Book Review: Secrets Kept by J.L. Mbewe

I love supporting new authors, especially Christian ones who love speculative fiction. J.L. Mbewe is no different and I had the opportunity to pick up her ebook on Amazon for dirt cheap a month and a half ago. It’s safe to say that I was amused when I read this book, but I would only rate it 3/5 stars. Ever since I started the book, though, I’ve been dying to do a review on it. For new authors, reviews are invaluable because they can help boost your ranking on Amazon.

I made a short blurb on Amazon about the book, but here I plan to do something more extensive.

Book Blurb (straight from Amazon)

With a curse, she will build an army. With the dagger, she will undo the last sacrifice. But first the sorceress must find the secret keeper.

Torn from her homeland and thrust into a betrothal against her wishes, Ayianna learns her family has a deadly secret that now has her on the run. She joins forces with Kael, an embittered half-elf, and Saeed, an elderly High Guardian, to seek answers to her father’s death, the destruction of Dagmar, and the plains people’s bizarre behavior.

Ayianna discovers there is more at stake here than just her mother’s disappearance and her familial duty to her betrothed. The sorceress has cursed the plains people, and it is a race against time to release them before the sorceress resurrects an ancient evil.

What I Liked

The worldbuilding Mbewe put into this book was impeccable. I read on a recent guest post that she’s spent ten years worldbuilding, detailing such things as social structure, military, and environment. And believe me, it really shows, right down to the minute details of the social structures between men and women.

The races of Nälu are reflective of every terrain. Humans are still the ignorant, insignificant race of the world, a stereotype that dawned in Tolkien-wannabe novels. But Mbewe puts a twist on what we know of elves. I never knew elves could dwell in the desert until I read Secrets Kept.

The writing in Secrets Kept is all show and never tell. Mbewe shows her readers what the characters are doing, how they react, and almost never jumps from one perspective to the other. For the most part, sentences and scenes flow together smoothly from beginning to end. I say “for the most part” for reasons I’ll explain later.

There were a couple of scenes where Mbewe’s skill with prose matches the prowess of the most formidable fantasy authors. One of these was when our heroes in the book make a pit stop during their first march through the Zriab Desert. I was pleasantly amused, as two characters bickered while Ayianna adjusted to the terrible stench of the streets. Later on, a communal bath scene reminded me of my awkward experience of going to a Japanese onsen (hot spring) for the first time.

At the top of the most intriguing scenes was the enchantment of Inganno Forest. Our heroes are beckoned to enter a beautiful portion of the forest, and even though the whole scene was predictable (I could see the deception behind the enchantment right from the get go) that one section was a page turner. In the midst of the heroes’ trouble, we catch one shining moment as Ayianna does something for herself and saves her comrades, as well as freeing fairies that have been locked away for years upon years. That was the only time I truly had respect for this young heroine. As for the other times? Well, I’ll get to that next.

What I Didn’t Like

Personally, I didn’t get into the characters. Kael and Desmond were jerks and Ayianna couldn’t really do anything for herself except get into trouble (aside from that one shining moment). In a way, Ayianna almost reminded me of my teenage self, but that’s really nothing to be proud of. Prince Vian was the only tolerable character, a typical depiction of royalty.
I say this only because I like at least one character in a book to have an admirable trait. Flaws in characters are great; they make characters real. But I wasn’t sensing anything truly admirable about these people, nothing that made me route for them. Their personalities gave the book more of a YA feel than an epic quest.

The characters also thought the same. Sure, their desires were different, but their thought lives followed the same pattern. This is probaby because of all the question inserted into the the prose. I understand Mbewe’s rejection of “He wondered” and “he thought” which lean towards telling instead of showing. But practically every thought, opinion or silent musing was in the form of questions. Sometimes those questions interrupted the prose, and others could have been cut without affecting the story. In fact, I would cut out most of those questions, especially for Kael’s perspective because questions don’t seem to fit his character.

As for the story, it didn’t really go anywhere. If a great book is a mountain, then Secrets Kept was a flat plain. There was no climactic ending. The story just tapered off with a ‘to be continued’. Don’t get me wrong; there was plenty of action and more to spare. There was just no defining quest to govern the direction of the story.

Lastly (and most importantly because I used to be an English teacher overseas) the book is riddled with structural errors. I found several comma splices that the average reader probaby wouldn’t pick up, as well as a number of typos. Needless to say, the book could have used another proofread.

What I Learned

Mbewe and I have several things in common: we love the Lord of the Rings, we build worlds that we want to be believable, and we include fantasy tropes. Mbewe has a sick, enchanted forest that was once beautiful. I have a dead forest and a forest of life. Mbewe and I both include awkward moments like communal bathing. She and I have maps and fantasy languages.

Whenever I read a novel, I reflect on my own writing and how I can make it better, and Secrets Kept was no different. Mbewe has an incredible talent for showing instead of telling. I could use a lot more showing in my own book. The errors show me the importance of getting a professional proofreader and beta readers to catch things I can’t. The flat plotline taught me that it’s important to be building towards some kind of climax in the story. I tried to do that with my book, but if not, I hope my editor will help me out.

Final Thoughts

As much as I did appreciate the book for what it was, I’m not tempted to get her latest instalment, Darkened Hope, anytime soon. The first book just didn’t capture me enough to go on. However, I’ve heard it said that your first book isn’t always your best and that there’s always room for improvement. I’m looking forward to seeing how Mbewe progresses as a writer, as well as what new and exciting cultures she comes up with.

For those interested, I would recommend reading Secrets Kept simply because it’s cheap and an easy read. It’s only $1.24 CAD for Kindle. Definitely worth the money.


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