Book Review: THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes On Diversity:
Magic might be thick in the air at the Cirque Des Reves, but diversity is thin on the ground.

In the whole of this long, meandering book–a book brimming with characters, a book that stretches across time and distance–there are, perhaps, two characters who are explicitly characters of color (Chandresh, who is half-Indian, and Tsukiko1, who is Japanese). Interestingly, both Chandresh and Tsukiko also happen to play double-diversity-duty: they are also The Night Circus‘s only canonically queer characters, as well.

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why did the people of color *also* have to be the only queer people? Who knows!

As far as I could tell, there were no characters with a disability. The closest we get to discussions of class and poverty is with Marco’s backstory, which is written in broad strokes and passed by quite quickly. There is one interesting and quite telling moment where Marco’s shadowy-named mentor, Alexander H-., mentions that he went looking for a student in an orphanage in the first place on the presumption that the student (Marco) would have a better life at his hands, no matter the consequences, than he would have had should he have been left destitute in the orphanage.2

I’ll get into this in more depth in the review, but I also felt that many of the women characters were not written with as much depth or centricity as the male characters.

Generally speaking, this is book full of lovely language and striking images and wonder. But it is not a book much interested in diversity.

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diversity magic was not allowed at the night circus

Review:
In some lucky towns, the Cirque Des Reves springs up unannounced  and opens from dusk until dawn. The circus is black and white – the costumes, the great white-flamed bonfire, the painted dirt, even the food. It is a world of shadow and light wreathed in unknown, unseen magic. The circus is the sight of a contest: the beautiful young illusionist, Celia Bowen, is no illusionist at all. The magic the performs is real. The strange and wondrous creations in the tents are real, too. Some of them are hers, and some of them are her competitors: the circus creator’s unassuming assistant, Marco Alisdair. The pair of them are locked in this competition, and bound to the circus, but neither of them know what they are competing for, or how it will end, or why they were chosen to compete in the first place.

There are many who adore The Night Circus. It is a lovely book. Morgenstern is an entrancing writer, and the plot is threaded together very well. All the loose ends are woven together by the end of the book; there are no extraneous variables. The pacing is such that you have to be floored with Morgenstern’s language and description, or captivated by the story itself, to wait it out to see how the apparently disparate elements of the book unify by the end, but Morgenstern as a writer is sure-handed enough that I felt certain that they would all come together in the end. If you are not engaged with either her style or the plot of the book, though, your patience with the slowly weaving tapestry of The Night Circus may falter.

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like this, but, you know, a book

This was a book I wanted very much to like and didn’t. I appreciated Morgenstern’s skill, and she has it in spades. But for all her luxurious description of the outputs of Celia and Marco’s magic, I ended up with very little understanding of what it actually was to be a magician. For a book ostensibly about two highly talented (if sequestered) magicians, there was very little about the magic itself. What did it feel like to use it? How did it work? What were its limits and scope? How many magicians were out there, and how did that make the world of The Night Circus tangible different from our own? If there were no answers to these questions, why make Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair magicians in the first place? Why not make them, I don’t know, architects, instead?

Really, this is not a book so much about magic. Magic is the backdrop here, sketchily worked out (but very beautifully written about), and the story is about a pair of star-crossed lovers. And this is fine, or rather would have been, if Marco had not been emotionally manipulative and deeply creepy as a character. The love story as it was portrayed was very strange, since it seemed written to be this sweeping grand romantic thing. And yet–Marco was a terrible, callous, desperate person. And Celia was little more than a phantom. We get very little of her in terms of interiority. Their love story is told more than shown. It is obvious that Morgenstern can write a natural, sweet love story, because there is once in the book–Bailey and Poppet–but the central narrative focuses on Marco’s fixation with Celia and Celia’s acquiescence to it, which is passed off here as love.

Again, this is a beautifully written book, and masterfully structured. But it didn’t work for me. The ending was too pat, and the central relationship was too hollow. For a book where the main characters should have been inside the magic, the worldbuilding felt half-realized. The entire book felt too coy by half.

3 stars


1Tsukiko was, to me, by far the most interesting character in the book. She was also one of the few characters who became more interesting as the book went on instead of less interesting. I kept wishing the book had been about her instead.

2When Marco’s mentor said this, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever been poor. It struck me as the kind of things a person who had always lived comfortably says about the presumed horrors of being poor, the unknown shock of lack. I actually can’t imagine that knowing the arcane wonders would be worth unwittingly losing one’s freedom forever. Self-determination is constrained when living in poverty, this is true, but at least there’s a semblance of it.

Book Review: ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
There is a sliver of diversity here, but it’s probably not what you’re looking for.

The Jewish character is smart, but Very Wrong and Stubborn.

Literally the only person of color in the entire book is a voodoo-using evil bogeyman ghost out to kill people. He is Black. And evil. And he eats animals sometimes.

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Review:
Cas Lowood is a ghost hunter, like his father before. He is training, honing the edge of his talents, because he needs to be as good as possible when he goes up against the ghost that took down his dad. He’s only seventeen, but he’s been at this for three years, and he’s nearly ready. This next hunt is his final test: Anna Dressed In Blood. She’s supposed to be vicious. The stories about her are chilling. He can’t wait to go after her.

But when he gets to Thunder Bay Ontario–with his witch mother and their witchy cat in tow–nothing goes according to plan. Anna is a force, and deadly, but there is more to her than he expected. Civilians get involved, and it turns out he needs their help. And then everything goes sideways.

Anna Dressed In Blood is a well-written book that, for me, had several fatal flaws and suffered in comparison to other, better works tackling similar themes. Blake can write, and she has a knack for characterization. The book was well-paced and readable, the characters are generally well-rounded. Carmel, especially, surprises and delights. Blake has talents; this book was not the book for me.

The premise (extremely masculine but very sensitive teenage boy goes ghost-huntin’) bore such a strong resemblance, especially in the opening pages, that I couldn’t help comparing it to Supernatural.

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Supernatural has a lot of problems–the women keep dying. The people of color keep dying. But as a show that explores just how toxic masculinity can be it is pretty damn good. This is clearly a theme Blake was trying to explore in Anna Dressed In Blood; as Cas slowly picks up his entourage, and even more slowly begins to regard them as friends, he opens up new vulnerabilities.

The difference between Cas Lowood and the Winchester brothers is that Cas never actually had to do any of the things he’s doing. He decided to put this pressure on himself. We are told, in the book, that he is very special and must fight all these ghosts with his very special ghost hunting knife to which–maybe, it remains unclear–he is blood-bound. But his mother clearly wishes he wouldn’t do this, even as she enables him.

(Sidebar: Dear Cas’s mom–stop enabling him. Why are you enabling him? Since he was fourteen he has been doing this shit that got your husband killed? You’re just…letting him do this? What the shit, you’re a witch. And a parent. Put your foot down. Do not move him around multiple countries allowing him to murder dead people, which is clearly very dangerous. It is well-established that John Winchester was a shitty parent do you want to be like John Winchester, lady??)

Dean and Sam were forced into this life. They had no choice. There was no normalcy for them, and on top of that, they are not in high school. Watching the show, I do have to navigate around questions like really, though, when do you do your homework if you are out ghost hunting all night. And, having been forced into that life, the Winchesters’ emotional arcs are more defined and starker than Cas’s.

Then it turns out it’s less a Gory Horrible ghost story than this kind of ghost story:

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but gender flipped and they’re in high school

Yeah. The kind with kissin’.

I mean, Anna is still pretty destructive, but not when it comes to Cas1. He uncovers her Tragic Past (of course she has a Tragic Past) and then promptly falls in love with her. And she likes him back. And they canoodle and stuff. And…all his friends and his mom are cool with it.

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Why are they cool with it? How is this a sustainable relationship? Things Go Down at the end, but things would go down one way or the other. Did Cas see himself as a seventy year old man with ghost-Anna on his arm? Was he planning to introduce her to people? What if she was tied to the town–was he going to leave and return occasionally? Just…no one brought up any “hey, friend, your girlfriend is a ghost, that is an interesting life choice” conversations at all.

This part of the book really pales in comparison to Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. Like Cas, Jevick falls for a ghost. Unlike Cas, he realized very quickly how limiting their different experiences of existence are for their budding relationship. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet portrayal of love. If you are looking for a love story about a man and a ghost, that’s what I would point you to. But it’s an extraordinarily different book than this one (not horror at all, for starters).

With all of this I doubt I ever would have become an Anna Dressed in Blood superfan, but I would have rated it a solid four stars had there not been a few glaring plot holes and dangling plot threads. The worldbuilding felt half fleshed out. The plot moved–but on inspection key pieces just happened and didn’t make much sense. Anna’s murder, especially made little sense to me (specific questions are spoilery and under a cut here). Same with the final Big Bad.

3 stars

1For reasons that are never really explained. Plot threads be hangin’.

Spoilers below Continue reading

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

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

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

And then there are the trans folks.

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


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

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

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this, pretty much

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

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

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

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

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

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

2IT STARTS WITH A DEAD CHILD. Oh, my heart.

ANCIENT, ANCIENT by Kiini Ibura Salaam

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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

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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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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: A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA

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Amazon | Goodreads

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

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


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

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

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

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Jissavet, to Jevick

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

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Me, and Hild, and Jevick

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Book Review: VALOR ANTHOLOGY

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Fairylogue Press

 

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

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Seriously, the diversity here is loving and lovely.


Review:
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.

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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: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US

theAbyssSurroundsUs_EmilySkrutskie

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
We are A+ on the diversity front here, folks.

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The lead, Cas Leung, is a woman of color! And so is her pirate adversary Santa Elena! A number of other characters of color are scattered throughout, as well, yay! Which also highlights that this is a book about women driven by women. Men are around, but the plot revolves around and is pushed forward by the decisions of agentic women.

CAS IS ALSO A LESBIAN. Yeah, yeah!

Another major character is from a decidedly impoverished background, which forced Cas into important re-evaluations of both that character and piracy as a whole. I was glad to see an inclusion of class as a factor here, and to see it included in such a personalized way.

At least a couple of the minor characters are dealing with…something. There are hints towards mental illness or disability, but it’s not fleshed out here at all. There is supposed to be a sequel, so there’s a chance we may delve into these characters’ backstories more there.


Review:
Emily Skrutskie’s THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is a slight book that packs a punch. Do you want sea monsters? Check. Pirates? Check. An impossible queer romance you can’t help but root for? Check.

Cas Leung was raised among Reckoners: giant beasts genetically engineered to protect ships from pirates out on the NeoPacific. Her mother runs a lab; her father is a Reckoner trainer. The business is serious business–the trade secrets so well-guarded that on Cas’s first solo jaunt as a trainer herself, she’s given a suicide pill and told to take it rather than get taken alive by pirates. Not that she’ll run into trouble.

But of course she does run into trouble.

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FUCKIN’ PIRATE TROUBLE

And of course she doesn’t take the pill. And so our story begins. Cas winds up a hostage on The Minnow, at the mercy of the pirate queen Santa Elena, who has somehow procured a Reckoner pup. Santa Elena ties Cas’s fate to Swift, one of the handful of her chosen to battle it out as Santa Elena’s heir. If Cas fails, they both die. If Cas succeed, Swift inches closer to becoming captain herself.

What follows is a flurry of plot: Cas has to birth, raise, and train the Reckoner pup, which she names Bao. She enters an uneasy dance with Swift. They keep saving each other’s lives, but why? There is a weird trust there, but is it really trust? And the more Cas learns about the pirates–these people she’s been taught from birth not to think of people at all, to consider instead statistics, counts of death–the cloudier her moral compass becomes.

As an evolving narrator, Cas is wonderfully drawn. One thing I absolutely loved about this book was that she shows such substantial growth over the course of the book and absolutely none of it has to do with the fact that she’s queer. There is no coming out narrative here.* There is no coming-to-terms with that part of herself. If anything, she must come to terms with the fact that she’s fallen for a pirate (not that the pirate’s a girl).

What Cas grapples with instead is a sharpening of her own ethics. What purpose should the Reckoners serve? Are the pirates truly the blight she’s been told her whole life? She comes to think one thing, but then events on the ship will push her another way. She realizes how much she’s been insulated from the grand complexities of life, how much her privileges allowed her to reduce those complexities to neat binaries for her own comfort. This is a book that asks hard questions and does not flinch from the gritty truths it stirs up.

Swift, too, is wonderfully drawn. She is a study in disassociation, in survival. In compartmentalization. She resonated hard with me because I’ve been there, carving off bits of yourself to hand over in order to do what you have to to get the job done. By the end of the book she comes together from her disparate parts into a fully fledged person just in time to break your heart.

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I’M ROOTING FOR YOU CAS & SWIFT

The big failing of THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is that it’s so fleeting. Basically everyone besides Cas and Swift are sketches. Santa Elena has more depth than most of the other characters, but even she is still a sketch–Bao, the turtle-like sea monster has more depth than she does.  The worldbuilding is strong, and the relationship between Cas and Swift is beautifully rendered**, but the ciphers that were the other characters nagged at me. I would have liked the plot to slow down just a hair, just long enough to drag other characters into the plot and flesh them out. Hopefully we’ll see more elaboration of the secondary characters in the sequel.

4 stars

*This is not, in any way, to knock coming-out narratives. Ariah is one, after all. They are important! They are validating! It’s just that they aren’t the only narratives that queer people have, and it’s refreshing to see another one thrown in the mix.

**I especially loved the acknowledgment of the power imbalance between Cas (the hostage) and Swift (the captor). That the coercive element of their relationship was brought to light, named, and recognized.


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Book Review: CORAL BONES

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Amazon | Goodreads

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

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IT ME.

UGH. ALL MAH FEELS.

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

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


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

ContentWarning

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FOR FOZ MEADOWS TO WRITE A SEQUEL TO THIS NOVELLA. TELL ME MORE STORY, PLEASE.

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

1Miran-Miranda uses female pronouns throughout.

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

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


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