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: 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: 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.