Rena Barron’s 2019 Kingdom of Souls is a young-adult secondary-universe fantasy.
Arrah is the daughter of powerful parents. Her father is a respected witchdoctor, an honorary member of the Aatari tribe’s ruling council, the edam. Her mother Arti occupies an even loftier position as Ka-Priestess. It is the third most powerful position in the Kingdom. Arrah, alas, has as much magical power as a hollow gourd. Some folks like her prove to be late bloomers of remarkable ability. Arrah is increasingly convinced she is just a magicless failure.
There are ways for the powerless to gain power. They’re costly. One would have to be desperate to try them. Soon, Arrah will be desperate enough.
The Kingdom’s children have begun vanishing. The secular powers, led by the Vizier, have been unable to find the culprit or protect the children. There is a good reason for this: the person responsible is beyond the ability of mundane folk to stymie. That person is in service to the long-imprisoned Demon King.
Eager to prove her worth, Arrah trades away a decade of her life to track down the villain responsible. Success! But then … Arrah is in no way prepared for the identity of the Demon King’s ally. Nor does she have the slightest chance of stopping their plan. In short order, Arrah joins the legion of bewitched, painfully aware of her opponent’s plans without being able to act against them or even reveal to the authorities what it going on.
The player on the other side is highly motivated, the victim of a crime the Kingdom was too pragmatic to punish. They are also magically adept, fully able to free the Demon King, who will then rampage across the Kingdom.
In fact, Arrah is not as powerless as she believes. But she has been denied critical need-to-know information. If she and her allies do not uncover secrets carefully hidden long ago, then the Kingdom is doomed.
For she will rise from the ashes alit in flames.
For no water will ever quell her pain.
For no redemption will befall her.
For we will never speak her name.
—Song of the Unnamed
The events of Kingdom of Souls are yet another warning of the havoc wreaked by missing documentation. I’m not sure that the author intended to warn us of the drawbacks of security through obscurity, but there it is. Hide the information and the miscreants will winkle it out, while the good guys will be baffled. To quote locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs “Rogues are very keen in their profession, and know already much more than we can teach them.” This is particularly true when the rogue in question is one of those charged with defending the system.
The novel also teaches us that declining to punish misbehaving insiders can come back to haunt organizations. In this case, the person working to free the Demon King was just one of the victims of an egregious crime carried out by a high-ranking functionary. Public denunciation and punishment would have been inconvenient for the Kingdom. Consequence: one person is highly motivated to bring the whole system down.
Barron is a talented writer. Arrah’s coming of age is deftly narrated. She moves from comfortable naïveté to horrified comprehension. Arrah is everything one might want in a protagonist: good hearted, sympathetic, and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Barron’s secondary world draws on African sources, despite which the fantasy series that this most resembles (at least to my mind) is Noriko Ogiwara’s Tales of the Magatama. That’s one of my favourite fantasy series, right up there with Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, to which Kingdom of Souls also bears similarity.