Book Review: SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward


Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

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

Content Warnings for Book

This is not a light read. Content warnings for:

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


Blurb (from Goodreads):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway & Rating

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





Fairylogue Press


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


Seriously, the diversity here is loving and lovely.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: CORAL BONES


Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Ah, it’s like this book was written just for me! A FAAB genderqueer protagonist!




So, yeah, Miranda is genderqueer (genderfluid might be a better word for her1?). And Ariel, too! Which I always felt like was probably true, actually, Shakespeare.

AND. Foz Meadows includes in her portrait of the fairy realm many fairies of color, even as they are described in fantastical ways. Moth might have skin like a moth’s wings–“whites and browns in a calico patchwork”–but her kinky black and silver hair clearly signal she is a person of color. Queen Titania, likewise, has kinky hair and her “skin is the colour of burnished copper.” That’s right, the most powerful person in the story, the fairy queen herself, is coded as Black. Puck, too, has horns but is also brown-skinned. The preponderance of brown fairies normalized the idea of fairies of color within the story itself.

Content Warning:
First a very small spoiler and content warning:


If you are triggered by incest, you may want to tread carefully with this book. Meadows is careful to state that nothing actually happened between Prospero and Miranda, but that that island was desolate and lonely, and that when she came into adolescence his looks lingered. She definitely felt unsafe. There was definite squick (none of it, course, any fault of Miranda’s; the text is clear on this point). There was a definite sense that something could have happened without her and Ariel’s joint intervention. Just a heads up.


Ok! Now, without further preamble, the review itself!

Coral Bones, by Foz Meadows, is a novella which follows Miranda, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest2, after her return to Europe. Miranda sails away, marries Ferdinand, and that’s supposed to be happily ever after, yes? But what if no. What if being raised by a form-switching fairy on an isolated island steeped in magic leaves Miranda with an altogether different understanding of the world and of herself.

What if the reason she left the island in the first place is not, precisely, because she was madly in love with Ferdinand?

What if there is more than one brave new world out there for Miranda to explore? What if there is more than one brave new Miranda for Miranda to explore?

For Miranda, all of these are questions of gender, and all of these are questions of role expectations, and all of these are questions of agency all at once. It’s really a story about self-determination and self-acceptance, which is very much my jam. But Miran-Miranda (as she comes to refer to herself) is extremely smart, and her allies–Ariel and Puck3–are clever and helpful and respectful. They are both so well-drawn; each are utterly recognizable within the frames of their Shakespearean origins but have been brought to life again as more realized and more weathered creatures. They have worries. They have entanglements.

Truly, I wish this novella was longer. Let me clarify that I don’t think it needed to be longer; the story was well-paced and well-developed. It had a complete arc. I just want more! It ended, and my heart wasn’t ready to move on. But what happens next? What happens now that Miran-Miranda is at Titania’s court? What happens next?



I wanted it to be longer partly because here is a main character that thinks and feels and reflect on gender, who embodies gender and experiences it, so very much like I do. And that is incredibly rare. In describing her fluctuating experience of gender to Puck, Miran-Miranda says:

My heart is a moon, and some days I am full and bright within myself, a shape that fits my name, and then I fade, and mirrors show only a half-light shared with a silhouette, an absence my form reflects; and then, in the dark, I am dark altogether, until I regrow again. Why should such a thing be any more difficult to grasp than the fact that some think me dead, and yet I live? The contradiction is only in their perception of what I am.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything that captures my experience as a genderqueer/genderfluid person as honestly or with as much poetry as this. (This also gives a sneak peek at Meadows’ writing, which has lovely Shakespearean flourishes and wordplay throughout).

Beyond that, while Coral Bones is essentially Miran-Miranda’s coming-to-terms tale (coming-out-to-self? Is there a better term for this narrative?), the ending is so full of promise and action that I am desperately curious about the adventures that Miran-Miranda is sure to have after the final line. Just as in The Tempest, the ending posits that this is a new, exciting chapter for her. And I would love to witness it.

I am kind of a Shakespeare nerd. And I’m genderqueer. And I used to work at Renaissance Faires where, as a child, I dressed as a Puckish type fairy. Literally I am the target audience for this novella. But, truly? I don’t think you have to be any of these things to love this book. Miran-Miranda’s tasks and journey to the fairy court have tension and stakes. The plot moves. The writing is clever and not overly Shakespearean, just enough to give nods. You don’t even have to be familiar with The Tempest or Midsummer. The novella presumes no prior familiarity with the source material; you can simply pick it up and go, which I think is one of its great strengths. If you are at all interested in feminist fantasy or in trans/non-binary fantasy, or in really cool fairies, I strongly recommend this fabulous short read.

5 stars

1Miran-Miranda uses female pronouns throughout.

2I remember Meadows tweeting about an idea for a genderqueer Miranda story and I BASICALLY LOST IT because a) I adore Foz Meadows and b) The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m a little obsessed with it.

3Puck’s reworking here is especially ingenious given the way it ties The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. I loved him here and generally dislike him in the play, but he was true to form. I got the sense from the novella that he has a peculiar and idiosyncratic sense of loyalty that fits so well with the idea of him.

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Amazon | Goodreads

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:

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

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


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

What if that drug had….side effect?

What if that drug was addictive?

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

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

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


like this basically but awesomer

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

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

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


me when I realized All The Things about this book

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

I can’t wait for the next book.

5 stars

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Amazon | Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

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

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

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

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

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Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a triumph. It is a seamless and engaging YA urban fantasy that feels real and immediate and urgent. Sierra Santiago, the main character, is a revelation: an Afro-Latina with agency, with consciousness, replete with unrelenting badassery. The pacing never stops. The prose never hitches. And the cover is gorgeous. I literally have nothing bad to say about this book.

Shadowshaper follows Sierra, a burgeoning muralist in Brooklyn, as she discovers that she is part of a line of spiritual artists called shadowshapers—and that the other shadowshapers are getting hunted down and murdered. With the help of Robbie, her classmate and fellow emerging muralist, she has to uncover who is hunting the shadowshapers and put a stop to it.

Everything that follows is gold, from her clever interludes with her godfather Neville, who uses the racist assumptions society holds against Black men to his advantage to help her infiltrate Columbia, to Sierra’s realization that it is, ultimately, it was her Puerto Rican grandfather’s machismo that kept her from knowing her own power for so long. This book is steeped in race and gender; Older never flinches and never shies away from portraying the ways in which these axes of oppression shape his characters’ lives. For young readers of color, especially girls of color who yearn to see their experiences acknowledged in literature, this will be powerful1. As a queer reader, I loved that Older included right at the start a pair of lesbians in Sierra’s friend group. Tee and Izzy were just there, just hanging out, treated as normal. It made me feel safe in his world.

The worldbuilding is lovely, and its supported by Older’s ability to highly visual storytelling style. His prose is extremely sensual—there is a scene which takes place in a Haitian night club that succeeds on the strength of his ability to evoke the richness of the mural in the club and the way the mural shimmers and shifts with the music played by the nightclub’s live band. It’s a strong demand of the written word to make you see that mural, to hear that music, to see the relationship between those two things, but Older pulls it off. He employs that device over and over through the course of the book, which is why Shadowshaper is so immersive and rich: it’s a five-sense experience as you read it because it’s so fascinated with so many different kinds of art.

Shadowshaper, like all my favorite spec fic books, is political, too. It has a lot to say about whiteness and white supremacy. Ultimately what Sierra is fighting against is gentrification, appropriation, white entitlement. I won’t spoil it, but I read the book and I read Sierra as a statement about the importance of communities of color banding together to preserve themselves and their culture from sublimation into the maw of Whiteness. There is a scene, fairly early in the book, where Sierra and her friends go to a coffee shop that has appeared in their neighborhood only to find that it’s overpriced and full of white hipsters. At first, they make fun of it. But then:

It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides—as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought.
And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.

Looking back from the end of the book, this scene is eerie in its foreshadowing of Sierra will fight against.

5 stars

1I CANNOT WAIT until my partner Sam reads this book. Sam is Latina and has talked to me at length about how hard it was for her to find things to read as a kid growing up and how much she disliked the Old Dead White Dude Canon that was pushed on her in English classes. This is exactly the kind of book that she will love and that she should have been able to find as a kid in a school library, and I sincerely hope that Shadowshaper finds its way onto middle school and high school English curricula for that reason.

Book Review: HILD


Nicola Griffith’s HILD manages at once to have all the sweep of The Lord of the Rings and all the interiority of The Bell Jar. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Set in a war-torn 6th century England, the book follows Hild, a girl at the court of Edwin, overking of the Anglisc. Hild is trained by her mother to be Edwin’s seer, and the narrative follows Hild through childhood to adulthood as she adopts that role and uses it to keep herself and her loved ones safe in uncertain times. In the background, England changes as Christianity spreads across the island.

There is so much to rave about in this book. The characters are drawn with an immense amount of depth—most notably Hild, but this extends to virtually everyone who appears on the page. More than that, the characters’ relationships to each others are written with a depth that is remarkable. The web of interactions between the characters is intricate in a way that adds texture to the book, enriches it, instead of ever feeling confusing or distracting.

I was most fascinated by Hild’s triangulated relationship to her mother, Breguswith, her role as the king’s seer, and the way this role seemed to, for lack of a better word, queer her gender within the confines of her society. Hild’s capability as a seer is posited externally as a kind of magic, but neither Hild herself or Breguswith seems to regard it as such. Rather, Hild is just exceptionally observant and astute—something which Breguswith actively cultivates in her from a very young age.

Her role as seer—the mystique it brings, the isolation the mystique brings with it—helps Hild gather information. It makes her clear-headed. By design she is less distracted by personal social obligations. Her position as a seer keeps her family and loved ones safe. But it also means that she is alone. For much of her childhood and adolescence, she is almost completely alone. She is given a kind of elusive voice and freedom, but a peculiar cost, and the tension it causes between her and her mother, who carved this role out for her, was beautifully written. Those few times that Hild begins to invest in her own personal life, in her own self, and let her get distracted are the exact times she misses something. Those are the times she fails to make a ‘prediction’, that something surprises her. Hild is very quick to course correct—she tries to detach, to become the seer again, but it hurts her to do it.

Part of that elusive freedom is that Hild inhabits both feminine and masculine roles throughout the book—she is called a freemartin (defined in the book’s glossary as “a female calf masculinized in the womb by its male twin”) more than once, often disparagingly. She refers to herself as both sword and skirt, which is both literal and symbolic given that she fights with a huge knife. She weaves with the women, and then she takes a band of warriors out to clear bandits in a section of the book that is graphic and haunting and chilling and leaves her with the nickname the Butcher-bird. Hild, because she has always inhabited both and neither gender sphere, has always been a liminal creature of odd gender, seems to watch others’ reactions to her gendered movements with a detachment. She seems to have little yearning to anchor herself to one point or another. But then again, Breguswith has bred into Hild detachment from such an early age that detachment is Hild’s go-to. Hild has never really been allowed to want.

There is also, in Griffith’s writing, an immersiveness of a very foreign world. The trick is that it’s a world that once existed but one incredibly different than what we live in now. Things we take for granted, like the rapture of hearing music for the first time, or the sheer political power of being the only faction on an entire island who is literate.

I have so much more to say about this book. I loved it. I loved reading it, and I look forward to a year or two or three from now when I can’t remember all the details and it’s time to read it again.

5 stars



Embassytown, by China Mieville, is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ll give you a sense of the plot, but it won’t do the book justice. Avice Benner Cho hails from a tiny outpost on a far-flung planet. Arieka is a backwater notable only for the oddness of its sentient indigenous life-forms, the Ariekei. Mieville does a wonderful job creating aliens who are truly alien—this is my second time reading the book and I still can’t quite picture the Ariekei. They have wings and hooves and chitinous shells and eye stalks. They have two mouths, and use their double-layered voices to speak pure truth. Everything they say is literal. As contact with the humans increases and the Ariekei need more and more foreign things to say, they turn to the creation of similes. Avice Benner Cho is tapped in her childhood to become one such simile—the scene is minutely prepared, and so must have been envisioned somehow by the Ariekei, but cannot be spoken until it’s happened. This tension between wanting to break free of literalness and their inability to do so pops up again in the Festival of Lies—this amounts to an Ariekei extreme sport as one after another tries and fails to lie.

The story revolves around a crisis moment on Arieka where Language is put into dire jeopardy due to the political machinations of humans far removed from the day-to-day life of Embassytowners. The purity of language becomes first a philosophical and then a physically violent war. Avice, in part due to her status as a particularly flexible simile, leads the charge to break the Ariekei free of the literal bounds of Language; in essence, she sees their survival and her own as dependent on teaching them how to lie. Her estranged husband, Scile, is willing to see everyone on Arieka (human or otherwise) die to protect the purity of Ariekene Language.

Embassytown tells a story about epic, revolutionary change. It does so with an unflinching gaze and an outright refusal to sugarcoat just how horrifying and how brutal such a change, by necessity, is. Paradoxically (though I believe intentionally), for a book about the importance of lies and near-lies, it’s an extraordinarily honest book. The fact that the book itself is a work of fiction striving to uncover and articulate a truth about our modern world is not lost on me. Mieville is a Marxist, and in rereading the book it seems that the entire novel is a comment on false consciousness. Lies are a form of truth, he argues, if they can be used to break you from the way you’ve been forced to see the world. When we envision a better future, a different future, a future with no precedent, that is a kind of willful lying. When we attempt to reconfigure our place in society and the way in which we interface with the world around us, that is a kind of lie and a kind of truth at once. Near the end of the book an Ariekei character gives a beautiful, tender speech about this tension—before the ability to lie, it claims, it did not truly speak. All it did was describe the confines, the parameters, of its existence. It couldn’t create; it could only describe. And that is at the heart of the idea of hegemony and false consciousness—under the yoke of capitalism we can only describe what exists now, how we are now. It takes a fundamental, painful break from life as we’ve lived it to construct an alternative. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say Mieville’s understanding of revolution and dialectics extends past this. The Ariekei, like Marx’s working class, have to literally break themselves down to rebuild themselves and their society. It is a violent, desperate, brutal process.

The other themes present in the book—the nature of addiction, the nature of the individual self vs the collective self, the parasitic element of bureaucracy—all tie back into these Marxism-tinged ideas about language. It is a book full to the brim with ideas, with careful and attentive thought. That Mieville manages to imbue all these thoughts into a book that is also packed with plot and characterization is amazing. Avice Benner Cho, who serves as our viewpoint into this world, is a wonderfully rich and fully realized character. Her voice is clear and never once does it ring false. There is a real economy of language here, but we feel it when her marriage falls apart even as she herself can’t quite articulate why it’s happening. And given the plot of the book, Avice is precisely the right character to tell the story: just insider enough to carry it, but outsider enough to allow for questions and inference. Just similar enough to the reader to feel familiar in this strange, unfamiliar setting.

Truly, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Embassytown is a brilliant, moving novel. It’s a book that sticks with you long after you finish it. As much as Railsea meant to me personally, Embassytown is my favorite of Mieville’s works.


Book Review: THE GHOST MAP


The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is very close to a perfect book. The book describes the birth of modern epidemiology as it arose in response to a virulent outbreak of cholera in a particular 1854 London neighborhood. If you, unlike me, are not horribly enthralled by cholera or nerdily swoon at epidemiology, this has the potential to be a very dry read. And, in fact, going into this book I already knew the story of this particular outbreak of cholera because I’d read about it in much less gripping books about Victorian medicine*. What makes The Ghost Map different, and what makes it the kind of book that I now want to thrust into the unsuspecting hands of everyone I know, is that it does a remarkable job contextualizing the outbreak such that you, as a modern reader who likely has no direct experience of cholera, understands the absolute terror the Londoners felt in this outbreak. You feel the visceral urgency that comes with that terror, the awful need to unravel what the horrible riddle that was cholera.

Much of the book follows Dr. Jon Snow**, who is an interesting historical figure in his own right. A pioneer of anesthesiology, Jon Snow also had a fascination with cholera. It was he who, without the aid of developed germ theory, deduced that cholera must be waterborne and traced the outbreak back to a particular water pump on Broad Street. The Ghost Map has shades of narrative non-fiction, just enough to draw Jon Snow and the other players as real people, complete people with thoughts and tragic flaws and beating hearts. The book never tips fully over into narrative non-fiction, restraining itself enough that it does not speak for these historical figures, which I appreciated.

But to say that this is a book about Jon Snow’s prodigious scientific contributions is to give it short shrift. The real strength of the book is that it takes this single narrative thread—Jon Snow’s proto-epidemiological investigations into the 1854 cholera outbreak—and locates it in a myriad of nested lenses. This narrative thread is explored from the lens of the microbial cholera itself, describing cholera’s life cycle and the way cholera adapted to the new context of a dense and dirty human metropolis. This narrative thread is explored from the sociological lens of why Snow’s waterborne theory had to fight so hard to gain traction against the classist and Social Darwinist competing miasmatic theory of cholera transmission. Ultimately, the unifying element of the book is that Stevenson frames the 1854 cholera outbreak in terms of waste recycling—he starts the book with descriptions of the London underclasses who survived by compiling and moving and disposing of the mountains of human waste that Victorian London produced. He frames microbes as creatures whose waste products ultimately gave rise to multicellular creatures like ourselves. It is a fascinating, cyclical framing device that allows the reader to understand just how smoothly all the pieces fit together.

If you are interested in medicine, or the human body, or biological systems, or cityscapes, or Victorian England or just really good non-fiction I cannot recommend this book enough.


*I told you I was into this stuff. I will not apologize for who I am, reader.

**Full disclosure, I read A Song of Ice and Fire before my interest in Victorian cholera outbreaks asserted itself, so every time I read about the illustrious Dr. Jon Snow I have a hard time imagining him as the small, proper Englishman he was. Instead Jon Snow as portrayed by Kit Harrington from the Game of Thrones TV show pops into my head in improbable full costume stalking around Victorian London doing science. Here is an illustration so you, too, can experience this: