Book Review: WYCHMAN ROAD

Adobe Photoshop PDF

Amazon | Goodreads

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

Notes on Diversity:
So, one of the main characters mentions in passing that he’s slept with men and women both. Given that this character is from a different era, and given what I know of the men from his era, I’m honestly unsure as to whether he would accept the label of bisexuality, but there is a mention of queer sexual practice.1

The landlord of the two main characters is named Claire Kamal. She’s described as dark-skinned, brown-haired, and brown-eyed. Y’all, it seems pretty safe to say we have a canonically brown woman in the book. Very little is revealed about her other than this description; for instance I can’t tell you if she is Muslim or Hindu or anything else.2 Just that she is very probably brown.

2002

diversity meter says ‘meh’

It’s not a very diverse book. It’s the story, essentially, of how two white, cis (super)abled young men process very different kinds of masculinities in the frame of a friendship they both need. If you really don’t want to read a book about two white dudes palling around with superpowers and having friend-feelings they can’t hide from each other, then this is probably a pass for you. And that’s ok. That’s why I put the diversity thingie right up front.

But that’s not to say this is a bad book at all.


Review:
The world of Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychmen Road is like ours, except it has a secret. There is a hidden society of Thought Walkers who live among us: they can read our minds and change them. They don’t age, and they’re incredibly hard to kill. They are stronger than us, faster than us, telekinetic, and most of them no longer consider themselves bound by human law.

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they are coming to crush all our junkyard cars

Joshua Jones is one such Thought Walker: a man who’s been using his abilities to slip along the fringes of regular human society unnoticed, using his compelling/persuasive power (think Kilgrave) to gently coax a bed for the night or a muffin from a coffee house when he needs it.

Peter Axelson starts the book as a normal kid, a teenager in Toronto about to embark on his senior year of high school. A celebratory night out on the town with his friends turns grisly when they cross paths the man hunting for Joshua Jones. The chance encounter leaves Peter’s friends dead and Peter with the same bizarre abilities as Joshua. Peter finds himself drawn to Joshua, and from there, the plot thickens.

On the surface, this is a story about how Joshua must come to a reckoning with his past and how Peter must come to a reckoning with his future. The abilities they both have come with a price: while incredible, the other Thought Walkers know about them. The Thought Walkers have their own code of conduct and honor (I’d love to see this built out more in the next installment) but its clear from Peter’s introduction that winding up on their radar is Bad News. The plot hinges on these choices: will Joshua succumb to the things he’s done in the past to survive? Are these things that Peter will have to do to survive himself?

But at a deeper level, I think, this book serves as an interesting exploration of male friendship. The central theme is not running, but staying. It’s a book about a creating a safe place and a home–the title refers to the street where they rent an apartment, something Peter insists on for stability’s sake, and something that Joshua hasn’t done for a long time. It’s a book about found family, and rooting yourself in people who accept you, and it does so very openly, and is about two men having Feelings On The Page in a way that is, frankly, refreshing.

Part of it is because they are mindreaders, sure. But a lot of this is because of the characters themselves. Peter is just a sweet, open guy. Joshua is not, at first, but he opens himself up to Peter bit by bit. I love books about immensely important friendships, and this book definitely qualifies.

2003

SUPERHERO BROMANCE LOVERS REJOICE!

Again, diversity is not the book’s strong suit. And the book is not particularly great with it’s woman characters, either. It features an event I would consider to be a fridging. Claire Kamal has some depth and shading, but honestly, a woman that clumsy probably has an inner-ear medical issue she probably would have gotten checked out by now. I was intrigued by Joshua’s paramour, Alice/Allison, but she was in and out of the book so fast that I didn’t know what to make of her. Here’s to getting more of a glimpse of her in the next book.

I’m hoping for better-defined woman characters in book 2 of the Wychmen Saga, but I’ll definitely be picking up book 2. Ghan may have put all his eggs into a relationship between two white men, but, hell, at least he made them care deeply about each other. And they let each other know that more than once. And that made me care about them, too.

4 stars

1Good god that sounds clinical. Ok. What I mean to say is that Joshua, our lover-of-both-genders was born and came of age in the early 1900s. He’s been alive this whole time since, “dancing” (as he puts it) with his partners, but there’s no real guessing how he does or does not apply more modern queer lingo/labels to himself. I have SO MANY QUESTIONS about this (mostly because I just love queer characters so much). Like, did he not pursue men until after he got those weird powers and was talked into seeing himself as superhuman/above human morality? Or did it predate? We do see him on a date with a young woman before the powers thing, means it’s possible, but doesn’t confirm or deny anything, I guess. Anyway. All I’m saying is that without more in-text interrogation I’m really unsure about how Joshua would actually self-identify regardless of the glimpse of sexual history he’s disclosed to Peter. NO YOU ARE OVERTHINKING THIS.

2We learn a little about Claire’s relationship to her mother, but that doesn’t shed any light on this. And this doesn’t have to be important at all! Brown people are not defined by their religion, their parent’s religion, anything like that. But I am saying that for two mindreaders to live with Claire in a mostly white city and not accidentally eavesdrop on her experiencing any racial tension, or not to overhear any traces of, say a different culture she may have ties to, leaves me feeling very much that she is brown only skin deep. They are mindreaders who are literally messing around in her brainmeats. I don’t know a single brown person who doesn’t think about the fact that they are a brown person every day. They never heard anything?


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Book Review: PLANETFALL

Planetfall_EmmaNewman

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This book is rich with diversity on multiple levels. The cast is composed mostly of people of color. I read Ren, the main character, as a woman of color. Many of the other important characters–Suh-Mi, Sung-Soo, Kay, Carmen, Pasha, Neela–are also people of color. Their race seems to impact their lives only minimally; it’s presented or coded matter-of-factly, but I didn’t pick up any situations where Ren or others experience outright racism or microaggressions due to their race. I don’t know how much of this is Emma Newman writing as a White woman, and how much of this was intentional on her part (presenting the colony as a space without racism, but some scenes are flashbacks where Ren could have experienced racist interactions?). In any case, the characters are carefully chosen scientists, and they come from a wide array of backgrounds.

Front and center is Ren’s deteriorating mental health. Much of the plot is actually predicated on Ren’s mental disabilities, which are presented here as hoarding, possibly with some OCD symptoms woven in.

Ren (and Kay) is also queer. Like the representation of race, her sexuality is presented without any struggle or any antagonism. She simply is bisexual. This, for me, was refreshing–it was clear that Ren had shame around her sexuality, but it was not because of her desire for other women. It was bound up with her mental health issues. I welcomed and connected with a character who was queer, and crazy, but not crazy because she was queer. And I welcomed that the book acknowledged that craziness impacts how we connect with partners and lovers.


Review:
I both loved this book and felt dissatisfied with it. Like Ren herself, Planetfall is slim and enormously complicated. I wonder if it’s not actually two books stitched together. Right from the start, there are two competing plots. Newman tries to weave them together, but by the ending, it was clear to me that they could have been utterly separate books. And I wanted them to be. And I think I could have loved them both.

Renata Ghali is brilliant. Back on Earth, she figures out technology to print her father a new pancreas, which opens the way for new medical technology that has the potential to save millions of lives. Ren is brilliant, and devoted to her roommate, Suh-Mi, who becomes the Pathfinder. A fluke (or perhaps not?), a mysterious plant, a seed, and then Suh-Mi falls into a coma. Ren stays by her bedside. When Suh-Mi wakes back up, she has a plan, and a vision, and a path to a planet to find God. Ren knows she’ll follow.

But all of that is backstory. The plot takes place on the planet that Suh-Mi has guided Ren and a thousand other carefully chosen devoted to. Ren’s brilliance has leaked into other domains–she’s learned to pilot spaceships for Suh-Mi, she’s learned to engineer sustainable houses for the colony. Planetfall did not go as Suh-Mi planned. Ren has been keeping secrets, and the secrets have taken their toll on her, wearing her down over the years. When a young stranger appears at the edge of the colony, everything in Ren’s carefully calibrated world unravels.

There is part of this book that is about secrets and trauma and healing. That was the part of the book that I was most interested in. Ren as a broken woman, Ren as a woman simultaneously fascinated with and hiding from and trying to heal her past. Over and over again, Ren refers to herself as a mosaic–and I think the metaphor is an apt one. She is loss after loss, and none of them resolved, each one fracturing and shattering her fragile self a little more. Circumstances break her, and she retreats into herself, trying to glue the pieces together.

And above all, Ren is still brilliant. No matter how wounded, Ren is still brilliant. She is the picture of a functional mentally ill person. And as someone who has struggled mightily with depression and anxiety while being functional (while being called smart and impressive), I saw so much of myself in Ren. I don’t hoard things–if anything, I throw them out, get spare and Spartan instead–but I understood her insatiable need to collect, to fix, to make a tangible mosaic between herself and everything that reminds herself of what’s gone so very wrong.

If that was all the book was, it would need to be set on a planet far away, though, would it? It would, however, be a much cleaner book. The book is also a murder mystery. And a book about faith. And about the (literal) nature of humanity. And a book about revenge. I could do with it folding in the murder mystery and the faith*, but this last piece is what really breaks the book for me.

Ren’s redemption is as much to do with faith and her facing a reckoning with long-buried guilt and violence as it is the internal work of mental health. What breaks the book is that this great human reckoning is only hinted at and glanced at. It is crammed into the last few pages of the book, and–most importantly–Ren escapes that reckoning. When the colonies collective chickens come home to roost, Ren watches its effect on her fellows, but she scrambles away and literally goes on a journey of faith herself. It is implied, at the end, that the choice she makes services a collective good, but I found myself left with so many questions. Would she have made that choice if not driven there by the threat of bodily violence? Maybe her choice leads to good for future individuals, but what about her friends and lovers she’s left behind at that moment, the ones facing bodily harm literally at that moment? Is it a redemption, or is it an evasion?

And if there was to be no narrative payoff, no closure for all of that chaos and violence only just introduced in those last few pages, then why introduce it in the first place? why not drive Ren to those final choices in another, different way?

So much of the book was so very very good, but the book seems to lose narrative cohesion right at the end. I understood what was happening, but not the narrative choices that Newman employed here. The gravity and stakes of the ending was so high after I was so invested in the characters and the book that refusing to give closure–and guiding Ren to a choice that frankly, seemed to minimize, what was happening below her–felt like a cheap shot.

3 stars


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Book Review: THE BUTCHER’S WIFE

TheButchersWife_LiAng

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.

ContentWarning

 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.


Review:
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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Book Review: FIREFIGHT

Firefight_BrandonSanderson

Amazon | Goodreads

Firefight is Book 2 in the Reckoners series. You can read my review of Reckoners Book 1, Steelheart, here.

FYI, there are some minor spoilers in the footnotes.

Notes on Diversity:
Compared to Steelheart, there was nowhere to go but up, really.

2002

Sanderson did go up. He could have kept Firefight populated by only white people1, but he branched out a little. The book is still defined by a masculine voice and masculine quest, and the team of Reckoners is still led and organized around male leaders (though women are present), but at least there are some prominent characters of color: Regalia and Newton, specifically.

But. Regalia, the main antagonist of the book, is a Black woman. That in itself is not a problem. Black women can be the bad guys, sure. But. In making Regalia an Epic–specifically an Epic with powers that manifest as omnipresence and her positioning as the owner/protector of Babilar, she is like a cross between the Magical Negro trope and the Black Boss Lady trope.2 That is to say that clearly some effort went into making her race visible, but I’m not sure Sanderson pulls it off. She seems like a collection of cliches to me, which is distasteful in itself. Readers of color might bounce especially hard off her. YMMV.

And Newton zips around, being horrible, for a long, long while before being revealed as Asian canonically. Given her assumed Epic name, and given that we get no actual description of her as a person–but elaborate descriptions of the havoc she wreaks–I assumed she was White until halfway through the book. That she was Asian seemed to be mostly an afterthought.


Review:
I read Firefight on the strength of the plotting in Steelheart. But Firefight lags. It’s a middle volume with middle volume weaknesses: it builds lore up, and the plot of this volume is mostly setup for the Grand Finale coming in the next book.

It’s not a terrible book. I devoured it in days. I would have devoured it quicker except that Sanderson indulged far too often in his gimmick of writing in David Charleston’s terrible metaphors. One or two absurdly bad metaphors I can handle, but not one per page. David Charleston, as a character, seemed to be on a one-man-mission to teach himself how to produce elegant metaphors on demand, going so far as to stop conversations with his elusive Epic girlfriend who is maybe but probably not evil but that everyone thinks is evil but he knows better in order to write down her better metaphors.

The book could have been trimmed. Reading it felt like a prelude, or perhaps, the first act of the final volume. The Reckoner series should have been a duology, maybe, not a trilogy. Too much setup, too much effort, for too little payoff. Too many characters and settings that we’ll likely not see again in the third volume.

There were interesting things in the book. The difference between how David expected Obliteration to be and how Obliteration actually was was well done–but again unless this plays some role in the last volume this could have been a separate short story.

In sum, those who loved Steelheart and are captivated by the Reckoners will probably love this slightly less. It’s a little meandering. If you’re looking for diversity, this isn’t and never was the place to look. I’ll check out Calamity because I’ve read the rest, so why not?

3 stars

————-SPOILERS BELOW————-

1think Nightweilder in Steelheart was Asian? He came and went so fast that honestly I don’t really remember, but I think so. Pretty sure everyone else was White, though. And despite Tia and Megan being in the mix it read like a sausage party. A straight sausage party.

2The fact that both of these tropes are typically reserved for ‘positive’ portrayals of racist caricatures actually fits with what Sanderson does with Regalia’s character over the course of the book. Regalia has an aborted redemption arc; she’s dying of cancer, and wants to hand her city over to a ‘trustworthy’ Epic–a one Jonathan Phaedrus, Prof, of the Reckoners. Which means her entire plot is about a Black woman handing her power over to a White man. Yes, she is dying. Yes, they were friends. BUT STILL. THAT IS WHAT THE BOOK HINGES ON. It…rubbed me the wrong way.


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Book Review: CHAMELEON MOON

ChameleonMoon_RoAnnaSylver

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
SO. MUCH. 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.

giphy


Review:
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.

giphy1

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!

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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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Book Review: EMPIRE ASCENDANT

EmpireAscendent_KameronHurley

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.


Review:
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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Book Review: OOGA BOOGA [contains minor spoilers]

OogaBooga_GerryWalker

Amazon | Goodreads

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

Notes on Diversity (this section has some spoilers):
The first thing you need to know about Gerry Walker’s Ooga Booga is that it’s a book written to interrogate and extrapolate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. In other words, it’s a book steeped in Blackness. All the central players in the book are Black, and their Blackness is key to the plot: the book literally hinges on genetic differences between Black and non-Black individuals. I…had questions about this, which I’ll get into in the review downstream, but suffice to say the cast was predominately Black. Walker makes a point of acknowledging that Black individuals come in all different skin tones, too, which is another key element of the plot I’ll get to in a minute.

But. The book goes utterly sideways with regard to its representation of queer characters. A prominent character is queer–I thought at first, just a pleasant happens-to-be-queer character– and is revealed to be a classic duplicitious conniving snake-in-the-grass queer character. There was literally no reason for this that I can think of. He was just…the only queer in the book, and he was heartless and evil. Because. Reasons.

Also, there is an Fat Evil Scientist who is at times jolly. FYI.

But. Walker does use the speculative fiction conceits he introduces in the book to explore, with some nuance and respect, the intersections of race, poverty, and sudden dis/ability to great effect.

What I’m saying is in terms of diversity–specifically in terms of intersectionality–Ooga Booga tries very hard. It gets some things right and gets some things wrong.


Review:
The Black Lives Matter movement mattered1. It mattered enough, actually, that Black boycotts finally shut things down. Corporations finally noticed the full brunt of Black earning power. A trap was set. Some years in the future, Black people begin to fall prey to a mysterious disease, one that strikes them down, strips them from language, replacing it with something called New Speek–a burst of undulating, ever-changing consonants and vowel sounds that can’t be learned.2 As the New Speekers transition, they are ripped from their homes, taken to camps. They lose their jobs. Reentry to society is troubled at best when they do regain English. And, inevitably, there are shootings. The context Walker sets up here is pitch-perfect. It is absolutely eerie. The first chapter, which chronicles New Speeker Patient Zero–a five year old girl–is heartbreaking.

From there, the book redirects its attention onto Vanessa Landing, a white-passing biracial woman who transitions to New Speek at literally the worst possible moment. Her world comes crashing down around her. She loses her high-powered job and is shunned by her former friends. Her veneer of whiteness is shattered. As she rebuilds her life from the ground up, she does so fueled by righteous fury at how Newspeekers are being treated. She becomes an activist, campaigning for their rights. Into her orbit comes her faithful assistant Fisher Coach, a rising rap star named Perry Ironside (who raps in New Speek as Ooga Booga), and her eventual husband, the dull but immensely malleable Eric Dickerson. From there the plot drifts between very a solid political thriller and a frankly saccharine star-crossed romance.

Ooga Booga has its strong points. Walker’s analysis of how Black people are corralled and controlled is cogent and full of horror. New Speek is brilliant–a perfect double edged sword, at once potentially dehumanizing those it affects while simultaneously giving them a secret way to communicate and organize resistance. And, really, given the way Black people are already forced to code switch New Speek as an extrapolation is not far off the mark. Ooga Booga is best when articulating these tensions and exploring them.

But Ooga Booga has deep weaknesses, too. I think the book would have been stronger if  it had focused on a secondary character, Cam Ventura, who never regained English after transitioning to NewSpeek. He is forced to run and scramble and organizes Newspeekers from the fringes of society. Vanessa Landing herself struck me as an odd choice–why focus on someone so white-passing? Her claims to to her Black identity in the text are inherently validated by her ability to speak New Speek, but never once does anyone interrogate her light-skin privilege or the fact that perhaps she is adopted by the mainstream as an acceptable figurehead for Newspeekers precisely because of her ability to pass as a white woman. Once in the text Vanessa makes mention of the Black community’s need to address colorism within its ranks, but nothing past that is mentioned despite constant mentions of her light eyes and blond hair and pale skin. This, combined with the reliance on lazy tropes (evil queer, evil fat person) and the constant stream of questions I had about how New Speek functioned and who transitioned and why left me distracted while I read the book. After the extraordinary first chapter I never fully engaged with the text again.

Your mileage may vary. My guess is that some people will read this book and be able to skim right past the tropes that rubbed me so wrong. Some people are not nearly so over-thinky as me and will not have so many questions about why some members of the population transitioned to New Speek while others did not. For those people, this may be a five star book. For me, the strengths and weaknesses of Ooga Booga existed in a near-equal and uneasy balance.

3 stars

1This is clear in the back cover copy, which you can read in the Goodreads or Amazon blurbs, but it wasn’t actually clear in the text of the book until, I think, 70% of the way through. As I read the book, I thought I was reading a sort of alternate-universe book where the events happening were that universe’s version of our Black Lives Matters movement. When it was revealed that no, actually, it was the same universe but the book was set thirty or so years in the future I was momentarily confused.

2The Big Reveal here actually seemed to have more to do with melanin production than African ancestry directly. This raised questions for me–were there dark-skinned Asian individuals who transitioned to New Speek? If the main character, Vanessa Landing, a biracial women who is extremely white-passing can transition to New Speek, then how precisely is it tied to melanin production? I know I’m overthinking this, getting far too deep in the weeds here, but I have questions. And this conception of Blackness kept leading back to a one-drop-rule line of thinking wrapped up in discussions of “melanin production” without unpacking that there are other racial categories that also produce melanin. It just read as clumsy to me, or possibly unfinished.


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Book Review & Giveaway: BLACK BEAUTY

blackbeautybanner

Amazon | iTunes | Barnes & Nobles | Goodreads | Book Depository

About the Book
blackbeauty1At Vista Apartment Complex, life drastically changes for four of its residents when they decide to do business with Crazy Jade—the supposed voodoo witch who can grant your wish for a price.

Shemeya wants the confidence to stand up against the girls bullying her at school, but she soon has to choose between keeping her dreadlocs or living a normal life. After catching her boyfriend cheating, Latreece just wants to have the same curves as all the other girls. Ashley will do whatever she can to have “White Girl Flow”, but takes her pursuit too far when she steals from Crazy Jade.

Everyone who comes into contact with Crazy Jade soon learns the true price of her magic—and how horribly wrong it can go.

 Enter the Giveaway!
There is a tour wide giveaway for the book tour of Black Beauty. These are the prizes you can win:

One of Two $10 Amazon Gift Cards(US) or One of Two ecopies of Black Beauty

Here is the link to the rafflecopter giveaway:
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B’s Review of BLACK BEAUTY
Notes on Diversity:
I think a better word for this book than diverse is authentic. This is a book for blerds by a blerd; this is fantasy/horror deeply drawn from and steeped in the lived Blackness. That is literally the crux of all of the stories in this book up until the last two. The reason the book works is because Constance Burris is a Black woman who has lived all her life navigating the treacherous waters of Eurocentric beauty norms.

Virtually all the characters are Black, and they live in a specific locale–one apartment complex in Oklahoma City. The specificities in the book really do add to the authenticity, the reality of it, which heightens the horror embedded in the stories, even as elves start showing up and snakes start sprouting from people’s heads. These stories are deeply, deeply rooted in an intersectional experience of Black womanhood.

Readers looking for representation along other axes of marginalization (queer characters, characters with disabilities, religious diversity) won’t find much here, but the above is incredibly rich.

Review:
Black Beauty is a set of connected fantasy/horror short stories tethered together by setting–the Vista apartment complex–and the apparent magical abilities of Crazy Jade, one the complex’s residents. Word gets out that, for a price, Crazy Jade can fix you up. But all of her dealings seem to come off slightly wrong.

We follow as residents of the apartments fall prey to Crazy Jade, one after another. First Shemeya, who Crazy Jade offers to help to stave off bullies. Then Ashley, who comes to Jade seeking a relaxer for her hair. Andre catches Jade’s bad side after a nasty remark about Black women’s unworthiness. Latreece, like Ashley, comes calling to make herself more attractive. It’s Latreece who finally dislodges Sean, who has a secret, and whose secret reveals the truth of Jade’s power. Then there’s a ferocious showdown. To say anything more than this is to spoil the book.

What I loved about Black Beauty was its ensemble cast. I started with Shemeya, rooting for her, and in her story she’s pitted against Latreece. By the time Latreece’s story comes along we’ve had enough distance and plot from Shemeya that I was open to Latreece’s perspective. She’s still harsh; she’s still a bully, yes, but in her story we learn why. There’s nuance to the characters Burris writes, to the way they engage. There’s a theme of bristling bravado/redemption that stretches throughout, and I, as someone who has a lifelong case of foot-in-mouth disease, can relate to that.

That said, the book went to fast for me, especially the last two chapters. I liked that the ending was messy, that not everything was tied up in a clean bow at the end, but there was a lovely amount of tension and careful reveal in the relationships between the apartment residents in the first few chapters/stories. The last two stories, which are structurally different (in a spoilery way) are full of action and exposition all packed together. I wish there had been a couple of other chapter/stories included in this part of the book to better explain Jade’s motivations, her plans, and let that build and simmer a little longer. Those reveals, I think, needed more space to breathe.

I am deeply curious about what happened after the book ended. I sincerely hope for some follow-up stories in the future. Please say there are follow up stories coming.

4 stars

About Constance Burris

constanceburrisConstance Burris is on a journey to take over the world through fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Her mission is to spread the love of speculative fiction to the masses. She is a proud blerd (black nerd), mother, and wife. When she is not writing and spending time with her family, she is working hard as an environmental engineer in Oklahoma City.

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

Book Review: CLOUD ATLAS

CloudAtlas_DavidMitchell

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This is another book like The Windup Girl that is what I would call “surface diverse”–as in scratch the surface and all the diversity is gone. It’s wrapped up in a veneer of diversity, but it’s just a veneer. And for a reader like me who craves non-mainstream narratives (because I am marginalized along multiple axes, and I am sick of dominant narratives being shoved down my throat) these surface diverse books really stick in my craw.

There are Asian characters in Cloud Atlas1. There are Moriori characters, though none of them are ever relegated to anything but side characters who must be rescued by an empathic/enlightened white man. There is Luisa Rey, a scrappy ’70s Latina private eye. There are far-future characters who live in Hawaii, who as far as I can tell, are not coded or explicitly raced, but I read them as white.

There are queer characters. Robert Frobisher, a brilliant young composer, and Rufus Sixsmith, smitten by Forbisher. The pair of them star-crossed and epistolary, and ultimately Tragic Queers–one of them suicidal and the other forever pining the loss. I don’t know much about Mitchell, but the narrative strikes me as the straight-person-writes-the-Bury-Your-Queers situation all over again. So, you know, it’s “diverse”…but is it the kind of diversity that really gets us anywhere?


Review:
So. The book.

I was expecting to love the book. I love narrative structures; I love audacious books that play with expectations of narrative structure. I knew very little going into David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas except that it was speculative fiction and that it was played with structure. Something about nested narrators.

It does play with structure. In fact, its whole conceit rests on the structure piece–if you can’t go with that, then the book folds up like a house of cards in a slight breeze. If literally any part of the fabulous dazzling structure of the book doesn’t work for you, then the entire book doesn’t work for you, which renders the book not really a book so much as a magic trick, a gimmick.

The structure is intricate and fascinating, unfurling as it does starting in the past, creeping up to the present, then into future-dystopian Korea, and landing in far-future Hawaii before furling up again in reverse, revisiting the narrators from the previous sections in opposite order. Each of the narrators has a distinct voice and tone; some Mitchell pulls off beautifully. For me, the Adam Ewing in the first and last sections worked well, as did the Luisa Rey sections.2 I was emotionally gutpunched by the Frobisher sections, but for the wrong reasons.3

The central piece of the book–“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”–did not work for me at all. Partly this is because as someone with a ‘dumb’ accent4 I am particularly attuned to the way certain accents serve as markers of stupidity/class and how writing in dialect by people without those accents serves to communicate that, and this generally rubs me the wrong way. I literally had to grit my teeth to read this section. Partly this section did not work for me because the book should have ended here. We did not need to re-furl after “Sloosha’s Crossin'”; everything that happens after are essentially drawn-out codas, stuck after simply for structure’s sake. The actual plot, what little there is of it, truly ends in this section. All the tiny reveals stuck in the ending codas could have neatly been worked in, as foreshadowing, beforehand.

All this is to say that I do love it when authors play with structure, but only if they have a depth of story to support that structure. Only if their actually doing something with that structure. I’m not certain that the structure served anything in Mitchell’s plot here but showing off. The plot was exceedingly thin, actually, stretched across some very fancy digs. The structure wasn’t enough.

~

1The Sonmi-451 section is set in a dystopian Korean state. I don’t have a specific enough sense of Korean culture to know if Mitchell succeeded in his representation of Koreans here. I know that Mitchell lived for a time in Japan, and I wonder if he got future-Korea right, or if it’s “Korea” with all the blanks filled in with Japan. I don’t know enough about either to be able to tell.

2We can’t even really sink into the Luisa Rey sections, either, as they are revealed to possibly not to have happened. In the Cavendish sections, Luisa Rey’s sections are revealed to be a manuscript he is reading, which makes me question if she is even real. If a Latina is not real in your story, does she count to your book’s diversity?

3Because I’m queer, basically any queer narrative is going to grab me by the shirtfront and not let me go. I was more heavily invested in Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher than any other characters in the book even though as soon as they were introduced I had an inkling of where that story thread was going. I strongly, strongly dislike the Tragic Queers trope, especially if it’s written by someone who does not identify as queer themselves.

4Even after years of trying lose it in my youth to make myself acceptably smart I still have distinct traces of my East Texas twang. Not a genteel southern drawl, mind you, but that harsh, chopped Texas twang. The stuff of Dubya.

2 stars


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Guest Review: THE SCORPION RULES

I’m happy to have Julia O’Connell here as a guest review today! Julia’s reviewing The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow.

Author pic 1Julia is a blogger and book-lover, mostly devoted to genres dark and dismal. She runs a gothic book blog called The Gothic Library (www.thegothiclibrary.com) and can also occasionally be found writing for the geeky feminist website, The Daily Geekette (https://dailygeekette.wordpress.com/). You can follow her on Twitter: @gothic_library; Facebook: www.facebook.com/thegothiclibrary; and Tumblr: http://thegothiclibrary.tumblr.com/

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy of an exciting new YA dystopia novel called The Scorpion Rules. If you’re a fan of diverse dystopia and you like my review below, look for The Scorpion Rules in stores starting September 22nd!

Notes on Diversity:
As much fun as The Hunger Games was, it’s always nice to have a dystopian novel that acknowledges a world beyond America. The Scorpion Rules features a cast of characters that each come from a different country, and as a result represent different races, religions, and backgrounds. One of the most important characters is an Asian princess from the Chinese province of Yunnan. Another is a “racially indeterminate” Jewish boy from the Great Lakes region of what was formally America. One of the side characters is a girl from Africa whose hobbies include pointing out the Eurocentrism in their history lessons. In fact, a global perspective is essential to the premise of this book. However, this doesn’t stop all of the action from being focused on the America/Canada area. With one character from each region literally serving as a representative for those people, this book occasionally toes the line of tokenism and stereotyping, but for the most part, The Scorpion Rules is a largely successful example of a racially diverse dystopia.

Where this book most excels in terms of diversity, however, is in its inclusion of LGBT characters. This is one of the best examples I have read of literature with queer characters that is not “queer literature.” The main character, Greta, comes to understand her sexuality as the book goes on, in stolen moments when she can escape from the threat of war, torture, and death. Likely either lesbian or bisexual, it is unclear exactly how Greta identifies by the end of the book. What is clear, though, is that she is in love with (**minor spoiler**) a bisexual woman of color.

Review:
What really drew me into this book was its premise: after global disasters and nearly apocalyptic levels of warfare, a snarky and irreverent artificial intelligence named Talis decides to take over the world for its own good. Inspired by the practices of medieval warfare, Talis implements a hostage system in which a child is taken from each of the world’s leaders as surety against future wars (think Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones). The Scorpion Rules tells the story of Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, and the other hostages in her age cohort at the prison/school/work camp known as the Precepture. Greta is just months away from turning 18 and being set free, however, the odds are not looking good that she will last that long. Talis’s rules are clear: for any country that engages in an act of war, regardless of who is the aggressor, the children of all involved leaders will be killed. And the situation at the Pan Polar border is looking pretty shaky.

Life at the Precepture becomes even more unsettling when a new Child of the Peace is brought in–Elian Palnik of the Cumberland Alliance, a newly formed country on the Pan Polar Border. Unlike Greta and her classmates, Elian has not accepted his role as hostage and is willing to fight every day for his freedom. Elian’s actions and his punishments open Greta’s eyes to the negative aspects of the Precepture. Elian’s arrival triggers a series of events that change Greta’s life forever.

One thing I really appreciated about this book was its non-traditional love triangle, or almost lack thereof. One would think from reading the premise that this is all a set-up for a star-crossed love between Greta and Elian. And at times, the story seems to head that way. However, the author chooses instead to explore not only other sexualities, but also how a deep and meaningful friendship can exist in the midst of sexual tension.

The Scorpion Rules also delves into big questions about what it means to be human and where the boundaries exist between human and machine. It raises philosophical questions of morality and whether it is truly good to sacrifice an individual’s life to save thousands. Whether you’re interested in romance, global politics, or science fiction, this book has a little something for everyone. Overall, the plot is compelling and the characters focused on are nuanced and complex, though I think a few of the side characters could have used more screen time and fleshing out. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars for originality, depth, and the ability to keep me turning the pages late into the night.

4 stars


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