Book Review: THE BOOK OF JOAN by Lidia Yuknavitch

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

The Book of Joan seems to have a very complicated relationship to marginalization and oppression, and it doesn’t seem to realize it. This is a book that is trying to say something about the nested issues of gender oppression and environmentalism, but because the story takes place on a space station, and because there are issues of access getting to that space station, the cast is largely wealthy and largely (literally) White.

This is a book full of very strange contradictions. For example, queerness is represented–Trinculo is a queer man, and Joan and Leone are clearly in love. However, none of those characters are in a satisfying relationship. Trinculo is queer and obsessed with what he’s lost, and ultimately becomes a tragic/fallen queer character. Joan and Leone are a pair of untouched and intact people, in love, but they can’t consummate their relationship because of Joan’s otherworldy abilities. So, even though queerness is threaded through the book, no one is getting what they want. No one is happy. The way these queer characters are written feels regressive.

Content Warnings for Book:

Oh, wow, so many:

  • Transphobia, in multiple ways, at multiple times, by multiple characters. IT WAS A THING.*
  • Racism in the form of literal colorblindness–the ascendant denizens of the space station CIEL all have paper-white skin, and one of the protagonists, Christine, remarks that this transformation renders race a meaningless construct. I don’t think that’s actually true at all.**
  • Sexualized and gendered brutality more than once. Women’s bodies throughout the book are a site of violence.
  • There is at least one especially vicious beating of a queer man, and it happens, in my reading, at least partially because of his sexuality.
  • Christine burns text into her skin, and the scarification she practices is both ritualized and commodified. There are scenes throughout the book of her practice where she describes the act with extremely explicit and lurid detail, so if you have a sensitive stomach go in knowing. There is also an element of this thread of the text that really treads a line of self-harm in my reading of the book.

Review:

Blurb (from Goodreads):

In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin.

Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule—galvanized by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her and communes with the earth. When de Men and his armies turn Joan into a martyr, the consequences are astonishing. And no one—not the rebels, Jean de Men, or even Joan herself—can foresee the way her story and unique gift will forge the destiny of an entire world for generations.

A riveting tale of destruction and love found in direst of places—even at the extreme end of post-human experience—Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as means for survival.

Reading The Book of Joan was an immensely strange experience for me. I enjoyed this book, and I hated it.

Let me explain.

Lidia Yuknavitch is a great writer. She writes with passion and urgency and fluency. I could not stop reading this book even as it became clear that this book was Definitely Not For Me. I just loved the way she wrote. I loved the way she put sentences together. I loved the way she structured the book. She does this fantastic thing where she starts the book in first person in Christine’s POV, then switches to Joan’s POV in third person, then switches to Christine again, this time in third person, and then ends the book in Joan in first person. It worked! I could not believe that it worked, and I loved it!

But the content of the book itself was not good. It was like walking through a restaurant, and everything looks and smells amazing, and then you realize it’s a seafood restaurant and, oops, you’re allergic to shellfish.

The thing about The Book of Joan is that it was trying to have a conversation with me that I was deeply uninterested in having. Yuknavitch is trying to talk about sex and gender and the primacy of binaries in both of those things, and their relationship to environmentalism, in ways that I am fundamentally sick of hearing about. This is an allegorical, and somewhat satirical book, and for a book like that to work, you have to be willing to engage with its philosophical underpinnings. The philosophical underpinnings of The Book of Joan seem largely rooted in lesbian separatism, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and literally no understanding of asexuality at all.

Leaving aside that the actual mechanics of the plot (CIEL, the rapid mutation of humanity to shed genitalia, etc) do not make sense and were not adequately explained, the book overlooked the actual real-life fluidity of gender and sexuality, despite what the blurb said.

  • In a world where virtually all people suddenly have androgynous bodies, everyone is still using binary gender pronouns. Why? And also, do no non-binary people exist, either before or after? Yes, I understand that the move to this new body cause Christine dysphoria, but the move to this new body would actually remove a lot of my dysphoria! Nothing like this was explored at all in the book.
  • Was no one asexual or aromantic on CIEL? These people were obsessed with having sex.*** There was truly no one who was like “oh, well, no worries.” COME ON.
  • Besides that, there’s more than one way to explore one’s sexuality beside with genitalia. Think broader.

This is not even getting into my actual plot questions, which are legion. The big issue was that this book was deeply transphobic. Joan, the hero of the book, is the type to talk about “womb magic.” The main villain is eventually revealed to be a transgender man–and after the reveal, is gleefully deadnamed and misgendered for the rest of the book. The horrific acts he metes out are directly linked in the text to his hatred of women and his own body. This is a book that made me, as a reader, feel targeted by the text itself.

Takeaway & Rating:

The Book of Joan is a glorious hot mess of a book. Yuknavitch is a talented writer, but her ideas about gender and sexuality are outdated, and her play at allegory left me cold.

2stars

*Again, I really cannot in good conscience recommend this book to others with its handling of trans issues.

**Take, for example, people of color who are also albinos. Race is, of course, about pigmentation, but it’s also about far more than pigmentation, and only a white writer would think that literally whitewashing all bodies would eliminate racism.

***One of the Plot Questions I had, and maybe it was explained and I missed it, was that Jean De Men forbade everyone on CIEL from banging For Reasons, but I don’t know what those reasons were?? So, no one had junk, but wanted to bang, but COULDN’T, so it was VERY FRAUGHT. But I know had I been on CIEL that a) I would have been way less dysphoric than I am this moment and b) I would have been the only one there with any damn chill.

 

Book Review: THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by J.Y. Yang

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

The inclusiveness of The Black Tides of Heaven was, honestly, a big draw for me. I’d heard about Yang’s approach to gender and gender fluidity as a piece of the worldbuilding before I knew much else about the novella, and that was one reason I picked it up.*

The Black Tides of Heaven is populated with Asian characters with an inclusive and expansive understanding of gender. You are a kid, and then you grow up and decide what your gender is, and then it is confirmed–sometimes just socially, and sometimes both socially and medically. It’s worth noting that the author, J.Y. Yang, is Asian and non-binary.

Content Warnings

  • Character death
  • Terrorism
  • some gender dysphoria (when Akeha considers what life would be like were he to declare himself a woman)
  • An act that reads as a suicide

Review

Akeha and Mokoya are twins born to fulfill a debt. The Protector, who keeps her nation dependent on Slack magic, sends them to a monastery in order to drive another child into greater magical proficiency. So sets the stage: the young twins are little more than their mother’s pawns. All the nation is in her hands. But Mokoya has a great, burgeoning talent: she can see the future. As they grow up together in the monastery, Mokoya with her talent, and Akeha in her shadow, their paths diverge. Mokoya is drawn closer to her mother, her gift used for political gain. And Akeha slips out of his mother’s watchful gaze. He finds his way to the Machinists, the rebels, and with them, stands against his sister.

Yang can write, and do so beautifully:

Akeha was not used to watching their twin speak delicately, putting down their words as if they were stacking porcelain cups.

Check this out:

His supplier was a praying mantis of a man he had met in a narrow alley in Cinta Putri.

There are gems like this on nearly every page. I loved the way this novella was written. But the summary above makes the novella sound linear and easy to parse. It isn’t. There are pages of things that happen that go nowhere, then the plot lurches ahead, and I wasn’t sure exactly how or why. There was gorgeously written worldbuilding exposition, then some character development, then a burst of plot that felt like it came out of nowhere. The book just had a very strange rhythm to it, and I felt like I never quite got the hang of it. I never quite settled in, despite the lovely prose.

An example is the way the relationships were developed. Akeha’s especially, since Akeha was the main protagonist. Akeha was paired briefly with Thennjay, who for pages and pages was caught in a whirlwind romance with Akeha’s sister, Mokoya. Since the moment Thennjay met Mokoya, the two of them are fawning over each other. Akeha is gnashing his teeth in the background, because at this point in the story, he hasn’t confirmed a gender, and is pissed that his sister is using feminine pronouns for herself around Thennjay. He feels weird and excluded. He doesn’t trust this dude. And also future vision reasons for not trusting this dude.

Eventually, Akeha is confirmed a man and decides to leave everything he knows. Thennjay comes to say goodbye. He is like ‘hey you should stay.’ And then things ALL OF A SUDDEN TURN ROMANTIC. I did not see this coming at all.

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The reason I am going into such great detail about Akeha and Thennjay is because it happens again. Akeha goes on to meet a man named Yeongcheow in his journeys. Yeongcheow has mad connects. He and Akeha start traveling together. They talk about religion and fallen freinds. They meet new allies. They fight together. Swell!

Much later, in the dark where they lay in bed, skin to skin…

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When did they hook up? I ended up furiously flipping back, looking for things I’d missed. Little things like this kept happening. When did I miss the gender confirmation for Mokoya’s daughter? When did I miss this key plot point? When did I miss this character’s introduction? There was loving detail about places and elements of the Slack, but character elements were just dropped into the book in a way that felt very frustrating and disorienting to me.

I got a wonderful sense of the world and how it works. I understand what the Slack is, kind of, and who can use it. I understand the dangers of its restricted use and what it means for the denizens of this world. I loved the conception of gender and the use of Slack for gender confirmation! But the characters were dolls moved around in this beautiful world. The plot was a shadowplay. And that made the book unsatisfying for me.

Takeaway & Rating

I wanted to love this novella and didn’t. The writing is lovely. The worldbuilding is careful and fascinating. But the characters are flat and confusing, leading to a plot that is both shallow and convoluted.

3stars

*As a note, I’m not entirely sure how this colored my reading or review of the novella. I actually prefer to get a rec, then read the either blind to the contents or totally spoiled, not halfway in between like this. It sets up impossible expectations.

Book Review: THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

At least in my reading, this is not a very diverse or inclusive book. As far as I can recall, there are no queer characters. Fennbirn seems like a pretty white place. I’m sure class distinctions exist, but since the plot follows three would-be queens, we’re seeing Fennbirn through the eyes of the haves–doomed haves, bitter haves–but they are still haves.

There is an argument to be made that the book, however obliquely, provides disability in the form of two of the three queens. Mirabella’s sanity is questioned more than once. The impact this has on Mirabella, and the way this colors how others treat her in turn, is a decent reflection of the stigma many people with mental health issues face. And there is Katharine, the poisoner queen: her training requires her to imbibe poison after poison, leaving her frail and weak. The fragility of her body leaves her in a state of chronic pain and fatigue, which is itself a form of disability.

Content Warnings for Book

  • Katharine’s training, mentioned above, is laced with emotional and physical abuse. I’d argue that the training itself is abusive, since her guardians are feeding a child poison from a very young age, but on top of that, Katharine is pinched, and bruised, and belittled. Later she is subjected to emotional manipulation by yet another guardian (this time turned lover).
  • There is HELLA gaslighting in this book, y’all.
    • Mirabella is pretty much constantly subjected to gaslighting by everyone, all the time (see note above about her mental health).
    • Arsinoe ends up on the receiving end of gaslighting by her best friend Jules. Arsinoe, the naturalist queen, is far outstripped in naturalist magic by Jules, and turns to charms and spells–“low magic”– to make her powers appear greater than they are in her demonstration. Though this struck me as an entirely sensible course of action, Jules tells Arsinoe it’s beneath her and that she should be ashamed of herself.

Review

Book summary (from Goodreads):

When kingdom come, there will be one.

In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown.

The great strength of Three Dark Crowns is its worldbuilding. Fennbirn has weight and history. There is depth and detail here that satisfied my atlas-loving genealogy-craving nerdself. With every reveal of the intricacies of the setup, with every exception and twist, I wanted to know more history. I wanted to know about the great naturalist queens, and how the poisoner families had come to power in recent reigns, and how the elementalists hadn’t just blown them all to smithereens already.

The great weakness of me as a reader is that I overthink everything. So, even with worldbuilding as deep as this, there are still holes. There will always be holes. And when I am as delighted by the worldbuilding as I was with Three Dark Crowns, the seams will show a little harder. When I am left asking questions, I will be a little more bitter. The late-stage reveals of the book felt overly convenient and contrived given how thorough and organic the worldbuilding was throughout. Especially the final reveal, which had me questioning the supposed and demonstrated intelligence of a great many characters. If this was the case the whole time, then how was everything supposed to work?

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All of this is to say that Three Dark Crowns is exactly my kind of book: it is a sprawling, slow, and intensely character focused secondary world fantasy novel. It has very clear stakes: there are three potential queens, and only the most powerful will survive*. The book puts you right into the brains of each of the three queens, forcing you to sympathize with each, daring you to pick and root for a favorite. As each queen makes preparations for her last year of training, and possibly her last year alive, you learn more and more about the land they might rule if they live.

Each of the contender queens is well-drawn and compelling. Katharine has to her advantage the political machinations of the poisoner families, but alas, she is not herself a very strong poisoner. Mirabella is an enormously strong elementalist–but she is apparently unstable. And then there is Arsinoe, the underdog. The naturalists have no political power, and Arsinoe, though clever and quick, has no solid grasp of naturalist magic. All three queens have strengths, and all three queens have weaknesses. It’s anyone’s throne.

Blake takes her time with the book. Instead of urgency, she works with dread. She lets the inevitability of two people’s deaths permeate the pages, and we watch as each of the would-be queens deals with this horrible finality in her own way.

Takeaway & Rating

A slow burn horror of circumscribed lives and forced choices, Three Dark Crowns pits queen against queen. There’s a love triangle in there, but really you should read it for the zombie bear and all the variations on teenage dread.

4stars

*Obligatory Highlander reference below

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Game Review: GOROGOA

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website | steam | iOS

Playthrough threads:

I covered this game in my #BPlaysGames threads on Twitter. It’s got tons of pics and videos and live reactions. You can find the threads here:

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Not much to report on here. Gorogoa is light on characters. There is a boy in a red shirt, and you witness him throughout stages of his life. His skin is brown-ish, so you might assume he is not white. At one stage of his life he appears in a wheelchair, but by the time he is an old man, he is no longer in it.

Content Warnings:

  • There are depictions of war and the carnage it leaves. They are not lingering, but they are there.

Review:

I love puzzlers. I love games that are leisurely, and beautiful, and lonely. My first experience of playing a game and truly loving it was Myst. Playing Gorogoa really tapped into that space for me: there is a boy with a red shirt and a blue bowl, wandering around an intricate and Escher-like universe, and you have to guide him through. But he can wait until you find his next path. He is in no hurry.

The boy is collecting five fruits of varying colors–red, green, yellow, blue, and purple. The puzzles become more challenging as you pass through, but never so head-scratching that I needed to look up a walkthrough. The use of space and framing in Gorogoa is innovative and surprising: you play with a set of 4 cards set in a 2×2 configuration. Sometimes they connect and create one continuous image. Sometimes part of one image becomes a stackable frame that can be placed on top of another image–but you have to zoom in or out of the other image to find out what needs to be framed.

There is a narrative underlying the progress through the game. There is a story here about how we destroy ourselves and rebuild ourselves, literally portrayed in the background of the cards you shuffle. Sometimes the scenery is whole and hearty, golden-tinged. Sometimes it is rubble of a mysterious war. But why is the boy gathering the fruits? Why is he sliding through the rooms where his older selves sit? Why are his older selves so careworn and morose? There are no words in Gorogoa. There is no voiceover to ground you. There is just the imagery, so the player can draw whatever conclusions they draw.

The gameplay is delightful. The narrative is muddled, and likely much clearer to the game’s creator than it was to me. The epilogue drew the narrative’s spiritual and redemptive themes into sharper focus. Gorogoa is a labor of love, and a unique and intriguing way to spend a few hours. But I’m not sure it works as a story.

Takeaway & Rating:

This is a phenomenally beautiful and creative puzzler, and I highly recommend it. The narrative it’s trying to tell through the puzzles, though, doesn’t always come through clearly, and the epilogue exploring those themes feels like it comes out of nowhere.

4stars

 

Book Review: COURT OF FIVES by Kate Elliott

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

  • The Efeans are coded brown, for sure. Jessamy, while mixed-race, seems to get read by her countrymen as a brown women more often than not. Additionally, Jessamy’s internal experience as a mixed-race person is discussed throughout the book.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Maraya, has a club foot. The book explores, briefly, issues related to disability and how society punishes people with disabilities for literally just existing.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Amaya, is definitely queer. It’s unclear if she’s a lesbian or bisexual, but she’s definitely got a thing going with her best friend, Denya, and it’s delightful.
  • There are also explorations of class and religious differences throughout, though set against a secondary world.

Content Warnings for Book (contains spoilers):

  • Attempted murder of Jessamy’s mother and sisters by entombment

Review:

Jessamy, daughter of a Patron army captain and a Commoner woman, has one driving dream: win the Fives. The Fives are the sports competition that anyone can enter–men, women, Commoners, and Patrons. The Fives don’t care who you are or where you come from, just that you’re strong and clever and agile. The problem is that if Jessamy wins the Fives, she has to pull off her mask, and her father has forbidden her to run them.

But then, her father’s benefactor dies, and her family’s life is thrown into chaos. A new benefactor, Lord Gargaron, swoops in, and he is particularly vicious. He marries her father off to his niece. Jessamy’s mother and her three sisters conveniently disappear. And Jessamy is taken to Lord Gargaron’s Fives training stable–a new potential revenue stream for him.

Jessamy is a wonderful character. At times selfish and mercurial, at others stalwart and loyal, and always clever, she is one of my favorite people to read about in a long time. Jessamy is every inch a bright, rebellious teenager. There is a moment, fairly early in the book, where she has been training on the sly for the Fives. She knows her sisters have been in on it. But she is floored when her mother reveals that she knows Jess has been sneaking out to go training. I loved that–I loved that she is not quite as smart as she thinks she is, that she is not quite as independent as she thinks she is. She is still stretching her wings, testing them, and she has the cavalier nature that comes with easing into adulthood while being protected and loved in childhood. She is a beautifully realized character.

The worldbuilding is also beautifully realized. Efea and its various wars mean different things to different people. To Jess, who hears about them mostly from her father, who has risen through the ranks of the army, they mean prosperity and order. To her fellow trainee, Kal, who is a prince twice over, they mean family squabbles and political bickering. To Ro-Emnu, a Commoner poet who helps her out of a very tight spot, they mean colonization and stolen history. All of these interpretations are true. All of these are not quite the whole story. Though Jessamy is the only POV character in Court of Fives, she has enough meaty conversations about parts of her world she’s never seen or took for granted over the course of the book that we get to see this kind of fractured idea of truth.

Truly, the character work is superb, the worldbuilding is excellent, and the plot is engaging. I really, really enjoyed Court of Fives. The only missteps I think Elliott made were in the romance between Jess and Kal. Kal was a necessary and central character to the plot, both for Jess’s arc and her father, but I was never convinced of their romance. And Kal, how would he retain such a naive sweetness about him having grown up with someone like Gargaron with his uncle? I found both the romance and his purity of heart unrealistic, and it stuck out all the more because the character writing for literally every other character was so strong. Kal really felt like a plot device more than a person, in virtually every sense, and the book was weaker for it.

But still! Read the book for Jess. Read the book for Maraya, who wants to be an Archivist. Read the book for all the little side characters who bring in depth and shading to Efea, like the woman who runs the old stable that Jess used to train at. The scene where she turns away Jess after she’s placed at Gargaron’s stable is heartbreaking. Read the book for the layers of history it has at its core, for the way it slowly reveals that the Fives are more than just games and so few in Efea seem to remember that. Just read the book. It’s pretty damn good.

Takeaway and Rating:

Are you craving a book with rich worldbuilding and a kickass girl lead character? Do you want to see her break some rules and save some people? Court of Fives by Kate Elliott will satisfy that craving for sure.

4stars

Book Review: SPIRITS ABROAD by Zen Cho

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

This is #ownvoices short fiction–Malay speculative fiction by a Malay writer. The Malay rep is deep, both in terms of the content of the stories and the language of the stories themselves.

There is a smattering of queer representation in some of the stories here, notably in “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life,” “The Mystery of the Suet Swain,” and “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat.”

Mental health issues are explored in “The Fish Bowl” with a great deal of empathy.

Content Warnings for Book:

Refreshingly, there are content warnings scattered throughout the book! Where there are stories which contain issues like self harm or gore, Cho has provided content warnings right up front. I appreciated this. I didn’t skip any stories, but I like being able to go in knowing that there are things to expect.

Review:

As a collection, Spirits Abroad examines what it is to be a young feminist Malay woman in the world today, both in Malaysia and abroad. Nearly all of the protagonists of the stories in this anthology are young women, and nearly all of them are dissatisfied and struggling with something. Nearly all of them, even when they are at their most good-natured, are chafing at invisible constraints, at the things they are forced by those around them to sacrifice.

As with any collection of short stories, some will speak to a reader more than others. It’s like letting the person at the doughnut shop counter choose your dozen for you: inevitably, they will choose a doughnut you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. If you eat them all, sometimes you find a new flavor that might become a favorite. Sometimes you remember why you never eat that flavor. I wasn’t expecting to like every single story in this anthology. I never expect that; I think it’s an unfair expectation to put on an anthology. But I was expecting cohesion, and a standard level of quality, and I think this collection hit both of those marks.

At sixteen pieces, there was room for paring down. And there were a couple of pieces that did strike me as less strong as the others. “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” was a muddled piece. Even contextualized by the informative author’s note it still had structural issues that made it hard to parse. “The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote” is tonally out of step with the rest of the collection, featuring, I think, the only non-human protagonist. This story also featured a non-binary character continually referred to as “it,” which made me, as a non-binary reviewer, continually uncomfortable.

These stories don’t detract much from the overall experience of the collection as a whole. Cho’s command of language is remarkable, and she has some incredibly good pieces in here. The collection starts with a bang: “The First Witch of Damansara” is funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with a sly undead grandmother thrown in the mix. “The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” is an incredibly well-written story, and one that speaks so much about choices and secrets. “The Fish Bowl” creates such a sense of claustrophobia and desperation out of so little that I read it twice in a row–this one is not for the faint of heart. Much of this book is not for the faint of heart, but it will make you want to read it anyway.

Takeaway & Rating:

Zen Cho’s collection of short fiction explores the pressures and sacrifices of everyday life using Malay folklore as metaphor for things like stalking, academic pressure, and grief. She does this with a steady hand and a clever voice–you will definitely find two or three stories that stick with you for weeks after reading them in Spirits Abroad.

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Book Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Not a lot here to speak of, honestly. The Walls Around Us is focused tightly on three characters–Amber, Ori, and Vee. Of the three, Ori does double duty representation. She is biracial, and she is poor.

There was a moment in the book that made me suspect that Amber could be read as queer, but it’s not canonical. There appears to be no actual canonical queer rep in the book, though Amber discusses, occasionally, that there are queer girls in the juvenile detention center where she lives.

There are vague depictions of mental health issues and disability in the sections in the juvenile detention center–the clearest example is the character of Kennedy who eats her own hair–but none of them are fleshed out into fully realized characters. Each of these characters is literally “this is a broken girl, and here is her mark of brokenness in this broken hellhole.”

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all the girls at Aurora Hills, aparently

It is an extremely unidimensional depiction of mental health, and given the complicated relationship between mental health, correctional facilities, and the way poverty intersects with all of that, it is a handling that is rife with issues. As in, if you are someone who is aware of these things it may or may not rub you the wrong way. If you are not someone who is aware of these things, it may play into your biases and reinforce ideas about how crazy people are dangerous. For this reason, I knocked a star off my overall rating.

Content Warnings:

  • violence, some gore
  • drugs used for escapism
  • some low-level creeping ableism in the Aurora Hills sections

Review:

Vee is the best ballerina in town and bound for Julliard, but she wasn’t always the best ballerina. Ori used to be the best ballerina, but that was long ago. That was before the murder of those two girls, before the trial, before she got sent to Aurora Hills Detention Center. Before she died. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is about Vee and about Ori, but mostly it’s about Amber–Ori’s roommate during her brief stay at Aurora Hills.

The novel jumps back and forth between Vee and Amber’s perspectives. Vee tells a story about her history of dance and her relationship to the Ori-that-was. Amber, the real heart of the book, tells an altogether different story. Serving as the voice for all forty-two girls detained at the Aurora Hills facility, Amber tells her story of regret and lost future as a way of explaining all forty-two lost futures.

But Amber, while trying to tell her story and the story for her forty-one companions, is a confused character. She spends as much time in her narration trying to uncover what is happening to her as she does explicating things for the reader, which is actually quite exciting to read. Aurora Hills becomes a site of uncanny intrigue–at once horrifying for what it is and what it will be, and like Amber, it is unsettling for the reader to be so unsteady in time and place.

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Me and Amber through like 60% of the book

Suma constructs a complicated narrative, and does so beautifully. Threaded through a narrative about professional jealousy and the people we cast aside are also near constant allusions to Macbeth. Vee sometimes thinks she still has blood on her face. The color red is evocative and pervasive. There’s even a feast, and ghosts at the feast.* At one point, hallucinatory vines reclaim the walls of Aurora Hills and all I could think was Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

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plants are creepy

The biggest weakness of the book (aside from the lurking ableism that ate at me) was Ori. She is ultimately to perfect a character to have any real depth. Neither her relationship to Vee or her relationship to Amber gives her any depth, and she never has any POV scenes of her own. Vee and Ori’s story is one of jealousy and isolation: Ori is the natural, the one with god-given talent, even though Vee is the one who wants so badly to be the ballerina. It’s a story that’s been told before, and it brings nothing new to the table. Vee shrinks in Ori’s shadow, and Ori dulls herself for Vee’s sake.

Ori and Amber’s story is one of small kindnesses in harsh places. Amber takes Ori under her wing, and falls a little bit in love with her. It is ultimately because of Ori that Amber makes the final choices she does, though why exactly this girl has moved her so is unclear since this girl’s personality remains unclear throughout the book. She is a sweet and empty enigma. The threat she is to Vee is clear, but the salvation she represents to Amber never crystallizes.

Takeaway & Rating:

This is a fascinating and beautifully written book with a steely heart of vengeance written into every page. I loved it, but as someone with mental health issues I felt othered by it at the same time. Be careful with this one–check it out if you’re interested in murderous ballerinas and patient girls with angry hearts, but know this book might not love you back.

3stars
*Fun questions for your book club that you didn’t ask for! Who is Banquo? Who is Duncan? Does it matter???

 

#KrakenFriends2018: SERE FROM THE GREEN by Lauren Jankowski

krakensales[1]

Hi friends! Did you hear about the Kraken Collective Anniversary Sale? We’ve got 19 books on sale featuring awesome queer heroes, and each of them are only $.99! Not sure where to start with all these stories? Take the #KrakenFriends18 quiz, and see which queer hero you get!

It is my distinct honor to feature two of the participating authors on my blog–Amy McNulty and Lauren Jankowski. Today, I’ve got Lauren Jankowski on deck talking about her book, SERE FROM THE GREEN, which I have already picked up because queer shape shifters!! Keep reading for an excerpt of her book and an interview with her!


About the Book

35411600[1]Title: Sere From The Green
Release Date: March 17, 2013
Publisher: Snowy Wings Publishing

 

There is a race that lives among humans, unbeknownst to them, called shape shifters, those that can shift from human to animal at will. Many protect the innocent on Earth and act as the eyes and ears of the guardians, divine beings similar to gods in ancient myths.

Isis is a woman who lives a normal life until the day she photographs a murder scene for her job. When the body disappears from her photographs, Isis is determined to solve the mystery. Her investigation uncovers answers about her own past and sets her on a journey that will change her life forever.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35411600

 

Interview

Hi Lauren! Tell us about yourself as an author. What kind of stories do you tell? And why?

Well thank you for having me. I’m a feminist fantasy author who specializes mainly in urban and contemporary fantasy. I tell stories with strong, kickass queer women, many of whom have a healthy amount of snark.

I blend a lot of mythology into my stories because I’m a massive myth nerd (in college, I was fascinated by the way gender was performed in various myths). I’m making up for the characters I could never find in the books I loved to read, characters that are still ridiculously hard to find.

I also really enjoy telling stories about characters who struggle against various kinds of adversity and how they overcome such adversities. My characters are survivors: they get knocked down, but they always get back up. As cheesy at it sounds, I like the idea that there is always hope. Too many stories are grim and depressing. My motto is, “If it leaves me completely miserable, then it’s not a very good story.”

 

Isis is the featured character in SERE FROM THE GREEN. Can you talk a little bit about her and what makes her tick?

Oh Isis. I hope I don’t sound terrible when I say that I like this character. Isis is a photojournalist and an adoptee who knows next to nothing about her past. She has always been kind of an outsider: in her family, throughout school and college, in the world in general, as an asexual woman (she’s Gray-A). This has led to her developing just walls and walls around herself. When the story opens, I think Isis has maybe two friends.

Isis also has this … really strong need to fight against people who step on the little guy. She cannot stand authority figures, especially those who abuse their power. Unfortunately, this has led to her losing quite a few jobs as a photojournalist. Isis is also a character who doesn’t play politics and her friends would probably say that she doesn’t know when to shut up. Isis is the sort who won’t back down from a fight. If she sees a bully, she’s going to get right in their face (doesn’t matter if the person could mop the floor with her, Isis would still throw punches to defend the little guy). It’s this sort of fearlessness that results in her sometimes getting in over her head.

What’s hilarious is this scrappy woman who no one really expects much from winds up being incredibly unique: she’s one of only two shape shifter/guardian hybrids. I’ll explain more about the guardians in the next question, but for all intents and purposes, Isis is basically even more badass than one would expect.

 

SERE FROM THE GREEN is the first installment of the Shape Shifter Chronicles. Can you talk about the series and what draws you to writing shape shifters?

The Shape Shifter Chronicles is a series that I’ve been working on for well over ten years. It basically started as a bunch of characters in my head that I would play around with when I was bored and then I just started out mapping out stories, which gradually evolved into outlining novels.

The series is currently about the world of the shape shifters (and in particular, the protectors, who are sworn to protect innocents) and guardians (who are similar to deities from various myths, but they are NOT gods). There has been this cloud hanging over these groups in the form of a prophecy that references some coming evil or bad thing, but of course it isn’t specific. The prophecy also speaks of four shape shifter women who will be able to defeat it. So when the series opens, the leaders of the protectors, Jet and Lilly are trying to find these four women.

There’s also a very strict law (one of the Sacred Laws of the guardians) that forbids romantic relationships between shape shifters and guardians. However, Isis’ biological mother is a guardian by the name of Passion and she is infamous for breaking rules. Passion broke that Sacred Law and it resulted in Isis and her identical twin sister, Electra. So there’s a really interesting backstory there that really delves into guardian culture and how its rigidity and adherence to outdated laws and customs is detrimental not just to the guardians but also to the protectors and even other cultures. Guardians tend to be a rather bureaucratic nightmare. As a reader once observed, “They’re not gods, but they sure act like they are.”

 

What do you have coming up next? How can fans and readers stay up to date with your work?

I’m currently working on two different things. When I’m experiencing writer’s block, I work on this expansive history of shape shifters and the Meadows (home of the guardians). I recently started working on what might be a novella that fits into this massive history: the story of Jet and Lilly (the leaders of the protectors), as well as Passion. I always say those three are unofficially married.

Aside from that, I’m working on the sixth book of my current series. It’s the continuation of the war against Grenich. I’m currently in the midst of doing a lot of marketing so I haven’t been able to give that project the attention it deserves unfortunately (I fear I’m still a bit burned out after last year’s four-book reboot).

I’m also working with a filmmaker, Britty Lea, to create more book trailers, which I am ridiculously excited about. Her trailer for Sere from the Green was absolutely amazing and I could not be happier to be working with her again.

If you’re interested in staying up to date on my work, you can find me all over social media:

I’m also a dedicated activist who seeks to raise awareness of the contributions of ace-identifying people to the arts. I believe all ace artists are important, including those who frequently go ignored or unheard. If people were interested in supporting asexual artists, they could find a database of them at the following links:

Thank you for having me.

Excerpt

Isis sat in the back seat of Jade’s Mustang, which was currently doing eighty by her estimate. Isis clutched her seat every time Jade took a sharp turn, which felt like every other minute. In the front seat were Jade and Isis’ twin sister, Electra. Isis had only known her sister less than an hour and had already managed to royally piss her off. Her uncanny ability to get on people’s bad sides was still going strong. Though Isis knew she wouldn’t have enjoyed getting kicked in the diaphragm.

“Ow! Quit elbowing me,” Electra snapped at Jade, shifting in her seat so she was a little further away from the driver.

“Say something to her,” Jade said under her breath.

“Like what?” Electra asked, not even attempting to be quiet.

“Um, I can hear you,” Isis said from the back, wondering if they had forgotten about her. She wasn’t sure she should draw attention to herself, but there was an uncomfortable tension in the car and she was still incredibly nervous. Raising a hand to massage her aching throat, Isis grimaced a little at the sting.

“Look, it’s not her fault that the High Council thought it best to lie to both of you,” Jade replied, ignoring her passenger in the backseat. Electra sat back in a huff and it became uncomfortably silent once again. Isis leaned forward, resting her arms on the backs of their seats.

“Are you with the FBI?” she asked.

“No,” Jade replied.

“CIA?”

“No,” Electra responded, staring out the window.

“MI-5?”

“No,” Electra and Jade responded simultaneously in obvious exasperation. Isis frowned, thinking of other organizations that employed covert agents. Deciding that was a fruitless line of questioning for the moment, Isis turned her attention to Jade.

“So, can I turn into a snow leopard? Or is it some sort of virus, like transferred through a bite or sex or something?” she asked. Electra let out a huff that sounded like a laugh and shook her head, massaging her brow.

“It’s hereditary and you’ll be able to shift once you’re trained,” Jade answered.

“How much longer before we get to wherever we’re going?” Isis asked, glancing out the window when a car shot by with its brights on. The buildings became sparser as they traveled further from the town.

“It’ll be a while yet,” Jade replied, glancing over at Electra when she shifted her weight. The young guardian glanced over at her sister before turning her eyes to the clean windshield.

“Great. Then you two will have no problem explaining to me just what the hell is going on,” Isis stated as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Because last time I checked, wereleopards didn’t exist.”

Electra snorted while Jade screeched to a halt at a red light. The sleek car jerked a little at the sudden stop.

“I’m not a wereleopard,” Jade protested, sounding offended. “Electra, please explain to your sister just who and what we are.”

“Fine,” Electra said and twisted in her seat so that she was facing the back and looking at Isis. It was weird to suddenly have a sibling, especially one who happened to be her identical twin. I’m even weirder than most people assume, Isis thought, waiting for the woman to speak.

“You and I are hybrids, the only two in existence,” she began, a hint of bitterness in her voice. “Part shape shifter and part guardian. I’ll start with the guardians, because I know more about them. I was raised as a guardian and didn’t know I was only half until a few hours ago.”

Jade cleared her throat loudly as she pressed on the gas pedal again, the interior of the car illuminated by green light. Electra glared at her with the most impressive side-eye Isis had ever seen before turning back to the conversation.

“Guardians are similar to the deities you’ve undoubtedly read about in assorted mythologies, only less omnipotent and powerful. We’re…they’re not gods. They watch over things on Earth and keep it running as smoothly as possible.”

“Like God?”

Jade snorted. “Nobody is infallible. That concept was created by humans, best we can tell.”

“Jade’s right,” Electra put in. “There is no omnipotent creator, as far as we know.”

“Why don’t people worship you?” Isis asked, leaning forward, intrigued.

“Because they don’t know about us and again, guardians aren’t gods,” Electra replied. “Guardians can only guide. All life forms have free will. The guardians gave them a nudge when it came to sciences and the arts. Humans created religions, charities, and different sorts of government.”

“Mortality is a powerful motivator, makes people come up with all kinds of things, whether for good or ill,” Jade added, a hint of weariness in her voice. Isis looked between them, feeling more and more confused by the minute. Electra glanced at Jade, who kept her eyes on the road.

“Anyway, there are not only elemental guardians but emotion guardians as well,” she continued. “Like the elements, there’s a guardian for every emotion.”

Isis frowned. “Why?”

“Well, if one emotion got out of control, it would be disastrous. For bigger things like water and plants there are many guardians, but almost every emotion only has one guardian. Keeping the Earth running smoothly is as dangerous as it is complicated. There are many who would love to get control of the Meadows and all her inhabitants because to do so would mean complete control of all the worlds out there. Good protects good, that’s the way it has always been. There are shape shifters whose job it is to protect the guardians, as well as the innocent on Earth.”

“And that’s what,” Isis had to rack her brain to remember the woman’s name, “Jade is?”

“Yes,” Electra replied. “Shape shifters are beings that are mostly human. The only thing different is that they can change into any animal at will.”

“Like in the legends of the Sioux?”

Jade twisted her hand a couple times and scrunched up her nose. “Not really.”

Electra smiled and shook her head. “Shape shifters are found in many cultures and mythologies — every story is a little different, but shape shifters such as Jade are their own people and culture. They are not the beings found in myths.”

Isis looked between the two of them, frowning. She was still having trouble believing what they were telling her despite having seen it firsthand. Glancing out the window, she wished Steve was with her. Really wish I had my fucking phone, she thought as she flopped back.

“The shape shifters known as protectors do an amazing job,” Electra continued, glancing once more at Jade before turning her attention to Isis again. “They protect the guardians as well as innocents here on Earth at any cost. They have fought in many wars alongside humans, without humans even knowing, and some still do to this day. They put their lives on the line without a second thought every day, practically every moment they live.”

“And how does this pertain to my supposedly being able to do this…shape shifting?” Isis asked, the words sounding strange in her mouth. She tried to figure out exactly when her life had become one giant conspiracy theory. The world was almost certainly fucking with her at this point.

“I’m getting there,” Electra responded, arching an eyebrow. “Has anyone ever told you you’re extremely impatient?”

“Call it a character flaw,” Isis replied. Jade chuckled as she braked smoothly at a stop sign and then made a right turn onto a quiet unlit street. Isis straightened up, not recognizing the area anymore. In the distance, she could see hills and it seemed like that was where Jade was heading. Hills are a perfect place to hide a body. Great, Isis thought.

“The guardians have a book called The Book of Oracle,” Electra continued, frowning. “Jade, this isn’t the right—”

“I’m taking a scenic route. Go on, continue your story,” Jade said as she leaned back in her seat. “The Book of Oracle.”

“Oh-kay,” Electra said, her tone suggesting she was a little unsure about the new route. After a moment she turned her eyes back to Isis. “Anyway, the Book of Oracle contains prophecies, mostly things that may happen in the future. Several months after we were born, a prophecy appeared telling of what protectors refer to as the Four. Four shape shifter women who will save the Meadows, home of the guardians, and all the other worlds out there from a threat we don’t yet have a name for. Basically they’re going to change the future, hopefully for the better. We found three of the four and according to the leaders of the protectors, you’re the fourth.”

“Protectors are one faction of shape shifters,” Jade put in. “The others you’ll learn about later.”

Isis was silent for a moment, considering all that she had just heard.

“Did Steve or Shae put you two up to this?” she asked, certain her friends were pranking her. Though that wouldn’t explain the near-death experience she’d had.

“Who?” Electra asked, looking over at Jade. Isis ran her hands over her face. This is absolute lunacy. I’ve just entered the goddamn Twilight Zone, she thought.

“I’ve never turned into an animal before,” she insisted.

“Neither has your sister,” Jade countered. “You haven’t been trained properly. I’m sure you’ve seen signs though. Animals relax around you. Sometimes it almost feels like you know what they’re thinking. A longing to run free.  One hell of a libido. Am I getting warm?”

“Wrong on the libido thing. I’m on the ace spectrum, been Gray-A my whole life,” Isis stated, crossing her arms over her chest. “Very, very low libido. Pretty much non-existent.”

“No shit?” Jade looked up at the rearview mirror, interest and amusement reflecting in her eyes. “You’re just all kinds of unique.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Isis asked, feeling more than a little defensive.

“Asexuality is almost unheard of in shape shifters. It’s even rarer than it is among humans,” Jade explained, snickering as though she were remembering a joke. “Two members of the Four are ace spectrum, how very odd. It’s certainly going to raise a few eyebrows at the very least.”

“Great,” Isis grumbled as she turned her gaze out the window, trying to see through the shadows. The road was starting to become curvy and she couldn’t see any houses or other buildings that would give an indication of where they were.

“Jade said shape shifting is hereditary?” Isis mentioned, not directing the question to anyone in particular.

“It is,” Electra responded. “Our father was a shape shifter. Our mother is part of the royal line and she’s the guardian of passion.”

“Hence her name: Passion,” Jade added with a half-smile.

“Where exactly are the guardians?” Isis asked, glancing around, half-expecting to see one flying next to the car.

“As I mentioned earlier, they live in the Meadows,” Electra answered, leaning sideways against her seat. “You can only get there by Appearing.”

“Appearing?” Isis was more skeptical than ever. Getting in this car was definitely not the wisest decision I’ve ever made, she thought as she toyed with the lock on the door.

“It’s similar to what humans call teleporting,” Jade explained, shrugging when Electra looked at her. Judging from her mannerisms, Isis wondered whether her twin spent very much time on Earth.

“You mentioned our father. Is he in the Meadows?” Isis asked, a little uneasy when the two women exchanged a look that was not at all reassuring.

“No. Shape shifters don’t live in the Meadows and it’s against our Sacred Laws for them to court guardians or enter into any sort of romantic relationship,” Electra answered. Isis raised an eyebrow at the vague response.

“So what, Passion and…?” she paused, waiting for a name. Electra looked to Jade again.

“Roan,” Jade answered, squinting at the inky night just outside the windshield. After a moment, she turned the steering wheel and rather than running off the road, Isis was surprised to find the road continued on. Glancing out the window, she noticed she couldn’t see a road ahead or behind her at all.

“Are they like Romeo and Juliet only alive or something like that?” Isis asked.

“No,” Electra responded darkly, but Jade started chuckling, obviously finding the question rather funny.

“I really like her,” Jade told Electra, smiling at Isis in the rearview mirror. Isis looked between the two women, picking up on the returning tension

“Okay, what is the deal with this guy?”

“He’s a murdering bastard,” Electra snapped, and Jade ran a hand over her face. Isis’ eyes widened again and she looked between the two, waiting for one of them to expand upon the statement.

“It’s not quite so simple. Remember those factions of shape shifters I mentioned earlier? Roan came from a family called the Deverells, one of the most decorated and respected protector lineages. But every family has its black sheep and Roan didn’t follow in his family’s footsteps. He was an assassin, the worst that we’ve ever known, perhaps the worst there ever has been. He murdered at least fifteen people and disappeared before the two of you were born. Jet and Lilly — they’re the leaders of the protectors — are still trying to find him but it is doubtful anyone will ever see him again. Your mother had no idea that he was a killer when they met,” Jade explained.

“How did she find out? Did he try to kill her?” Isis asked in complete disbelief. Aside from getting on people’s bad sides, Isis was convinced that she was flypaper for dysfunction.

“No, she saw him kill a mark,” Jade responded, her tone calm and collected. Isis went quiet again, shocked by the answer and the casual manner in which it had been delivered. After a moment, she swallowed and leaned forward.

“If all you’re saying is true, why the hell was I never aware of any of this?” she asked after a moment. Jade glanced over at Electra, who was now leaning her elbow against the door and running her long fingers through her hair.

“The guardians are run by a High Council. It is comprised of all the leaders of the major lands: nature, fire, light, day, water, night, and the royal line. Your mother, Passion, broke one of the most important Sacred Laws. It was decided that part of her punishment would be that she would have to give up one of her daughters to be raised as human. Since you were born second, you were the one to be given up.”

Isis closed her eyes. “So, who left me at the door of the agency?”

Electra glanced over at Jade, appearing to be curious about the question herself. Jade kept her eyes forward.

“Jet,” she answered.

“I assume that’s who we’re going to see now,” Isis said. Jade nodded once in response and Electra turned her gaze back out the window, mesmerized by the night. She rested her forehead against the window and closed her eyes.

“Do shape shifter bodies vanish into thin air often?” Isis asked, noticing Jade stiffened and gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. Electra opened her eyes and turned her head, looking over to Jade.

“Not often,” Jade responded. “But it does happen and it has happened for quite some time — throughout history in fact. Jet and Lilly hope the Four can figure out that mystery. Personally, I don’t see how it’s possible seeing as how it has been happening almost as long as we’ve existed. Even the guardians have no clue what happens to them.”

Jade turned onto the side street that Isis hadn’t even seen, steering the car up a winding path. Isis looked out the window but couldn’t see anything in the night; no indication of where they were.

“We’re currently traveling through the hills,” Jade explained when she noticed the questioning look on Isis’ face. “There’s a road hidden by guardian magic, one only protector eyes can see. The guardians created a special haven for the Monroe family, the protectors most loyal to them. Humans can’t find it, neither can most other shape shifters. Only the Monroes can teach shape shifters how to see it and even then, it takes a bit of time. Ah, there’s home.”

Isis glanced out the window and did a double take, her jaw dropping as she stared at the sight that greeted her. An enormous mansion — more like a castle — could be seen in the distance. The architecture resembled some sort of Renaissance style and it was the biggest structure Isis had ever seen. It was surrounded by trees, bushes, and all sorts of plant life. There was a vast amount of land stretching out as far as the eye could see in every direction. There were more windows than she could count and a couple towers could be seen. Several lights illuminated the exterior of the building.

“You live here?” Isis asked, her voice squeaky. She was still marveling at how large and beautiful the enormous home was. It was like something out of a history book or fairy tale. I don’t have my camera either! Shit, she thought.

“Where did you think we lived? A den?” Jade replied, a hint of teasing in her tone. She pulled up to a pair of elegant black gates, rolled down her window and flipped open the top of a nearby box, revealing a dark blue button and a handprint scanner. Jade pushed the button and pressed her palm against the scanner when it lit up. After a moment, there was a beep and then the gates swung open. Jade pulled the car in, checking the rearview mirror once again. Isis turned around, watching as the gates swung shut. No turning back now, she thought.

#KrakenFriends2018: THE BALLAD OF THE BEANSTALK by Amy McNulty

krakensales[1]

Hi friends! Did you hear about the Kraken Collective Anniversary Sale? We’ve got 19 books on sale featuring awesome queer heroes, and each of them are only $.99! Not sure where to start with all these stories? Take the #KrakenFriends18 quiz, and see which queer hero you get!

It is my distinct honor to feature two of the participating authors on my blog–Amy McNulty and Lauren Jankowski. Today, we have Amy McNulty. Her book, The Ballad of the Beanstalk, is out now, and is a very cool retelling of an old fairy tale. Keep reading for an excerpt of her book and an interview with her!


About the Book

Title: Ballad of the BeanstalkBallad of the Beanstalk_3D Cover
Release Date: April 11, 2017
Publisher: Patchwork Press
Genre: YA Romantic Fairy Tale Fantasy

As her fingers move across the strings of her family’s heirloom harp, sixteen-year-old Clarion can forget. She doesn’t dwell on the recent passing of her beloved father or the fact that her mother has just sold everything they owned, including that very same instrument that gives Clarion life. She doesn’t think about how her friends treat her like a feeble, brittle thing to be protected. She doesn’t worry about how to tell the elegant Elena, her best friend and first love, that she doesn’t want to be her sweetheart anymore. She becomes the melody and loses herself in the song.

When Mack, a lord’s dashing young son, rides into town so his father and Elena’s can arrange a marriage between the two youth, Clarion finds herself falling in love with a boy for the first time. Drawn to Clarion’s music, Mack puts Clarion and Elena’s relationship to the test, but he soon vanishes by climbing up a giant beanstalk that only Clarion has seen. When even the town witch won’t help, Clarion is determined to rescue Mack herself and prove once and for all that she doesn’t need protecting. But while she fancied herself a savior, she couldn’t have imagined the enormous world of danger that awaits her in the kingdom of the clouds.

A prequel to the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk that reveals the true story behind the magical singing harp.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33526191-balladofthebeanstalk

 

Interview

Amy McNulty Author Pic

Amy McNulty

Hi Amy! Tell us about yourself as an author. What kind of stories do you tell? And why?

Hi! Thanks for having me. I’ve always been drawn to YA stories, particularly those set in fantasy worlds. Most of my YA books thus far are fantasy (though I write contemporary romances under a different name, too). I love rooting for complex, romantic fictional relationships, so most of my books have a strong romantic element as well. I also love strong-willed (sometimes to the point of stubbornness) lead characters, so I write a lot of those.

 

Clarion is the featured character in BALLAD OF THE BEANSTALK. Can you talk a little bit about her and what makes her tick?

Clarion is going through a rough patch in her life. She’s tried of always being taken care of by her friends and lover, and she’s ready to break away on her own. She wants to go on an adventure and be the one to protect those she loves.

 

What drew you to this story?

I’ve always wanted to do a fairy tale retelling or prequel/sequel, and I never would have expected Jack and the Beanstalk to be the one that called to me. But I was watching an adaptation of the Jack and the Beanstalk story and was struck with the idea of telling the origin of the singing harp (which sometimes appears to be part human in certain adaptations). The story snowballed from that idea.

 

What do you have coming up next? How can fans and readers stay up to date with your work?

My next release is Fangs & Fins, Book One in my new YA paranormal romance/urban fantasy series, Blood, Bloom, & Water. It’s out May 1st and it’s got high schoolers, vampires, and merpeople. Visit my website to learn more (http://amymcnulty.com/).

Excerpt

Elena grabbed Clarion’s hand the moment the men were out of sight and pulled her Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00030]inside her room. A maid was unfolding gowns and spreading them out on top of Elena’s bed.

“Thank you, Mariah, that will be all for now,” said Elena, clasping her hands together. “Clarion will help me. You’re needed in the kitchen.”

Mariah hardly looked up from the floor as she passed, but Clarion swore she spared her one scathing look, as if she knew she was responsible for the swap in jobs—or worse, she knew exactly why Elena had dismissed her.

Once the door shut tight behind Mariah, Elena threw her arms around Clarion’s shoulders and kissed her.

Elena marched over to her bed and began making a mess of the careful array of clothes. Clarion fingered her lips and watched her. “Elena,” she began, not sure how to even start this conversation.

It wasn’t like she didn’t love Elena. When Elena had first asked if she could kiss her, Clarion had said she could. Elena was beautiful, and although she’d known her since almost as long as she could remember, although she loved her as a friend first, as someone like a sister… Something had changed between them at some point, and Clarion was just as curious as Elena as to what that might be. But that was months ago—almost a year ago now—and Elena no longer asked. There’d grown an understanding between them, and Clarion wasn’t even sure she really understood.

“Did you decide against that silly notion of wearing your one nice frock?” Elena held up a pretty blue dress made of smooth material that deepened her already deep blue eyes. Her arms fell and her face soured. “Unless you seriously intended to run home and change after a day of cleaning.” She tossed the dress down and picked up another one, this one in golden yellow. “I can’t imagine why your mother thought it suitable for you to help clean for the ball!”

Clarion bristled at Elena’s tone. “Everyone celebrates at the springtime ball. Even those who helped set it up.” It was true. There weren’t enough rich people for the mayor’s family to hobnob with them exclusively. Although that may have been why this neighboring lord and his son were invited.

Her face distressed, Elena lowered the yellow dress. “I didn’t mean that.” She folded the dress over her arm and started scattering the other ones. “That you wouldn’t have come if you helped clean.” She smiled timidly. “It’s just… You’re my friend. You shouldn’t have to clean to earn your respite.”

Her friend? There was some of the confusion beneath the “understanding” the two of them shared. Clarion regarded Elena’s profile as she tossed some of the dresses atop a chest at the foot of her bed. She had an elegant, sloping profile that sometimes made Clarion’s heart beat faster, but it’d been a while since she’d felt that.

Her heart quickened only a little now.

Elena sat on the bed on a small area she’d cleared of dresses. Her usually-proud features softened as she held her hand out, beckoning Clarion to sit beside her. Clarion hesitated a moment, but she did as wordlessly bidden, sliding her hand into Elena’s.

“Father is trying to arrange a marriage between me and that Magnus.” From the way she emphasized Mack’s name, Clarion knew the young man did not have the same effect on Elena as he did on her.

But Clarion’s mind jolted as she pondered it. The two of them together would be the loss of both people—the only two people—who had ever stirred something inside her, something strong, something special.

She felt immediately guilty for thinking that of two people. She removed her hand from Elena’s and folded her hands in her lap instead.

Elena mistook the meaning behind the gesture and grabbed Clarion by the shoulders. “I don’t want to!” She threw her hands up. “I was thankful Father didn’t think any of the boys in town were good enough for his daughter.” She twirled a coil of her silky hair around her finger. “I should have known he would just import me a husband from somewhere else.”

She stopped playing with her hair and spoke hesitatingly. “What if… I don’t know. What if you married Jackin?”

“What?” Clarion choked on her astonishment.

“I know, and I know that Father probably wants to import him a proper lady wife, too, but…” Elena spoke so quickly, her hands fluttering about her face, that she stumbled on her own words and had to pause to swallow. “But everyone knows how Jackin feels about you, and I could see him fighting Father so he can marry you, and maybe just me being married to Magnus would be a good enough family connection—”

“How Jackin feels about me?” Clarion thought back to when Jackin wound up asking Krea to the dance. Krea, at least, had no idea how Jackin felt about Clarion. Frankly, Clarion had hoped she’d just imagined it. Even Elena had never brought it up, never encouraged it.

Although she had reason before not to encourage it.

Short Story Rec: “The Minotaur’s Wife” by Megan Arkenberg

“The Minotaur’s Wife” by Megan Arkenberg is included in the January, 2015 issue of Pantheon Magazine. You can read it for free here.


I had not chosen to marry you, but I had chosen to become the Minotaur, and to do it well.

Like the other Megan Arkenberg story I’ve written about here, “The Minotaur’s Wife” is epistolary and quiet and desperate. I haven’t read enough of her stuff to know if this is a trend of hers, or if I just happened upon two particularly good ones written in a similar way, but hey, if you want two good, melancholy meditations on doomed love in epistolary form, Arkenberg’s got them for you.

This one involves a drug trade, and queerness, and arranged marriages that twist around to something different over the course of time, and barren houses that slowly fill themselves up. What I love about Arkenberg’s writing in this story is how much of Naxos, the narrator, you see in the details she chooses to write about in her letters. The letters themselves, the construction of them, are as revelatory as her actions.

And this works as a story. Where I would have made this something much grander in scale–probably a duology with all of the backstory filled in–Arkenberg limits the scope to such a tight focus. We only see Naxos and Asterion. She has a keen, clean eye for the core of her story and the details that support it. It feels huge, because lives for those living it is always huge, but she keeps that tight focus, and the story works at its clean length because of it, even though it spans over thirty years of Naxos’ life.