Book Review: SPIRITS ABROAD by Zen Cho


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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.


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.


Book Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma


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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.”


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


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.


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.


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.

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




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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)


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.


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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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.


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.

Book Review: WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS by Anna-Marie McLemore


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Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Something I dearly, dearly love about this book is that it’s a depiction of small town America, but that small town is diverse. There are people of color in that small town. There are people with disabilities in that small town. There are queer people in that small town. And there are transgender people in that small town.

Just like in the small town where I grew up, where, yes, people were queer even though it was in Texas. My town was a mix of brown and black and white and Asian. It was poor, and with that came a bevy of people living with disabilities. McLemore created a story about growing up and surviving and eventually thriving in a small town that felt real and true and representative.


Content Warnings for Book:

  • Transphobia (addressed and subverted throughout, but it is there)
  • Self harm/suicidal ideation (Sam throws himself in a river and is rescued by Miel. Miel has her own particular brand of self-harm in there, too.)
  • Physical assault (Miel gets crammed into small spaces by the Bonner sisters and gets parts of her body removed by said Bonner sisters, which causes her literal physical pain)
  • Child abuse (like all of Miel’s pre-water tower memories are horrible)


When Miel was five, she poured out of the water of the felled water tower. Sam was the first person to talk to her, and the two of them have been inseparable ever since. Miel, her hem perpetually damp with water from nowhere, grows inexplicable roses from her wrist and lives with Aracely, who cures the town’s citizens of lovesickness. And Sam works the Bonner’s pumpkin patch and wrestles with his gender day and and day out. When the Bonner’s pumpkins start turning into glass, and the Bonner sisters turn their sights on Miel’s roses, Miel and Sam are faced with hard choices and harder truths.

I loved this book. I have been foisting When the Moon was Ours on anyone who will have it since I read it. It has not one but two of the most sensitive and nuanced portrayals of trans people that I’ve read in a long, long time. It is a rich, living book, and you can feel in every page McLemore’s identity as a Latina writer. The way Aracely’s house is depicted, the language, there is a depth here that truly reflects the need for #ownvoices literature. I took this book slow, and luxuriated in it like you do a hot bath. I didn’t want it to end. As an AFAB* non-binary person, the depiction of Sam, especially, read so true that sometimes it made me tender and raw.


me reading literally every scene with Sam in it

But there was, perhaps, too many things in the book. Too much texture. Honestly, we could have had one book of just Sam, Miel, and Aracely coming to grips with each other, and entirely separate (and incredibly creepy) book of the Bonner sisters and their weird coffin and glass pumpkins. There are so many good ideas and flourishes here that some get crowded out. Some are not given the space to breathe and develop. It is a book that either needed to be bigger and longer and even more intricate, or sharper and smaller and more precise.

McLemore is a gifted writer. Virtually every character is full of life. The town itself is a character, something living and breathing, a place at once constraining and comforting. This is an essentially character driven book, one about Miel’s uncovering of her past and how it informs her future, and Sam’s solidification of his gender identity. It does both things beautifully. But the meandering plot driving those realizations is an odd vehicle for it. At times, the plot feels absolutely crucial to Miel and Sam’s self-discoveries, but at other times, the plot feels divorced and separate from them.

Takeaway & Rating:

Read it! Read this rambling witchy story of two teenagers shambling towards themselves and love and happiness! Also, maybe brush up on La Llorona first if you’re not super familiar, but then read it, and roll with the book as it throws a million things at you because this is a sweet and tender book I wish I’d had to help guide me to myself as a sixteen year old.


*Assigned female at birth

Book Review: LABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Cordova

This review was first published on the Sirens Conference blog.


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Labyrinth Lost is a quick, rich read. It is fast-paced and brimming with imagination. The book starts in Brooklyn, but quickly shifts to the netherworld of Los Lagos. In doing so, Córdova immerses the reader in the splendor and the weirdness of bruja magic. The story has an episodic, questing feel that is comfortable and familiar, but updated by the sharp banter between the three leads: Alex, Nova, and Rishi.

The emotional stakes in the book remain high throughout—it helps that they are grounded in excellent character development. Alex grows immensely throughout the book, moving from a scared, insular girl to a self-possessed and confident person. She owns her mistakes and understands why she made them, which is the heart of growing up. For a coming-of-age story, this kind of growth from the protagonist is key to get the story to work. Nova borders on the edge of too heartbreaking—he is one more tragedy away from caricature, especially contrasted with Alex’s intact and loving family. As his exculpatory tragedies unfurl, I was left with more questions than answers.

Rishi, on the other hand, is both a breath of fresh air and a cipher. She is an outsider in all respects: the only one among the trio not from bruja culture, the only one not Latinx. Rishi is dragged into this bizarre situation purely through her worry for Alex and her innate curiosity. Yet, she is the most one-dimensional of the three leads. I wanted her character to be more than “Supportive Almost Girlfriend,” but really that’s what she is. She has very little interiority of her own; nothing about the surreal nature of Los Lagos or the many, many reveals about Alex shocks or fazes her. I kept expecting a twist or a reveal about Rishi, but nothing came. Just more devotion. But devotion is not character development.

Still, I enjoyed Labyrinth Lost. I enjoyed its scope, and its intimacy, and I look forward to the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series. If you’re looking for a queer-friendly book full of wit and magic with where the worldbuilding and cast is steeped in Latinx culture, definitely pick up Labyrinth Lost. This is not a diverse cast for the sake of being diverse; this is a diverse cast where the story and the people are rooted in their culture, history and future.


Book Review: ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders


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All the Birds in the Sky is a love story. A story of redemption. A story of an ideological war for humanity’s soul. And a coming of age story of an AI. The story is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

Patricia Delfine is a witch. Laurence Armstead is a burgeoning engineering wunderkind obsessed with rockets. Both were outcasts in middle school, and as outcasts are like to do, they banded together. Then they drifted apart—or were torn apart by weird circumstances. Weird circumstances throw them together again as adults, and that’s where the story really begins.

I quite liked All The Birds In The Sky. This is an odd, hard to categorize book—equal parts science fiction and fantasy, which is a difficult trick to pull off. The structure of the book is surprising; I was sure we would see more of Patricia’s Hogwarts-esque magical academy than we did, but I’m glad we skipped it. Learning about her training as she went about her (unpaid) business as a working witch was a smart, clever choice. I loved seeing the practical applications of magic—it helped to interweave the fantastical elements of Anders’ worldbuilding into the world as we know it. Also smart was holding back the descriptions of her odd, magical society until Laurence meets back up with her. This way, we could be brought into the loop about the arcane elements of the world as she saw it along with Laurence. The infodumping had a clear narrative purpose.

I found Patricia to be the more interesting character, but Laurence to have more emotional weight and honesty. Patricia’s life and experiences are naturally more intriguing, since she is a witch. Being a witch, alone, is interesting! She has magic, and with it, untapped potential. But Patricia’s motivations were never quite clear to me the way Laurence’s were. Laurence’s emotional arc is simpler and easier to intuit, maybe, because he is just a guy trying to make his employer happy and find a nice girl, but I would have liked for Anders to demystify Patricia’s motivations, too. That said, Patricia’s evolving relationship with her older sister, Roberta, is a thing of beauty and heartbreak—and Roberta’s moment with the hen is spectacular.

Overall, the book is a touch too twee for me. The names alone—Patricia Delfine, Laurence Armstead, Theodolphus Rose—all sound like characters from a Decemberists song. Some of the tweeness works, like when Bay Area hipsters start singing madrigals as the end of the world approaches, but it often felt like I was reading a Wes Anderson script dressed in genre clothing. Underneath that tweeness, though, there is real grit to the book. Characters die, stakes are high, and I was emotionally engaged throughout. For me, the grit throws the peculiar tweeness in a weird relief. I’m not sure, stylistically, what that sort of forced whimsy was doing there, orwhat Anders was going for, since there is so much natural charm and warmth already embedded in the story and the characters.

I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for a story that blends magic and science, and for people who like writing with a dash of hipster style. Anders brings the twee charm, but grounds it in some thoughtful and gritty questions and careful character work that will leave you thinking.


Book Review: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab

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Notes on Diversity:
It’s subtle, but it’s there. The ruling family of Red London–Kell’s London–are definitely brown folks. And Rhy Maresh, the crown prince of Red London, seems pretty canonically bisexual. Lila is definitely gender non-conforming. I am not venturing that she’s trans or genderqueer, but she is performing, quite consciously, a very butch and very hard kind of femininity.

Now, that does mean that our leads, Kell and Lila, read as straight-ish and White. The major antagonists are also White. So it’s a decidedly White book, but there are at least queer brown people in power, so there’s that.

V.E. Schwab has two enormous strength going for here in this book: first, she can write; second, she can fascinate. She constructs effortlessly emotional sentences. The book reads fluidly, quickly, and packs a great number of punches. Schwab is a smooth and evocative writer, which is needed when outlining the nuanced differences between the various Londons.

Which brings me to point two: the story’s hook is great. Four parallel Londons, each linked and locked by magic, each with its own history and relationship with magic. And within all of those worlds, there are only two people–Kell and Holland–who can travel between them. Only two people who can see these other worlds and report back and forth.

The opening scene is masterfully done, and tragic, and beautifully sets the stage for everything to follow. This is a tale of obsession and sacrifice, and all of that is spelled out in those opening interactions Kell has.

We start with Kell as he travels and as he flirts with danger, and then the plot ratchets up when his flirtations get the best of him. But by then, Lila Bard, hungry thief and sharp-tongued street rat, has already linked her fate with his. They cut a blood-soaked trail from one London to the next, plagued by an artifact they only half understand, while hunted by the sadistic rulers of White London–a London hungry for power and dominance.

I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect–the plot took too long to fall into place, which meant the pacing was uneven, but the story and the world was fascinating enough that I kept going anyway. Lila is a deeply fascinating character. The counterpoint of her poverty to Kell’s confused by privileged life bore out interesting moments and conversations throughout.

I’m one of the lucky ones who can read the next book in the series right now.

Book Review: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire

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Notes on Diversity
I confess I read Every Heart A Doorway on the strength of its asexual protagonist, Nancy, and I was not disappointed. But beyond Nancy, there is also a trans character (Kade), and Sumi, an Asian girl. I think Sumi may have been the only non-White character,* and it’s…not great that she essentially gets fridged.

An additional diversity shoutout to the character of Eleanor, who, in running her school finds the word “crazy” problematic and bans it. I really loved this, considering the context, and I also really loved how some characters defiantly used it and reclaimed it anyway.

Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, is a murder mystery, and a coming of age story, and a portal fantasy all neatly wrapped in the same novella. It’s a minor miracle that the novella never feels overstuffed—in fact, I wanted more from it. I didn’t want it to end.

Every Heart A Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who has been to and returned from the Halls of the Dead, and who must find a way to settle back into the mundanities of the normal, regular world again. Luckily for her, she’s not the only such stolen and returned child. There are enough such children that there is an entire boarding school devoted to their treatment and rehabilitation.** Nancy’s parents pack her off, and so her story begins.

Just as Nancy is finding her footing at her new school, students start turning up dead. And not just dead, but mutilated. Nancy understands that as the most recent addition to the school, and as a girl whose portal world has such a close connection with death, she is an easy and likely suspect. She knows clearing her own name means casting suspicion elsewhere, and that means unraveling the mystery at hand.

McGuire is a deft writer. Since this is a novella, space is limited, and the cast of characters is surprisingly large for a novella. But the characters are quickly and deftly drawn. Most of them have excellent depth. The mystery itself has twists and turns and a decent red herring. The plot clipped along, quick but not rushed. I found myself more interested in the worldbuilding, though, than the mystery. There was something more compelling in the way the characters categorized the portal worlds—Wicked and Virtue, Nonsense and Logic—than the inevitable death of the next student, who I was sure was not going to be Nancy.

I was particularly fond of the ending, which wraps things up so neatly emotionally, but quickly and quietly. It made me think. It made me mull things over. I want to talk about it with people, but I can’t here, because spoilers.

As much as I am glad there was representation of a young ace woman and a young trans man, and as well-realized as a I think Nancy and Kade were, respectively, I wish their ace-ness and trans-ness had not been so…clinically written. I couldn’t help but contrast the way McGuire wrote about asexuality and gender identity with the way she wrote about the harms of patriarchy, and how in this world it so easily led to the capture of girls over boys. That section was nuanced and wry. Or compare to the embodiment of smart/pretty in Jack and Jill and how viciously that has gone awry, which is skillfully written throughout. The sections where Kade discusses his gender or where Nancy discusses her asexuality are blunt to the point of earnestness. Still, I am glad the characters were included.

3 stars*I think this is the case? If I am misremembering, please let me know in the comments, and I will amend the review.

**There are, as one character explains, actually two such schools: one school for kids who want to return to their portal worlds, and one school for kids who under no circumstances ever wish to see their portal worlds again. I found this detail particularly interesting.

Book Review: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett


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Notes on Diversity:
Generally excellent diverse sci-fi book. All three major characters are people of color. All three are portrayed, in places, as queer. There are definite scenes/sections that tackle issues of disability.

But. The book, I think, really really fails with trans issues (see below).

There is Adrianne and Antoine. Or Adrian and Atoinette. Or Adrianne and Antoinette. Or Adrian and Antoine. Anyway, there are two, and they love each other, but there is a trauma, and it tears them apart. Because no matter how much you love someone, sometimes there are forces in life that can still rip you apart. Sometimes the two are lovers. Sometimes they are siblings. Sometimes one is a parent, and the other is a child. But always, always, there is a deep and abiding love, and always, always, there is a horrible loss.

This is a strange little book, and I went into it completely uninformed*. I am finding it, honestly, hard to review it.

Brissett is a writer of scope and specificity, both, which I love. The narrative spins and twists back on itself, coiling and expanding in turns. It starts in a perfectly normal setting, realist, and then adds layer upon layer of weird. The first bit of weird is that in the next scene, the characters who were heterosexual lovers are now gay men. Later, the genders change once more (now they are again a heterosexual couple) but the setting shifts–Adrianne is a sort-of vestal virgin in Roman-esque future world. There is a war. Antoine is a soldier. The narrative shifts again. Wings are involved. The narrative shifts again: an alien invasion.

Throughout, there is a core to Adrianne/Adrian’s character and to Antoine/Atoinette’s character–or, perhaps more precisely, a chain of love between them–that never shifts. It evolves, they evolve, and sometimes they revert, but that fact of their relationship never changes even as it is clear something key is disintegrating around them and breaking down.

This is a lovely book. But something happened about halfway through that made me step away from it and claim some distance.


sad zoidberg is sad about the spoilers below


There is a third character, Hector/Helen, who features as a sometimes friend and sometimes leg of a love triangle. In one of the twists of the narrative, Adrianne winds up institutionalized. At the same mental institution is Helen, apparently institutionalized because she is a trans woman. But in the text, she is consistently referred to as Hector, and referred to using male pronouns. They become friends, and later Helen dies a heroic death to save Adrian (their gender flips again) because he is the only who accepts her for who she is (even though Adrianne/Adrian, too, has been referring to her as ‘he’ and ‘Hector’ in the unspoken elements of the text.).

This is…this is a particular issue of mine. I dislike it when trans people are thrown to the wolves to make cis people heroic and accepting. And I dislike it even more when their (our) transness is made hypervisible by breaking the consonance of how they (we) are referred to in dialogue and how they (we) are referred to in narration. Having a character call Helen by the name she prefers, but think of her as Hector, is a type of misgendering. It is a qualification and a marker of difference.

This is a minor part of the story, that is a fact. But it so disturbed and disappointed me that I had to leave the rest of the book untouched for over a week. As a trans reader, I personally felt misgendered and ignored and small just by reading this treatment of a trans character.

*****END SPOILERS*****

And that is a shame, because this book is really good. Especially the ending. I still can’t shake that piece above, but pushing past it really got to the good stuff. The book has heart, and the book has philosophy. The way the pieces of the book fit together, the fluidity of Brissett’s writing, it’s all a wonder to behold. Except for that. But that, while a small piece of the text, was a huge thing for me as a reader.

I just wish the book didn’t also make me feel like I was a set piece. So, how the hell do you rate a book where you are pretty sure you would have loved it if it hadn’t been for that one part that made you feel like you were a tool for cis people? I guess…I guess you split the difference.

3 stars

*This is, actually, my preferred way to read things. I either want no information about a book except a rec to read it, or I want to be spoiled completely. I like to either let the story unfold with no expectations, or I like to let it unfold knowing what’s going to happen and able to watch for the seams.