Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

37578998For something that took me more than a month to complete, this was surprisingly fun. It’s just that the writing leaned into the aspect I didn’t like in Jade City even more than in the first book – giving you far more details than you actually need to understand the story – and that’s how we got a 600-page sequel that was at the same time far too long and far too short for what it was trying to do.

I’ll try to explain what went wrong, which I can sum up as “I’ve never read a book in which the pacing was so bad“. The scenes themselves are slow, often full of paragraphs and paragraphs of useless infodumps; I skimmed most of the non-dialogue parts in the second half and still didn’t struggle at all with understanding the story. (It was more fun that way, actually.)
Why far too short, then? Because in this book, the sense of passage of time goes completely out of the window after 30%. There are enormous time jumps between chapters, and you’re not told that so much time has passed until, for example, the book tells you that the character who was pregnant a few chapters ago is also pregnant now… with another child. Where did that year go?

Which is how I started focusing on odd details, one of them being the unusual amount of pregnancies in this book. I joked that this book, sequel to Jade City, should really have been called Pregnancity: every single relevant female character but the villain (and even a few of the not relevant ones) gets pregnant in this book, some of them multiple times, for a total of six pregnancies. I guess that’s what happens when you put too many straight people on an island.

The only major gay character, the token self-loathing gay cousin, is away in another country, and queer women don’t seem to exist. I won’t tell you that this book is bad because it has none, but I do wish there had been less overwhelming heterosexuality and more female characters in general (…all of them can get pregnant because there are only a few relevant ones to begin with).
Now that I got my complaints out of the way, let’s talk about what I liked.

Jade War is an ambitious sequel. A lot of things about it didn’t work for me, but something I never lost was my interest in it, or my attachment to the characters. I loved reading about these complicated family dynamics, seeing how far the character would go for each other and for what they believe in – sometimes, maybe too far; there were a few scenes that surprised me that way, and yet they made so much sense. I’ve always been interested in stories about families and stories about loyalty and its limits, and this is both, so it’s perfect.
Also, can we talk about how refreshing it is to read an adult book in which sibling relationships are the backbone of the story? We’re lucky if even YA novels remember that siblings are a thing.
I might not have been there for the politics and the overly-detailed worldbuilding, but I was always there for the quieter scenes, the ones in which I saw the characters interact. There was always tension, and it always felt personal and real. I loved all of them.

(Also, not to be predictable, but I’m really fascinated by Ayt Mada and would love to have her PoV.)

Once I stopped forcing myself to wade through the text walls, the plot also turned out to be really engaging, complex and surprising, and this time I also loved the ending.
So, will I continue the series? It depends on how long the third book will be and how willing I’ll be to get into something just to skim it, but I really do want to know what happens. I even have some theories:

Spoiler-y theories

Since Jade City had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Lan, and Jade War had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Shae, it only makes sense that Jade Legacy will have a plot-relevant duel halfway through involving Hilo, only I have a hunch that this time it will actually be lethal for him. I don’t know who the opponent is, I just hope it’s not Bero.

My rating: ★★★

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Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

39679076House of Salt and Sorrows is a standalone YA gothic murder mystery set in a high fantasy world.

This book doesn’t get that heterosexuality is not a personality trait.

I’m not saying this to be funny: no one in this book had a personality. I can’t tell you anything about the main character apart from the fact that she’s attracted to Cassius and cares for her sisters; she was more a placeholder than a character. The boys were even worse, existing in the book just to be handsome, vaguely mysterious, and exchange possessive glares that the book will carefully specify are masculine while fighting for the main girl.
And while I knew, getting into a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, that not every sister was going to be developed, I didn’t expect their attraction to boys to replace the personality of all of them (in the older ones; the younger one is never anything more than a “creepy little girl” stereotype.)
Four sisters are dead at the beginning of the book, and the living ones are worried not because of that, or not because maybe they’re going to die next, but because their supposed “curse” scares men away and they think they’re going to grow old and die unkissed, without ever having danced with a boy.
Yeah. Priorities!

So, let’s be kind and say that this book is plot-driven.
The plot wasn’t that great. House of Salt and Sorrows is a gothic mystery with a really interesting premise and solid background, but the execution ended up being really messy. All the tension relied on the usual “is the main character *gasp* insane or is that magic?” trope, which is cheap and I hate it, especially when the answer is so obvious and when the book constantly approached even only the possibility of mental illness in really insensitive ways.
By the way, in case that wasn’t already clear: there is no diversity whatsoever in this book. The whole cast is all-straight, and, unless I missed something, also all-white and all-abled (which: the realism, where?). There’s one old blind man whose entire personality was “crazy” who appeared for half a scene, and that’s it. No diversity, bland unnecessary romance, love triangle… did we all somehow time-travel to 2013?

The mystery was kind of underwhelming, but it wasn’t terrible. The foreshadowing was somewhat unsubtle and heavy-handed at times, but it didn’t give away the whole story immediately as many YA mystery books do; the revelation wasn’t the most unpredictable thing ever, but it was fine – I was mostly annoyed by how rushed the resolution was.

And I still didn’t dislike this, not really.
I mean, I clearly had many problems with it, but the thing is, it kept my interest. I’m barely reading these days and I finished it really quickly – which yes, that also means that there wasn’t much substance to it, but it was a fun ride most of the time, and I wanted to know what happened. I never really thought about DNFing it.

Another reason I didn’t dislike this book is that I got into it for the island gothic aesthetic, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Have you ever watched a movie or a show in which the acting was bad and the plot was mediocre but the setting and the costume design made it worth watching at least once, purely as eye candy? House of Salt and Sorrows is the book version of that. The descriptions are beautiful, and the island atmosphere is perfect. I loved all the mentions of coastal marine life, the descriptions of tide pools, all the details this book gave me about buildings and dresses and shoes and accessories.

This is deeply forgettable and really flawed, and not something I would ever reread, but it was worth reading once just for that.

My rating: ★★¾

Weekly

My Favorite Tropes

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Favorite Tropes.

As I couldn’t restrain myself from writing multiple paragraphs for every trope (I really can’t shut up when it comes to favorite anything, can I), this got long – half a top ten tuesday and half ten discussion posts – so I decided to cut it and talk about seven tropes instead of ten. I hope you don’t mind.


Hero/Villain Sexual Tension

My favorite trope.

I usually call it “villain romance“, but as a description it’s slightly misleading, as these situations are often very unromantic and usually don’t end well for at least one of the people involved.

I love this trope because I find it as fascinating as it is horrible, and – when executed well – I end up understanding why the characters feel the way they do, and why they choose to fight each other anyway. It’s twisted and always on the verge of becoming a total disaster if it’s not already, and… it’s just a lot, emotionally.

I like many versions of this trope, but as I like it more the more it gets messy and toxic and unacceptable, my favorite versions do not include anything similar to a redemption arc, as they often end with at least one of the two dead (if the other person in the couple killed them: now that’s what I call perfection).

Also: The queer versions are better, that’s just the truth, I’m actually not that into the “villainous guy/morally gray but still overall good girl” version anymore.

I read my favorite example of this trope in Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. This book made me think “I can’t believe [villain] did that and I can’t stop laughing but I also want brain bleach and [villain] to drop dead”, which, yes, more of that (the “couple”, and I feel weird even calling it a couple, is m/m). Another example, which is more of an exploration of feelings from loyalty to grief to the awareness of being in love with an objectively despicable person is The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, a story about the relationship between a courtesan turned revolutionary and the series’ villainess (f/f).
It seems that I love reading about people who are deeply conflicted because of what they feel?

Some other books to keep in mind if you like this trope:

  • The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, adult sci-fi, f/f/f triangle with villain romance;
  • The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard, m/m, adult fantasy, “villain romance” shading to “enemies to lovers” in an arranged marriage;
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, adult sci-fi, not romantic at all but clear sexual tension between main character and the evil pirate lady (f/f)

Plant Horror

Atmospheric forests are already one of my favorite settings, and to have a straight-up horror forest? That’s perfect: I am studying botany, which means that I have a lot of opinions about trees, and I have a history of dendrophobia, which means that these books always hit close.

My ideal plant horror setting is one in which:

  • the author gives you an idea of which trees there actually are – I don’t need scientific names, something like “white pine”, “beech” or “quaking aspen” is enough; I need to be able to visualize it.
  • the main source of horror are the plants themselves and not something else roaming in the wood, though that’s also welcome.

I still haven’t read a book that fulfills both – Uprooted is one of my favorite plant horror books because the plants are the creepy ones, but it doesn’t tell you which trees there actually are (as far as I remember); Wilder Girls was lovely because it did tell me which trees there were but what was actually creepy were the animals, not the plants; same thing for Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé and Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton. They were still really atmospheric, and what I loved the most about them was the setting.


Haunted People

I’ve never been a fan of stories about haunted places, or stories about possessions, but I love stories about haunted people. If stories about possessions are usually about the evil that is in every person being brought to the surface, and if stories about haunted places are usually about the past coming back to bite people, stories about haunted people are stories about isolation.

They feel a little like a dark version of the imaginary friend, and an obstacle at the same time – hard to have a functional social life in that situation, especially if the “ghost” is a person in their own right, which adds so many complications. You will be isolated, but you will never be lonely. It is at the same time comforting and terrifying, and the effect depends a lot on which side the author decides to lean on more.

And, especially in cases in which the author is taking “haunting as isolating obstacle” as the main angle, this trope is a portrayal of mental illness without directly talking about mental illness. Metaphorical representation has its own place and value, if the author knows what they’re doing: my favorite portrayal of anxiety is in the horror novel The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé, a story about a haunted girl which uses the haunting as a paranormal metaphor for anxiety and avoidant behavior. The fact that the character isn’t cured and is explicitly portrayed as mentally ill makes the representation even more valuable to me. And it works: some things are better when approached indirectly, or they are too emotionally painful to read.

Some other examples of this trope I love: I was having a lot of feelings about the Cheris/Jedao living situation in Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee since I heard what it was about (a woman has to ally with the ghost of a murderous and very likely evil general to win a space siege, and it really does feel like a haunting story with a sci-fi twist). Another story with this trope I loved is Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy by JY Yang (free online!) which takes more the imaginary friend/maladaptive coping mechanism angle than the “evil obstacle” one.


Everyday Ruins

I’m currently rereading The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, set in a post-apocalyptic version of Paris in which there are fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons, and there’s something both deeply beautiful and sad in seeing people’s everyday life in the ruins, and I love this kind of setting.

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In books, “ruins” are usually something ancient and mysterious and abandoned. But my experience is that ruins are everywhere in various states of decay, from so many different times, and we live here. We build around them, and they’re still somewhat mysterious without even really being dead places.
Authors should find a way to make the mysterious and the ordinary coexist more often. I just think it’s fun – characters who live in places that have a mysterious History but that are not actively hostile to them? That’s great. Why have obviously evil haunted ruins when you could have unpredictable magical palaces that might or might not have an agenda and maybe are kind of falling apart?


Well-Intentioned Extremist

I’m not going to write examples for this one, as this trope is often a plot twist, my favorite kind of plot twist.

I love the dissonance of it. How a character might do something that you could never, ever justify, and the story makes you look at the motivations, and maybe you can’t help but think for a moment that maybe the character had a point, however – the well-intentioned part can’t erase the extremist part. And the extremist part can’t erase that not doing anything would have been worse. There are often no good answers, and if there are they are not simple, and I love this.


Blue-Orange Morality

Kind of an answer to the previous trope: if that’s about a character who is dissonant exactly because we can understand them and kind of wish we didn’t, this is about characters who don’t even understand human ideas of morality. (Or, what I wish fae in YA fantasy were, instead of what we usually get. The blue-orange-nonhuman version is just more interesting than the toxic masculinity because I said so version.)

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I expect aliens – especially aliens who are not usually in contact with humans – to be some version of this trope; I remember that the first portrayal of aliens I ever really liked was the one in the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie: the things the Presger translator said didn’t make sense to the main characters (and were, often, funny and kind of terrifying), and that was refreshing, because why are aliens always so easy to understand? I still have no idea what the Presger are actually like as a society, but I’m fine with that.


Organic Technology

The weirder it gets, the happier I am. Especially if the author goes for the “it’s so advanced it looks like magic” route, it has so much potential for really unusual body modifications.

Almost everything Kameron Hurley has written is a good example of that; my favorite is the universe of The Stars Are Legion, in which there are parthenogenesis and biological spaceships involved, but many of the worlds seen in Meet Me in the Future were just as interesting for that aspect.

And it’s been a while, so I don’t remember it as vividly as I’d like, but I also remember loving what was done with organic technology in Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It didn’t make sense, but when you go all the way into not making sense territory, the book might end up being great. Here, it did – I especially loved Borne himself, the creature that couldn’t clearly be described as animal or plant or anything, really.

There is something about taking the shapes of everyday life and reminding you of how much inherently gross parts there are about living that makes all of this really appealing to me. Life is weird.


What do you think of these, and do you have any recommendations?

Tag

The Wasted-Potential Tag

This tag was created by Elise @thebookishactress, and I was tagged by her (thank you!)

This is about all the books that were great… in theory; the result, not so much. And since negativity is fun sometimes, why not?


a book that tried but failed to tackle an issue?

I can’t think of any issue books I’ve read that I can honestly say failed, and I can only think of books in which the “issue” was an afterthought at most (but in that case, I can’t even really say books like The Selection really tried with social commentary, you know?) so I’m going to talk about something that is slightly different: books that tried to subvert a harmful trope and played it straight instead. One of the most well-known examples being:

I’ve never seen a meme describe a group of standalone books so well. I’m talking about the “connect two dots” meme:

These books: I’ve subverted the tropes!
Everyone else: you didn’t subvert shit

Let’s talk about Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, that are, supposedly, asubversion of the manic pixie dream girl trope“, and why these books are a perfect example of why, when a trope is known to be problematic, the group affected by it should be the one subverting it in fiction (outsiders don’t Get It).
The mpdg trope is an energetic and quirky woman whose only purpose in the story is to teach the male main character lessons about himself, or the world, or life. She’s not a character, she’s an exciting, attractive plot device with a message tied. The problem is that, especially in Paper Towns – which I also remember better than Looking for Alaska – the girl who the main character discovers is not going to change his life and be “his miracle”… only exists to teach him that lesson (and has no other character traits other than “rebellious, quirky and a little troubled”). Oh, maybe girls don’t exist to develop men! They have their own inner lives! Which we never see in the book, and Margo still exists to develop a man.

The Fault In Our Stars is a slightly different example – a story that tried to show that there’s nothing romantic about illness, and that tragic cancer romances are bullshit… but the reason people like it is still that it’s a tragic cancer romance that made them cry? That kind of defeats the purpose.


an intriguing series that didn’t pay off?

I don’t often talk about this series on this blog because I don’t like hyping up series that go this downhill, but the first book was good! The Queen of Blood is an interesting fantasy story about a girl training at a magical school built on trees, and I loved the worldbuilding. Except… the more I went on with the series, the more I realized I was reading about a matriarchy in which somehow all women were heterosexual, and then the second book turned out to be one of the most boring things I had ever read – in it, the main character needed a hundred pages to even decide to start training. Nothing happened. I skimmed most of it, because it was 2017 and I didn’t believe in DNFing books yet. I’m glad that has changed.


a great beginning with a mediocre ending?

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Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno started out so well. It’s set on an atmospheric island, it follows two twin sisters who don’t easily get along, and during the first half, there’s a really cute f/f romance developing with a tourist girl.

Then the second half happened. The book really felt that it needed to take a darker turn, and we barely see the love interest again. Since that wasn’t enough, the book also decided to ruin the aromantic representation by making the aromantic character obsessed with animal corpses (if you want to know why that’s a problem, I wrote more about that in my review). And then it becomes a story about a something that happened halfway through the book, something that didn’t even involve the main character, making the first half feel completely aimless. The protagonist’s development is rushed and feels weirdly disconnected from the plot – she felt like a guest in her own story.

Other spoiler-y thing I felt iffy about (TW: rape)

The main character’s sister is raped halfway through the book, which… the more I think about it, if you want to write a story about rape, you really shouldn’t insert it in the story halfway through as a surprise – I know this book tries to go out of its way to not be triggering, and it is never graphic, but you still risk triggering the people you want to reach? Everything about this looked like a cute summer romance for the entire first half, and it’s not, in a way that is misleading.


a last-minute twist that ruined it all?

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power. This plot twist was just as out of place as the “a god fixed it” twist would be in hard sci-fi books. It suddenly tries to talk about science in something that had nothing scientific in it, and failed horribly, with a topic you really shouldn’t throw around for shock value.

What happened, and why it was bad (spoiler-y)

This book: and it was… GLOBAL WARMING
Me: oh really
This book: because… you hear it… resurrected PARASITES
Me: do you really want to go there
This book: that infected EVERYTHING
Me: this is not how any of this works

And yes, there are ways to incorporate climate change in a book as a metaphor, but this book failed. In Annihilation, for example, you can see that at least parts of it are inspired by climate anxiety; it doesn’t need to tell you, this is about global warming, because in-universe, that’s not the cause of the horror, no one knows the cause – but you, as a reader, know why we’re talking about an environment that is suddenly terrifying and twisted. It is, in a way, a metaphor.

Another way would have been to take a mixed approach to the question from the beginning: a book that does it really well, that talks about a paranormal creature from scientific lens, is Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. All Wilder Girls needed to do was not to throw in the science in the last 10% after never, not once, mentioning anything ecology-related for the whole book. And the magic wasn’t inspired by anything ecology-related either; if it wanted to be a metaphor for increased selective pressure, well, it was a really bad one? The body horror made the girls’ bodies less adapted to their own environment (for example, blinding them from one eye), so that made no sense at all.

Also: if a parasite is going to be able to be a mammal’s endoparasite, it’s never going to be able to also be a plant’s endoparasite. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s this.

And the thing is, there would have been so many better ways to make a body-and-environmental horror book about this topic, and the author would have known that too, had she picked up an ecology textbook once. I’m not an ecologist, I’m a first year student, and even I can see that there are so many interesting ecology-related concepts that can be adapted into horror. This was such a mess of wasted potential.


a great plot with some boring characters?

The opposite – interesting characters, weak plot – is far more common, so it took me a while to find the answer, but: The Interdependency by John Scalzi. This is a series that uses a natural disaster in space as a metaphor for climate change and our attitudes towards climate change really well! It’s just that the characters… eh. I’ve never seen such flat characters in an award-winning novel. The romances are so flat that they feel nonsensical, even the f/f one in the second book; one of the three PoV’s characters’ main trait is – I’m not joking – swearing a lot, and anything about this story is embarrassingly surface-level. Which is sad, because it is fast-paced and fun, and the potential is all there, but it gets boring really quickly.


a character death that ruined a book?

OurDarkDuet

I thought of many books that had the bury your gays trope, but not one of those was in any way good even before that trope came around. So, let’s talk about Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab, and why this was my last Schwab novel.

I am not going to tell you who dies, but if there’s one thing I noticed about Victoria Schwab’s novel, is that for someone who talks on twitter about fridging a lot, she sure tends to kill off most of her relevant female characters. There was one side character’s death in here that I hated, because like the chaos eater plotline around it, it came completely out of nowhere and served very little purpose apart from making the reader and the male main character sad. This whole book was at the same time beautifully written on a sentence-to-sentence level and a complete mess on a structure level.


a romance that ruined a book for you?

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The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson: I was loving this book. It was gorgeous and weird and queer, and then… the romance. I never understood why Elena liked Freddie. Freddie was a manipulative girl who constantly threw tantrums because she could, and Elena just… let her. She never seemed to have a problem with that – she got upset and then always forgave Freddie. And the book just acts like Freddie’s is the normal behavior of a person with depression.

A big part of why I had such a strong response to parts of this book was absolutely personal baggage. Let’s say that books dealing with depression set in the US were likely to get that reaction out of me back then, and this got that in many places – for the way it talked about suicidal ideation, for example, I hated those parts, and I remember thinking something like this too about the whole Elena-Freddie dynamic:

This book: but see, Freddie acts this way because she’s struggling! She is depressed and goes to therapy twice a week!
Me, a teenage girl who back then had no access to therapy: shut the fuck up

I probably wouldn’t take it as personally if I read it today, but this and the author’s tweets (only straight girls complain about Freddie’s behavior in The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza according to him) have kind of ruined the book in my memory.


a romance you wanted to happen?

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Clara/Rose from The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo. I love this contemporary book, but it’s just the objective truth that it would have been so much better if it had been an f/f hate-to-love romance instead of a story about a hate-to-friendships between two girls in which the main character gets a (cute, but bland) male love interest. The boy could have just become Clara and Rose’s friend! That would have been a more interesting story.


a scene you have a petty beef with?

At first I didn’t know how to answer, then I saw this part of Elise’s post that said:

(I can’t be the only one who sometimes just gets so so mad about this one specific choice made that I straight up can’t like the book anymore. Anyway.)

And I immediately realized that yes, that has happened to me as well.

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Welcome to the Main Reason Acqua hated The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and that main reason is one of the first scenes.

So, in said scene at the beginning, one of the major characters – Sissix, who ends up being the love interest – steals another character’s sci-fi toothbrush. Said character, who is characterized as a “complete asshole” and a snob and a whiny bigot, starts complaining because the other versions of toothbrushes hurt him.

And this is just seen as him being oversensitive. It’s just a toothbrush! No wonder no one can stand you, Corbin!

I have sensory issues which, especially from late elementary school to early high school, made it really difficult for me to brush my teeth with normal toothbrushes. If you don’t know, and I hope you don’t, not brushing your teeth for a while makes trying again even more painful, and that… I think you can guess what that leads to, and what I thought when I saw this scene.

I went into this angry. I never really stopped, because this books continued to try and convince me that Sissix was so good to disabled people, actually (in one scene, a disabled alien is introduced just to show you that Sissix Is A Good, which, no thank you – if Corbin can get called out for saying a specieist slur, she can get called out for stealing assistive devices from a disabled person), so it never ended up being anything like a heartwarming read for me, just boring.


I’m not tagging anyone, but if you like these questions, don’t let that stop you

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

41555968And here I am, continuing my tradition of reading series out of order. I mean, it was fine¹ when I did that with the Xuya series, and I also believe that while sequels don’t have to stand on their own, spin-offs absolutely should, so why not try and read something when there are five books of worldbuilding before that one? This kind of thing obviously can’t go wrong².

You don’t need to have read the Memoirs of Lady Trent series to understand Turning Darkness Into Light. However, I think it could be much more meaningful to you if you had, as some of the characters from that series are often mentioned, and as this novel is told entirely through letters, lists, journal entries and translations of ancient tablets. This is a really interesting choice, and I loved this somewhat mixed-media aspect, but this format isn’t really suited to descriptions that don’t feel like awkward infodumps, which is probably the reason I still have no idea how a Draconian looks like.

This is the story of Audrey Camherst (Lady Trent’s granddaughter) as she translates ancient tablets from a long-lost Draconean civilization in a place where anti-Draconean sentiment seems to be on the rise, and betrayal could be lurking on every corner. It’s also the story of the Four who hatched from a single shell – yes, this novel has a story within a story, which is an aspect I loved.

More than anything, Turning Darkness Into Light is about the importance of narratives, of the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of ourselves as much as of “the other”, and how nothing is ever “just a story”. Writing fiction is, and has always been, inherently political.
It also makes some really good points about how bigotry isn’t something in which only extremists engage, and the subtle, non-violent kind is just as dangerous as the unsubtle, violent one, as the two are tied together. One can’t exist without the other.

The positives end there. I don’t have much else to say; Audrey as a character didn’t stand out that much to me, and neither did most characters, Cora being the only exception. I appreciated that the portrayal of an antagonistic relationship between a man and a woman that had an undercurrent of attraction but didn’t turn into a romance, as an idea, but I didn’t really believe it as much as I’d hoped. The format didn’t help with that, as I felt it added a lot of distance between me and the characters.

This is a solid novel, if not a really memorable one, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent is one of the series that I’m considering and will maybe start this year.

My rating: ★★★


¹ narrator: it was not fine. She struggled for half of the first novella she tried.
² narrator: keep telling yourself that.

Weekly

T10T: Favorite Fictional Friendships

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Book Characters I’d Love to Be Besties With, but since I couldn’t think of (m)any, I’m going to talk about something a little different: my favorite fictional portrayals of friendships.

While writing this list, I tried to mostly focus on female friendships, and… the YA world has come so far since its long “all is about romance; friendships, especially female friendships, are irrelevant” phase.


The Grays from The Lost Coast

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It only makes sense that in a book from the point of view of a queer girl that is specifically about finding your community, friendship is one of the most important themes, and this group of queer witches (“the grays”) are now one of my favorite friend groups. This whole book and the way it talks about friendship reminded me a little of The Raven Cycle, except not male-focused, and I loved that.

The Grays are really close, all love each other in different ways, and everyone has their own magic; it’s so great to see this in an age range in which most friendship groups have always more male characters than women and no non-binary characters at all.


Haimey, Connla and Singer from Ancestral Night

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It’s always so nice to read books in which the relationships the characters value the most are friendships instead of romances, especially when it comes to books that, like Ancestral Night, are specifically about recovering from trauma. (The “romantic love cures you” trope is out. The “support from friends can be great” trope is in.)

Haimey Dz is a lesbian space salvager who lives on a spaceship with her pilot friend Connla (who is a bisexual or pansexual man), the AI Singer, and their two cats (yes, everything is better with cats, including space). I loved reading about their interactions and their ship-scavenging pirate-escaping life in low gravity.

[This is the only book on this list that is adult and not YA.]


The friend group from The Weight of the Stars

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Teens in difficult situations come together in this genre-bending sci-fi romance, and the friendships in this book have a complicated and… sometimes all but smooth dynamic, but there’s so much love here. Ryann and her group of mostly dysfunctional friends. It’s one of the examples in which I didn’t care strongly for every single character individually (it’s a standalone, the space to develop characters is what it is, and I still really liked most of them) but I cared so much for them as a group.


Fatima and the Alif sisters from The Candle and the Flame

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Fatima is a character who has lost so much – both her parents and her adopted parents, and might lose more yet – so seeing her have a relationship relatively devoid of conflict with the three Alif sisters was so refreshing and wholesome (they’re not her sisters, adoptive or not, but they feel as if they were). Also, this book portrays an aspect of female friendship, especially between young teens, that you rarely see in books: part of it is just… being silly because you can, and I loved how this book never portrayed that in a judgmental way.


Jam, Redemption, and Pet from Pet

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I feel like middle grade is really good at portraying friendships (I haven’t read a lot of it, but that’s the impression I have), and upper YA is getting better at it, but as time goes on, I see less and less lower YA in general. So, reading Pet, a lower YA focusing on friendship and family, was so refreshing. The friendship Jam and Redemption had was so sweet, and I also really liked how the two interacted during their “monster hunt” with Pet, the mysterious creature who came out of one of Jam’s mother’s paintings. I know this isn’t going to happen, because this makes sense as a standalone – and a really short one at that – but I’d love to read more books with them.


Jules, Dia and Hanna from This Is What It Feels Like

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Complicated friendships! One of my favorite topics to talk about in literature. This Is What It Feels Like is about three girls who were once friends and in a band, but their band fell apart for various reasons (one of the girls was dealing with grief and a pregnancy, another with alcoholism) and this story is about them reconnecting. It’s an emotional read with three beautifully-written character arcs and one of my favorite portrayals of friendship ever.

Maybe a friendship can’t survive everything, but just because something ended, it doesn’t mean it can’t start again. The second chance trope isn’t just for romance.


The Mercies and Trigve from The Boneless Mercies

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Four warrior girls and a soft healer boy go on a quest to slay a monster, not because they have to, but because they want to, they’re seeking glory, and isn’t reading about active protagonists looking for their place in the world the best thing ever, especially when they’re women? This is one of the very few books I know that, instead of making the usual, boring assumption that romance is “being more than friends”, explicitly has a character answer “so it’s deeper, then” when the main character says that Trigve is not her lover, he is her friend – and this was so interesting to see. I loved the Mercies and Trigve so much, all of them, and I really want this to get a sequel.


Mercedes and Victoria from The Gallery of Unfinished Girls

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The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is a story about art and perfectionism just as much as it is a story about a friendship going through a difficult time – high school is ending and Mercedes and Victoria aren’t going to see each other as often during college; also, Mercedes has realized that she has unrequited romantic feelings for Victoria. It’s not a romance, it is a character-driven story about the complexity of teenage female friendship, about moving on, and… it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.


Xiomara and Caridad from The Poet X

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This is a poetry novel, and there is one poem that stuck with me over all the others, in a book that was already really emotional and impactful: Caridad and I Shouldn’t Be Friends. What you almost never see in novels are friendships in which the people involved are… so different, even sometimes in what they believe in, that they should clash all the time, but they don’t. Because, as this poem says, they know each other in ways they don’t have to explain.

I’d love to read a book that explores a dynamic like this one as the main plot, because there’s a lot to say about the… inevitable moments of resentment and sometimes envy, and why the characters are close anyway. I’d love to see this for both friendships that end up working out and for ones in which the characters grow apart.


Jess and Angie from A Line in the Dark

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And to end the post on a “typical Acqua” note, I’m going to talk about my favorite portrayal of a toxic friendship, from A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo. This is a story about unrequited love and tangled feelings and how the line between loyalty and obsession is sometimes far too thin. It’s fascinating and ugly, and I loved every moment of it. Not only parents and significant others can be toxic for you – I’d say that teenagers are as likely to have been in a toxic friendship as in a toxic relationship – and I’d like YA fiction to reflect that.


What are your favorite fictional portrayals of fictional friendships?

Discussion

Recent [Disappointing] Reads

I read a few really good books at the end of July – you can see the highlights of July in this post – but so far, August hasn’t been the best reading-wise.

Today, I’m going to talk about two books I tried that didn’t work for me recently. I’m not going to give them a rating, but if I had to, they both would be around three stars.

These are not reviews – they’re more a discussion focusing on some specific aspects of the book or of my reading experience.


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I decided not to write a review of this one, because if there’s a thing that really bothers me about the book community, it’s the tendency to put books on pedestals and then be rude/condescending to those who don’t like them, because that of course meant they didn’t get it, or that they’re a bad person (especially if it’s a diverse book, because if you care about diversity, it must mean that you have to like every single diverse book that isn’t considered problematic™ – you’re not allowed to have preferences unless you can justify them with social justice-related language, and if you have them anyway, you’re problematic™ because you not liking a book must of course mean that you think the book should be cancelled™!). It happened last year with The Poppy War, and I have no interest in going through that again on goodreads.

But this is my blog, and the nice thing about my blog is that I can easily moderate the comment section (and that it isn’t read by as many people as the review section on goodreads’ page of a book).

So, what went wrong with me and The Fifth Season.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you might already know that I don’t do well with grim. And I knew this book was going to be grim, and even if I didn’t like that, I didn’t have a problem with that, because that’s what this book is and has every reason to be.

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But then, I got to this quote. [highlights are mine]

“There passes a time of happiness in your life, which I will not describe to you. It is unimportant. Perhaps you think it wrong that I dwell so much on the horrors, the pain, but pain is what shapes us, after all.”

First: Unimportant? Really?

Second: to give you some context, this quote is talking about Syenite and the years she spent with the people living on an island, who value people with her powers. This book wants me to believe that she is exactly the same, with the same aims and the same way to see the world and nothing that could bee seen as character development, that she was before getting into her first relationship and having a child?

That’s… unrealistic, that’s what it is.

(I would also say that “pain is what shapes us” is an inaccurate generalization – personally, there’s a lot of stagnation in pain, more than there is when I’m not in pain, and trauma is… less of a source of growth that fiction would have one think, but this is my experience; if you feel differently, it’s not my intention to ever make you think you’re wrong.)

I feel like my main problems with this book are summed up really well by that quote, and have a lot to do with… the book community’s tendency to value pain over everything (in this, and in so many other aspects, including the creepiest ones like “you’re not allowed to write about trauma unless you disclose details about your own on social media”) and I don’t even feel like I’m the right person to talk about this because I can’t put together something that makes sense. I still think The Fifth Season is worth reading for other aspects, but I won’t be continuing with the series.


Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

I made a mistake, and that mistake was trying to listen to the audiobook. You might already know that my previous experience with audiobooks (with Sadie by Courtney Summers) wasn’t the best, but I absolutely loved listening to the novella In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, and so I thought, why not try again?

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As it turns out, some stories really don’t work well on audiobook. This is a novel with many side characters, most of which are women, and something about the narration made them sound really similar. Was that Rosa’s mother? Her grandmother? Her best friend? One of the other women from her small town? I often didn’t know, and kept getting confused, and there were just… so many characters.

When I got around 40%, I realized that I kept zoning out and understanding nothing, so I quit, and I feel bad about it, because it’s not even really the book’s fault. This isn’t bad – it’s a perfectly fine contemporary story, and a really atmospheric one at that, and I loved what it said about how different generations in diaspora have different relationship with their culture – it’s just that I don’t feel strongly enough about it to purchase another copy and start it again.

TL;DR: if you like contemporary novels, it’s worth trying. Don’t listen to it on audiobook if that’s an option.


Have you ever had a bad experience with an audiobook narration? Have you read any of these?