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:
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Twitter account NA, romance and adult books
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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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Book Review: NIKO

Niko_KaytiNikaRaet

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This book is packed with diversity. It is Diverse with a capital D. The main character is a take-no-shit suffer-no-fools Black teenager, and most of the people around her are other people of color, too: brown folks, East Asian people, South Asian people, they run the gamut. There are kickass queer characters. There are characters with disabilities. Class issues are on display. Diversity is truly firing on all cylinders in Niko.

Honestly, the author’s attention to issues of diversity in both the characters and the worldbuilding is what moved this from a 3 star to a 4 star rating. It wasn’t only that diversity was present, but how it was woven into the overall book: there is great nuance present here that shows that Kayti Nika Raet thought long and hard about how diversity in fiction ought to be represented. The racial and gender diversity, for example, was presented without comment. The issues of disability became plot threads, things to dissect. Very well done.


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

Harmony Niko is seventeen years old and trapped in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic wasteland full of pseudo-human monsters called Slithers that want to eat her and acidic rain that will kill her if she does not find shelter from it. She is responsible for keeping herself and her two younger brothers alive. But while out on a foraging run everything falls apart–she comes back to find her dilapidated house in flames, her youngest brother dead, and her remaining brother missing. She wakes up in Amaryllis city, now part of a circle of Slither killers.

Once in Amaryllis city, Niko’s world falls apart. Things she took for granted–that Slithers can be easily killed with the right weaponry and good luck, that clean water is precious and must be hoarded–are suddenly called into question. Niko struggles to find her place in the Rose Circle, the group of Slither killers who have adopted her, while trying to process all the new information thrown at her. At the same time, she forms a plan to get back outside Amaryllis and find her lost brother.

Kayti Nika Raet anchors the plot on Niko. As an author, she places all her eggs in one basket. Niko as a character is fully realized, possessing a broad range of emotionality and a strong, driving voice that carries the narrative forward. Niko is intense, observant and suspicious. She is shaken and vulnerable and ferocious. She is a lone wolf and a caretaker. Raet writes Niko with lovely subtlety, letting her grow and stretch over the course of the book. Niko at the end of the book is very different than she was at the beginning. She is still very much herself, but the course of events has marked her, and she is changed.

It is probably obvious that I connected to Niko’s character. Every beat of Niko’s character felt true for me because I was so much like Niko at eighteen: lost, full of bravado, failing an even more lost younger sibling, coping with unnamed and unrecognized PTSD. Raet’s writing captured a resiliency and a woundedness that is utterly complex, at once strong enough to keep going and also weak enough to be self-destructive. And, at the same time, the book is full of science fiction conceits that are intriguing. The hints dropped about the weird, haunting, body-horror Slither monsters are not resolved in this book, and are definitely interesting enough to keep me hooked. I’ll be picking up the next installment, Harm.

Most of the other characters lacked Niko’s complexity, which was one weak spot in the book. Malik, one leg of a very light love triangle, shows some depth, and as a set Norm and Lo were definitely interesting, but most of the other characters blended together. Perhaps as an extension, there are scenes where the action is somewhat unclear. Raet’s writing is typically very crisp, but sometimes I had to reread sentences to glean what happened when several characters were interacting around Niko. A less dedicated reader may have skimmed or skipped those sections altogether. One section where this happened actually turned out to be important plot-wise, but I initially missed who had upset who.

Bottom line, though, I really, really enjoyed this book. It was a fast and brutal and brilliant read, just like Niko herself. When I found out there were three other books in the series already I wanted to clear my schedule and read them all back to back.

4 stars





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Book Review: CAMILLE AND THE BEARS OF BEISA – DRAFNEL

CamilleAndTheBearsOfBeisaDrafnel_SimoneSalmon

Notes on Diversity:
Features a large cast of people of color helmed by agentic, powerful women, yay! Portions of the book are set in Jamaica, so it’s not even entirely USA-centric, also yay!

No queer characters. No characters with identified disabilities.


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

Drafnel, the first novel in the Camille and the Bears of Beisa series by Simone Salmon, is a major genre-bender. Equal parts paranormal thriller, romance, sweeping sci-fi novel and folkloric fantasy all wrapped together, Salmon manages to weave them all into an absorbing whole. Drafnel is scheduled for release on August 28, 2015; you can learn more about the book here.

Drafnel is composed of several intersecting narratives strung across different universes and timelines, all connected by specific individuals who persist across time and space1. The anchor narrative is driven by Camille Matahari, a young woman in 21st century New York City fresh out of college with her whole life ahead of her. The book follows her as her otherworldly powers begin to unlock, and as she is hunted by a persistent and complicated evil across time and space. To survive, she draws on a community of people both familiar and unfamiliar to her, including her Indian-born Jamaican-raised grandmother, Catharine, her Afro-Latino boyfriend, Chase DeLeon, and the shifter Beisling Bear clan.

Drafnel is Dune-like in the grandiose sweep of its worldbuilding. The sci-fi universe Salmon creates, Narvina, with its eight ruling clans and ornate power structures was intriguing. It was also refreshing to read a great space opera like this where the people in charge are people of color, and where the universe is a matriarchy.

While anchored by Camille and her narrative, the book functions as a series of linked interludes. The POV switches between Camille, her grandmother, Chase, and others. When the POV switches to people in the far-future (far-past? Extra-dimensional?) world of Narvina, the reader is able to grasp what that universe is like from an insider’s perspective. These interludes are able to fill out the scope and reach of Narvina without an over-reliance on info-dumping. I will say that the lingo of Narvina, which required a glossary I found too late in my reading, confused me. But Salmon’s use of folktales and specific stories to build out the structure of this unfamiliar world, and to link it back to Camille’s story, was a brilliant narrative device.

There were also long sections that explored Camille’s grandmother’s childhood in Jamaica, and her grandmother’s awakening powers. These sections were wonderful—they created an additional counterpoint of paranormal weirdness (Camille experiencing these disruptions in our current time, her grandmother experiencing them in the 1950s in Jamaica) and provided another compelling narrative voice. Honestly, Catherine Matahari, Camille’s grandmother, stole the book for me. I loved her in all her incarnations. She was wonderfully drawn, and her sections held so much fine detail and description that I wanted the whole book to be about her. I felt her voice was stronger than Camille’s, ultimately.

The book is complicated, and thematically messy. It’s a surprisingly quick, short read, which is both good and bad: good, because it’s quick-paced and satisfying, bad because I wish Salmon had taken the time to dig into some of her themes and explore them with more nuance and depth. There was more to mine in this book, I think. There were some characters left unformed and half-developed, including Camille who never quite stands out from the cast of more sharply drawn characters around her. There were some ideas waiting to be clarified in the text that didn’t quite come together. But on the whole, Drafnel is a hugely ambitious book, and deeply felt, and it works.

4 stars

1The structure and some of the themes of the book reminded me of the movie The Fountain, which I adored. This idea of the same person persisting in different forms across time and space, mostly through the power of deep emotional connection to other people, really connected the two pieces in my mind.



 

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Book Review: REDBURN

redburn cover

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a Melville nerd. I am a big enough Melville nerd that I have the last line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” tattooed on my arm. I am a big enough nerd that reading Moby Dick wasn’t enough for me–I followed it up with Redburn.

Here’s the thing: Redburn is an early effort that’s passable in its own right, but really doesn’t prepare you for the genius gamechanger it’s laying the groundwork for. You just don’t see anything like Moby Dick coming based on Redburn. Which is not to say Redburn isn’t a good book, or an enjoyable one, or one worth reading (especially if you, like me, are struck with an incredibly geeky urge to go all completionist and read everything Melville wrote). But it does mean that reading Redburn after reading Melville’s legitimately more famous and better-regarded books is a peculiar experience.

To just take the book on its own terms, devoid of context or history or knowledge of what comes after, Redburn is at its heart a tale of a boy just coming to terms with the fact that his view of the world, and in particular his understanding of it as a fair and just place, has been shattered. It’s a pretty standard story of innocence lost and adulthood gained, told in hindsight by an older version of Wellingborough Redburn himself (and isn’t that a hell of a name?*) who seems slightly embarassed at just how naive he was way back in the day. This theme is nested throughout the book, starting with the economic collapse of his father to the inherent unfairness of life on the sea, to the inherent unfairness of poverty he’s first exposed to in Liverpool. The scope of the book gradually grows, like going from the innermost matroushka doll to the outermost one, which is a neat little trick on Melville’s part and rings very true for anyone who’s grappled with forging his or her own worldview in adolescence.

And the writing is lovely. Here, like in Moby Dick or “Bartleby,” Melville is telling you a story through someone else telling you a story. And one thing that keeps me coming back to Melville time and again is just that: that he tells you a story. The writing here is intimate and immediate, like you’re sitting in a comfortably overstuffed armchair with Redburn and he’s recounting his youthful exploits to you — just you — over a cup of tea. In fact, it’s a little bit purer here in Redburn than in anything else I’ve read by him. It’s got more scope than “Bartleby” by virtue of its length alone and unlike Moby Dick, where Ishmael himself starts to fade in and out of the narrative, Redburn is always front and center. It’s Redburn telling Redburn’s story (as opposed to the rather elderly gentleman telling you about Bartleby or Ishmael telling you about the Pequod) and Redburn, luckily, has the wit and grace as a reflective narrator to carry it.

But if I’m being honest, I think the only people who would be willing to read Redburn and enjoy it are people like me who have already signed on for the Herman Melville Experience once and don’t mind coming back for more. And since that’s the case, the truth of the matter is that Redburn is most interesting to read in the context of Melville more broadly. In Redburn, you see what is essentially the first pass at themes and archetypes Melville will use to much greater and deeper effect later on. In particular, Jackson reads like a more malicious and less conflicted version of Claggart. And Redburn himself reads as a terribly naive and less observant version of Ishmael. Perhaps Ishmael ten or fifteen years before he set foot on the Pequod. Redburn, like Ishamel, is more educated and more refined than the others on his boat, and Redburn (like Ishmael) finds himself falling into very close, very fast (and very homoerotic) friendships with foreigners as soon as he gets the chance. As in Benito Cereno, Melville’s ambivalence towards America — its grandeur built on foundations of injustice, its insularity, its conformity that can (as far as Melville seems to be aware) only be escaped by shipping out to sea — becomes a dominant theme.

And more than that, Redburn gives a great deal of insight into Melville himself. If Ishmael is more or less an idealized version of Melville, Redburn is clearly who Melville thought he once was. The parallels between Redburn and Melville are striking (so striking that my copy of Redburn has an appendix which notes chapter by chapter aspects of Melville’s own first voyage that he fictionalized for the book). Redburn is a book about a young man whose education and experiences lead him to sea totally unprepared, one who has to adapt without any clear guidance, and who in the process finds life at sea both utterly freeing and constraining, and really that young man is Herman Melville and not Wellingborough Redburn. It’s not so surprising, then, that Melville was dismissive of Redburn. He wrote it fast and wrote it for the money and frankly, you can tell. It’s an overly long, highly digressive travelogue of a book where you find yourself sifting through random chapters about churches in Liverpool and Redburn’s father’s unusable guidebook before Melville eventually gets around to anything resembling a plot again. This technique works a lot better in Moby Dick, but even there people find it annoying.

But I can’t help but wonder if he was dismissive of it because it was a little exposing to him, too. Writing it that fast perhaps meant that it’s more raw, more reflective of parts of himself he wasn’t fond of, and when all is said and done that’s what will stick with me most about this book.

4 stars

* His name, despite what the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition of the book would have you believe, is actually Wellingborough Redburn and not Wellington Redburn. Shame on you, Penguin Classics, shame on you.

Book Review: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

TheMartianChronicles_Bradbury

I think I first read The Martian Chronicles in junior high. Around then, I’d read anything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. I was always rather grateful he’s so prolific. And I remember really liking The Martian Chronicles, but when I picked up a copy a couple of months ago I found I didn’t really remember anything concrete about it. Just that I liked it.

On rereading it, I’ve found I still really like it, though probably not for the same reasons I did back when I was twelve or so. It’s a book ultimately concerned with the ambivalent nature of man — a deep-seated greediness married to a gentler, more altruistic side — and the cyclical nature of change. It traces the settlement of Mars by humans, which results in the accidental genocide of the native Martians via chickenpox and the humans’ attempts to change Mars into a place more comfortable to them. They plant trees to increase the oxygen level in the planet’s atmosphere (a move which, though not directly addressed in the book, strikes me as the sort of thing that would have disastrous downstream consequences) and build towns that look just like the ones they left. Some even build hot dog stands. But when atomic war breaks out on Earth, the settlers go rushing back*, leaving a few isolated, lonely souls behind and Mars virtually uninhabited. The book ends with small clutches of escapees from Earth** touching down illicitly to start a new life there. They declare themselves Martians, and the cycle seems to start over again.

That’s about as close to a plot as the book has. I think it’s technically considered a novel, but really it’s a collection of inter-related short stories. There are a handful of characters that make multiple appearances — most notably, members of the Fourth Expedition to Mars, the first to survive landing there in no small part due to the fact that one of the previous three expeditions wiped out the Martians with chicken pox — but this is not a character-driven book. Really, Bradbury’s focus seems to be on capturing the way life on Mars shifts as the humans take over the planet. And the flexibility of the book’s structure allows him to do that with a wider, more varied lens than he would’ve had if he’d tried to do it using a more traditionally novel-like framework. By making each chapter a discrete episode in an era, he’s able to explore many different reactions to Mars and many different ways of living there.

The structure of the book, actually, is one of the few things I did remember about the book from the way back junior high times. And I’ve always been intrigued by it. It makes sense with Bradbury — he’s a master of the short story. Through the interconnected short stories, The Martian Chronicles is able to give you a sense of what it would be like to live there at any point in the long process of settling, and gives you an understanding of the long process itself.

The other thing that sticks with me is the tone. In story after story, Bradbury writes in simple, almost quaint language, but does so in a way that communicates to the reader his trepidation and distaste with the frontier mindset of the settlers. In each individual story, it’s a quiet, subtle thing, like a warning he’s sending out that he doesn’t really believe will be heeded. A subtext lurking in the background. But over the course of the 27 stories, you get the message loud and clear. But the tone, I think, is at its strongest and most powerful in “The Musicians”:

Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the black flake covering. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.

That sense of innocent, thoughtless disrespect for the lives of people and civilizations that came before resonates through Bradbury’s writing in story after story. Sometimes, like in “The Musicians”, this is the focus of the story. But as often as not, it isn’t, it just lurks in the background, coloring how the stories fit together.

4 stars

*This was about the only thing I found unbelievable about the book. I found it improbable that people would flee a safe planet to one in the throes of nuclear war rather than the other way around. I also wonder how feasible that is — I mean, if shit’s blowing up all over, where are those rockets supposed to land again? But one gaping plot hole in a book this good I can overlook.

**This last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” kept reminding me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where a pair of families escape an impending world war by building rockets and striking out for a peaceful, livable planet in the dead of night. Of course in the episode, that peaceful, livable planet is….EARTH! So it’s inverted, I guess, here. But still, same sense of tension and the same basic plot points.

Book Review: BAD PUBLICITY

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

Bad Publicity, by Brian C. Baer, is a modern twist on the hardboiled noir detective story. The book centers on Jackson Hardy, a grizzled alcoholic unraveling a mystery who contends with his fair share of femme fatales and massive thugs. It all sounds very Dashiell Hammett except for the particulars.

Jackson Hardy isn’t a P.I.—he’s a tabloid reporter, and he’s not a very good one on his own.* One of the femme fatales is a ghost named Madame Blue who feeds him his sordid tidbits about movie stars. It’s these clever subversions that make Bad Publicity worth reading. Where noir literature was always a wry satire of its times—a reflection of the lose-lose nihilism of post-Depression American life—Baer’s writing sends up today’s empty fishbowl fascination with celebrity culture. To this end, making Hardy a tabloid reporter is a brilliant update of the genre.

The book follows Jackson Hardy as his use of Madame Blue (by way of an unplugged fax machine) lands him a string of high profile tabloid stories. But with those stories come ruined careers and retaliation from the movie stars he writes about. As Jackson digs deeper with Madame Blue’s help, things get stranger, questions about these celebrities pile up, and the plot twists and turns.

The structural criticisms that can be leveled against Bad Publicity are largely the same ones that can be leveled against noir fiction in general: the women characters lack dimension, and its cast is as White as fresh-fallen arctic snow. In updating the conventions of the genre, Baer could have included some diversity to his cast. Regarding the female characters, a case could be made that Jackson is, for much of the book, a drunk and emotional mess, and therefore an unreliable narrator in terms of what these women are actually like. No such excuse can be made for the lack of characters of color, though.

That said, the characters we get are well-drawn enough that they held my interest. I was particularly impressed by Jackson’s evolving relationship to Madame Blue, who grows stronger and more corporeal over the course of the book. Also of interest was Fitzgerald, presented as Jackson’s one stable friend over the course of the book.** And, last but certainly not least, a brief interlude where we meet Jackson’s estranged ex-wife proved extremely enlightening. Layla was a fascinating creature who deserved her own book, in my opinion, and enriched this one.

If you’re looking for a well-paced paranormal thriller with roots in hardboiled detective fiction, Bad Publicity will scratch that itch.

4 stars

*At least not when he’s drunk, which is usually the case. When he dries out, he proves he can do the legwork without Madame Blue’s help.

**Sadly, this never panned out, but I shipped it.

Book Review: SHADOWPLAY

Shadowplay_LauraLam

The middle book of any trilogy has the hardest job to do: it has to complicate the overall narrative while still being its own book. Bad middle books feel like filler; hundreds of pages of marked time between two cliffhangers. Good middle books walk the fine line between staying true to the story you fell in love with in the first book and twisting it enough to keep you interested in reading the next installment.

Shadowplay, I am happy to say, is a good middle book. As the second book in Laura Lam’s Micah Grey series, Shadowplay opens after one crisis and ends with another, but the path between them never feels like filler.

The events at the end of Pantomime force Micah into hiding again, this time with Drystan at his side. Drystan calls in a life-debt from the disgraced magician Jasper Maske to secure a hiding place at the dusty Kymri Theater, and thus begins Micah’s second adventure. Again, Micah goes into hiding. Again, Micah takes on a false identity. But the difference in Shadowplay is that he does so in plain sight. And at night he has a place to return to where people know who he really is and accepts him for that. I loved that nuance.

One area ripe for exploration that was missed, though, was Micah’s new identity. In the city of Imachara, while outside on the street, Micah wears a small piece of Vestige which makes him appear to be Temnian. In the book, Temnian people are coded as people of color; visibly foreign and visible different—“from the colonies,” mistrusted. As Sam (Micah’s name when passing as Temnian), Micah should face structural oppression. Unless Ellada is much further along in terms of race relations than we are in the real world, this should probably have been more than a couple of scowls on the street as mentioned in the text. This oversight is compounded when Cyan, an actual Temnian girl, joins the group. She either never speaks of whatever structural oppression she faces or she never experiences any. She seems to have no feelings on the matter that these two White kids are passing themselves off as Temnian. I’m not saying she should be bothered by it, necessarily, but she probably should have had an opinion on it one way or the other. In any case, there is a potential for this element of the book to rub readers of color the wrong way since Micah is literally using race as a costume for large sections of the book without any substantial reflection of what that means.

That said, I did truly appreciate that in Shadowplay Lam began to unweave Micah’s intersexuality from his apparent special abilities around Vestige*—which become more pronounced in this book. We learn more about that in Shadowplay; the Phantom Damselfy herself becomes a prominent character with a name and a history and a future. We also learn that there are others with similar abilities in Micah’s world. It’s confirmed more than once over the course of the book that it may just be coincidence that Micah is intersex and has these abilities. Micah is allowed to be just Micah.

Shadowplay is excellently paced and explores a different part of Elladan culture than Pantomime—magic shows and seances. I, actually, am fascinated by the historical spiritualism movement and the practices of debunking seances, so this was an oddly perfect match for my interests. Between Micah’s Phantom Damselfly induced visions, magician training, and tracking down people who are tracking down him, there is plenty of plot to go around. There are double agents. There is a slow-burning, very sweet romance, but not before the trauma of the ending of the first book has to be dealt with and processed by both Micah and Drystan. There is the question of Micah’s weird abilities and the potential and the danger they pose. And there is a hell of an ending and the questions it raises

I cannot wait for Masquerade**.

4 stars

* If Lam’s interactions on twitter are any indications, and I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be, she appears to be a lovely and reflective person.

**Also, I the behind-the-scenes story of the third Micah Grey book is a pleasure in and of itself.

Book Review: PANTOMIME

pantomime

I have heard nothing but good things about Pantomime by Laura Lam, and the book earned every good word I heard about it. Pantomime tells the story of Micah Grey, who was once Iphigenia Laurus: an intersex teenager raised as a girl who runs away to the circus when her parents decide to surgically alter her to make her ‘marriageable’ against her will. Once on the run, Iphigenia takes the name Micah, passes herself off as a boy, and joins a circus. At the circus, Micah begins training as a replacement for the circus’ aging male acrobat.

Micah’s voice is beautifully written. Lam captures the confusion of adolescence, the way Micah’s gender and biological sex adds to that confusion and isolation, and the anger Micah feels when he realizes that being intersex shouldn’t isolate him from those around him but does. At the same time, Micah begins a relationship with female his acrobat partner, Aenea, while nursing a crush on the White Clown of the circus, Drystan. Micah’s burgeoning bisexuality provides another welcome thread of the book, which Lam handles with sensitivity and grace.

The circus itself is presented as a microcosm, a little world unto itself, full of history that Micah has to learn, and full of possible dangers as well as new experiences to explore. Micah endures hazing. Micah learns who in the circus to watch out for and who is safe. Meanwhile, news that Iphigenia Laurus has run away spreads through town. Some in the circus put the pieces together; some do not. Micah must learn who he can trust and who he cannot. Some learn his secrets, and he learns theirs. The theme of secrets—the power they hold, the destructive force they ultimately represent—is a present all throughout the book. That theme comes to a devastating, heart-wrenching set of climaxes at the end of the book.

Pantomime is fits squarely in the genre of fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and doled out in enough small doses to stay interesting without ever being overwhelming. Each chapters starts with an epigraph from some fictional work which provides some context about the Archipelago, the region in which Pantomime takes place. Micah’s past as Iphigenia gives him an education on Ellada’s (his country) history and political relationship with its outlying colonies. Slowly, Vestige is introduced—magical artifacts from some time long past which work sporadically. The circus uses them for entertainment value, but Ellada once used them as weaponry. Micah, for as yet unknown reasons, has a strange and powerful relationship with the remnants of the culture that produced the Vestige artifacts.

Honestly, if there’s anything to critique about Pantomime, perhaps, it’s that last point—by the end of the book, it’s increasingly clear that Micah is, in some mysterious way, special, and that this specialness is tied to his being intersex. This, I’m sure will get extrapolated in the book’s sequels, but I can’t help but think that the book would have been stronger, and would have made more of a positive statement about intersexuality, gender fluidity and bisexuality if Micah had just been…Micah. Not chosen, not magical, just Micah—an acrobat who is complicated and trying to grow up in a complicated world. But all that said, the book was still lovely, and I am very curious about the Penglass, so I’m already halfway through Shadowplay.

4 stars

Book Review: WHO FEARS DEATH

WhoFearsDeath

WHO FEARS DEATH, by Nnedi Okorafor, is not a book for the faint of heart. Told in retrospect to her captors by a woman facing execution—a woman who has changed the world around her in fundamental and unexpected ways and sacrificed herself to do it—the teller does not flinch away from the grisly and vicious details of her story. She revels in them. As much a book about hope and change as it is a book about the horrors of complacency, WHO FEARS DEATH is a book that embraces anger, and for that if nothing else, I loved it.

TRIGGER WARNING: The book has roots in the real-world history of weaponized rape in the Sudan. In the book, Onyesonwu is the product of militarized rape: her Okeke (Black) mother is raped brutally by a Nuru (White) sorcerer, and then her mother is rejected by her husband. Onyesonwu spends her early childhood in the deserts alone with her mother. Her mother notices the child has an affinity for juju—magic—and despite her child’s visible biracial features decides she has to seek out a township and raise her among other people. It’s not easy—people like Onyesonwu, the products of Nuru/Okeke rape are called Ewu and presumed to be inherently violent, inherently broken due to the means of their conception. Finding a village where they are accepted is the first of many battles here.

Onyesonwu grows up and grows into her magic. She becomes a shapeshifter. She demands to be mentored, going up against old barriers that would restrict her both about her being Ewu and a woman. She falls in love. She builds friendships. She learns that her world is being torn apart; she learns of a prophecy that she might be the one to heal it. She goes through an initiation that reveals her own death and unlocks her powerful magic. She prepares herself for the inevitable showdown with the powerful force of a man who created her. Across the narrative, the book manages to tackle genocide, rape, female circumcision, cultural relativism, colorism, and a host of other issues with a deft hand. Onyesonwu’s voice is always harsh, always sharp-tongued and brutal. Always questioning.

Onyesonwu was a narrator I related to immediately. She was so brash, so defiant. So deeply capable of love, and at the same time so reactive and defensive. Entitled and yet so used to being refused. So angry. I loved her anger. I was moved by anger. I connected with it. The book exulted in her anger. It was always her greatest strength. When it was positioned as a weakness—and occasionally it was—it was always done so by the men around her, and thus the weakness they claimed was undercut by the fact that they saw her as an obvious threat to their masculinity. Even the love of her life, Mwita, her healer and companion, fell prey to this. But none of the women ever told her she was too angry. And when she fought for them, when she avenged them, the men did not think her too angry then. What I loved about this book was the subversion of that trope, that Angry Black Woman trope that is so often used to discredit the work marginalized women of color do. Onyesonwu locates the source of her anger here:

Humiliation and confusion were the staples of my childhood. Is it a wonder that anger was never far behind?

And then her mentor’s mentor, a man who intially underestimates her and tries to turn her away, validates the usefulness and power of that anger here at the close of the book:

Onyesonwu’s very essence was change and defiance.

Anger is an active emotion. It drives things, it pushes things. It can be abusive, and it can do wrong, but it can be a force for justice, too. Onyesonwu struggles with this in the book. Much of the book has her shaking people into righteous anger, fueling it, leaning into it and seeing it as a strength. And I loved the book for that.

Okorafor as an author also spends much of the narrative outlining how prophecies create their own ends. If you decide that Ewu people are inherently violent, and then you shun them and teach them they are evil and cast them out and leave them no choices but to turn criminal in desperation, then yes, she argues, you may see them resort to violence. If you cast spells on young women to make sexual arousal before marriage deeply painful and the spell only breaks with marriage then yes, the women of a given tribe might have a very peculiar relationship to sex and their husbands. And if you are a sorcerer and part of initiation is living through your death years before it occurs, what must that do to you? You carry it with you, you know when it happens, you dream of it—could you change your fate if the time came? Would you want to? Or, having resigned yourself to it so long ago, do you simply play the part? Even at the end, even defiant and angry Onyesonwu who does not fear death, even she submits to her own death.

All in all, I felt the pacing could have been tighter, and there are ticks of Okorafor’s writing I don’t particularly like, but the worldbuilding is so acute and profound and the scope and brutality of the questions she asks with her writing are so pressing that I don’t care. And for other readers? She will be stylistically perfect. Your mileage may vary, but likely this is a book well worth reading either way.

4 stars

Book Review: THE DAYLIGHT GATE

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Witchery popery popery witchery

Under the paranoid reign of James I, witches and Catholics are hunted across the English countryside. Lancashire in particular is a suspected home to both populations. Jeanette Winterson’s THE DAYLIGHT GATE takes a historical instance—the first documented witch trial in English history—and spins around it a tale of what might have happened. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives: from the witches’ viewpoints, from the viewpoints of those who hunt them, from the viewpoints of those who try not to involve themselves but who cannot help but get drawn in.

THE DAYLIGHT GATE is a small, feral book. It is prose, but reads like poetry. It is set in England, but the northern England of 1612 is a land so far removed and the lives of the people there so different that it is intoxicating. It is beautiful and horrific at once, and it revels in that dichotomy.

The book is ultimately about liminalities—the title refers to the witching hour, twilight, the time where day and night dangerously blend together. The narrative shuffles around in time and space, bats back and forth between points of view, and is anchored really by a single character: Alice Nutter. Alice, herself, is a study in liminality: a woman born poor who makes her own fortune and therefore knows both wealth and suffering. A woman who loves both women and men. A woman who was married once—just once—but who has her own land and her own possessions. Alice is perceived as dangerous, as redemptive, as powerful, as impotent depending on who you ask. But she is always on the outskirts.

‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The book hinges on Alice’s choices, on Alice’s will and strength. Alice’s ability to choose depends on her willingness to walk the fine line between states—between polite society and rebelliousness, between femininity and masculinity, etc. She has secrets, and she has moments of startling frankness. She has her undoings, but some of the are of her own accord and some of them are not. It is a mark of Winterson’s talent that Alice, as a character, grows in complexity in the span of such a short book. Actually, quite a few characters do—a priest/terrorist has a crisis of conscience, the afore-quoted Roger Nowell turns out to be a much more layered and decent man than he seems to be at first, and one character in particular has evolutions on evolutions I did not expect.

This is a book, at its heart, that is deeply feminist. Virtually all books written by women about witch trials are. What Winterson brings to the forefront here is the terror and the beauty of the liminal state, the power of between-ness. What is a witch but a woman with power she’s not supposed to have? What is that but something in-between: a feminine-masculine thing? It scares us because it’s slippery, hard to define, because it might just turn into a hare and escape a trap, run into the forest and out of sight. This is old ground Winterson is treading, yes, but it’s important ground to tread and she treads it well, with aplomb, with a spring in her step and a glint in her eye.

4 stars