Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron (Review)

The UK cover for Kingdom of Souls, photo by Harper Collins Publishers

For UK readers, Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron releases tomorrow, September 3rd on Kindle and ebook, and the hardback will be out soon – September 19th! And it’s gorgeous.

I rated this book a well-deserved 4.5 stars in my full review, here.

Read if you love:

  • Diverse characters
  • #ownvoices fantasy
  • West-African settings
  • Unusual magic systems
  • Complicated family relationships
  • Dark, desperate conflicts

The Plot

Arrah is the sixteen year old daughter of two powerful witchdoctors, born to two long lines of powerful witchdoctors. Every year she waits for magic of her own, and every year Heka moves past her. When her last chance passes and she still has no magic of her own, Arrah has no time to dwell on the loss of the future she’s always dreamed of. Children are going missing, and Arrah might be the only one who can find them. There is one more way that she can use magic, but the cost is high. Every spell might be her last.

What did I love?

  • The setting: Kingdom of Souls is set in a gorgeous West-African setting, based around tribal magic and tribal gods versus ‘city magic’ and their gods. Arrah is split between the two cultures, and she loves them both equally, giving her a conflicted sense of belonging that was beautiful to read. The world is well fleshed out and interesting, particularly for someone like myself who admittedly doesn’t know much about West-African culture. It was still accessible to me, and I imagine that it’s an #ownvoices victory for anyone looking for diverse and representative African fantasy characters.

  • Arrah: Arrah is 16 years old, which can sometimes mean a whiny and unrelatable main character (I won’t name names, but I’ve read some tiresome teenage female characters lately). Arrah isn’t that at all. She’s interesting and mature, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood that we get to see grow during the course of the novel. She has something she always wanted within her grasp, and when it’s snatched away she responds far more maturely than I think even I would. When she trades her years for magic, she doesn’t do it for selfish reasons, and ultimately she risks everything to do ‘right’. Arrah is the heroine we need, brave and unrelenting even in the face of certain failure.

  • The magic system: The magic system in this book is SO INTERESTING. Magic is gifted to members of the tribe by Heka, their god. During a yearly ceremony, he will choose teenagers that he deems worthy and gift them with access to his magic. Not every member of the tribe will receive magic, but Arrah comes from a long line of powerful witchdoctors, so everyone expects it of her. She isn’t the chosen one, though, so she doesn’t. I like that. I was expecting a book where the main character discovers her magic was inside her all along at a crux moment of conflict, but Arrah is stubbornly un-magical. The only times she casts spells and rituals she has to make incredible sacrifices for it. Those who don’t have magic but want to cast a ritual have one choice – the charlatan way. This method of magic requires an unknown sacrifice, it will take some of your years and you have no way of knowing if you’re sacrificing one day or fifty years every time you use it. I love this, because it puts a sense of gravity on magic. Can’t use it frivolously when it might be the last thing you ever do.

  • The prose: Rena Barron’s prose is poetic and beautiful. It’s a delight to read her descriptions, and I felt fully transported into the environment every time I picked up the book. It was completely haunting in places, and drew me into the story completely. The characters felt real, fleshed out and three-dimensional, which made me feel for them all the more when things went wrong. It also made for beautifully described characters, and even the villains of this story felt balanced. In moments I was sad for them, even though a certain SOMEBODY is entirely evil.

What did I not love?

I’m not even bothering with a list for this one, because there was only one part of this book that I didn’t totally adore, and it was such a small thing that it barely impacted my opinion of the book. I found Part 3 of this novel to be a little slow-going, and I’m mostly only including it to tell any readers that hit this point and get slowed too to perservere. Part 4 of this book is amazing and the action ratchets back up to full pace for an incredible climax.

Trigger Warnings:

Kingdom of Souls includes blood magic (including intentional self-injury as part of the ritual), poor family relationships and familial loss, death of a child(ren), battle scenes ending in death and mass killings, mentions of animal sacrifice, animal and human possession and a scene where a character is revealed to have engaged in sexual activity under false pretences. Please read with caution.

Where can I buy?

Harper Collins / Waterstones / Amazon

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

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