Book Review: SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

Ah, this book is so wonderful. Sing, Unburied, Sing has such richness in it. While the plot follows one family, that family has deep wells and particularities in it, like all families. Ward shows just how specific southern Black culture is with Jojo’s family, but also how much of a monolith it isn’t. Jojo’s family contains within it many different kinds of trauma and many different roots to different kinds of people.

Content Warnings for Book

This is not a light read. Content warnings for:

  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Drug use and abuse, plus a near overdose
  • Police brutality towards Black people, including towards a Black boy
  • Depictions of brutality and imprisonment
  • A murder/hate crime
  • A lynching

Review

Blurb (from Goodreads):

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fascinating and beautiful novel that is fixated on rootedness and liminality. The tension between the two–presence and absence, movement and stasis–threads throughout the book. Structured as a road novel, in more ways that one, the interweaving narratives themselves are stories of change, of movement, of moments of crisis. But the backdrop of these moments is the fixedness of family, this idea of familiarity and stability, which, even when it’s just an idea is sometimes enough for someone to draw hope from.

There is a lot going on in this book. Ward is an uncannily gifted writer, moving from character to character with sharp ease, making every scene count, driving toward a final image that left me breathless and tied everything that went before together.

The story Ward tells here is hard to read, but it is timely. And it’s not always hard. There is genuine warmth and kindness, blooms of hope in the darkness. These are people who are surviving and who have always survived. Jojo’s relationship with his grandfather and his relationship with his sister is so loving it almost hurts. And Leonie, for all her faults, clearly draws comfort from the ghost of her brother.

The way Ward writes ghosts makes me feel like they are lurking everywhere in the world, tucked just out of sight. She uses them to spell out the heavy weight of history, the scars that history leaves us with. The ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing have form and voice–they drive the plot as much as the corporeal characters do–but it’s not so far from real life. We are haunted by the brutalities of the past. We are shaped by traumas. They lurk in our minds and our bones, have their own echoes, and that is a kind of form and voice.

Takeaway & Rating

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a stunning and heartwrenching book about America’s current and past treatment of Black people. I just loved it so much.

5stars

 

Book Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Most people in the book, including the eponymous Strange, are an unspecified shade of fantasy brown. This has its pros and cons: there is at least some nominal representation for people of color here; Taylor has not chosen to populate her fantasy world with random White people. However, the representation may only be skin deep. It’s certainly something to read and have a brown person there on the page, but these are brown people without the weight and depth of a specific culture or history behind them.

That said, Strange the Dreamer does have some rather excellent representation along a couple of other axes. There are a pair of out queer characters just living their lives, loving each other (yay!). Lazslo Strange grew up a foundling, in poverty, and has a storyline where his class and how its constructed is sharply contrasted to that of Thyon Nero. The similarities and dissimilarities between them–the points of access one has to the other, and that the other lacks, for instance–speak volumes about the resources each commands or doesn’t, and how having resources (or not) throughout one’s life shapes how people interact with the world around them.

Strange the Dreamer also does a lot with the representation of and the theme of disability. Trauma, especially, leaks through the pages here, though Strange himself is one of the few characters untouched by it. Character after character is scarred, is broken, either physically or psychologically. There are missing limbs, missing memories, and missing people. One thing the book does extremely well is take note of the old wounds abuse leaves, and the way that people adapt to their vulnerabilities.

Content Warnings for Book:

  • Rape is described and alluded to
  • Emotional abuse and physical abuse are described and alluded to
  • There are references to stolen and murdered children
  • Mind control and coercion (I count what Minah is doing to the ghosts as this since the ghosts are still sentient and non-consenting)
  • Arguably self-harm (Thyon Nero’s over-extraction of his spirit fluid)

Review:

Blurb (from Goodreads):

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

 

Strange the Dreamer is a luxurious treat of a book. I sunk into it and was swept up by it. There is a lot to love about it, and it starts, squarely, with Lazlo Strange himself. Lazlo is a wonderful protagonist: as bookish as the person reading the book, imaginative and sharp-tongued, humble and clever, a genuinely kind nerd who ends up on the quest of a lifetime alongside a frenemy to the one place he’s always wanted to go.

The trek to Weep was my favorite part of the book. It’s in this section of the book where Lazlo really shines. You see how he comes into his own on the road, how likable he is, and how inherently decent he is. The core mystery of Weep itself lingers around the edges of the story during these early chapters, teasing the reader, while the characters come into clearer focus. Some of the characters, like Calixte, the queer thief who ends up Lazlo’s quick friend, and Thyon, the alchemist who is perpetually wary of Lazlo’s inherent kindness, are real standouts.

Weep itself is a strange place, both within the story and as a reader. The Weep of reality is little more than a creepy sketch: we get the floating citadel, the scarred husks that still live in terror, and very little else. The Weep of Lazlo’s dreams is flooded with description, florid and bright, a complete and completely different place. I’m not sure how intentional this disconnect between real Weep and dream Weep was, but it was jarring for me that I had so little sense of place in real Weep.

The lens of the story narrows when Lazlo arrives in Weep, as well. Characters who were important on the journey suddenly drop off the page. New characters arrive. The change in cast is abrupt. Most notably, Thyon Nero, who was so fundamentally important in the first third of the book nearly disappears. This is not to say that the book is badly constructed–in fact, the ending has a huge twist which, when revealed, takes many very small asides and neatly slots them together like a puzzle box. That is to say that this reads almost like a duology shoved into one volume: Strange Gets To Weep, then Strange Dreams There.

There is one thing I did not like about Strange the Dreamer, and that was his romantic arc. I had two issues with it. First, it was predictably instantaneous and felt juvenile for it. Second, there was, in the particular societal moment we’re in, an age gap between the parties that made me uncomfortable.

Sarai, Lazlo’s love interest, was a decently interesting character in her own right,* but she was fifteen and naive. Lazlo had to be around twenty. Much is made in the book of his virginal stature, so he might be a pure and untouched twenty, but he is still a grown ass man, and by description, not a small one. The age difference between them was not romantic; it was uncomfortable. It was a power differential I could not unsee, and it was compounded by complications with the reveals with the endings. As Sarai’s role in the story becomes more constrained, Lazlo’s role takes on more power. By the end of the story, they are on far from an even playing field in their partnership.

Takeaway & Rating:

Strange the Dreamer is a lovely and intricate book. Despite a mishandled love story, this book has a cast of fascinating characters and tackles some heavy questions about the aftereffects of catastrophe and trauma. It’s definitely worth a read, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

4stars

*Sarai was sweet, and kind, and sequestered. She was a Rapunzel type, and I could have stood to see her have more bite to her, but she did have depth to her, and backbone when it counted.

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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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???

 

Book Review: THE FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS by Julie C. Dao

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

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!

Content Warnings for Book

  • Physical abuse (Guma beats Xifeng)
  • Gaslighting (arguably Xifeng does this to Wei throughout; this also happens to Empress Lihua)
  • Gore (there is some supernatural and pretty explicit gore that happens throughout the book)
  • Ableism (leveled at Shiro in some places)

Review

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.

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Xifeng is maybe the most slytherin slytherin who ever slytherined

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.

Takeaway and Rating

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.

3 stars

*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.

Book Review: THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION by Kameron Hurley

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

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.

Review

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.

Takeaway and Rating:

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.

 

3 stars

*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.