Once every 50 years, a comet soars over the fictional capital of Ziran, setting the city alight and drawing crowds from near and far for a week of festivities known as Solstasia. Amid the haze of revelry, seven Champions compete in a grueling tournament for fame and glory as spectators look on in awe. This is the glittering world in which Malik, a young refugee, unwittingly enters with his two sisters at his side.
This, moreover, is the world of Roseanne A. Brown’s debut novel, “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin,” the first installment in a young adult fantasy series rooted in West and North African mythology. Published June 2, the novel follows Malik and the Zirani princess Karina as their lives are uphended before their eyes. Both are burdened by an impossible task with an even more impossible deadline: They have only a week to orchestrate each others’ deaths.
And so the countdown begins. Brown’s pacing is brutal, dragging her readers through a dizzying maze of twists and turns just as surely as she drags her main characters, kicking and screaming, toward their own destinies.
With the clock ticking down, the feeling of competition becomes almost palpable, while the stakes grow ever higher. Each day of Solstasia brings a new calamity — usually a whole slew of them — with little time for either character to catch their breaths. The energy is delightful, yet borders on emotionally taxing; these are no mere carnival games that Malik and Karina are playing, but life-or-death scenarios with gut-wrenching consequences. Even when Brown does take the time to sit with her characters — which happens more often than you’d think — these moments of peace are tempered by the sober cloud of responsibility hanging overhead.
But if Brown is hard on her characters, it’s for good reason. Every trial that Malik and Karina overcome is all the more proof that they are capable, competent and powerful beyond belief. To what end they will use this newfound power is a question for later books, but for now, this first installment makes one thing clear: Never underestimate yourself.
In fact, one could say this is a book about self-love. Fantasy as a genre is often played out on a grand scale, but “A Song of Wraiths” understands the importance of the minute. No fear is too frivolous and no struggle too commonplace to deserve the reader’s empathy. Malik is a shining example of this: His desire to understand his anxiety and panic disorder forms a major part of his character arc, inviting the reader into his inner psyche and exploring mental health on a deeply personal level.
That isn’t to say that Brown shies away from the bigger picture. While the majority of the book takes place in Ziran, the capital and crown jewel of the Zirani territories, its scope is far from limited. Beyond Ziran’s walls are the jungles of Arkwasi, the Odjubai desert and, most importantly, the lush mountains of Eshran, where Zirani troops have occupied and destabilized the local communities. As easy as it is to get caught up in the electric thrill of Solstasia, it is equally hard to forget about those left out of the dominant narrative — Brown makes sure of this.
In that sense, Brown is not only a storyteller, but a historian too. She traverses issues of regional politics, class hierarchy and secular history with as much ease as she spins tales of magic and mythology, resulting in a well-rounded world that is both imaginative and true to West and North African culture. A native of Ghana, she invites the reader into her vibrant and varied world — with more than a few magical embellishments, of course.
Such is the beauty of “A Song of Wraiths.” It incorporates well-loved tropes of fantasy and young adult literature — the courtly intrigue, the alignment system, even a fleeting love triangle — while also breathing new life into a repetitive genre. Buoyed by an infectious energy, “A Song of Wraiths and Ruins” is one hero’s journey you’re not going to want to miss out on.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].