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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.
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.
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.
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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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.”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.
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.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. 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.
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.
*Fun questions for your book club that you didn’t ask for! Who is Banquo? Who is Duncan? Does it matter???
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!
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.
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.
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.
“No,” Electra responded, staring out the window.
“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.”
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.
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!
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.
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/).
Elena grabbed Clarion’s hand the moment the men were out of sight and pulled her 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.
“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.
This is a book by an East Asian author (Dao is Vietnamese-American) about an all-Asian cast. All characters in the book are people of color, and the worldbuilding in the book, I believe draws specifically from China.*
This is also a book that focuses in on gender, but specifically on cis women. It’s a woman-driven story. Gender and sexuality are complicated throughout–since roughly half of the book takes place in the imperial City of Women, cis men are present, but largely sidelined unless they are eunuchs.**
There is a narrative thread that comes and goes through the book around disability. Shiro is a character with dwarfism, and he is portrayed as being oppressed because he is a dwarf, but not self-loathing. He also has a romance arc. There is also a consort of the Emperor, Lady Meng, who struggles with depression and alcoholism.
TL;DR: there’s a lot of rep along a lot of axes here, so it’s definitely worth picking up!
The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao is an origin story for the evil queen in Snow White, if that familiar fairy tale was set in a reimagined East Asia full of magic. Xifeng is uncannily beautiful, but poor. Her aunt, Guma, sees in her fortune a path to power predicated on her beauty, and in their small shack, she trains Xifeng in poetry, music, and comportment as if she was highborn. One day, Xifeng will be empress. It’s just a matter of getting there.
There is much to like in The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. Dao is excellent at creating tension and unease in her writing. In Xifeng, she gives us a female protagonist who is unflinchingly and unsparingly ambitious. Too often when female protagonists are ambitious, they must also be soft, be likable, be yielding. But Xifeng is none of those things. Xifeng plays for keeps, for herself, and never once does she hesitate.There are scenes in the book which are heart-wrecking. There is one scene in particular that happens in Chapter 31 that has stuck with me since I read the book. It’s a reveal scene that flips on its head things that Xifeng thought she knew about her own past and herself. It recasts a character I thought I knew as a reader into something entirely new. It is marvelous.
But, it also completely calls into question Xifeng’s agency for the last third of the book. For the first two thirds of the book I did not question that the choices she’s made are her own. After this lovely and exquisitely written scene, I did. Were the hard, violent choices she made truly her own? Or was she a weapon–a willing weapon, maybe, but a weapon wielded buy someone else? And this is a massive weakness of the book.
The other issues I had with The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns were structural. I found the pacing uneven. Some sections, like the scenes mentioned above, were a delight to read. Some sections dragged. Dao’s prose is sometimes precise and cutting, and sometimes it’s overwrought. As much as she understands Xifeng, many of the other characters are two dimensional, archetypal. Lady Sun is a character we’ve seen before: an aging concubine using her sexuality and fecundity as a cudgel to preserve her position in a cutthroat, catty women’s world. Empress Lihao is an impossibly demure and forgiving woman, willing to take abuse in order to show that kindness is more powerful in the long run. As interesting and novel as Xifeng is, the rest of the characters are flat.
Because of these issues, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a frustrating read for me. It is a book of such potential, and it did not gel for me. It explores issues of movement within patriarchal prisons, the idea of beauty as a weapon, the nature of uncompromising women, but the seams show in the writing. It was by turns sublime and mundane. But, this is the kind of book, truly, where your mileage may vary, so I encourage others to pick it up and form their own opinions on it.
Many, many people loved this book, so I encourage you to check it out! I found it unevenly paced but interesting. If you like diverse fairy tale retellings and sympathetic villains, you might like The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.
*Many of the names read as influenced by Japanese language to me, though, so there seemed to be a generally “East-Asian” flavor with more of a Chinese cultural focus. But the appearance of the random very Japanese names (like Akira and Hideki) struck me as odd since the cultures are not identical by any stretch.
**The eunuchs make up a large contingent of the secondary characters, and I am listing them here as cis men, since they uniformly identified as men. There are interesting, if unexplored, questions about their presence and relationship to the women about femininity, masculinity, and gender.
“Baug’s Hollow” was published in issue 32 of Luna Station Quarterly, and is free to read here.
She found her cottage yard dotted with spring’s first blooms, yellow poppies bursting from the frigid earth, the flag that other blooms would follow. Hen entered the cottage, pushing hard against the well-sealed door, one of Baug’s many gifts to his then young wife. “Heavy door, warm hearth,” was what he had said.
This is a very sweet, very quiet story about a woman who learns that her dead husband was both exactly who and not quite who she thought he was. I tend to read stories with angst with darkness in them, but this is one with comfort and wonder in it, and the warmth of it etched its way into my heart anyway.
I hope that when I am old that I am as patient and curious as Hen, and that I am as open to the strangeness and the beauty of life as she is.
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:
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Night in the Woods. All I knew was that there was some hype around it, and that it was supposed to be good, and that it featured a cat. From the title, I figured it was creepy.
Well, it is creepy, but it also smashed my heart into a thousand pieces and glued it back together about thirty times.
The game starts with Mae Borowski, a black cat person, waiting at the bus stop for her parents to pick her up. But her parents never do. So she has to run through the woods at night to make her way home. Thus starts the journey of Mae the fall she drops out of college and shit starts to slide sideways in the small podunk town of Possum Springs.
As someone with continually unreliable parents, and as someone who grew up in a dying town, I connected with this game on so many levels. I still have friends who work back home in convenience stores, who are scrimping and saving to live somewhere marginally better. The writing in this game is sharp and darkly funny. Mae wants to fail, but she wants to do it somewhere familiar, and somewhere where at least everyone is failing a little. And my generation knows that feeling hard.
I was expecting this to be a short game, but it isn’t. The game is technically a sidescroller, but it’s interrupted by a multitude of minigames that pop up. You can steal pretzels to feed to rats living in an abandoned parade float. You can play your bass–rock band style–at band practice. Depending on who you decide to spend the day with, you can shoot crossbows. Or you can tinker with the fountain at the mostly abandoned mall. Or you can play a videogame called Demontower on your laptop in your room. But you’re never bored.
The rhythm of the game is marked by the passage of days. Mae gets up, wanders around town, and goes to sleep. You get to choose who she hangs out with, whether she talks to or ignores her parents, whether she spends time with her old friends or makes new ones. There are a few major events along the game’s critical path–the Harfest Pageant is pretty great–but otherwise you’re filling in the backstory, and the backstory is delightful. At night, Mae has to tackle her strange dreamscape.
The last third of the game involves ghosts and a cult. I won’t say anymore than that, but the things the game is tackling here are timely and political. The writing remains good. Mae has her friends with her to the end. There is horror, and there is hope.
I loved this game. Unabashedly and wholeheartedly. The art is adorable and stunning. The music is great. The writing is some of the funniest and most heart-wrenching I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
*As someone with a not terribly dissimilar background to Angus, this was somewhat triggering to me. The game does foreshadow that He’s Seen Some Shit and that His Family Sucks, but there’s no foreshadowing when the convo happens. It just happens, and then my Feelings Gates opened real wide and I was just outright weeping on my keyboard.
“Firstborn” by Maria Haskins appeared in Capricious, issue 7. You can read it for free here.
I’m so tired: tired of crying, tired of screaming and begging. The night is cold and silent. It holds no answers, no prayers, no lullabies, no dreams. I am empty, hollowed out, scraped clean. I am nothing: not Em, not mother, not woman, not even human, anymore. I am a smudge of cold and shadow beneath a tree in a forgotten place in an abandoned world.
The best short stories are the ones that take some long-buried part of you, some feeling you forgot you ever felt, and then bring it right to the surface of your heart so sharp and crystallized that it sends you spinning right back in time. “Firstborn” by Maria Haskins did that for me.
Like Em in the story, my kid was born six weeks early. Like Em, the creeping anxieties of new parenthood swallowed me whole. Having a newborn is absolutely terrifying and incredibly isolating, and no one tells you that until it’s too late. For me, I ended up an insomniac who tracked everything in spreadsheets–how much the baby was eating, how often he was peeing, when he was sleeping. All of it. And then my partners intervened and sent me to therapy. And I got slowly better.
This story, about the eerie loneliness and terror of having a new life that only you are caring for, is strange and bizarre and filled me full of old familiar fears.
Hurley writes from her own experience throughout, and while this is a book of feminist essays, it is as least as much a memoir. Hurley is a white woman, but she is also queer, fat, and chronically ill. Hurley is well-versed in intersectionality theory, and she brings this lens to her essays throughout.
There are places in the book where Hurley discusses and dissects her whiteness, such as in essays like “What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America” and “What We Didn’t See: Power, Protest, Story.” I don’t think these were the strongest pieces in the book. As with most of us, I think Hurley is better at seeing and deconstructing lines of power and oppression when she is marginalized than when she is on the receiving end of those benefits.
Hurley is a powerful, fiery writer. This is true of both her fiction and her non-fiction. The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of passionate and vicious essays about intersectional feminism as it relates to geek culture and the Science Fiction and Fantasy literature community.
For the most part, the individual essays in the collection are solid. A good handful even sing with truth. The iconic “We Have Always Fought,” a Hugo Award winner in its own right about the presence of women in the military that history has insisted on forgetting, remains a worthwhile read. “Finding Hope in Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction,” while only tangentially related to the book’s theme, was thoughtful and enlightening. It resonated with me as someone who deals with chronic pain issues. “Public Speaking While Fat” is necessary reading for anyone who hasn’t done any real thought about fatphobia and what it’s like to be dehumanized along that particular axis. And of course, there are moments and lines of brilliance scattered throughout the other essays, too.
But there is very little in the way of a unifying philosophy or momentum towards social change through the course of the book. The book is structured like there is–the essays are divided into sections titled Part I: Level Up, Part II: Geek, Part III: Let’s Get Personal, and finally, Part IV: Revolution. There is an Epilogue, but the epilogue is meditative rather than inspiring. There are no clear calls to action. There are no paths forward. There is no revolution in the making here, despite the title.
As a memoir of one woman’s complicated relationship to and convoluted journey through the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing, this is fascinating and instructive stuff. Truly, it is, though it’s reach is somewhat limited to this small and insular community.* Hurley’s understanding of her breaks and her pitfalls is incisive and unflinching. She recognizes when privilege has worked in her favor (not luck) and when oppression has and will always work against her. The essays in which she talks about her evolution from outsider (fan) to insider (award-winning writer) and how that has forced her to change how and what she writes, how and when she engages with the SFF community are enlightening. But again, there is a relatively small number of people to whom that is of interest. And again, she is making observations, not calls to action.
As a memoir of Hurley’s experience and journey through SFF writing and publishing, seen through her cutting lens of intersectional feminism and hindsight, this book works. As a book about geek feminism, it is too narrowly focused and does not leave the reader with any clear next steps to implement.
*Sometimes, we in the writer/reviewer/publisher SFF community, I think, forget how totally insular this community is. There is an essay in the collection, “Becoming What You Hate,” that would be completely and utterly incomprehensible if the reader is someone who simply reads books and doesn’t, say, follow the comment threads on File 770 and isn’t mutuals with People on twitter. So who is the audience for this book? According to the title, it’s feminist geeks of any description. But the inclusion of the “Becoming What You Hate” essay, along with the heavy focus on writing and publishing SFF, really suggests this is a kind of in-group essay collection that got a wider-than-that release.