SON OF THE STORM by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Son of the Storm
(The Nameless Republic Book 1)
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Orbit Books — May 2021
ISBN: 9780316428941
— Hardcover — 446 pp.


Though a scholar in training at the university of Bassa City, Danso itches for more than the typical Juri initiate. Within the walls of the ancient city, he hunts repositories for glances at forbidden texts the elite have secreted away. But, his gaze also goes to beyond the Bassai walls, yearning to know what lies beyond the Empire borders – wonders hinted at within the suppressed histories he’s dared read, mysteries seen glistening from the eyes of immigrants sworn to silence.

Danso is also physically atypical from those around him. He’s a Shanshi, one of mixed raced parentage with a lighter skin tone that the Bassai view as inferior. Though unable to ever attain the higher caste of society, Danso’s academic skills have placed him on course for a solid future, including arranged betrothal to Esheme, the head-strong daughter of Nem, an affluent woman who acts as the city’s leading Fixer, a tenuously powerful service that is one part feared and one part loathed by the Bassai.

Though on friendly terms, Danso and Esheme are opposites. The free-spirited and wistful Danso looks to horizons and mysteries beyond, with little sense of urgency or worry over immediate responsibility. Frequently late and disorganized, he bears a childish naïvety and aversion to facing discomforting truths that Esheme finds infuriating. With a parentage that also limits her social status in Basa, Esheme purposefully strides toward those challenges that stand in her way to greater power. And Danso is not necessarily a part of that plan. While Danso’s emotions can ultimately drive him to action, Esheme carefully suppresses her empathy from interfering with her ambitions.

The fragile coupling between Danso and Esheme strains further with the clandestine arrival of a stranger from the distant Nameless Islands to Bassa, a young woman named Lilong. Lilong is a Yellowskin, a people of dark-skinned heritage who are descended with an albinism mutation that lightens skin, eye, and hair pigmentation to an extreme of Otherness that long ago exiled them away from the Bassai mainland.

Lilong comes to the ancient heart of the Bassai Empire in search of an artifact that has been taken from her people, an ibor, a totem of bone rock that a wielder with inherent talent can use to channel supernatural feats at profound mental and physical costs. Lilong has one of her own, permitting her to change her appearance and track the totem to where it has ended up: the home of Nem and Esheme. Retrieving it and fleeing from Bassa, Lilong’s actions draw both Esheme and Danso onto separate paths that intersect with her own: three interwoven and transformative journeys.

Okungbowa models the continent of Oon and its Bassai Empire in the Nameless Republic series on the historical Benin Kingdom (Empire) of West Africa, and its city of Edo, later Benin City, eventually of modern day Nigeria where Okungbowa originally hails. (The Benin here bears no relationship to the present-day nation of Benin.) In this he creates an epic fantasy world filled with details and populated with characters that come 100% from West African root inspiration, a diversity of cultural and ‘racial’ elements from within a region that too often is viewed monochromatically by outsiders.

Such focus on West African diversity appears right at the start of the novel in a prologue set right at the literal intersections of political and cultural realms within Oon. Events are triggered in this setting to propel the plot threads of Son of the Storm that then entangle Danso and Esheme in Bassa with Lilong’s arrival. The opening third of the novel works hardest at the world building, most notably the class and ethnicity differences that define Bassai societal structure and views on immigrants. These reveal how such cultural struggles, injustices, and arbitrary ‘racial’ division is nothing remotely new to present day societies or immediate history. On the negative side, Son of the Storm does little to really subvert or transcend the Bassai racism or classism. Yet, I suspect this may be a theme that grows through the series to come.

That opening third of Son of the Storms is an essential foundation to the wonder and developments with the remainder of the novel. I found the pacing to be excellent throughout, but readers who find themselves not gripped by the start of the novel should not be dissuaded from continuing. The characters also start built of seemingly standard archetypes of epic fantasy, warriors, those on quest, those born into a familial destiny of changing the world.

However, Okungbowa does a fantastic job at developing these characters through their journeys, often subverting expectations of fantasy tropes. He balances well between the three main characters, making each of them compelling and flawed, yet capable of growth. As Esheme turns increasing into something more villainous and callous, Danso slowly progresses from innocence (and frankly, stupidity) into getting some sense knocked into him. Lilong changes from an isolated and wary force of anger and vengeance into a more trusting partner who can begin to see possible hope for the future.

The only critique I have for the characterization is in how Danso does often seem molded to obliviously succeed to help move the plot forward. His flaws may limit how quickly he progresses or limit the reach of what he ends up capable of doing, but the supernatural abilities he turns out to be able to command through ibor seems to rely on ‘inherent talent’ without adequate explanation (as of yet.)

The ‘magical’ elements of The Nameless Republic series are particularly fascinating. They revolve around the aformentioned ibor (essentially, this is ivory) as a conduit to the supernatural. Okungbowa makes a point on his blog that this is not an epic fantasy with magic. He distinguishes magic from things supernatural, with ibor being a link to other realms. It may be a semantic issue, but Okungbowa has a lot of interesting notes on the background to the cultures of Oon on his website, and it’s well worth checking all this detail out after reading Son of the Storm.

Son of the Storm succeeds for me because of its rich characters (even secondary ones like Nem – or Zaq, a loyal muscled giant who serves as indentured servant in Danso’s family – become absolutely captivating. It also succeeds in how well it ticks all the boxes for what one might expect from an epic fantasy, while remixing them and casting them with inspiration from West African history to make it all significantly fresh and captivating. Okungbowa also nicely plays with reader expectations for who the protagonist ‘hero’ or antagonist ‘villain’ for the novel (and series) will be, with the trio of connected characters who have elements of each within them.

Warrior of the Wind, the second novel in the series was originally slated for release sometime around now, Summer of 2022. However, latest information seems to be that it has moved into 2023. So there is still plenty of time to catch up on things with Son of the Storm, if you haven’t gotten to it yet. Or if you already have read it, in the meantime for any Stranger Things fans, Okungbowa has a YA novel soon out, Lucas on the Line, writing as Suyi Davies.


FOR THE THRONE by Hannah Whitten

“… an extremely satisfying conclusion to Whitten’s Wilderwood dark romantic fantasy series. It’s an inventive fairy tale sequel that elevates the first novel from any perceived shortcomings to effectively tell the enchanting story of twin sisters tied together in love. Each of them fights, in linked mirror-image worlds, to save humanity. In so doing they affirm their free will, protect the magic with which they’ve been entrusted, and preserve the right of all to pursue lives of choice.”

Read my entire review of For the Throne (Wilderwood Book 2) HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Read my review for Book 1 of the Wilderwood Series, For the Wolf, HERE

Orbit Books – June 2022 – Paperback – 457 pp.

FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789
— Paperback — 437 pp.


To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.

Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.

Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.

With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.

Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.

For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:

It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”

The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.

For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.

The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.

Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.

However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.

I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.