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

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Amazon | Goodreads

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.

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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)

Review:

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.

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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.

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*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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Amazon | Goodreads

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.

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

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Amazon | Goodreads

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.

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


Amazon | Goodreads

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.

Review:
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: THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL WHO SEDUCED HER SISTER’S HUSBAND, AND HE HANGED HIMSELF by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
Petrushevskaya’s stories are not diverse on the surface. It’s not explicit, but I read most of the characters as white. The stories–love stories, the cover claims–appeared to be hetero in nature.

The bulk of these love stories are focused on women, and what is remarkable about these stories is the great breadth of Russian femininity* that Petrushevskaya tracks through her stories. The stories are pulled from the full spread of her writing career, and across them we have old heroines and very young heroines and heroines settling into middle age. We have hopeful and dour heroines. Beautiful, but mostly homely heroines. Bright and slow heroines. Heroines of virtually every description.

And, also specific to Russia, we have heroines that live in Soviet Russia and heroines that live in a Russia which has once again begun to flirt with capitalism. We see, through Petrushevskaya’s eyes, the great and remarkable changes that Russian society went through while she lived, and how great (or small) an impact those changes made on the daily lives of its citizens.

Review:
Petrushevskaya has a light hand with narration and a uncanny, unflinching eye for vicious detail. These are love stories, but they are horror stories, too. These are stories, almost uniformly, about how completely random and obliterating and destructive love can be. She is a sly, deadpan writer, and the stories are like those told by your aunt who’s seen too much and who is always slightly drunk at holiday dinners, but who is charismatic and fascinating anyway.

The only real fault I have with the collection is repetition. Sixteen stories is a lot to read in one go, especially when the themes are so consistent and similar. I wish the collection had been shorter, that the ten best and brightest had been chosen. But, then again, every anthology is a bit of a shot in the dark, yes? My top ten are probably not your top ten.

Speaking of, stand-outs (for me, anyway) were “Two Deities”, “Tamara’s Baby”, “A Happy Ending,” and especially “Milgrom”.

4 stars

*I would not venture to say that she is somehow speaking to all of womanhood or across all women’s experience. That is certainly not true. But she does seem to speak to a great swath of Russian women’s experience (I would think–I am not Russian).

ANCIENT, ANCIENT by Kiini Ibura Salaam

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This is another case where diversity is not really the right word to use here.1. This is a book of stories where, with one or two exceptions, the focus is on Black womanhood. Sometimes those Black women are in space. Sometimes they coexist alongside gods. Sometimes they live in New York and are beset by nostalgia for Louisiana. Sometimes they are aliens who communicate through dance. But unifying the collection of stories is a deep exploration of Black womanhood. It is a book written within a lived experience for others of that lived experience. It reminds me, in that sense, of Constance Burris’ Black Beauty.2

All philosophizing aside, this book is full of characters of color. And women. And it has some queer representation.


Review:
Salaam is a lovely, poetic writer. From her language choice to the actual structure of the stories themselves, most of the stories in this collection are lyrical and haunting.

One of the clearest themes throughout all the stories is sex, which in virtually all cases3 is a powerfully positive and healing force in women’s lives. In stories like “Desire” and the trio of stories featuring the unnamed alien race represented by WaLiLa and MalKai who feast on human nectar (that is drawn out by way of sex), sex and sexuality is arguably coerced–but still, the power of it and the emotional connection it brings proves healing. Or at the very least complicated. The women in the stories remain agentic throughout even when used as vessels.

But I was more drawn to some of the other themes woven through the stories.4 Movement-as-freedom and movement-as-communication comes up again and again. Most clearly in the WaLiLa and MalKai stories, where WaLiLa and MalKai must learn to forsake their original language of movement/dance for spoken human languages, and again in “Battle Royale.” In “Battle Royale”, the narrator’s insistence on engaging in the flashing game/dance of razors leads to the fever-dream punishment meted out by his grandfather. But movement, or the lack of it, and how it can bring a different kind of freedom comes up in “Debris”, too.

There is an openness in Salaam’s resolutions that I enjoyed. Many of the stories were about a change of direction, a decision point, and were other writers would tell you where the characters were going, Salaam refuses to reveal what happens next. The conflict was that there was a decision to make, she seems to suggest. The trick of her stories is that there emotional gratification in knowing that a decision was made, but we don’t know which path was taken.

Salaam’s stories are fascinating. In particular, I liked “Debris”, “Ferret”, and “Ancient, Ancient”. “Rosamojo” was hard for me to read–I found it triggering–but it is a very good story.

4 stars

1I need to write this post already about My Issues With The Word Diversity.
2Although, if you’re into short speculative fiction featuring Black characters you should really check out Black Beauty, too.
3The exception to this is “Rosamojo”. It is a very good story, but if you are triggered by sexual assault, especially as a survivor of childhood trauma, tread with caution.
4I’m ace, man, I’m not getting the same sex-as-rapture thing these characters are getting.

Book Review: FIRE LOGIC by Laurie J. Marks

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Hey, are you looking for a diverse book? MAYBE YOU SHOULD READ THIS ONE.

Seriously. Zanja, one of the POV characters, is a lesbian woman of color who also experiences an extended period of disability.1 Karis is half-giant and a smoke addict. Her addiction greatly impacts her functioning day in and day out. Emil is a soldier, and continues to be a soldier well into middle-age despite a consistent difficult knee injury. The lot of them are poor; living hand-to-mouth. Emil is classically educated, but many of them are not. And, so many of the characters are queer–and various flavors of queer.2

This book is an everything burrito of thoughtful inclusivity.

 


Review:
When the leader of Shaftal dies without naming a successor, the country falls apart. The Sainnites take advantage of the power vacuum and slaughter the bulk of Shaftal’s remaining leaders, throwing the country into chaos and war overnight. Zanja, a trader in training from the northern mountains, witnesses this and witnesses in the intervening fifteen years the havoc the war wreaks across the land of Shaftal. But she can do little about it until the war comes knocking at her tribe’s door. It isn’t until then, that her own tribe is threatened by the Sainnites, that the story really starts. Because then Zanja’s fate becomes tied to Shaftal’s.

This is a long and complex book. Zanja is not the only narrator–that paragraph is my paltry attempt to summarize the book without giving anything away, but it doesn’t get into the depth of the book. Karis, the half-giant addict is also a narrator. So is Emil, the old paladin commander Zanja winds up befriending. And Medric, a young seer who holds the fate of both the Sainnites and the Shaftalese in his hands. It is a fantasy epic, but instead of kings and castles, it is an epic about farmsteads and ironworkers.

Get ready for an epic ambush.

This is a wonderful, thoughtful book populated by wonderful, thoughtful characters. It could have been tighter, but that’s ok with me. I don’t mind a shaggy book. Your mileage may vary. The thing that most irked me about Fire Logic–and this is a fairly minor point, though it is enough that i am willing to knock it down a star–is an uneveness in the worldbuilding. There was such a fine and deep eye towards some elements, things like the historical use of specific words like porringer and dray horse that lent the book an authenticity I loved. The elements of guerilla warfare were intricately drawn with almost too much detail. And yet I still have little sense of the magical mechanics of the world. It’s stated that elementals are rare, but yet most of the characters I came to know over the course of the book are elementals. And if they are so rare, how are they handled? Would Karis really be left to be a blacksmith? Would Emil really simply be a paladin commander? Perhaps, this makes sense given the current state of disarray in Shaftal, but is there no specific training or guidance for people with these gifts? There was, at least, for Zanja among the Ashawala’i. It was because she was a fire elemental that she was first introduced to Shaftal as a trader, after all. Why are the elementals of Shaftal untrained? Or are they? It was a huge open question for me throughout the whole of the book given how prominent and important elemental magic turned out to be for the plot, and without some of these questions answered, the fire logic that drove the plot felt like contrivance more than once.

I also wanted to know more about the peculiarities of the elemental magic and how they impacted, specifically, the way these gifted people are perceived and embark into relationships with others. Yes, I understand that fire logic makes Zanja and Emil and Medric all very intuitive and prescient. All three of them seemed to be prone to fall in love awfully fast and awfully hard. Is this bad writing? Or is it a trick of the magic? I want to give Marks the benefit of the doubt here, but without some explanation, there is room to lean towards it seeming just like pat instalove. But then again, it could be that fire logic–that weird prescience, a kind of imprinting. I wanted more insight into how that works, if that was the case. How would Zanja or Emil’s prescience work when turned towards a person instead of grand events? Could it be turned towards a person? Is that healthy?

Beyond all of that, it is Marks’ handling of the way the big political shifts of Shaftal impact the formation of this found family that made the book really sing for me. Zanja and Emil and Karis and Norina and Medric and J’Han are all broken, wounded people. They love each other, and they need each other, and they are better and stronger together–and that is, ultimately, what family is. Marks allows for a great deal of space and breathing room for these relationships to develop organically, for this little family to form on its own against all odds. And when it does, it is so emotionally gratifying.

This is what emotional gratification looks like.

Marks has a way of cutting to the heart of the desperate human need for connection, and it’s this that propels the book forward:

Annis talked to Zanja about her experiments with gunpowder and other unstable compounds. It seemed incredible that she had not injured herself when she clearly deserved to be blown to bits. In this community of huge, fantastically intermarried families, Zanja’s loneliness was becoming intolerable. She experimented with touching Annis’s arm, wondering if she herself would be blown to bits.

The characters’ decisions are hinged on their relationships to each other. I was gripped by how they interacted, what they drew from each other, how they pushed and pulled each other. All of the characters, from Zanja down to the antagonists–the xenophobic Willis and the arrogant Mabin–are drawn with depth and clarity and motivation. Each is a joy to read. Norina hit me too close for comfort. Karis is a study in paradoxes. Zanja is the heart that holds the book together.

A book could not ask for a better heart than Zanja. I have rarely seen as fully realized a character as her, or as agentic a character as her. Or one with as much respect for those around her. I love what she tells someone at the end of the book:

Scholars like Emil and Medric will study the obscure history of your life a hundred years from now and never quite make sense of it. So what, so long as it makes sense to you?

4 stars
1Zanja’s physical disabilities are magically healed, but the experience leaves her profoundly shaken. Her life changes absolutely because of her experience of having had a disability. Fire Logic does not fall into the trap of either pretending that being magically cured wipes away forever the experience of ever having been disabled in the first place or that other people with disabilities exist in the world. Other characters with disabilities do continue to exist throughout the book, some of whom are healed, and some of whom are not.

2In the case of one character in particular, Marks does a wonderful job depicting a fluid change in sexuality that is at once honest and heartrending and deeply emotionally gratifying.

Book Review: THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Like The Wrath and the Dawn, this is a book about a woman of color by a woman of color. The cast is all people of color–specifically Indian people. The fantastic creatures that appear come from Indian folklore and mythology.

Also, like The Wrath and the Dawn, the diversity stops there. No queer characters appear in the book. There is no discussion of disability. Class does not come to the fore.1 Readers longing for an exploration of these themes may want to look elsewhere.


Review:
Mayavati was born with bad luck. Her horoscope states that her marriage will join her to death, devastation and destruction. In the land of her birth, Bharata, a bad horoscope taints a person.

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fuck yer star charts

Maya is shunned by the wives and daughters of the harem, left to her own devices, until fate moves her to a place where her death can be used as a political tool. But she does not die. She finds herself married to a mysterious king of a mysterious land–Akaran, where creatures of myth and legend roam. Amar, her new husband, tells her she has powers she never dreamed of, and that he can teach her, but only if she doesn’t ask too many questions, and only if she doesn’t explore the new palace. But, of course Maya’s curiosity gets the better of her.

First, I have to say that Chokshi’s writing is gorgeous. I’ve read her short stories, so I knew that going in. She has a wonderful way with unexpected visual metaphors that surprise and delight me:

This was the court of Bharata, a city like a bone spur — tacked on like an afterthought.

Or:

A sound spidered through the floor.

The book is beautifully written, a real pleasure to read. Chokshi is the kind of stylist I am jealous of as a fellow writer as I know my own writing is much more prosaic than hers. Hers sings; it’s lyrical. You can get lost in the words.

The structure of the book, too, is so clever once you know the story. Of course Maya told all of those stories to Gauri!2 Of course the details she made up proved to be true when she makes it to the Night Market! I REALLY WANT TO TELL YOU THINGS RIGHT NOW THAT ARE SPOILERS but I will not, so please read the book so we can discuss, ok?

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The narrative is lovely, too. I really rooted for Maya. As a character she is ambitious and she is suspicious. She sneaks into the rafters of her father’s diplomatic councils and learns about warcraft and politics. She yearns for power. She knows she is smart, and she wants to use her sharp and cutting mind for something for anything. It was not surprising to me that when presented with the opportunity her new husband, Amar, represents that she would take it. She may be attracted to him at the outset, and grateful for his rescue, but she does not immediately fall in love with him. I loved this tension within her, the suspicion of him (she openly says she does not trust him to him) and this desire for power.

Maya is such a strong character. She has such agency throughout. Chokshi draws her as a complete human being, and allows her to both rise to full glorious potential and to give in to her weaknesses. She falters. She learns from her mistakes. One of her mistakes is very dire, indeed, and she does what she needs to, sacrifices what she has to, to make things right. Maya is a better, more mature version of herself by the end of the book. Not a different person–still herself, still recognizably herself, but grown up. The character work in The Star-Touched Queen when it comes to Maya is truly excellent. The characterization of some of the minor characters–Kamala and Gauri, especially–was also very strong.

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WELL-WRITTEN GIRLS 4EVA

I wish the characterization of the other two main leads, Amar and Nritti, were as strong. Amar remains throughout a besotted cypher. We know he loves her, and that he has secrets, and that’s about it in terms of his character development. Honestly, in terms of plot, he doesn’t have much else to do, but there could have been a great deal more shading here to differentiate him from the other Brooding But Secretly Very Loving Love Interests I’ve read.

Nritti is a much more interesting case. She is the book’s main antagonist, and her role in the plot and in Maya’s life3 is a complicated one. They were friends, until they weren’t, and Maya only half-remembers a shadow of a feeling of trust in Nritti. Until Nritti’s backstory is revealed, it’s key that her characterization is very strong–that the reader feel that she is trustworthy, that we have a strong connection to her, too, stronger to her, perhaps, than to Amar because her role in the story is not so well telegraphed by narrative convention as Amar’s is. But she winds up ambiguous. And then she winds up duplicitous. And as a character, for me, she wound up a hollow, strange mess of wasted potential.

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so they were….frenemies, basically?

Nritti, also, was highlights worrisome issue in that there was an underlying element of femme…suspicion? in the book. It seemed as if the more feminine a female character was, the less Maya could trust that character (from childhood, an example would be the harem wives who exclude her). Gauri, her sister, grows into a soldier. Kamala, a female-identified flesh-eating horse demon that appears in the last third or so of the book ends up being a much more interpretable, sympathetic, and interesting character than Nritti. Kamala has more shading and depth. So it isn’t that Chokshi didn’t know how to write her non-human characters, or characters that are at first glance repugnant. It’s that Nritti never quite formed. I think this is an Unfortunate Unintended Consequence, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in the text.

Still, I would recommend this book. The weaknesses with Amar and Nritti are, to me, quite well balanced by the strength of Maya herself, and by the beauty of the writing. I very much enjoyed this book, and I am excited to see what Chokshi does with the next book.

4 stars
1Arguably there is a glancing blow at class made in the book when Maya returns to Bharata as a sahdvi. I don’t count this, personally, as a discussion of class since she experiences her role as a sahdvi as a costume/disguise. She never claims the status fully. Like Shahrzad in The Wrath and the Dawn, this is a book about a princess. Maya is a princess who was abused emotionally and psychologically, yes, but she was first a princess and then a queen, and her social position and worldview is different throughout the book than a peasant or a pauper.

2GAURI!!!! I am very excited that the companion novel, A Crown of Wishes is all about her.

3Technically, in Maya’s lives since Nritti knew Maya in a previous incarnation, too.


Book Review: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
We are A+ on the diversity front here, folks.

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The lead, Cas Leung, is a woman of color! And so is her pirate adversary Santa Elena! A number of other characters of color are scattered throughout, as well, yay! Which also highlights that this is a book about women driven by women. Men are around, but the plot revolves around and is pushed forward by the decisions of agentic women.

CAS IS ALSO A LESBIAN. Yeah, yeah!

Another major character is from a decidedly impoverished background, which forced Cas into important re-evaluations of both that character and piracy as a whole. I was glad to see an inclusion of class as a factor here, and to see it included in such a personalized way.

At least a couple of the minor characters are dealing with…something. There are hints towards mental illness or disability, but it’s not fleshed out here at all. There is supposed to be a sequel, so there’s a chance we may delve into these characters’ backstories more there.


Review:
Emily Skrutskie’s THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is a slight book that packs a punch. Do you want sea monsters? Check. Pirates? Check. An impossible queer romance you can’t help but root for? Check.

Cas Leung was raised among Reckoners: giant beasts genetically engineered to protect ships from pirates out on the NeoPacific. Her mother runs a lab; her father is a Reckoner trainer. The business is serious business–the trade secrets so well-guarded that on Cas’s first solo jaunt as a trainer herself, she’s given a suicide pill and told to take it rather than get taken alive by pirates. Not that she’ll run into trouble.

But of course she does run into trouble.

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FUCKIN’ PIRATE TROUBLE

And of course she doesn’t take the pill. And so our story begins. Cas winds up a hostage on The Minnow, at the mercy of the pirate queen Santa Elena, who has somehow procured a Reckoner pup. Santa Elena ties Cas’s fate to Swift, one of the handful of her chosen to battle it out as Santa Elena’s heir. If Cas fails, they both die. If Cas succeed, Swift inches closer to becoming captain herself.

What follows is a flurry of plot: Cas has to birth, raise, and train the Reckoner pup, which she names Bao. She enters an uneasy dance with Swift. They keep saving each other’s lives, but why? There is a weird trust there, but is it really trust? And the more Cas learns about the pirates–these people she’s been taught from birth not to think of people at all, to consider instead statistics, counts of death–the cloudier her moral compass becomes.

As an evolving narrator, Cas is wonderfully drawn. One thing I absolutely loved about this book was that she shows such substantial growth over the course of the book and absolutely none of it has to do with the fact that she’s queer. There is no coming out narrative here.* There is no coming-to-terms with that part of herself. If anything, she must come to terms with the fact that she’s fallen for a pirate (not that the pirate’s a girl).

What Cas grapples with instead is a sharpening of her own ethics. What purpose should the Reckoners serve? Are the pirates truly the blight she’s been told her whole life? She comes to think one thing, but then events on the ship will push her another way. She realizes how much she’s been insulated from the grand complexities of life, how much her privileges allowed her to reduce those complexities to neat binaries for her own comfort. This is a book that asks hard questions and does not flinch from the gritty truths it stirs up.

Swift, too, is wonderfully drawn. She is a study in disassociation, in survival. In compartmentalization. She resonated hard with me because I’ve been there, carving off bits of yourself to hand over in order to do what you have to to get the job done. By the end of the book she comes together from her disparate parts into a fully fledged person just in time to break your heart.

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I’M ROOTING FOR YOU CAS & SWIFT

The big failing of THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is that it’s so fleeting. Basically everyone besides Cas and Swift are sketches. Santa Elena has more depth than most of the other characters, but even she is still a sketch–Bao, the turtle-like sea monster has more depth than she does.  The worldbuilding is strong, and the relationship between Cas and Swift is beautifully rendered**, but the ciphers that were the other characters nagged at me. I would have liked the plot to slow down just a hair, just long enough to drag other characters into the plot and flesh them out. Hopefully we’ll see more elaboration of the secondary characters in the sequel.

4 stars

*This is not, in any way, to knock coming-out narratives. Ariah is one, after all. They are important! They are validating! It’s just that they aren’t the only narratives that queer people have, and it’s refreshing to see another one thrown in the mix.

**I especially loved the acknowledgment of the power imbalance between Cas (the hostage) and Swift (the captor). That the coercive element of their relationship was brought to light, named, and recognized.


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Book Review: CORAL BONES

CoralBones_FozMeadows

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Ah, it’s like this book was written just for me! A FAAB genderqueer protagonist!

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IT ME.

UGH. ALL MAH FEELS.

So, yeah, Miranda is genderqueer (genderfluid might be a better word for her1?). And Ariel, too! Which I always felt like was probably true, actually, Shakespeare.

AND. Foz Meadows includes in her portrait of the fairy realm many fairies of color, even as they are described in fantastical ways. Moth might have skin like a moth’s wings–“whites and browns in a calico patchwork”–but her kinky black and silver hair clearly signal she is a person of color. Queen Titania, likewise, has kinky hair and her “skin is the colour of burnished copper.” That’s right, the most powerful person in the story, the fairy queen herself, is coded as Black. Puck, too, has horns but is also brown-skinned. The preponderance of brown fairies normalized the idea of fairies of color within the story itself.


Content Warning:
First a very small spoiler and content warning:

ContentWarning

If you are triggered by incest, you may want to tread carefully with this book. Meadows is careful to state that nothing actually happened between Prospero and Miranda, but that that island was desolate and lonely, and that when she came into adolescence his looks lingered. She definitely felt unsafe. There was definite squick (none of it, course, any fault of Miranda’s; the text is clear on this point). There was a definite sense that something could have happened without her and Ariel’s joint intervention. Just a heads up.


 

Review:
Ok! Now, without further preamble, the review itself!

Coral Bones, by Foz Meadows, is a novella which follows Miranda, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest2, after her return to Europe. Miranda sails away, marries Ferdinand, and that’s supposed to be happily ever after, yes? But what if no. What if being raised by a form-switching fairy on an isolated island steeped in magic leaves Miranda with an altogether different understanding of the world and of herself.

What if the reason she left the island in the first place is not, precisely, because she was madly in love with Ferdinand?

What if there is more than one brave new world out there for Miranda to explore? What if there is more than one brave new Miranda for Miranda to explore?

For Miranda, all of these are questions of gender, and all of these are questions of role expectations, and all of these are questions of agency all at once. It’s really a story about self-determination and self-acceptance, which is very much my jam. But Miran-Miranda (as she comes to refer to herself) is extremely smart, and her allies–Ariel and Puck3–are clever and helpful and respectful. They are both so well-drawn; each are utterly recognizable within the frames of their Shakespearean origins but have been brought to life again as more realized and more weathered creatures. They have worries. They have entanglements.

Truly, I wish this novella was longer. Let me clarify that I don’t think it needed to be longer; the story was well-paced and well-developed. It had a complete arc. I just want more! It ended, and my heart wasn’t ready to move on. But what happens next? What happens now that Miran-Miranda is at Titania’s court? What happens next?

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FOR FOZ MEADOWS TO WRITE A SEQUEL TO THIS NOVELLA. TELL ME MORE STORY, PLEASE.

I wanted it to be longer partly because here is a main character that thinks and feels and reflect on gender, who embodies gender and experiences it, so very much like I do. And that is incredibly rare. In describing her fluctuating experience of gender to Puck, Miran-Miranda says:

My heart is a moon, and some days I am full and bright within myself, a shape that fits my name, and then I fade, and mirrors show only a half-light shared with a silhouette, an absence my form reflects; and then, in the dark, I am dark altogether, until I regrow again. Why should such a thing be any more difficult to grasp than the fact that some think me dead, and yet I live? The contradiction is only in their perception of what I am.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything that captures my experience as a genderqueer/genderfluid person as honestly or with as much poetry as this. (This also gives a sneak peek at Meadows’ writing, which has lovely Shakespearean flourishes and wordplay throughout).

Beyond that, while Coral Bones is essentially Miran-Miranda’s coming-to-terms tale (coming-out-to-self? Is there a better term for this narrative?), the ending is so full of promise and action that I am desperately curious about the adventures that Miran-Miranda is sure to have after the final line. Just as in The Tempest, the ending posits that this is a new, exciting chapter for her. And I would love to witness it.

I am kind of a Shakespeare nerd. And I’m genderqueer. And I used to work at Renaissance Faires where, as a child, I dressed as a Puckish type fairy. Literally I am the target audience for this novella. But, truly? I don’t think you have to be any of these things to love this book. Miran-Miranda’s tasks and journey to the fairy court have tension and stakes. The plot moves. The writing is clever and not overly Shakespearean, just enough to give nods. You don’t even have to be familiar with The Tempest or Midsummer. The novella presumes no prior familiarity with the source material; you can simply pick it up and go, which I think is one of its great strengths. If you are at all interested in feminist fantasy or in trans/non-binary fantasy, or in really cool fairies, I strongly recommend this fabulous short read.

5 stars

1Miran-Miranda uses female pronouns throughout.

2I remember Meadows tweeting about an idea for a genderqueer Miranda story and I BASICALLY LOST IT because a) I adore Foz Meadows and b) The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m a little obsessed with it.

3Puck’s reworking here is especially ingenious given the way it ties The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. I loved him here and generally dislike him in the play, but he was true to form. I got the sense from the novella that he has a peculiar and idiosyncratic sense of loyalty that fits so well with the idea of him.


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