Book Review: “Kingdom of Souls” by Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls has been hyped all year by HarperCollins and was released a couple of weeks ago. I liked the snake designs in the early promotional art (perhaps a silly reason to buy a book) and pre-ordered it. Did it live up to the hype?

*Please be aware this review contains some spoilers.

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“Magic has a price—if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.”

The first thing I noticed was this book was written in the present tense. The damn present tense! If I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Even though other books written in this style such as Divergent and Girls With Sharp Sticks turned out to be great, I don’t voluntarily buy books written in this style as I find it annoying. No matter, I thought, you’ll get used to it.

Things I Liked

  • There were many good points to Kingdom of Souls. The culture was written beautifully; Barron used inspiration from West Africa, and the use of a desert environment, tribes, and witchdoctors was a welcome change to the usual fantasy settings we see.
  • Though Arrah wasn’t the most interesting character I’ve ever come across, she did have self-doubt and fear that made her real. I’ve come across too many female main characters who are forever fearless and witty even in dire situations, so it was nice to see Arrah reacting to her environment in a realistic way.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Unfortunately, this list is longer. There were many things in this debut novel that didn’t make sense. Apparently, Arrah gives up ten years of her life to perform magic. Nobody seems to notice that she jumped from 16 years old up to 26 years old overnight, not even her sort-of boyfriend, servants, or her own father.
  • The shoddy writing style. Some descriptions were written with flair while others fell flat. Forgivable for a first novel, but this was represented by the same agent who got one of my favourite books of all time, The Queen’s Rising, on the shelves, so I’m wondering what kept the agent hooked.
  • A white person is referred to as being “cursed with pale skin that is sensitive to sunlight.” Umm, OK? Racism is bad, guys, no matter who it’s against.
  • The unneeded romance. Many people seem to think a teenage character NEEDS a romantic interest. With everything going on and the despair all around, it felt silly at times to suddenly drop everything for heart-pounding near-kisses from her cardboard cut-out character boyfriend.
  • The choppy pacing. Some scenes happened lightning-fast whereas other times there were pages and pages where nothing of interest happened.
  • There were too many characters to keep track of. I often had to stop and remember who was who. They didn’t have their own voices or personalities, with the exception, perhaps, of Arrah’s grandmother. For this reason, I didn’t feel affected when characters died or were in mortal peril.
  • The double standard on victim-blaming. A male character is raped (tricked by a demon into thinking it’s someone else) and is constantly blamed for it. Rape is rape, and if the same thing had happened to a female character, no doubt the writer would have handled it very differently.
  • The overall dark tone of the book. I’m a lover of dark fantasy, but there is often a tone of despair and no hope at all in this novel that made me unmotivated to keep reading.

All in all, I wasn’t a fan of this one. I’ve come across a couple of debut books now where I’ve just thought “meh.” Maybe it’s my own fault for falling for the hype that these big companies push. Two stars for Kingdom of Souls, which was a real slog to get through towards the end.

2stars

 

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A Trip to Hokkaido: Cool Weather, Ramen, and Warnings of Bears

I’d never been to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, before. My husband Ken organised a two-night stay in Sapporo and a bunch of activities for us to do. Hokkaido is much cooler than the rest of Japan, and its largest city, Sapporo, is home to the annual Snow Festival in February and the nationally popular Sapporo beer.

We went in September, of course, so no snow for us, but at an average of around 21 degrees Celsius every day, it was a gorgeous break from Tokyo’s scorching summer.

We got a free KitKat on the plane!

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What struck me about Hokkaido the most was how friendly the people are! Everyone had a big smile on their faces and went out of their way to help us out. In contrast to Tokyo, where people sort of keep to themselves and blanch at the thought of talking to strangers, I felt welcome in Sapporo.

The First Day

We started with some miso ramen in Chitose Airport, since our flight was in the morning and we arrived at lunchtime. Lucky me, they thought the piece of pork I got was too small so I got one extra!

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We ventured into the city, Ken taking care of everything so I could just stroll and enjoy the sights. Of course, the train station didn’t look much different from Tokyo’s, but in a way that was nice. I felt safe while at the same time exploring a new place.

Our hotel was a business hotel, simple and cute, but in a fantastic location – within walking distance of Sapporo Station and all the fun nightlife things to do there.

In our first day alone, we managed to visit the famous Clock Tower…

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Take a peek at the park and its Autumn Festival… 

And, of course, explore the downtown area. We managed to do an hour and a half of karaoke for only 600 yen each! If you find yourself in Sapporo and want cheap karaoke, it’s called Karaoke Heart Beat.

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The Second Day

On the second day, we took a train up to Otaru and rented a car to Shimomui Kaigan, a pretty cape on Hokkaido’s west coast. Though we bumped into a tour group, it was still quite quiet compared to the madness of Tokyo’s crowds, and we could enjoy the rocky beach comfortably.

Ken’s sharp eyes even spotted a cute little lizard basking on the wooden fence!

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After getting back, we felt we needed to explore more, so we took a side path up a hill and came across a lighthouse. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of it.

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I liked the lighthouse so much that I decided to draw it!

We wanted to go farther, but the sign was somewhat off-putting…

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After, we went to the Nikka Whisky Factory.

The story of Nikka Whisky is really cute; Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland to learn about how whisky was made. While living there, he met a shy Scottish girl called Rita who he ultimately married. She joined him in Japan and supported his dream of becoming a whisky producer. She settled into her life in Japan and made friends with the people there. Eventually, they found success in Hokkaido. Their love story is inspiring.

The factory itself also had a lot of information on Scotland, which was wonderfully nostalgic. We got our share of souvenirs from the shop there, too.

The Third Day

Our flight wasn’t until 9:00pm on our last day, so we still had plenty of time to look around before we had to fly back to reality. We visited Hitsujigaoka, or “Sheep Hill,” to find a statue of William Smith Clark, an American professor and colonel in the American Civil War, who coined the phrase “Boys, be ambitious.”

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There was a small Snow Festival museum where we could see past designs for the festival. It’s really amazing that they could make such intricate shapes with just snow. 

After, we went up Mt. Moiwa on a ropeway. Since we didn’t want to pay extra for the nature car, we walked up to the top (only took about ten minutes – well worth going up for free). We even managed to spot a shy little squirrel on the way. There were some nice views on the top and the weather was perfect for light hiking. 

Lastly, we managed to fit in a visit to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory! Hokkaido is well known for its white chocolate biscuits and it’s a common souvenir to take home.

Though we only arrived an hour before closing time, there was still time to have a look around. The outside area was very pretty, inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We got souvenirs, of course, and even managed to see some of the workers producing the famous little biscuits.

We managed to get a LOT done in just three days, and it was a wonderful trip. Maybe one day we’ll be able to visit in the winter and witness the wonder that is the Snow Festival. For now, though, I’m glad we went in summer and enjoyed the comfortable weather.