Book Review: COURT OF FIVES by Kate Elliott

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

  • The Efeans are coded brown, for sure. Jessamy, while mixed-race, seems to get read by her countrymen as a brown women more often than not. Additionally, Jessamy’s internal experience as a mixed-race person is discussed throughout the book.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Maraya, has a club foot. The book explores, briefly, issues related to disability and how society punishes people with disabilities for literally just existing.
  • Jessamy’s sister, Amaya, is definitely queer. It’s unclear if she’s a lesbian or bisexual, but she’s definitely got a thing going with her best friend, Denya, and it’s delightful.
  • There are also explorations of class and religious differences throughout, though set against a secondary world.

Content Warnings for Book (contains spoilers):

  • Attempted murder of Jessamy’s mother and sisters by entombment

Review:

Jessamy, daughter of a Patron army captain and a Commoner woman, has one driving dream: win the Fives. The Fives are the sports competition that anyone can enter–men, women, Commoners, and Patrons. The Fives don’t care who you are or where you come from, just that you’re strong and clever and agile. The problem is that if Jessamy wins the Fives, she has to pull off her mask, and her father has forbidden her to run them.

But then, her father’s benefactor dies, and her family’s life is thrown into chaos. A new benefactor, Lord Gargaron, swoops in, and he is particularly vicious. He marries her father off to his niece. Jessamy’s mother and her three sisters conveniently disappear. And Jessamy is taken to Lord Gargaron’s Fives training stable–a new potential revenue stream for him.

Jessamy is a wonderful character. At times selfish and mercurial, at others stalwart and loyal, and always clever, she is one of my favorite people to read about in a long time. Jessamy is every inch a bright, rebellious teenager. There is a moment, fairly early in the book, where she has been training on the sly for the Fives. She knows her sisters have been in on it. But she is floored when her mother reveals that she knows Jess has been sneaking out to go training. I loved that–I loved that she is not quite as smart as she thinks she is, that she is not quite as independent as she thinks she is. She is still stretching her wings, testing them, and she has the cavalier nature that comes with easing into adulthood while being protected and loved in childhood. She is a beautifully realized character.

The worldbuilding is also beautifully realized. Efea and its various wars mean different things to different people. To Jess, who hears about them mostly from her father, who has risen through the ranks of the army, they mean prosperity and order. To her fellow trainee, Kal, who is a prince twice over, they mean family squabbles and political bickering. To Ro-Emnu, a Commoner poet who helps her out of a very tight spot, they mean colonization and stolen history. All of these interpretations are true. All of these are not quite the whole story. Though Jessamy is the only POV character in Court of Fives, she has enough meaty conversations about parts of her world she’s never seen or took for granted over the course of the book that we get to see this kind of fractured idea of truth.

Truly, the character work is superb, the worldbuilding is excellent, and the plot is engaging. I really, really enjoyed Court of Fives. The only missteps I think Elliott made were in the romance between Jess and Kal. Kal was a necessary and central character to the plot, both for Jess’s arc and her father, but I was never convinced of their romance. And Kal, how would he retain such a naive sweetness about him having grown up with someone like Gargaron with his uncle? I found both the romance and his purity of heart unrealistic, and it stuck out all the more because the character writing for literally every other character was so strong. Kal really felt like a plot device more than a person, in virtually every sense, and the book was weaker for it.

But still! Read the book for Jess. Read the book for Maraya, who wants to be an Archivist. Read the book for all the little side characters who bring in depth and shading to Efea, like the woman who runs the old stable that Jess used to train at. The scene where she turns away Jess after she’s placed at Gargaron’s stable is heartbreaking. Read the book for the layers of history it has at its core, for the way it slowly reveals that the Fives are more than just games and so few in Efea seem to remember that. Just read the book. It’s pretty damn good.

Takeaway and Rating:

Are you craving a book with rich worldbuilding and a kickass girl lead character? Do you want to see her break some rules and save some people? Court of Fives by Kate Elliott will satisfy that craving for sure.

4stars

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

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

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

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

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Content Warnings for Book:

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

Review:

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

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

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me reading literally every scene with Sam in it

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

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

Takeaway & Rating:

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

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*Assigned female at birth

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

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Goodreads | Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

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

ANCIENT, ANCIENT by Kiini Ibura Salaam

Amazon | Goodreads

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

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

Book Review: FIRE LOGIC by Laurie J. Marks

Amazon | Goodreads

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

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

This book is an everything burrito of thoughtful inclusivity.

 


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

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

Get ready for an epic ambush.

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

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

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

This is what emotional gratification looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi

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Amazon | Goodreads

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

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


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

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fuck yer star charts

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

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

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

Or:

A sound spidered through the floor.

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

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

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

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

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WELL-WRITTEN GIRLS 4EVA

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

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

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so they were….frenemies, basically?

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US

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: 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.

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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.

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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 & 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:
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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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads Author Page |Amazon Author Page

Book Review: THE MARK OF NOBA

The Mark of Noba banner
This is my stop during the book blitz for The Mark of Noba by GL Tomas. This book blitz is organized by Lola’s Blog Tours. The book blitz runs from 25 till 31 August, you can view the complete blitz schedule on the website of Lola’s Blog Tours. My review is posted below the blurb, author info, and giveaway info!

The Mark of Noba Cover

The Mark of Noba (The Sterling Wayfairer Series #1)
by GL Tomas
Genre: Fantasy
Age category: Young Adult
Release Date: 25 August, 2015

Blurb:
Sterling Wayfairer has one goal for his senior year: make his mark. He’s been slipping into the background his whole high school career—distracted by his mother’s mental health, unsettled by the vivid dreams that haunt him at night, and overshadowed by the athletic accomplishments of his popular best friends. But this year is going to be different. He’s going to break a few rules, have some fun, and maybe even work up the nerve to ask his crush out on a date.

But things don’t go exactly as planned. Students are disappearing, Sterling starts losing time, and it all seems to center around Tetra, a girl no one else seems to notice but him. When he finally tracks her down for answers, they aren’t what he expects: He and Tetra hail from a world called Noba, and they’re being hunted by a Naga, a malevolent shapeshifter that’s marked them for destruction.

Tetra and Sterling have distinct abilities that can help them fight back, but their power depends heavily on the strength of their bond, a connection that transcends friendship, transcends romance. Years apart have left their bond weak. Jumpstarting it will require Sterling to open his heart and his mind and put his full trust in the mysterious Tetra.

If he doesn’t, neither of them will survive.

You can find The Mark of Noba on Goodreads

You can buy The Mark of Noba here:
Amazon
Amazon Paperback

GL Tomas Author picAbout the Author:
Guinevere and Libertad go by many superhero aliases. Whether you know them by G.L. Tomas, the Twinjas, or the Rebellious Valkyries, their mission is always the same: spreading awareness of diversity in books. Oh, and trying to figure out the use for pocketless pants! They host other allies and champions of diversity in their secret lair in Connecticut.

You can find and contact with GL Tomas here:
Website
Facebook Author
Facebook book blog
Twitter account Libertad
Twitter account Guinevere
Twitter account YA book blog
Twitter account NA, romance and adult books
Goodreads
Author Pinterest
Pinterest Book Blog
Book Blog Tumblr

There is a tour wide giveaway for the book blitz of The Mark of Noba. These are the prizes you can win:
– $10 Amazon Gift Card(US) or A book of your choice via The Book Depository up to $10(INT)

For a chance to win, enter the rafflecopter below:
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B’s Review

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

Notes on Diversity
Given that the authors of The Mark of Noba are so deeply involved in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, I set my expectations high in terms of diversity. I am happy to say they delivered!

The book starts with Sterling Wayfairer, who is a blond, blue-eyed cishet straight dude, but he is basically the only one of his kind in the book. And unlike in The Windup Girl, where this viewpoint dominates the narrative and makes the diversity surrounding the central White dude ornamental, Sterling Wayfairer is not put in a position of power or privilege in his world due to his Whiteness/cis-ness/het-ness. Virtually all of his friends are teens of color, and their presence is not especially noteworthy. Like with Niko, G L Tomas pushes back against White supremacy by creating a world where people of color are thoughtlessly acceptable, desirable, perfect just as they are. Racial tensions where Sterling lives seem not to exists, and this in itself is a strong pro-diversity statement 1.

AND THEN WE GET TETRA. Tetra is Black, like very dark Black, and she’s beautiful and strong and smart and flawed (so flawed) but so redeemable. AND she is offhandedly queer, which made my heart flutter. (You can already tell I have a massive thing for Tetra, huh?). Tetra is a great character, and she is an especially great Black woman character. That she is so dark-skinned and consistently seen as desirable is another example of G L Thomas going the extra distance here in terms of visibility and diversity in their work.

But wait! There’s more! With Sterling’s mother we get a character grappling with mental disability, and with Sterling himself we see how that affects the people she loves. Laurel, Sterling’s mother, was written with such nuance. As both the child of a parent with severe mental health issues and as a parent who struggles with mental health themself, the delicate and fraught relationship between Sterling and Laurel really got to me. That kind of relationship is very easy to write badly in fiction, and I’ve seen it written badly more than I’ve seen it written well–but G L Tomas got it right. They captured the layers of dependence and complication that the mental illness of a parent causes–the way it turns a child into a caretaker, and the way that muddies the relationship between the child and the parent.

Noba teaser 1Review
Sterling Wayfairer is just trying to make the most of his senior year, but all he actually seems to do is get in trouble. And then things start to get weird: there’s a girl at school in all his classes that only he seems to remember. He starts losing time. And then this girl, Tetra, moves into his house, convincing his parents that she’s a ‘foreign exchange student.’ She says they know each other. She says they are bonded. She says their from some other world? And things get even weirder after that.

From Tetra’s perspective, she’s stumbled into a foreign world to get her bonded Traveler up to speed, but he remembers nothing. Literally nothing. And there’s a monster loose, trying to find them to eat their souls. She has to protect this entire world, get Sterling up to speed, and protect him from the monster literally all by herself. While blending into at a local high school.

The book bounces back and forth between Sterling and Tetra’s perspectives, giving us insight between how each of them is dealing with this enormously complicated situation. What’s lovely about the back and forth is that both Sterling and Tetra have clearly defined and very, very different voices. Sterling is so young, and untempered, and so casual. Tetra, by comparison, is much more formal, and more wary, and starts of more focused on the task at hand. But, over the course of the book, she loosens up and relaxes into Sterling’s space, his circle of friends, his family. Both of these characters grow a lot of the course of the book–Sterling matures, and Tetra seems to get younger and looser and warmer. I think we don’t see Tetra’s sort of reverse-arc enough, especially in YA books. It’s especially meaningful to me because I feel like I’ve gone on a similar emotional journey as Tetra.

All the hallmarks of a YA high school book are here–midterms, prom prep, party hookup–but with the threat of a sci fi monster in the background. If there’s one thing I would have changed about the book, it would have been a better balance between the high school foregrounding and the monster quest background arc. The hunt for the mysterious Naga hunting Sterling and Tetra slips in and out of the foreground to the extent that by the time the requisite showdown happens the stakes don’t quite feel high enough. It’s foreshadowed well at the beginning, but there’s a lull in the middle of the book where the Naga seems to go into hibernation while Sterling and Tetra hang out and do high school things (which is great fun and excellent for their character development). Still, a better balance between both sides of the plot would have added tension all the way through the book and added even more emotional punch to an already gut-wrenching ending. Whoo boy, that ending is killer.

Even with the uneveness in the pacing and tension, this book is well worth the read. I am excited to see what Tomas does with the second book. The characterization is so strong, and the writing is lovely. The teaser chapter for the second book had me so intrigued!

Also, and this is a small but important point, the book design is beautiful. Just lovely to behold, from the cover to the chapter headings.

4 stars

1For examples along other axes of this, see Malinda Lo’s statements of writing fantasy worlds without homophobia.



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