Much to her disappointment, Arrah has no magic. Every year she attends a ritual that should reveal her powers, and every year she leaves as magic-less as she arrived. Her father, Oshe, is a skilled herbalist and potion-maker and her mother, Arti, is the third most powerful person in the kingdom. Her father’s love and her witchdoctor grandmother’s compassion make bearable her mother’s seething disgust at her daughter’s shame, as does the affection shared between her and Rudjek, the son of the king’s right hand also known as her mother’s nemesis.
Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Arrah’s world is shattered. Children have been disappearing, and fear and distrust is spreading across the city. The temple priests cannot locate them and the orishas—the gods her people worship—are not responding to prayers. When a friend of Arrah’s is taken, she makes the ultimate sacrifice and trades years of her life to cheat her way into possessing magic. What she discovers next propels her down a path she cannot escape from and a destiny she is ill-prepared for. The Demon King, believed to have been killed by the orishas millennia ago, is rising once more and Arrah’s fate is tied to his. Before this is over, she will lose everything and everyone she loves, maybe even herself.
While reading Kingdom of Souls, I kept finding myself rushing through the text. My eyes were jumping forward, breezing through whole paragraphs in seconds, not really reading it and only grasping the gist. I kept having to stop and slow down and reread. There are only two reasons I speed read through a fiction book: when I’m bored and am only finishing it because I have to or when I’m so emotionally invested in it that I’m stressed out at what awful thing will befell my beloved characters next. This book is firmly in the latter. If it were a television show or movie, I would have had been pacing in front of the couch and hiding my face in my hands for most of it.
The hits keep coming and just when you think Arrah has seen the worst of it, something even worse happens. Every bit of peace is merely a prelude to more pain. There were moments where the unrelenting intensity of Kingdom of Souls threatened to overwhelm the narrative, but for the most part it stays half a step away from complete hopelessness. Even when Arrah herself sees no end in sight to her misery, we the readers know ultimately light has to come out of the darkness. It’s young adult fantasy, after all. There must be a win, even if it’s undone later.
Kingdom of Souls is the first of a planned trilogy, but there is so much plot crammed into the first book. Like, CW primetime drama levels of plot. Where the first 100 pages are mostly build up, the rest steamrolls like a freight train. As I said before, it’s all super interesting and engaging, but by the end of it I was exhausted. Binge reading it in two days probably didn’t help matters. More space to breathe and a lot less repetition—characters frequently have a detailed conversation then pages later give the highlights of that same conversation to a different set of characters—would have resolved the uneven pacing issue.
I also have to give a content warning about assault. Without getting too spoiler-y, there are several women characters whose past magical, psychological, and physical abuse at the hands of a powerful man is described obliquely, but it’s clear that the women are deeply traumatized by it. So much so that it fuels the motivations of one woman in particular and sets in motion the plot of the novel. In another instance, a male character has sex with a female character, then finds out the person he slept with was a shapeshifter disguised as the character he is in love with. The person he loves shames him for not uncovering the disguise, even though I would argue he was actually raped. The victim blamer is never called out on their poor behavior, and the man has to apologize for hurting their feelings. I think the scene was meant to act as yet another obstacle in their relationship, in which case it worked as intended. But without acknowledging the real harm done to the male character by both the shapeshifter and the accuser, there is too much room for speculation around something that should be clearly stated.
Where Barron truly excels is in worldbuilding and character development. The stage she sets is as lush as a jungle and unforgiving as a desert. This is no homogeneous fantasy land. Inspired by West African mythology, Barron infuses her world with a rich tapestry of ideas. Each region has its own language or dialect, cultural traditions, religious practices, social behaviors, and skin tones (most are shades of Black). Barron luxuriates in the descriptions of these places and experiences, surrounding the reader in text so evocative you can almost feel the cool stone temple pillars and smell the herbs in Oshe’s shop.
Her characters are unique and multifaceted. No matter how much we think we understand them, there is always one more secret to uncover, which in turn drives the constant and thrilling plot twists. Arti is a vast abyss of contradictions and complexities, a woman who bound herself in her pain and drowned herself in her anger. Rudjek is the kind of handsome Prince Charming I’d like to see more of in YA fantasy: clever yet occasionally willfully oblivious, romantic yet pragmatic, headstrong yet hopeful. He cherishes his family while also working to atone for his father’s horrible actions.
Arrah is everything you could want out of a YA fantasy protagonist. Her feelings of weakness and helplessness are understandable—she is, after all, trying to single handedly take on the kingdom’s most powerful witchdoctor, a demon hellspawn, and an actual demon—but she never lets that stop her. Everytime she is knocked down, she stands right back up again. She is willing to sacrifice everything for her people, even when they despise her. Throughout it all, she remains true to who she is while growing into a better version of herself.
With hints of Lord of the Rings and Children of Blood and Bone, Rena Barron’s Kingdom of Souls is a wild ride through a land of gods and monsters and the frightened humans who stand in their way. At no point could I predict what would happen next. Each guess was quickly proven wrong. Barron kept me on my toes the whole way through. Is that sequel ready yet?
Kingdom of Souls is available from HarperTeen.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.