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

 TheStarTouchedQueen

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

theAbyssSurroundsUs_EmilySkrutskie

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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Book Review: WYCHMAN ROAD

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Amazon | Goodreads

FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Notes on Diversity:
So, one of the main characters mentions in passing that he’s slept with men and women both. Given that this character is from a different era, and given what I know of the men from his era, I’m honestly unsure as to whether he would accept the label of bisexuality, but there is a mention of queer sexual practice.1

The landlord of the two main characters is named Claire Kamal. She’s described as dark-skinned, brown-haired, and brown-eyed. Y’all, it seems pretty safe to say we have a canonically brown woman in the book. Very little is revealed about her other than this description; for instance I can’t tell you if she is Muslim or Hindu or anything else.2 Just that she is very probably brown.

2002

diversity meter says ‘meh’

It’s not a very diverse book. It’s the story, essentially, of how two white, cis (super)abled young men process very different kinds of masculinities in the frame of a friendship they both need. If you really don’t want to read a book about two white dudes palling around with superpowers and having friend-feelings they can’t hide from each other, then this is probably a pass for you. And that’s ok. That’s why I put the diversity thingie right up front.

But that’s not to say this is a bad book at all.


Review:
The world of Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychmen Road is like ours, except it has a secret. There is a hidden society of Thought Walkers who live among us: they can read our minds and change them. They don’t age, and they’re incredibly hard to kill. They are stronger than us, faster than us, telekinetic, and most of them no longer consider themselves bound by human law.

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they are coming to crush all our junkyard cars

Joshua Jones is one such Thought Walker: a man who’s been using his abilities to slip along the fringes of regular human society unnoticed, using his compelling/persuasive power (think Kilgrave) to gently coax a bed for the night or a muffin from a coffee house when he needs it.

Peter Axelson starts the book as a normal kid, a teenager in Toronto about to embark on his senior year of high school. A celebratory night out on the town with his friends turns grisly when they cross paths the man hunting for Joshua Jones. The chance encounter leaves Peter’s friends dead and Peter with the same bizarre abilities as Joshua. Peter finds himself drawn to Joshua, and from there, the plot thickens.

On the surface, this is a story about how Joshua must come to a reckoning with his past and how Peter must come to a reckoning with his future. The abilities they both have come with a price: while incredible, the other Thought Walkers know about them. The Thought Walkers have their own code of conduct and honor (I’d love to see this built out more in the next installment) but its clear from Peter’s introduction that winding up on their radar is Bad News. The plot hinges on these choices: will Joshua succumb to the things he’s done in the past to survive? Are these things that Peter will have to do to survive himself?

But at a deeper level, I think, this book serves as an interesting exploration of male friendship. The central theme is not running, but staying. It’s a book about a creating a safe place and a home–the title refers to the street where they rent an apartment, something Peter insists on for stability’s sake, and something that Joshua hasn’t done for a long time. It’s a book about found family, and rooting yourself in people who accept you, and it does so very openly, and is about two men having Feelings On The Page in a way that is, frankly, refreshing.

Part of it is because they are mindreaders, sure. But a lot of this is because of the characters themselves. Peter is just a sweet, open guy. Joshua is not, at first, but he opens himself up to Peter bit by bit. I love books about immensely important friendships, and this book definitely qualifies.

2003

SUPERHERO BROMANCE LOVERS REJOICE!

Again, diversity is not the book’s strong suit. And the book is not particularly great with it’s woman characters, either. It features an event I would consider to be a fridging. Claire Kamal has some depth and shading, but honestly, a woman that clumsy probably has an inner-ear medical issue she probably would have gotten checked out by now. I was intrigued by Joshua’s paramour, Alice/Allison, but she was in and out of the book so fast that I didn’t know what to make of her. Here’s to getting more of a glimpse of her in the next book.

I’m hoping for better-defined woman characters in book 2 of the Wychmen Saga, but I’ll definitely be picking up book 2. Ghan may have put all his eggs into a relationship between two white men, but, hell, at least he made them care deeply about each other. And they let each other know that more than once. And that made me care about them, too.

4 stars

1Good god that sounds clinical. Ok. What I mean to say is that Joshua, our lover-of-both-genders was born and came of age in the early 1900s. He’s been alive this whole time since, “dancing” (as he puts it) with his partners, but there’s no real guessing how he does or does not apply more modern queer lingo/labels to himself. I have SO MANY QUESTIONS about this (mostly because I just love queer characters so much). Like, did he not pursue men until after he got those weird powers and was talked into seeing himself as superhuman/above human morality? Or did it predate? We do see him on a date with a young woman before the powers thing, means it’s possible, but doesn’t confirm or deny anything, I guess. Anyway. All I’m saying is that without more in-text interrogation I’m really unsure about how Joshua would actually self-identify regardless of the glimpse of sexual history he’s disclosed to Peter. NO YOU ARE OVERTHINKING THIS.

2We learn a little about Claire’s relationship to her mother, but that doesn’t shed any light on this. And this doesn’t have to be important at all! Brown people are not defined by their religion, their parent’s religion, anything like that. But I am saying that for two mindreaders to live with Claire in a mostly white city and not accidentally eavesdrop on her experiencing any racial tension, or not to overhear any traces of, say a different culture she may have ties to, leaves me feeling very much that she is brown only skin deep. They are mindreaders who are literally messing around in her brainmeats. I don’t know a single brown person who doesn’t think about the fact that they are a brown person every day. They never heard anything?


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Book Review: BOOKBURNERS, SEASON 1

Bookburners_MaxGladstone

Serial Box | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Bookburners follows Team Three of the Vatican’s anti-magical forces, and Team Three is canonically multi-culti and world-traveling. Sam Brooks, the lead character, is a White woman, but her team mates spend as much time in the spotlight as she does. Asanti, the archivist, is a Black woman with fascinations and curiosities all her own. Father Arturo Menchu is a South American priest haunted by past mistakes. Grace Chen is Asian, and a powerhouse–the team’s secret weapon–and incredibly layered. Liam is an Irish White guy…so not diverse. But he is well-written, and he is a character who is actively coping with PTSD more or less openly through the entire course of the season (book?).

Basically, I was pleasantly surprised.

2003

It makes absolute perfect sense that the Roman Catholic Church would have an ethnically/racially diverse group of people targeting magical artifacts given that Catholicism has a global reach, but, honestly, I think many authors would have taken this story and whitewashed it.


Review:
Bookburners is a team-written serial piece of fiction* about a lady cop who gets drawn into a world of magic thanks to curiosities of her wayward brother. Perry Brooks, Sal Brooks’ ne’er-do-well brother, gets his hands on an old, creepy book. And then that book gets its hands on him. Sal is drawn into the web of Team Three’s secret dealings, the ways in which they pull magic artifacts out of the world to protect unknowing mortal citizens, to get her brother back. Over the course of the season, along with Sal, we are introduced to magic users (benign and otherwise), the good and bad sides of the Vatican, and her teammates in Team Three.

Like the best serial dramas on TV, Bookburners strikes a great balance between problem-of-the-week story in a given installment and slowly building a season-long arc over the course of each episode. Some episodes pull more directly into that season-long arc than others, but all of them are excellent. Similarly, Bookburners features mutiple authors working together to create a single cohesive voice, and they pull this off quite well overall.

There are some real standouts to Season 1. The theme of redemption comes through loud and clear–not just for Perry Brooks, but for Sal herself and for Arturo Menchu, and also for Grace. Grace became, over time, my favorite character.

2004

GRACE, GET YOUR CANDLE AND HOLD IT TIGHT.

Grace starts the story giving virutally everyone the cold shoulder and slowly, carefully, opens up to Sal. It takes until episode 7 (“Now and Then”) for the reader to learn much about Grace at all besides the fact that she is sharp-tongued, and reads a lot, and that she is incredibly, almost monstrously dangerous in a fight. But in episode 7 everything comes together, and we learn why she is the way she is. And it is so wonderful. But this part is key:

We’ve always recruited from survivors.

Menchu says this to Sal as a way of explaining that everyone on the team has been touched by magic in some way before joining the team. He says it to tell her that she is not alone, that her position is not unique, that they have all had horrifying scrapes with the uncanny, and lived, and been unsettled enough to want to protect the world from it. That’s why they’re there; that’s why they’re teammates. But then, he tells her to “let Grace be Grace.” He refuses to tell he what she survived. The perspective switches, then, so that the reader sees what Grace survived from her own perspective. We are allowed to see Grace be Grace. Between this episode and a later episode (episode 10, “Shore Leave”) where Grace is allowed a day off, the story for me shifted very much to Grace. I still like Sal very much, but Grace was the one I was hooked on. She was the one who held the emotional stakes for me. By the last episode (16, “Siege”), I was desperate for resolution for her.

The beauty of the way Bookburners is written is that there is enough POV switching between the characters, and most of the characters have enough depth, that you are likely to hook into one of the teammates like this and find your favorite and ride them to the end. It is unequivocally Sal’s story, but Liam and Grace and Menchu all have their own side stories which have enough depth and pathos for you to dig into and connect with. Asanti, I feel like, is the weak link here–not present enough on the ground in their missions in the early episodes to get fully realized, but fascinating, but still somewhat two-dimensional by the season’s end.

I wonder where Season 2 will go. Given the ending of Season 1, it’s clear Sal will stick with the team, but there are intriguing questions with regard to her brother. I wonder what the arc will be. I want to see more of Asanti–much more of Asanti. I’d like to see more of Menchu beyond the fatherly team leader role. And Grace. Give me all the Grace-centric episodes you can, please.

Suffice to say my subscription is renewed.

 

4 stars

*So it’s a book that was released episodically. All the episodes are now available through Serial Box, so you could read it (or listen to it; I more or less alternated) all in one big gulp. The writing team behind Bookburners is stellar: Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Xe Sands’ narration for the audiobook is also really excellent.


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Book Review & Giveaway: BLACK BEAUTY

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Amazon | iTunes | Barnes & Nobles | Goodreads | Book Depository

About the Book
blackbeauty1At Vista Apartment Complex, life drastically changes for four of its residents when they decide to do business with Crazy Jade—the supposed voodoo witch who can grant your wish for a price.

Shemeya wants the confidence to stand up against the girls bullying her at school, but she soon has to choose between keeping her dreadlocs or living a normal life. After catching her boyfriend cheating, Latreece just wants to have the same curves as all the other girls. Ashley will do whatever she can to have “White Girl Flow”, but takes her pursuit too far when she steals from Crazy Jade.

Everyone who comes into contact with Crazy Jade soon learns the true price of her magic—and how horribly wrong it can go.

 Enter the Giveaway!
There is a tour wide giveaway for the book tour of Black Beauty. These are the prizes you can win:

One of Two $10 Amazon Gift Cards(US) or One of Two ecopies of Black Beauty

Here is the link to the rafflecopter giveaway:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
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B’s Review of BLACK BEAUTY
Notes on Diversity:
I think a better word for this book than diverse is authentic. This is a book for blerds by a blerd; this is fantasy/horror deeply drawn from and steeped in the lived Blackness. That is literally the crux of all of the stories in this book up until the last two. The reason the book works is because Constance Burris is a Black woman who has lived all her life navigating the treacherous waters of Eurocentric beauty norms.

Virtually all the characters are Black, and they live in a specific locale–one apartment complex in Oklahoma City. The specificities in the book really do add to the authenticity, the reality of it, which heightens the horror embedded in the stories, even as elves start showing up and snakes start sprouting from people’s heads. These stories are deeply, deeply rooted in an intersectional experience of Black womanhood.

Readers looking for representation along other axes of marginalization (queer characters, characters with disabilities, religious diversity) won’t find much here, but the above is incredibly rich.

Review:
Black Beauty is a set of connected fantasy/horror short stories tethered together by setting–the Vista apartment complex–and the apparent magical abilities of Crazy Jade, one the complex’s residents. Word gets out that, for a price, Crazy Jade can fix you up. But all of her dealings seem to come off slightly wrong.

We follow as residents of the apartments fall prey to Crazy Jade, one after another. First Shemeya, who Crazy Jade offers to help to stave off bullies. Then Ashley, who comes to Jade seeking a relaxer for her hair. Andre catches Jade’s bad side after a nasty remark about Black women’s unworthiness. Latreece, like Ashley, comes calling to make herself more attractive. It’s Latreece who finally dislodges Sean, who has a secret, and whose secret reveals the truth of Jade’s power. Then there’s a ferocious showdown. To say anything more than this is to spoil the book.

What I loved about Black Beauty was its ensemble cast. I started with Shemeya, rooting for her, and in her story she’s pitted against Latreece. By the time Latreece’s story comes along we’ve had enough distance and plot from Shemeya that I was open to Latreece’s perspective. She’s still harsh; she’s still a bully, yes, but in her story we learn why. There’s nuance to the characters Burris writes, to the way they engage. There’s a theme of bristling bravado/redemption that stretches throughout, and I, as someone who has a lifelong case of foot-in-mouth disease, can relate to that.

That said, the book went to fast for me, especially the last two chapters. I liked that the ending was messy, that not everything was tied up in a clean bow at the end, but there was a lovely amount of tension and careful reveal in the relationships between the apartment residents in the first few chapters/stories. The last two stories, which are structurally different (in a spoilery way) are full of action and exposition all packed together. I wish there had been a couple of other chapter/stories included in this part of the book to better explain Jade’s motivations, her plans, and let that build and simmer a little longer. Those reveals, I think, needed more space to breathe.

I am deeply curious about what happened after the book ended. I sincerely hope for some follow-up stories in the future. Please say there are follow up stories coming.

4 stars

About Constance Burris

constanceburrisConstance Burris is on a journey to take over the world through fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Her mission is to spread the love of speculative fiction to the masses. She is a proud blerd (black nerd), mother, and wife. When she is not writing and spending time with her family, she is working hard as an environmental engineer in Oklahoma City.

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