I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This article contains minor spoilers.
On December 15, Granity Studios released Epoca: The River of Sand, the highly-anticipated sequel to The Tree of Ecrof. Written by Ivy Claire, the book takes place three months after the events of its prequel, in which crown princess Pretia Praxis-Onera and former Star Stealer Rovi Myrios saved their school from the eponymous tree that was stealing students’ magic powers. These powers, called grana, originate from one’s emotions and provide the guidance and drive to achieve one’s goals. As with other books in the Granity universe, grana is most often used in sports – and in Epoca, sports rule all.
The story begins just one day before Pretia and Rovi are due to return to Ecrof Academy for their second year. Yet, this is no ordinary year — it’s the year of the Junior Epic Games, an Olympic-style event for students of the elite athletic academies that takes place one year before the Epic Games. Both protagonists are eager to try out for the Junior Epic team, but Pretia’s hopes are dashed when her parents inform her of a potential uprising in Phoenis – the city where the Games are to be hosted and where Rovi used to call home – and that she is forbidden to return to school. To further complicate things, the Star Stealers are believed to be the source of the unrest. This revelation immediately generates tension between the two friends, as Rovi grapples with his past and Pretia lashes out against the strict rules she has operated under for her entire life.
In defiance of her parents, Pretia stows away to Ecrof, determined to compete in the Junior Epics. Likewise, Rovi and their friend Vera both seek to prove themselves in competition, the former to shed his reputation and the latter to beat records set by her older brother and an athlete named Farnaka Stellus. However, upon making it into the Games, the three of them learn that not everything is as it seems. For one, the Star Stealers aren’t revolting at all – they’re being increasingly pushed to the outskirts of society and criminalized for existing. Just as they are maligned, Pretia finds herself the target of protests by other athletes who view her splitting power as unnatural, and Vera learns that Farnaka has been virtually erased from history books. Despite the protagonists’ growing suspicions about what’s going on in Phoenis, the rules for Junior Epic competitors pose a barrier – no leaving the athletes’ village and no politics.
As the story progresses, it’s hard to not draw comparisons to the present day. The strong opposition to Pretia’s grana can be broadly associated with the belief that marginalized people receive undue advantages, whether in sports, academics or otherwise. Her situation is also strikingly similar to the backlash against South African athlete Caster Semenya, right down to the tribunal that determines whether the princess’ power gives her an unfair advantage. The theme of being maligned for being one’s self recurs from the first book, Pretia herself acknowledging that she feels she’s under constant scrutiny.
Likewise, Rovi knows the persecution that comes with being a Star Stealer, but he struggles to abandon his past, especially as he returns to his home city. This struggle becomes greater once he learns that the Junior Epic Games are being used as an excuse to target Star Stealers. Each of the protagonists, but Rovi in particular, is warned that athletics are sacred and interfering with the Games is a crime. Just as they are discouraged from disrupting the Games – viewed in-universe as a source of joy, conflict resolution, and national pride – American athletics are meant to be a pastime untainted by politics, pandemics or protest. Whether a Black Power salute, solemn knee or forfeited game, to some there will never be a right place to protest, and an athletic field is definitely not the right place. Yet, this line of thinking ignores the fact that sports have always been political, and especially so in Epoca.
Claire’s writing is a pleasure to read, not only because of how it flows but also the worldbuilding. When planning the series, creator Kobe Bryant sought out an author with a background in classics, and Claire’s expertise definitely shows, from details about royal burials to the religious lore of Epoca. She told me that it was fun writing for kids, and in a sense, the writing process was easier because she had a specific audience in mind. She and Bryant worked on Epoca for at least three years before the release of the first book, and that many ideas floated around as they developed the series.
Claire cited editor Noah Wheeler as being instrumental in working on the story, as well as Vanessa Bryant.
“[Vanessa] jumped right in when someone had to see the final books, because it was very important to honor Kobe and Gigi. These books were written for his daughters,” Claire said. “He made characters in his book look like his daughters. He wanted them to be reflected in the storyline, and the physical description, and in the passions of the kids on the page. And so she was very determined that when we wrap this series up it was going to honor his legacy.”
Although the series ended sooner than Claire anticipated, she said that she hopes Pretia and Rovi continue to live on in the minds of readers. She described her previous work as a ghostwriter as “challenging” and said that it was never challenging to work with Bryant. Writing with him was a “remarkable and unique experience”, she said.
“Of course I wish I could explore [the series] a bit further,” Claire said, “but it just doesn’t feel right. This was a collaborative process, so it seems odd to do it without [Kobe].”
The protagonists definitely have more stories ahead of them, but they have shown growth since The Tree of Ecrof. Pretia is still learning how to keep her splitting ability in check, but earns greater control through the events of the story. In the end, her being able to physically step outside of herself becomes emblematic of her decision to step outside of the Dreamer-Realist mold, rather than being a perfectly crafted combination of the two. Rovi sticks to his guts and is able to use his Star Stealer abilities for good, showing that one doesn’t have to abandon parts of themself in order to thrive. The message that being in touch with one’s emotions and trusting intuition will allow one to reach their fullest potential remains one of my favorite aspects of the Epoca series.
You can purchase Epoca: The River of Sand through Bookshop and other book retailers.
Featured image via Granity Studios