Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron (Kingdom of Souls #1) – The Darkest Hour Cometh, and It’s a Mother

Author: Rena Barron
Release date: 3rd September 2019 (US), 19th September 2019 (UK)
Publisher:  HarperTeen (US), HarperVoyager (UK)
Genre: Fantasy
Goodreads: Here 

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.


If I have to summarise my reaction to Kingdom of Souls into two words, it would be:

Holy Smokes

Besides the fact that I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a standalone (I had been wanting to get away from trilogies for a while), I was completely blown away by the sheer grand scale of this book. Barron nicely juxtaposes the stakes with the small scale within which her main character Arrah operates in. It somehow works, despite slight frustrations of the back and forth Arrah engages in the main conflict of the story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Of Arrah – Part One

The book immediately opens with a depiction of the very ritual Arrah dreams of participating in, due to her fascination with magic and being a witchdoctor like her parents – particularly her mother. This prologue, however, takes an incredibly dark turn when the ritual goes wrong. I personally love how Barron uses this as a backdrop of Arrah’s main drive in the story – and the dark, creepy intrigue it could entail should she take a darker path (spoiler alert: she does, in desperation). Later chapters, however, reveal a more underlying desire to derive pride from her mother beneath her desire for magic. This drive is embedded at the very heart of the book, providing some very depressing insight of Arrah’s character. We also learn of her bitter nature, and how this leads to her tendency to lash out and reckless behaviour. This proves effective in establishing Arrah’s character only first few chapters in, which will be beneficial as we go through the more plot-driven events of the book.

As we go on, however, we see the more admirable qualities that make Arrah shine in the book so much. Despite her bitterness and less-than-positive actions her very desire drives her to, we see through the horrible events she witnesses that she is very much willing to do anything to protect those she loves most. Through interactions with family, friends, and love interest, we see how much they mean to her and come hell high water, she’d die before letting anything to happen. When something does happen, her desire for magic is only the final straw that pushes her to do the unthinkable.

The Kingdom Cometh

This book being the first in a series, Barron lays a lot of the groundwork here so some sections, while feeling like an info-dump at times, do work as the work is done as soon as possible as we are guided through Arrah’s early years and new information that people don’t know, we learn alongside Arrah. Being unfamiliar with West African fantasy and mythology basics before, I found myself being brought up to speed sufficient enough to keep up with the story as it progresses while still finding myself enough time to marvel in the rich fantasy that is Kingdom of Souls.

The magic system is also stellarly thought out, to the point that some developments take us by surprise while still pertaining to the boundaries of the system. I kept finding myself wondering why didn’t I see some of the applications happening since it would’ve been obvious in hindsight. I also found some applications to be rather dark and twisted – I love them!

We are given snippets of the interactions between the Orisha in separate chapters consisting of simply one Orisha monologuing, which are foreboding at some times, hilarious in others. In particular, Re’Mec’s character provides some comic relief through his sardonic behaviour – which I predict some will relate to. As the book progresses, however, these chapters grow sinister as they reveal truths hidden even from the wisest character in the mortal world – eventually culminating in a twist so tragic not even the main characters can come out of it unscathed.

It was, however, a bit hard for me to get grounded to the geography of each part of the story since the middle part of the book operates in such a small scale as Arrah bides her time for the battle to come. In those parts, we only learn of what happens outside through interactions with other characters who go in and out of the house. On the other hand, though, it works in fleshing out the dynamics between Arrah and her mother and sister (spoiler!). I suppose this was a necessary sacrifice, and one that paid off.

Other characters are also very well fleshed out so that we connect, and ultimately care about them. While not everyone is on Arrah’s side, we understand each faction’s reasoning and we also ultimately care for the world which Arrah wishes to protect, as well as why the demons would very much like to send it to ruins. Given the dark nature of the book, the scales of which side we root for still tip to Arrah’s favour as we root for her to protect what is good in the world, but we learn at the end of the book that things are way more complicated than everyone previously thought – paving way for more doubts and emotional conflicts for both Arrah and us readers as she continues her quest to save the world.

Of Arrah – Part Two: Chosen One, in All the Wrong Ways

Throughout the book, we see developments in which Arrah is denoted as exceptional – although for less than spectacular reasons. As I went on, however, I discovered that this may be for the better. When she gains the special attribute that she yearns for (and in the process becomes a Chosen One), Barron gives it a dark twist with horrible consequences for both her and those who meet the wrong end of her wrath. When I learned that she is indeed a Chosen One, I cheered for her as this gives her the power she needs to fight back – but I lived to regret this decision as the end of the book provides the exact reason why she is one. This made sense when I considered all aspects of the world and what was happening to Arrah, but that didn’t make it any easier to take.

Arrah is a flawed character who made some dark choices in times of desperation, but I expect this revelation to throw her in an even darker path as more hard calls will have to be made and more struggles will have to be endured as a consequence in future books.

Chosen for the wrong reasons, chosen in all the wrong ways.

Thy Villains Be Done

Barron manages to construct a beautifully complex villain. One that delivers the gut punch as their identity is revealed; and one with a motivation to right a wrong, although they seek it out through less than noble means. Their origin as a victim of abuse, manipulation, and mind-rape delivers a harsh callback to their seemingly harmless rivalry and their excessively cruel methods to take down the other in the eyes of the Kingdom’s court. It also serves as a contrast to Arrah and Rudjek (the love interest), as their much light-hearted interactions carry a reminder that they live a relatively more innocent life than their parents whose clash carries dark consequences even to the time the book occurs. We are also given reminders that the villain abhors the methods they have to employ, but is led to believe that it is absolutely necessary, a belief derived from their anger and pain after what happened to them.

Around half-way of the book, a second main villain emerges, and they are completely different from the first. Born with a singular purpose, they are also given chapters that express their conflict of what they want to do, and what they ultimately must do – leading to quite a twisted perspective on morality. This villain continues the cycle of evil, although not quite how the first expected and again, leading them to having doubts of their own and certain realisations.

Barron’s villains work due to how continuous their arcs are, and how they interplay one another as well as Arrah herself. This dynamic also carries a sense of danger as Arrah spends a considerable amount of the book trapped between the both of them as she vows to stop them in any way necessary even though she has no powers. Beside that point, however, Arrah is connected to both these villains in a personal way – thus blurring the line between her resolve to end their machinations and her desire of a loving relationship between all three of them. Some difficult choices are abound, and Arrah does struggle with these choices throughout the whole book. This complicated situation culminates in a heartbreaking manner as she is later forced to fight both villains to save the world.

Of Arrah – Part Three: The Twist and Concluding Thoughts

The Orisha chapters, some later developments that may or may not be related to magic, and the mystery they provide ultimately culminate in a shocking twist not unlike Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. While this answers some of the lingering questions within the book, this introduces a plethora of them unto the second book since the twist in particular will definitely carry some major weight and consequences for both Arrah and Rudjek – something that Arrah is painfully aware of. I called it about a bit over halfway, but I did not expect it to be true so this was quite shocking to me. I can’t wait to see how things will play out in the following books.

Overall, while flawed (e.g. pacing was a bit off, middle part did drag a bit, stakes were a bit undermined at times), Kingdom of Souls is a gripping, riveting, and ambitious dark fantasy epic that definitely slithered its way to greatness – promising much more chaos for the world of the Orishas. It does not pull its punches even when it is barely halfway through the book, and doubles it down to downright-depressing levels – but that is all the more reason Arrah is determined to make things right, no matter the cost. It is a book that blows your mind early on, promises to do more, and actually delivers – soaring towards beautiful chaos. Kingdom of Souls is an absolute thriller and Rena Barron is definitely a tour de force to be reckoned with.

Acknowledgement

eARC provided by NetGalley and HarperVoyager UK for an honest review. Thank you for fulfilling my wish, and granting me my first ARC!

3 Replies to “Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron (Kingdom of Souls #1) – The Darkest Hour Cometh, and It’s a Mother”

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