Book review · Short fiction · Young adult

Review: The Radical Element, edited by Jessica Spotswood

29748943The Radical Element is a historical fiction anthology about radical and dauntless young women throughout American history. It follows girls ahead of their times, marginalized girls, girls who were in some way unconventional.

It’s the second book in a series. The first, A Tyranny of Petticoats, followed brave and “badass” girls; I read it more than a year ago, and I remember having mixed feelings on it. I liked this one a bit more, though it had its low points too.

Overall, this didn’t disappoint. The Radical Element shines a spotlight on people who are often forgotten, erased in historical records, and who were considered outcasts because they didn’t fit the norms.

One thing didn’t convince me: these two anthologies about the history of the USA didn’t include, as far as I know, any Native American authors. There were barely any native characters (Yakone in the first book, and one of the characters from this one vaguely mentions she has “indian blood” and lives in a “half-Creek and half-Cherokee” territory); since this is a otherwise fairly diverse anthology, this absence stood out to me.
Also: unlike A Tyranny of Petticoats, this didn’t have any f/f stories.


Daughter of the Book by Dahlia Adler (1838: Savannah, Georgia): 3.5 stars.
I had already read a book by this author – it was Under the Lights, a f/f contemporary novel I recommend – so I knew I really liked her writing style.
This is the story of a Jewish girl who wants to receive a full education and maybe become a teacher, which was something radical for her time period. I loved the many (not only historical) details.

You’re a Stranger Here by Mackenzi Lee (1844: Nauvoo, Illinois): 3 stars.
I knew nothing about Mormon history, so this was interesting. I loved the setting and what the Eliza says to Vilatte about faith near the end of the story. I like Mackenzi Lee’s writing style; this story didn’t have the humor or tone of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but it worked just as well.

The Magician by Erin Bowman (1858: Colorado River, New Mexico): 3 stars
This was really interesting for a crossdressing story; at the end of it it’s hinted that Ray may be a person who would today identify as genderfluid/non-binary. That’s uncommon in historical books, but people like Ray have always existed, so I liked this. However, the actual plot was kind of boring at times.

Lady Firebrand by Megan Shepherd (1863: Charleston, South Carolina): 3.5 stars.
This was more interesting than I expected. A free black girl and a disabled white girl are union spies. Chemistry! Explosions! Of course, TW: racism.

Step Right Up by Jessica Spotswood: 4 stars
This was fun! A girl wants to run away from her abusive uncle with the circus. I really liked the main characters and the writing. The first scene drew me in immediately, and the descriptions of the circus were my favorite part.

Glamour by Anna-Marie McLemore (1923: Los Angeles and the Central Valley, California): 5 stars
I will read everything Anna-Marie McLemore writes. This was just… so much better than all the other stories in the book. It’s a magical realism story about the racism, queerphobia and ableism in Hollywood, and it follows a Mexican girl who is able to whitewash herself to fit in and a disabled trans boy. Both of them live afraid of being found out, but find each other instead. I loved how this story approached a scene which could have been harmful (Graciela sees Sawyer half naked) in a really sensitive way. Graciela never questions Sawyer’s gender.
Glamour reminded me of When the Moon Was Ours because of its symbolism, and in a good way – now I have a lot of feelings.

Better for all the World by Marieke Nijkamp (1927: Washington, DC): 4.5 stars.
TW: eugenics
I had never read an ownvoices story about an autistic girl before; it’s difficult to find them, especially in historical fiction or SFF.
Better for all the World follows an autistic girl who wants to become a lawyer. She is following the Carrie Buck case – who was sterilized because she was “feeble-minded” (that’s how they called people who had mental illnesses/developmental disabilities). The worst part is that some people argue that this should happen today too. It was infuriating to read, painful, but great. At the end of the story, the main character finds out that some friendships just aren’t worth it, especially when the other person doesn’t value you as you really are, or claims to like you while advocating for the oppression of other people like you.

When the Moonlight isn’t Enough by Dhonielle Clayton (1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts): 3.5 stars
A magical black family drinks moonlight to be immortal, but their daughter wants to grow up and help her country win the war – a country that doesn’t value her at all. A really interesting concept, and the writing was lovely, but overall the story felt disjointed.

The Belle of the Ball by Sarvenaz Tash (1952: Brooklyn, New York): 3 stars.
I had never read anything by this author before. While the writing didn’t impress me, I can say I loved the main character’s voice. Rosemary is a girl who is struggling because her mother’s expectations do not include becoming a comedy writer.

Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave by Stacey Lee (1955: Oakland, California): 4.75 stars
An Asian-American girl (Chinese father, biracial Japanese mother who was born in Hawaii) decides to participate in a contest to be the new “Sugar Maiden” – the girl whose face will be on the sugar boxes. I have loved everything I’ve read by Stacey Lee, and this was no exception.
Lanakila Lau was one of my favorite main characters, and reading about the aftermath of Japanese internment and the history of Asian-Americans in Hawaii was really interesting.

The Birth of Susi Go-Go by Meg Medina (1972: Queens, New York): 2 stars
A Cuban-American girl is coming to terms with her past (her and her parents were exiled from Cuba), family expectations and who she wants to be in the future. The grandparents she hasn’t seen in 12 years are coming to visit her, and she isn’t sure how she feels about that. I didn’t love this one; it meandered and it was far too long.

Take Me With U by Sara Farizan (1984: Boston, Massachusetts): 2.5 stars
I had never read anything by Sara Farizan before. Take Me With U is about an Iranian girl, her immigrant family in the 80s, and her love for music. It was short and I don’t have any thoughts about it – it was just ok.


My average rating was 3.52.

7 thoughts on “Review: The Radical Element, edited by Jessica Spotswood

    1. It did feel kind of like wasted potential. The anthology was very good for disabled and PoC rep (at least half of the stories have main characters of color and many of them are ownvoices) but I think it needed more queer rep. I mean, if you’re writing about outcasts in history…

      Liked by 1 person

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