Two Tales of Two Sisters

An ornate curved dagger with a jeweled hilt appears against a swirling red background, with "Magic is in her blood" at the top and Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand across it along the bottom.
Book cover of Empire of Sand

by Kristen B.

Empire of Sand opens with a young woman painting a window sill with her blood, looking to ward against the daiva spirits of the wild sands. In some ways, the rest of Tasha Suri’s duology revolves around these older spirits that have been subjugated by the Ambhan Empire – and by those who consider them monsters and those who count them as family. Suri’s books are set in a lush, vibrant world based on the Mughal Empire – complete with vast deserts and verdant oases. Here, the Emperor governs but the Maha rules. Here, the upper class consists solely of Ambhan people and the Amrithi are outcast because of their magic.

Mehr is the privileged child of the regional governor, acknowledged but nonetheless the daughter of an Amrithi courtesan. She possesses the full inheritance of her mother’s people, but is protected by her father’s influence. Mehr lives in an uneasy truce with her step-mother, who has adopted Mehr’s younger sister as her own daughter to be raised as an Ambhan noblewoman. Mehr has no ambition for a noble marriage, but when she is discovered practicing Amrithi magic, she is given little choice.

The Maha rules the Empire through the prayers of his mystics. When Mehr accidentally divulges her abilities, she is forcibly married to the powerful mystic Amun and taken away to live a sequestered life in a distant oasis. At the Maha’s Temple, Mehr learns that she and her husband are expected to perform the Rite of the Bound. This magical rite, a choreographed dance with particular poses and gestures, allows the magic of the desert daiva and older gods to flow through the Maha and into the Empire, extending its territory and influence. Through their practice and discipline, Mehr and Amun learn about each other and the tragedies that brought each to the Maha’s temple.

It is this romance of desperation and rebellion that powers the second half of the book. I read this novel in large gulps, needing to know what happened next. As much as I enjoyed the world building, I truly came to love both Mehr and Amun, rooting for them to find a way to be together and free of the Empire. The underlying themes of colonization and prejudice give Empire of Sand an unexpected sense of gravity. There is no doubt but that individual lives were used and abused for the supposed greater good. The consequences of generations of such cruelty cannot easily be constrained or controlled.

A spear points downward against a patterned blue background, with "A curse is upon the throne" in gold script above "Realm of Ash" overlaying the spear, and "Tasha Suri" at the bottom.
Book cover of Realm of Ash

The second book, Realm of Ash, deals with the unfolding repercussions from Mehr and Amun’s story, but from another perspective entirely. We encounter Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, again as she makes her way to a distant convent for widowed noblewomen. Arwa was, indeed, raised as an Ambhan noblewoman and married a military officer with a bright future. When the garrison is massacred by daiva, Arwa is one of the few survivors and chooses to absent herself from high society. Not entirely surprisingly, the convent is a hotbed of Imperial politics and Arwa soon finds herself on the way to the capital city to serve in the retinue of a princess.

Where her sister has the magic of the Amrithi rites, Arwa discovers that she has a different ability that allows her to access the memories in her blood, remembrances of her ancestors, in the Realm of Ash. The princess’ illegitimate brother lives in nocturnal solitude, researching and experimenting for a way to restore the Ambhan Empire to its former safety and prestige. Arwa must learn to embrace her Amrithi heritage to help the prince and to accept her own worth. Again, a forbidden romance (Ambhan noblewomen may not remarry) lies at the heart of a rebellion against a court built on deception and corruption. And again, I found myself rooting for these two against all odds.

In some ways I preferred Realm of Ash because it shows more of the interconnected elements of the Ambhan Empire, the military and the regular people of Jah Ambha (the capital city), servants and spies. As Arwa and her prince flee into the desert and join a pilgrimage, the wide variety of life outside of palaces and temples make for a wonderful sense of place and history. The bigger picture at play in the second book is, perhaps, only made possible by the laser focus of the first novel.

The fantasy genre is chock-full of strong heroines, women who can outfight anyone and snark about it after … the term kick-ass is usually employed. Mehr and Arwa gave me a much more grounded reality, finding their courage in the face of terrifying odds. Neither young woman wants to be an agent of change or is a rebel at heart. Both have learned to keep their heads down and mouths shut so as not to attract attention or draw criticism. They do have, however, an unerring sense of fairness and a desire to be allowed to live their own lives, loving whom they choose. These sisters indelibly alter their entire world by being brave enough to take the chances presented to them, sometimes fearlessly and sometimes with only a hope and a prayer.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Orange and yellow waves of color suggest sand dunes. Title appears in bright white type vertically in the center, with a silhouetted figure within the "U". A black space sky is across the top, with stars.

By Eric L.

There has been quite a lot of buzz concerning the new Dune film, especially since with the new trailers being released. Frankly I’m a bit excited, too, although the theatre release has been delayed repeatedly (now scheduled for Oct 22, 2021). However, I can’t say that I’m a Dune fan from way back, since I had never read any of the 18 books in the series until recently.  

I host the HCLS book discussion group Read. Think. Talk. on the first Monday of the month. More often than not, we read and discuss classic, social, and philosophical sci-fi. Several members of the group wanted to read Dune (the original). Although I had a desire to read it, and with the new movie and an HBO series on the way, it seemed like a great time to familiarize myself with the source material. However, I was a bit reluctant, as it’s not a great idea to suggest a 600-plus page book, with three appendices and a glossary of terms, for a book discussion group. Moreover, I’ll concede I’m still a bit intimidated by long books!  

The plot centers around young Paul Atreides whose world is upturned when his family/house must relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune. A rival house, Harkonnen, was governing Dune and wants to wrest back control because of the planet’s valuable natural resource melange (also called spice). House Atreides is the more admirable of the two rival houses for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Harkonnen leader is a despicable person.

Melange enables interplanetary travel both via the pilot and as a fuel. It possesses a psychedelic effect, and people also ingest it as a mind-altering substance. Melange is only found in the sands of Dune, and harvesting it is a very dangerous endeavor because of the giant sandworms (the worms were really all I knew about Dune). The indigenous Fremen are the only folks who are able to survive in the desert with its extreme climate and dearth of water. 

Paul has an interest in the Fremen from the outset, even before a series of events place him in contact with them. I don’t want give away too many details concerning the drama and intrigue that lead to House Atreides losing control of the planet, but they make for a good read. The Fremen believe Paul to be their chosen leader and they have a common interest in defeating the Harkonnens.

This sort of story should all seem familiar, with revenge, an oppressive greedy regime, and the oft-repeated white male savior trope. However, Dune has some interesting differences. Paul is accompanied on his journey by his mother, Jessica, the unmarried concubine of his father and a member of the “Bene Gesserit.” One of the shadowy organization’s key tenets is controlling one’s thoughts to control how the body reacts. The members are taught to hone their intellect and possess the ability to persuade people using their words. They are not popular in the largely patriarchal society and are often and pejoratively referred to as “witches.” Jessica, against the rules of the Bene Gesserit, taught young Paul their ways. This skill set is the reason that some of the Fremen think he may fulfill their prophecy. 

There are interesting power dynamics between Jessica and Paul, their feelings about each other, and how individual goals change throughout the story. Other strong female characters exist as well, including Paul’s love interest. Author Frank Herbert was apparently also interested in Zen and peyote, and the book is very much a product of the late 1960s. It is undeniably long but moves quickly. The action scenes are not drawn out, in fact I found their brevity interesting. I liked that the political buildup was described more, which seems closer to reality to me. 

Dune has drama, intriguing characters, some philosophical issues, and an interesting environmental message. I half-read the appendices but found them rather dry without getting a feel for the characters first. That’s just me; perhaps you may like to have a complete understanding of the “world” before getting into the story. 

On the continuum of science fiction and fantasy (if there is one), I lean to the former. I’d argue this is more fantasy, although it’s debatable. At any rate, the book contains new words, lots of new names, worlds, and families, all of which are difficult to pronounce. This is a book that’s worth your time and great source material for a film. The new film will tell the story in two parts, unlike the 1984 David Lynch film, which is an interesting story in and of itself (I’d recommend it). 

In sum, one can get lost in another world and time in this book, and perhaps it’s nice to take a respite from current affairs for a bit. 

While you have to reserve the book right now because others are enjoying all of our copies, it is worth the wait to read. Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Cooking up some comics, with a side of fantasy

The cover of Oishinbo: Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi is a collage of black and white art depicting a group of patrons seated at a sushi bar watching the chef hold up a large fish for their approval; several plates of sushi and sashimi; a hungry patron; and a logo depicting the subtitle with a fish above it.

By Khaleel G.

One of the great things about manga is the wide range of topics authors can focus on. Sure, there are still those popular power fantasy series, with heroes rising from lowly origins to take on a supreme evil. Dragon Ball Z or Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer play a similar tune to Superman and Batman. Still, over the last few decades, comics in the West have stretched outside superheroes into new genres, like autobiography, travelogues, and other strange and unique styles of story. There’s no shortage of variety for a graphic novels reader in 2021.

But there’s one genre that the west hasn’t really explored, while manga has done so quite thoroughly: food. Yes, manga about baking, frying, cooking, and eating – they exist, and they’re quite popular, too!

More interestingly, as a genre, food manga isn’t strict about its features. In “shonen” manga, like Bleach or Naruto, there’s a specific path the hero follows, training to becoming better and overcoming new challenges to fulfill their dream. In romance manga, like Skip-Beat or Nana, our protagonist stumbles into young love, leaving us to wonder if those two crazy kids will or won’t finally kiss (until they finally do (at the very end)).

But in food manga, you can really mix any other genre – like documentary or fantasy or combat or history – with the presentation and description of some aspect of food and cooking. The results can be intensely different!

The cover of Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza depicts a collage of black and white drawings: a cook handing a bowl to one of two seated patrons, one of whom is already eating; a pair of hands holding a single gyoza; a cook preparing a dish as someone looks on behind him; and two dishes of food, one ramen with chopsticks resting on the rim of the bowl. The subtitle is depicted with a ramen bowl in silhouette, with chopsticks above holding some ramen aloft.


Oishinbo is a more direct sort of food manga. In each of its six volumes, its author, Tetsu Kariya, focuses on a different aspect of Japanese cuisine and food culture (helpfully described in each title). In one volume, we can learn about ramen and gyoza (fried dumplings), those two staples of Japanese street food, and in another, a deep dive into sushi and sashimi, two varieties of raw fish with rice. Of course, there are gorgeous drawings of the dishes, feeding the reader’s eyes in the same way Studio Ghibli films do. But along the way, we’re told more about the history and culture surrounding the food, in addition to the step-by-step process of making each. 

But this isn’t a printed Instagram feed of cool food art – no, there is a plot! Or, at least, there are characters. Shiro Yamaoka is a journalist who has a troubled family history with cooking, but he still tries to develop the “Ultimate Menu” as a project, visiting restaurants and chefs across Japan. He is joined by Yuko Karita, his assistant, as they sample foods and consider the history of the dishes alongside their own experiences. Keep in mind: Oishinbo ran for over 30 years and 111 volumes, and these few volumes we have are an “A La Carte” compilation. As such, the overarching story has been compressed and mostly removed, resulting in these translated volumes feeling like episodes of documentary travelogue. And that’s alright by me!

Reflecting the time in which the manga started, the characters have a very 1980s aesthetic to their designs. For long-time readers of comics, the style can be nostalgic, but even for new readers, I think the clearer and less-cute style helps the manga’s focus come through much clearer. And that focus? Food is good. It’s a perfect mini-series for amateur chefs, readers new to manga, or for anyone who wants to know more about Japanese cuisine.

The cover of Delicious in Dungeon Vol. 1 shows a young man in armor with brown boots and a bedroll on his back, holding a spatula and frying pan. He appears to be in a castle dungeon, with other characters deeper in the hallway behind him, as well as a red dragon approaching that none of them see because their backs are turned.



On the far end from the realism of Oishinbo is Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui. Yes, that’s a silly title, but this is a very silly series – about fantasy food!  One of the recent trends in anime/manga are stories featuring western-style fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, and console roleplaying video games. Delicious in Dungeon is about a party of adventurers in such a fantasy world. You have Laios, the dimwitted human knight, Marcille, the squeamish elf mage, and Chilchuck, the halfling lockpick. They’re trying to get to the bottom of the dungeon to save Laios’ sister, but man, it’s a long way down…

During one of their hungrier moments, they meet Senshi, a dwarf, who shows them the craft of cooking beasts they find (and fight) in the dungeon. Which is, as you might imagine, a strange prospect for our adventurers, who aren’t sure if they want to eat boiled mandrakes or a wyvern egg scramble. But Senshi shows them the benefits and necessity of “eating off the land,” as they can delve deeper by cooking along the way. 

So we have action and fighting, as the party battles various mythical monsters. But then we get Senshi cooking their conquest over a fire, using his shield as a wok. Kui draws the process of cooking and the final dish with the same care as Kariya did in Oishinbo, but instead of buckwheat noodles, it’s tentacles. Recipes are included with each fantastical dish, making the whole thing seem both real and absolutely ridiculous. Yet, you know, that roast dragon flank does look pretty good…

These are just two examples of food manga we have at HCLS! We have other series too:If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 

  • If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
  • If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 
  • And if you’d rather have some competition with your food, Food Wars! is a fun shonen series, wherein chefs compete in cooking duels to see who’s the best. 

Whether you’re new to comics or if you’re just hungry for something new (ha), food manga is a genre worth sampling. 

Oishinbo and Delicious in Dungeon, and the above-listed series, are available in print from HCLS.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.

Found Family in Speculative Fiction

By Kristen B.

There’s an old saying that while you can’t choose your family, it’s lucky that you can choose your friends. Some of my favorite stories include found family, where the characters forge tight bonds that go beyond simple friendship into family feeling. These are often the books that live on my comfort reads shelf. It’s also one of the oldest tropes in existence: the band of brothers (or maybe just the band) who live and die for each other. If it can’t actually save the world, friendship can at least make it a better place.

This mostly brown cover features a planet in the background and a chunky spaceship in the front. The title appears in shaded block letters which gradually increase in size.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

This is the book I hand to people who tell me they don’t really like science fiction, but want to try something new. If you ever enjoyed the show Firefly, this novel will feel familiar. Set on an older, slightly beat-up spaceship, the crew represents a wide range of galactic species who pull together as a team, a ragtag group of political and social misfits. The fairly minimal plot focuses on the need to push a new wormhole/jump, which means that one ship has to take the slow voyage to anchor the jump points. It may sound tedious but it’s never boring with all that time to get to know the quirky crew of the Wayfarer. Two of my favorites are the pacifist chef who comes from a species that essentially committed self-genocide through endless war, and Lovey (short for Lovelace), who is the ship’s AI. While not so heavy on forward action, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet provides an interconnected set of character studies that leaves you feeling more than a little warm and fuzzy.

A blue cover with an image of Jupiter in the background features a flotilla of different spaceships framing the title across the middle of the image.

A Pale Light in the Black by K. B. Wagers

Some of the most enduring found family stories tell about military outfits whose bonds are stronger than blood – kinda like the A-Team. Meet Max and Jenks, officers (commissioned and non-com, respectively) on the NEO-G ship Zuma’s Ghost. A sort of space-based Coast Guard, NEO-G (Near-Earth Orbital Guard) Interceptor teams run counter-smuggling interdiction operations and rescue missions. Max has recently joined Zuma’s Ghost, after Jenks’ brother is promoted off the ship. Part of the story revolves around Max and Jenks finding a good working relationship during various military actions. Part of the story concerns the Boarding Games annual competition, which happens among teams from all military service branches and which Zuma’s Ghost just missed winning the previous year. Jenks is the all-time champion cage fighter, and Max, navigator extraordinaire, is still discovering what skills she contributes to the team. Underlying all this surface fun, something more sinister lurks that threatens Max, Jenks, and all of Earth. This book rolls with a ton of space opera fun, hitting all the beats you expect and some you don’t. It’s also one of the most inclusive set of characters ever thrown together to save the solar system!

A woman kneels upon a beach gesturing with her right hand toward a flat sea, with symbols traced on the sand beneath her. The palette is muted beiges and blues.

Winter Tide by Ruthanne Emrys (also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive)

I must admit to avoiding this title for longer than I should have given its association with the Lovecraft mythos. Lovecraft’s opinions and bigotry have not stood the test of time well, and I was a little apprehensive about diving into the deeps with a Cthulu-inspired novel. How wrong I was! Emrys reconstructs the Lovecraftian milieu into a family saga that demands empathy for the Other. Set in Innsmouth along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, down the road from Miskatonic University (home to lots of unhelpful white men), Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb look to reclaim their heritage that was stolen when the government interred her people away from the sea in the desert. The Innsmouth community comes from People of the Water (as opposed to Air or Earth), who eventually leave dry land and evolve to live as Deep Ones in the sea. Aphra needs to find trusted friends and colleagues to re-establish a home at Innsmouth before developers demolish what little remains and to reclaim her people’s heritage from the dim reaches of the university’s library. This quiet, personal novel focuses on staying true to yourself and trusting others who travel the path with you – even if one of them happens to be an FBI agent.

A face with long ears peeks over the bottom of the cover wearing a crown shaped liked a palace.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (also available as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

Do you love pauper to prince stories? Heroes that go from the kitchen or the farm to the throne? Me too! Half-elf, half-goblin Maya grew up in almost total isolation after the death of his mother, living in a remote marshy estate with an equally outcast, abusive tutor. His father, the Emperor of Elfland, had come to regret his political marriage, exiling Maya and his mother from court. This book opens with Maya receiving news that he is the only remaining legitimate heir after his father and older brothers are killed in a terrible accident. Promising himself to be true to his mother’s precepts of kindness and generosity, Maya tries to maneuver in an imperial court for which he has no frame of reference or requisite education. He makes his way tentatively toward a previously unimaginable royal future, grounded in the adamant idea that he will not continue the cycle of abuse levied against him. Along the way and despite assassination attempts, he finds kindred spirits – helpful councilors, his maternal grandfather (who rules the goblin empire), long-lost aunts and sisters, and devoted bodyguards – to ease the burden of royal privilege and deference. I love this book to pieces, and it only improves with re-reading. The language can be a little dense at first, but stick with it and you will be greatly rewarded with a story of courtly politics and the power of kindness.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

The book cover depicts someone tearing through the pages of a book as if through a curtain, with a dark abyss behind and a bare arm reaching from inside the book.

By Eliana H.

“Hell is a series of hallways.” I think I can believe that. In The Library of the Unwritten, author A.J. Hackwith imagines not only Hell, but a variety of realms of the afterlife, down to the bureaucracy that governs them.

Claire Hadley has been Hell’s Librarian for a few decades now. She runs the Unwritten Wing, home to all of the stories that authors never actually wrote. Brevity, Claire’s assistant, is a former muse, and the two are joined by a demon, Leto, as they set off to retrieve a character who has escaped from his book and made his way to earth to seek his author. As they are ready to return to the Library, an angel shows up, expecting them to have a completely different book – the Devil’s Bible. 

Before they know it, Claire, Brevity, Leto, and Hero find themselves on an adventure to try to avert war between Heaven and Hell. They know such a battle would spell disaster for the humans who would be caught in the middle. In the end, all of the library’s resources will be needed to defend against those who would harm it. 

Hackwith does a beautiful job describing the worlds they travel through as we learn more about the intriguing cast of characters, none of whom are quite what they seem. She also demonstrates the politics of the different domains. 

This book was refreshing in the way it tied different beliefs and mythologies into an original premise with unique characters. I was captivated throughout. The journal entry or two from librarians through the ages beginning each chapter, which hinted at some of the challenges they faced in previous eras, were a helpful touch. This is the first book in a new series, so I look forward to learning more about the past – both Claire’s and the library’s – as well as further adventures to come.

The Library of the Unwritten is available from HCLS in print and also as an eaudiobook through OverDrive/Libby.

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Book Theater

By Cherise T.

Nature setting in bluish tint. Trees, clouds, horizon.

If you’re like me, you really miss live theater. The Playbills. Waiting for the curtain to rise, the actors to appear. Entering another world. Audiobooks can offer a similar exhilarating trip. Recently, some audiobooks go beyond one or two readers. They offer a whole cast of performers who immerse you in the books’ texts like only a theatrical performance can. Publishers have started to invest in larger ensembles of characters. These audiobooks provide a different experience from the written word. 

Those of you who have listened to the Harry Potter series on audio are already familiar with Jim Dale, the award-winning British actor with the unique ability to create special voices for all of Rowling’s Hogwarts characters. Dale has talked about children recognizing his voice at McDonald’s and asking him to order a burger as Dumbledore. It’s the rare audiobook narrator who can convincingly perform multiple characters on his own, but Dale can. If you haven’t heard Harry on audio, I recommend giving the series a try. 

The largest audio cast to date belongs to the Lincoln in the Bardo recording. In his first novel, George Saunders, an acclaimed speculative short story writer, brings us an otherworldly vision of President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie. We meet Willie’s fellow cemetery spirits who linger between death and rebirth. One of the protagonists is voiced by Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation fame and another by David Sedaris, the bestselling humor essayist. (Sedaris’s audiobooks are wonderful too as he reads his own works.) There are 166 performers in all. Although it’s fun to see how many voices you can recognize – Ben Stiller! Julianne Moore! – I recommend exploring the full cast list to enjoy the complete experience. 

Daisy Jones and the Six is a novel that takes the form of an oral history of a fictional 1970’s rock band. The members of The Six embody sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid even pens lyrics for the group’s hit songs. Now, what if you could hear the oral history? You can, in the amazing audiobook. Jennifer Beals of Flashdance and The L Word fame is the voice of Daisy, a character loosely inspired by Stevie Nicks. There are 21 cast members on this audiobook, and they bring the chaotic world of recording, tours, and relationships to life. 

If you’ve not explored the joys of audiobooks, give them a try. On free book promotion sites such as Goodreads and Book Riot, you can find reviews specifically of audiobooks. The readers are as unique as the books themselves, so don’t hesitate to give different voices a try. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.