Book Review: SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward


Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

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

Content Warnings for Book

This is not a light read. Content warnings for:

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


Blurb (from Goodreads):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway & Rating

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



Book Review: THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
The real power of diverse literature is that it speaks truth. Essun is a Black woman–a dreadlocked middle-aged woman protagonist. She is a rarity, and she is deeply, fully realized. The world of The Fifth Season is, like our own world, full to the brim with people of color. They outnumber white people. Race in the Stillness still matters, but it is conceptualized and socially constructed along different factors. The way Jemisin breaks this down in the text is remarkable and masterful.

There is also queer representation. Alabaster is clearly gay; Innon is a rare comfortable and loving bisexual man. I had…issues with this, not because of their portrayal, but because of their positioning within the plot. It’s hard to talk about this without giving anything away, spoiler-wise, so I’m sticking things in a footnote. But those who wish to avoid common queer tropes may be chafed.1

And then there are the trans folks.


Y’all, there is an important secondary character in this book who is a trans woman. She’s just there, and she’s trans. Just hanging out, living her life as a trans woman. And! And! There’s a passing mention of a trans boy, too. It’s just a blip, but it was there. The Stillness had trans people in it. Also, like sentient rock people or whatever, but do you have any idea how rare it is to read a book that just has nonchalant trans people in it being trans? A hell of a lot rarer than books about sentient rock people, that’s for damn sure. I nearly fucking cried. I am not kidding.

I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.2
I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people who can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet.


this, pretty much

And to understand how it happened, you have to understand how many injustices–small and large, premeditated and coincidental–came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.

It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.

There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am white, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here (I am guessing) about what it is to be Black–the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.

But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.

The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

5 stars
1HERE BE SPOILERS TURN BACK WHILE YE STILL CAN! Again, both Alabaster and Innon were beautifully written characters. But. They were also the two canonically queer characters. And Innon dies, brutally, which I can’t help but read as a Bury Your Gays thing. Then, Alabaster ends up being a Tragic Gay Villain, basically. Yes, it makes sense why he does the things he does. Yes, it makes narrative sense why Innon as to die. But…as a queer person it still felt like a sucker punch that *my* characters were being used this way. They were the disposable ones, the weak ones that turned bad, etc etc, like always, again. For all the wonder and glory of the book, even with the wonder and the glory that is Tonkee herself alone, this left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m rating this 5 stars, but these issues make it a 4.5 star book for me. It gives me pause.




Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This is a book written by a woman of color about a man of color trying to survive in a foreign land. His culture and his worldview are centered and normalized in the book.

The book also has much to say on topics of mental health and disability; a substantial section midway through takes place in what is essentially a mental health facility. This section is remarkably kind and tender, unlike many representations of mental health care often seen in fiction.

WHY DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK. Not in terms of time, but, I mean, why didn’t I find and read this book sooner? Why didn’t I hear about this book three years ago, when it first came out, and devour it then? Why did I only stumble across it now?

A Stranger In Olondria is the story of Jevick, a pepper merchant’s son on the island of Tyom who is destined to sell his goods to the countrymen of Olondria. His father sends for an Olondrian tutor to teach him how to read and write, to learn the language, to trade with the strangers in that far away country with a fluency he himself never had. Jevick waits for his chance to go to Olondria, this place he only knows from his tutor’s memories and from the descriptions of the books his tutor brought to Tyom. Once there, things are different. Some things are better than he imagined. Some things are worse.

And then the tale takes a turn: Jevick’s fate becomes tied to the fate of a dead girl from a different island. She reaches out to him, keeps him from sleeps, brings him to the brink of madness, and forces him to stay in Olondria even while his companions return to Tyom. The narrative twists and twists again as Jevick has to negotiate with his ghost.


Jissavet, to Jevick

Oh, there is so much to love in this book. Jevick’s love of the written word itself–even as literacy serves to divide a population alone classed lines–so reminded me of Hild. He, like Hild, sees magic in words, in their permanence, in their literal power to cross time and space. Over and over, Jevick returns to books when he needs solace. As a child, they are his refuge from his unpredictable and mysterious father. As a man, they are the way he first understands Olondria. And later, when things go sideways, he uses the written word to cling to his disordered life, to keep himself together, even as Jissavet’s ghost hounds him. Finally, it is the act of writing stories down that serves as liberation–for someone else, and for them, for him. But the politics of literacy, who has it and who does, is not lost here.


Me, and Hild, and Jevick

A Stranger In Olondria is a ghost story, but it’s not a book about death. Not really. It’s a book about living. I think it would be easy to say it’s a book about love, and that’s partly true, but even then, it’s really about living. Or, more blatantly put, I think it’s a book about learning how to actually live, actually sink your hands into the bloody mess of your life and get into it instead of primly edging around its corners. It’s about seizing every second of life you can, and not in a violent way, or a vicious way, but with joy and with bittersweetness, and with the knowledge that time is limited and all the knowledge you have gathered may do nothing to prepare you for what is coming the next moment. It’s one of those wonderful small/epic big/quiet books. One of those books that zooms in on one person, one not-all-that-important person and allows you to really feel that person’s trials and tribulations. And because that person is not-all-that-important, the sweeping epic of their small scope of life is relatable, and their joys and victories are even more keenly felt.

Sofia Samatar’s prose is truly beautiful. Phenomenally, fantastically beautifully. Check this shit out:

In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire.

Time unrolled in the Houses, monotonous as a skein of wool.

Samatar is just a wizard with words. Her prose is precise, and fluid, and cutting. And honest. The style here is definitely reflective of Jevick–patient, a smidge of purple, a young man who is enamoured of books, who pauses, who waits until he can’t wait anymore. I’ve read enough of Samatar’s short fiction to know that she can write in other styles (also beautifully). But the imagery she conjures up again and again her just floored me.

There was a sentiment, introduced near the end of the book, that really got me: that we should value “not what will make us happy, but what is precious.” I’ve been rolling that over and over in my mind. Sometimes, in the best cases, those are the same thing. But they are so often not. To see Jevick’s choices in the novel in light of this piece of wisdom, from beginning to end, is striking. To see my own life organize along these lines–when have I chosen happiness over what is precious? When have I chosen what is precious over happiness? When were they the same?–is more striking still. A Stranger In Olondria is in me now, riding in my marrow. It will be a book, like The Left Hand of Darkness, that I’ll end up re-reading every few years. I can feel it coming.


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Fairylogue Press


Notes on Diversity:
Valor is a comic anthology specifically focused on diverse retellings of folk and fairy tales with an emphasis on women and girl protagonists. The girls and women here are not all cis. (YES.) There are brown and black and Asian heroines here. There are chubby heroines. There are queer heroines!


Seriously, the diversity here is loving and lovely.

I found Valor because a friend of mine found “Little Fish” on tumblr and sent it to me, and I fell in love. Diverse mermaids! Genderqueer love story! I was like WHAT IS THIS IS THERE MORE IF THERE IS MORE WHERE IS THE MORE.


Turns out there was more! An entire anthology of more!

Fairylogue’s Valor anthology is a collection of 19 comics and 5 illustrated stories. I read the anthology with my kid, and both of us were captivated by the beauty of the art and the clever retellings.

As bedtime stories, Valor worked especially well for us because our family is queer (we’re poly, and I’m trans) and multiracial (I’m White, kid’s dad is White, but his mom and aunt are Latina). It was so refreshing to see stories where families and people like us were the norm instead of the outliers.

That’s not to say this is a children’s collection. It isn’t. I loved reading the anthology on my own, for myself, too. The reason it became bedtime story material to begin with was because kiddo saw me reading it and got interested.

This is a seriously good collections. Standouts include the aforementioned “Little Fish”, but also “Black Bull”, “The Bride of Rose Beast”, “Lady Tilda”, and “Nautilus”. Kiddo returns again and again to “Masks” and “Godfather Death”.
5 stars

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Sorry if you checked here earlier and there was no content! I set this to auto-publish, then I broke my ankle and forgot to a) write the review and b) turn of the auto-publish. My apologies for any confusion!


Serial Box | Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
A great and glorious diverse cast! So much queer! There are brown people! There is a decidedly not neurotypical child! There are poor people, and there are rich people, and every one of them is beautifully realized and fully-rounded!


Well done!

Tremontaine, Season 1created by Ellen Kushner, and written by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover (guest author)–is ambitious. The cast is large; the scope of the plot is huge and full of intrigue.

The Duchess of Tremontaine banks the Tremontaine fortune on a ship called the Everfair. When the Everfair sinks, slowly, methodically, all hell breaks loose on the sly. Of course we see the Duchess’ perspective on the matter, but we also see how this single event changes the course of dozens of other lives: the chocolate traders (among them the wily and overly curious Kaab Balam) whom the Duchess has woven into her plots, a young scholar (Rafe Fenton) whose merchant family has financial ties to the Duchess. And through happenstance and talent, a farmer girl named Micah runs into Rafe Fenton and becomes a scholar herself. There are more characters, a great many more–Kaab’s family, Kaab’s forger girlfriend, Tess the Hand, the swordsman Vincent Applethorpe, the Dragon Chancellor, and the Duke of Tremontaine himself. Each have their own arc within the story. Each have their own lives, and their own part to play in this tale.

But, oh, the relationships! Each one is so carefully crafted and developed over time! EVERYTHING HERE IS SHIPPABLE FARE MY FRIENDS. I found myself, in particular, rooting for Kaab and Tess, and I was not disappointed.


Those two crazy kids. It’s written as love at first sight (at least on Kaab’s) end, but she does not approach Tess as a thing that is owed her. They become friends, they experience horror and joy together, and then they become lovers. And even then the story doesn’t stop. Kaab and Tess are from vastly different cultures, different classes, have wholly different ways of interpreting the world. The immensity of their cross racial/cross cultural romance is not downplayed in the text at all, and I loved the book (season?) for that. I also loved that Kaab and Tess were, in so many ways, equals. Yes, Kaab is a warrior, and trained, and is held in high esteem by her people. Tess…less so, as a Riversider. But Tess is a forger of great reknown. She is good enough that she needs a dang bodyguard. She has formidable talents, too. She is no simple damsel in distress.

And the plot. I wonder what it must have been like for the writers to parse out a plot this convoluted but this cohesive. Nothing that’s introduced get’s dropped. As the finale closes in, all the puzzle pieces fall into place, all the foreshadowing pays off. But…how? How do you do that with all these writers writing the same thing? Wonderful execution. and speaking of wonderful execution, the narration by Nick Sullivan, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, Katherine Kellgren was pitch perfect the whole way through.

5 stars

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Novelette Review: CALIFORNIA SKIES


Less Than Three Press | Amazon | Goodreads

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

Notes on Diversity:


The book is very queer, frankly so, in a way I deeply appreciated. The treatment of its central transgender/non-binary character–California Talbot–ways lovely and thoughtful. I also loved that there is a gulf between Maggie and California, that for the romance to blossom they must cross a chasm of class of which they are both acutely aware.

It is a very White novelette; I won’t lie. I read California as racially ambiguous. California themself is an orphan described as golden-skinned and black-haired, which in the West could mean any number of things. But it’s not called out explicitly, it’s all an open question.

California Skies, by Kayla Bashe, is a story about two people, each told by society they are unlovable, who find solace in each other.

It’s also a story about righteous vengeance.

The Chelson gang comes after Maggie’s family, looking for jewels they’ve hidden. They’ve hidden them so well that the gang doesn’t find them. In their frustration, they kill her brother, maim her sister, and slice up her face. Once her wounds turn to scars, Maggie searches for California Talbot, a mysterious childhood friend turned bounty hunter, to help her hunt down the gang that tore apart her family.

She finds California wearing a calico dress and dried blood in a dusty bar. Their is, immediately, a brawl. California is impressed when Maggie stands her ground. Maggie came already impressed by the memories of California and is smitten before the afternoon is out. Together, they track the Chelson gang, each getting to know each other again, slowly, tentatively, falling for each other.

Maggie has to get over her scars. After a lifetime of being told her worth is tied to physical beauty, she no longer feels like she has any appeal to anyone. She is trying to reconcile herself to invisibility. And yet, California sees her. Consistently sees her. But, still, Maggie can’t quite allow herself to trust it:

It felt strangely beautiful to have someone looking after her. She hoped she never got too used to it; a woman with a maimed face, after all, would never have anything like a wife.

Ah, there’s so much to go on about. I love that Maggie is a writer, and that to love her is to love the stories she constructs. And I love that California knows and understands this about Maggie, and that on their journey they construct their own narrative. I love that the only things that hold them back from each other are narrative that they’ve been told by others–things about class, things about beauty–that the other doesn’t believe. Things that they cast off in due time.

I love all of this in part because as a genderqueer and queer person so much of my adult life has been, quite literally, about the creation of very intimate and personal narratives. About how what we’ve been told is true about beauty and life and love and families doesn’t actually have any weight except the weight we give it.



I loved this story. I loved these characters. I am definitely going to seek out pretty everything Kayla Bashe has written after this.

5 stars

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Diversity is the wrong word here1; this is a Taiwanese book written for a Taiwanese audience populated by Taiwanese people. It’s authentic. If you’re looking to read outside of Western authors, and you’re looking for something particularly dark and excruciatingly feminist, then check this out.

There are no queer characters, but Western notions of queerness may not fully apply here, so I may well have missed some subtext. There are characters who deal with physical disabilities–Auntie Ah-Wang hobbling to and fro on her bound feet is a particularly striking example.


 This book deals, explicitly and vividly, with sexual and physical abuse. It is not an easy book to read. Much of the plot and much of the text is devoted to detailing how Lin Shi, the main character, tries and fails to cope with her husband’s continued abuse.

Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife is harrowing. And feminist. And brilliant.

I first read this book in college. I worked at the library circulation desk; someone turned it in and I picked it up and read it. I didn’t know anything about it. I read it, and it was horrible and fascinating and etched itself into my brain. I’ve thought about it off and on in the years since and recently ordered a copy and reread it. It definitely held up to the reread.

The Butcher’s Wife is about a woman, Lin Shi, in a small village in Taiwan who is sent off to marry a pig butcher by her uncle, Chen Jiangshui. Right from the start, she’s traded like cattle, treated like goods: ownership of herself, her fate, her body is clearly not hers. Her husband is a brutal man; whether he is drawn to the slaughterhouse day in and day out because of his inherent brutality or whether  his brutality is a response to his murderous line of work. In either case, his brutality remains a fact. He rapes Lin Shi. He beats her. He psychologically and emotionally berates her. He does these things, it seems, simply because she’s there. Simply because she exists, and because she now belongs to him.

The structure of the book is such that we know how the story ends before it even begins. In my copy, Pig-Butcher Chen’s fate is revealed in the Author’s Preface. If you skip that, then it’s revealed on the very first page of the book, in a fictitious news report2. Lin Shi kills Chen Jianshui. This isn’t a spoiler; this is the conceit of the book. The book isn’t about what  will happen to Lin Shi. We go in knowing. The book is about why she does it. And in that narrative design, Li Ang gives Lin Shi and immense amount of power and agency within the story.

This is in keeping with the book’s overall themes of control and power. The book zeroes in on women, their interiority, how they relate to or don’t relate to each other. There are occasional scenes from the perspective of Lin Shi’s husband, but even those are mostly his ruminations about the women in his life, either Lin Shi or the prostitutes he frequents3. Lin Shi spends a lot of time alone, trying to fill the utterly boring hours before her terrifying husband come home. Every day, she goes out to do laundry, and through that chore we come to understand her relationship to and her place among the village’s other women. It’s a complex and shifting situation that Lin Shi never quite successfully navigates.

What I am left with most, though, is the way The Butcher’s Wife spells out how utterly suffocating and unrelenting patriarchal control is/can be. Lin Shi endures and endures and endures until she can’t anymore. And she snaps; she kills her husband. She metes out this great and terrible and vicious act–this irreperable and irretreivable act–that is hers and hers alone. Or so you would think. But even that is stripped from her:

Chen Lin Shi’s confession defies all reason and logic, for, since ancient times, a murder of this sort has always been the result of an adulterous affair.

On the very first page of the book we have proof that Lin Shi’s act has been drastically rewritten in the social narrative of the village. She didn’t really do it on her own. she must have been sleeping with another man. She must have killed her husband at his behest. That’s how it always is. That’s how women are. Even if they kill you, it’s not really them killing you–it’s really the other man wielding them as a weapon against you.

Even in her own confession, Lin Shi is silenced. In a book absolutely chock-full of horror, this is one of the most horrifying elements to me.

(If you’d like to check out more about this book, I highly recommend this review on Goodreads.)
5 stars

1I’ve got a post brewing about diversity and the way this term is loaded. Watch this post if that’s a topic that interests you.

2Li Ang, in her Author’s Preface, makes clear that the news report, though fictitious, has roots in actual reported cases in mainland China. Another observation: the structure of this book, along with its length and use of diegetic extra-textual elements like the fake news clipping (here’s the ending! here’s how it happened from several points of view!) reminded me quite a bit of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd on this reread. Which was not a comparison I was expecting to draw. So, now I want to go reread Billy Budd.

3One of the most interesting parts of the book, to me, was the contrast between Chen Jiangshui’s relationship to Lin Shi–a woman he doesn’t know at all and doesn’t care to know, who he treats solely as an object– and his relationship to his particular favorite whore, Golden Flower. With her, he is companionable, almost sweet. They know each other as people. Is this because their relationship is still transactional? It’s unclear, but it’s certainly different than how he treats Lin Shi.

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:

The book follows a tight-knit group of erstwhile superheroes–and most of them are dealing with mental and/or physical disabilities. A number of them are clearly people of color. The main character is a trans woman, and she’s basically the best!! There is am interracial queer poly family that is sweet and functional.

Diversity is firing on all cylinders here. A toast to that.


What if there was a magic cure-all drug that could fix what was wrong with you?

What if that drug had….side effect?

What if that drug was addictive?

Parole is a city filled with people who, for one reason or another, took a drug to make their lives better. Maybe it fixed something, and maybe it broke something else. Everyone in Parole has a story to tell, and everyone in Parole has their secrets. Everyone in Parole also has powers from the drug they took. Some of those powers, like Jenny Strings’ ability to make the dolls dance, are eerie but harmless. Some of those powers, like Finn’s tendency to accidentally cause explosions when he’s upset, even the slightest bit upset, are…less harmless.

As much as Parole is a city it’s also a prison–walled, fenced, monitored constantly. There are kill lists and secret police. And living in Parole isn’t easy with the constant broiling underground fire. The underground fire threatens to swallow the city whole, and everyone in the city knows that the forces outside Parole won’t step in to save anyone once it goes. But someone in the city has a plan to save it.

The story hinges on the histories of the characters and their present relationships. It’s a character-driven story masquerading as a thriller. Yes, there are fight scenes. Yes, there are epic Walks Though Fire.


like this basically but awesomer

But, really, the tension in the book is derived from character after character coming to terms with their own pasts. What’s beautiful here is how Sylver mines the characters for different narrative arcs. One central character gets redemption. Another gets closure. Another gets to make an admission of love. Still another character’s arc develops beautifully over the course of the book–she has to confront her PTSD, unravel her assumptions about another character, reconfigure her life–but the ending of the book places her in a position that sets up the second book rather than giving her resolution.

I especially loved the rootedness of the characters’ diversity and arcs given that the worldbuilding and conceits of the Parole as a setting were wild. Regan, one of the main characters, is a lizard-man. Rose, another main character, is a plant-woman with prosthetic legs built for her by her wife. The book features a sympathetic zombie named Zilch. Truly weird shit happens in Parole, but the emotional lives of the characters rang very true for me all the way through.

I loved this book. I love that, for once, I as a trans, queer person with disabilities was precisely, squarely the target audience for a book. Holy fuck how cool is that!


me when I realized All The Things about this book

And the book works. Sylver’s writing is tight and quippy. The characters have chemistry with one another. The plot has tension and stakes.

I can’t wait for the next book.

5 stars

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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:
As with The Mirror Empire, a huge and deliberate amount of diversity is on display in Empire Ascendant. The second installment in the Worldbreaker Saga digs deeper into the explorations and subversions of power and marginalization that were introduced in the first book. For example, more is revealed, very deftly, about the way gender and sexuality function in Dhai Prime vs. Mirror Dhai vs. Saiduan. Issues of dis/ability dig in deeper and deeper, especially in Lilia Sona’s storyline.

While The Mirror Empire was almost exclusively populated by brown people, Empire Ascendant introduced characters I, at least, read as white (in Tordin). The focus remained very strongly on brown voices still in Empire Ascendant.

It took me forever to write this review because this book sat like a stone in my heart.

Kameron Hurley warned us all on twitter that Terrible Things would befall the characters introduced in The Mirror Empire, and she did not lie. But she also didn’t give the whole truth. Empire Ascendant is a deeply complicated book. Yes, it is dark and brutal. But it is also almost bizarrely hopeful. It has these hopeful moments, these moments of hidden triumph, that made the book work for me.

I confess I typically struggle with second-books-in-trilogies. I think, in many ways, Empire Ascendant suffers from what I can only think of as Two Towers syndrome: after doing such a beautiful job pulling together so many disparate stories in the first volume, Empire Ascendant (like Two Towers) then splits those narratives apart. The story fractures again; the driving force of the book is not ‘how are these threads connected?’ as in The Mirror Empire but ‘what happens now that we know that they are connected?’

As a reader who gloms onto characters more than onto plot, these in-between novels are often difficult for me. I am guessing that Empire Ascendant fits well into the overall arc of the Worldbreaker Saga, but the long breaks from one narrative thread to the other left me wondering and drifting a little as a reader. That said, the book still worked for me because in every thread I was invested. In every thread, I still cared about the narrative.1

I’m trying to write this review without spoilers, so I’ll speak now in generalities about things I wish I could dissect in much greater nuance and specificity. The book delves deeper and personalizes the Tai Mora in ways I loved. Empire Ascendant complicated relationships I thought were stable from the first book and stabilized relationships I thought would never work from The Mirror Empire. Many Terrible Things happen. Many decent people are forced into making brutal and vicious decisions because this is a time of war and invasion.2

But healing happens, too. Oh, god, how I wish I could talk about spoilers here because I want to talk about some the the healing arcs in this book so badly. About how one character’s arc so beautifully mirrors something from the first book and in such an unexpected way. About how a character I’ve been rooting for since the beginning gets something–finally–that they deserve, even as the world seems to fall down around them. About the secret kindness delivered to one character that I hoped for but did not think was going to happen, but did. About how one character, when it seems like the entire world has beaten them, rises again: fierce, vicious, brilliant as ever. Self-destructive and walking a knife’s edge, and precisely, exactly what is needed in that moment in that place–and, again, mirroring someone else’s arc in very clever, very subtle ways.

There is much brutality in Empire Ascendant–and portals, and wastelands, and bizarre murderous alien bug creatures, and Bad Plants–but there is gentleness, too. And regrowth. And small moments of justice that very well could lead to larger moments of justice.

Oma is the star of change. Change is a brutal force–brutal, but, at heart, ambivalent.

5 stars

1I rarely do this–partly to keep from influencing my own reactions to books, and partly because usually I don’t sit with a book so long before writing a review of it–but I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Empire Ascendant to get the juices flowing before actually writing my own. Some people have had trouble, it seems, connecting with the core plot, or character’s motivations for doing what they do in service of it. I have not had that problem.

At Sirens last week, I gushed over Mirror Empire and listened to other people’s critiques of it. And again, those critiques (that it’s full of terrible people, that it’s not a particularly realistic of portrayal of genocide) are valid. Other people bounce off books I don’t.

These books treat me, as a queer and genderqueer reader with disabilities, with so much respect that I am, frankly, so hungry for them that I am, I think, taking them utterly on their own terms. I fell in love with The Mirror Empire because I felt seen by it, recognized by it, like I could exist in that world with a fullness that is unavailable to me in this one, and I engaged with that book at a deep level because of that. My devotion in no way waned while reading Empire Ascendant. I drank both books in like a man dying of thirst drinks water. I can recite the intricacies of the plot to you in my sleep.

2One critique of The Mirror Empire I’ve heard that I don’t fully agree with is that the book is about bad people doing bad things. I think, actually, the books are about mostly decent (and/or deeply broken and complicated people) doing fucked up things they have to do in order to survive. That’s different than, say, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who truly is a Bad Person doing Bad Things because he is Bad (until the ending or whatever). But, you know, YMMV.

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Notes on Diversity:
If you’re looking for an epic fantasy that takes diversity seriously, this book fits the bill. Hurley writes across an entire planet, and unlike many writers who do so, she writes most of the planet as people of color. A handful of arguably white people pop up, but the majority of the cast is Black or brown–and I read all of the POV characters as people of color. Contributing to that complexity is that two of the POV characters were mixed-race and dealt with the complicated responses to their biracial identity that society reflected back to them.

But that’s not all! One society (Dhai) had a five gender system which emphasized choice; that is, gender was not ascribed to individuals, but instead individuals adopted pronouns and genders as they saw fit. Another culture (Saiduan) had a three gender system with specific pronouns for individuals who did not fit within the binary1; there was less choice presented here, but it was still amazing to see these things called out. It is a rare gem of a book to see alternate genders presented with grace and nuance like this and I, as a genderqueer reader, felt for once like I was actually acknowledged.

Queer sexuality is normal and accepted. Non-monogamous relationships are similarly normal and accepted by at least the Dhai culture.

AND (and!) the arguably most important character in the book has multiple physical disabilities which are never wiped away and which are treated with respect.

Seriously, diversity is firing on all cylinders here.

I loved this book. It’s a wonderful book. Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is essentially what I wanted Game of Thrones to be: it’s a truly epic fantasy which grapples with fraught ethical questions while immersing me in a meticulously built out world of wonder. But where Game of Thrones was full of White men and rape and ponderous descriptions of what people were eating, The Mirror Empire was full of brown women and consent2 and really good dialogue.

Like Game of Thrones, The Mirror Empire follows multiple POVs, but nearly all of these characters are women and I read all of them as people of color. They are strewn across the world, and slowly their stories intersect as it becomes clear that their entire world is beset by a force from without, brought to bear by an ascendant star and the magical forces that star brings. It’s a convoluted narrative, and if there’s anything to fault the book for it’s that the book races forward and trusts the reader to follow. But I followed. I didn’t have any troubled keeping pace.

The Mirror Empire is notable for so many reasons. It has entire societies led by women, and they are not peaceful, loving societies. It has unabashedly ugly women in it who are not punished for being ugly. It has fat women in it, and their fatness doesn’t matter. Hurley deconstructs so many things in this book it’s impossible to touch on them all in this review without spoiling the book itself, but suffice to say she slices the idea that women are inherently more gentle or nurturing to ribbons in the case Zezilli. She destroys the idea that people with disabilities are fragile and incompetent with Lilia–while adamantly maintaining that those disabilities should be accommodated.

The book serves as the beginning of the Worldbreaker Saga, and it’s a beautiful start. The ending leaves a number of questions open, and I’m dying to find out what happens in Empire Ascendant.

Honestly, this was a book I was waiting to read, and I didn’t even know it. It’s a long story shot through with gender weirdness, questions about autonomy, obligation, and redemption. It’s a challenging story full of challenging characters, and I highly recommend it.

5 stars
1In Saiduan, it seemed implied that this third gender category was fixed and assigned to intersex individuals.
2Dhai culture, especially, is focused on issues of consent. Casually touching another person without verbal consent given is a taboo. I loved this. Loved it. I wish we had this in our culture.

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