setting, with elements drawn from all over north and west Africa. The heroine comes from a line of witch doctors, powerful magic users. But she fails at magic, fails to call upon the ancestors and can’t even cast the simplest spell. Her mother, who is terribly abusive, is incredibly disappointed in her. Many of her peers openly mock her. However, when children in the kingdom begin to disappear, Arrah undergoes the dangerous and scorned process of selling years of her life for magic. This leads her to discover the sinister truth behind the missing children, a deadly plot for revenge and – ultimately – that she is all that stands between her world and utter destruction.

There’s a lot I liked about the book. Arrah does not give up, even when the odds are stacked against her. She has no qualms about fighting bullies, even bullies with magic; later, when forced into semi-servitude, she finds loopholes that allow her to fight back and eventually break free. She has friends and a warm relationship with a boy who is practically her boyfriend, although this is stained – later on – when he’s tricked into having sex with the villain. Arrah is willing to take the ultimate risk, even to cut herself off from her community, to safeguard those she loves.

The book is also a grim warning of just how far someone can go in their quest for revenge. The villain – Arrah’s mother is the first villain of the book, although she’s not the last – is ready to tear down just about everything, including her daughters, to take her revenge. Perhaps she has reason, Arrah thinks as much. It doesn’t excuse everything she does and Arrah makes no bones about it. What seems, at first, to be a simple story becomes something greater along the way.

At the same time, however, there are two weaknesses. The background is stunning, but it is often obscure. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, what’s what and a lot of other details you need to follow in order to read the book. Like most ‘diverse’ books, we don’t have an instinctive understanding of the setting and need more explaining; the book could have benefited from a detailed outline of the setting, perhaps as an appendix where it wouldn’t have impeded the storytelling.

A more serious problem is that the story seems to swing around a lot, as if the author wasn’t sure where she intended to go before settling on a course. Things change, oddly; it starts with Arrah making a bargain for power, then finding herself battling her mother and an entity who may be the worst. May. Questioning everything you’re told is a theme in the book. Really, I expected it to stick with Arrah making the bargain, discovering the downsides, probably being kicked out for it and, finally, coming back in glory. There’s probably a story there, if someone wants to do it.

Overall, Kingdom of Souls reminds me of Children of Blood and Bone, although the storylines are very different. In some ways, the setting is better. In others, it’s a little too different. In both cases, however, the stories are YA; suitable for teenagers, less suitable for older and younger readers.

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