Wrap-Up

Maybe A Wrap-Up

This year really won’t give me a break. In June, I’d post an all-queer pride TBR, but this year I’d be surprised if I finished even one book.

In June, I will have to be out of my house for at least a week for university reasons, which will be incredibly draining, and for the rest of the month it’s Exam Season Yet Again. Yay! Let’s limit ourselves to a general update.


Where Are We Now

Botanically, we’re right in the middle of broom season. The mountains all around Genoa are lit up by the bright yellow of the ginestra di spagna (Spartium junceum) and by the burnt golden-yellow of the ginestra spinosa (Calicotome spinosa).

Ginestra di Spagna in bloom; in the distance (opposite hill), probable ginestra spinosa

Reading-wise, I completed two books in May, The Fever King and The Electric Heir by Victoria Lee, the first of which was a reread. I had been wanting to reread this book about a magical pandemic for a while, but in 2020 I just couldn’t; now that I’m vaccinated (was lucky, no side effects) there really wasn’t any excuse anymore, so I went back to it. And… I don’t know, I was just kind of disappointed both by my reread of The Fever King and by its sequel. It’s a good series, especially when compared with most YA dystopians, but neither book managed to make me feel as strongly as The Fever King did when I first read it. The first felt somewhat rushed, the second went much further but forgot pieces of itself along the way.

The Electric Heir went a lot further than I thought it would, and it was right to do so. Sometimes, YA books tend to hold back while portraying abuse, for many understandable reasons – but The Electric Heir is the demonstration that something doesn’t need to shy away or become exceedingly graphic to explain itself fully. It’s raw, it’s messy, it’s honest, it’s painful; it doesn’t relish in its portrayal of pain. I appreciated all of this more than I could put into words, and yet, something was missing for me.

I fell in love with the first book in this series. I couldn’t think about anything else for weeks. While rereading it, I realized that I somewhat glossed over certain aspects – the choppy writing, the hollow side characters, how empty this world feels – that shone through in the second book as the story progressed and grew, becoming if anything thinner instead of more fleshed out.

Did this book live up to my expectations, then? More than I ever thought it could; not in the way I was certain it would. I loved it, it disappointed me; I read it in less than a day, I wish it had stayed with me for longer.


Plans for the future

Just “read something“, it won’t really matter what it is as far as I have something to talk about here. I can say that while on my Grishaverse high I’ve bought The Severed Moon journal and I really enjoy writing in it, but that’s not something one can really review; my hope is that this returning interest in the Grishaverse will convince me to finally read King of Scars.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t yet, there are two main reasons: I’m a perfectionist who wants to reread everything else first, and, second, reading it would mean acknowledging the ending of Ruin and Rising, which made just as much narrative and emotional sense as it made me mad. I was fifteen and it still does and it should have no right to! Someday I will be over it. Maybe.


What are your plans for June? Have you read any of these books?

Fantasy · Young adult

No Thoughts Only Shadow and Bone (2021)

When I decided to participate in this year’s Wyrd and Wonder, I had a lot of plans and underestimated just how strongly nostalgia would end up kicking me in the face, and honestly, that’s my fault for underestimating my 15-year-old self. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be as present as I thought I would be, even though I had low expectations; aside from Real Life issues, I also had a terrible case of Shadow and Bone brain. After watching the Netflix show (and watching. and rewatching. and then rewatching with a friend who is also now obsessed.) it took me several weeks to get out of my own head enough to actually write something like a review.

Shadow and Bone is the book that got me into blogging, and while it isn’t the book that made me discover the English book community, it’s the one that got me to stay. I loved it more than I could explain and it’s the kind of story I thought about daily for years on end, in a way I’ve only ever done with another series later on (fun fact: I found that series because of someone in the old S&B fandom!). It’s also a flawed novel that in some aspects feels was clearly written ten years ago, and that in other aspects only got worse as the series continued (worldbuilding, esp. re: Shu Han); and, to be honest, it’s a straightforward straight YA fantasy, the kind of book I today refuse to even try because none of them do anything for me anymore.

I thought I was over it. I was a fool.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Grishaverse adaptation, I was worried not only because of my attachment to it but also because it set out to adapt both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series. My worries rapidly evaporated as I read the first reviews, and I now can confirm that somehow they made it work – and, I think, Alina’s storyline was actually strengthened by that choice. I don’t necessarily think the show did Six of Crows‘ story justice (more on that later), but as that’s both the best and the least important to me of the two series, I can deal with that.

this review spoils who the villain is, of course.


The Good

If you know me and know why I love the Shadow and Bone trilogy, you can probably imagine what was my main worry: I thought that the show wouldn’t be able to make the Darkling feel convincing. As he’s the character that made Shadow and Bone stand out from a sea of similar chosen-one-love-triangle series from around 2012 and the character that made me realize I loved villains, actually, this was probably the most important part to me.

I’m happy to say that the show didn’t disappoint at all, and while his characterization is somewhat different – as is Alina’s – it works, and comparing show!Darkling and book!Darkling was actually one of the things I had the most fun with. Book!Darkling leans more into the ~mysterious, look at the ~power side of things for his manipulation, while Show!Darkling leans more into showing “vulnerability” in a oh, Ravka is (I’m) such a wounded creature… Alina, only you can save Ravka (me, I’m Ravka and Ravka is me actually) way. Both Darklings of course have elements of both, but the… balance of them is different.

Show!Darkling strikes me as more slimy, and that for me comes across especially in the way he treats Mal. In the books, he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge his existence and calls him “tracker”; in the show, he deliberately calls him “Mal” with a disdainful overfamiliarity that was almost painful to watch.

I loved how the show made explicit that a cardinal plot point of the story is the villain reading the two protagonists’ love letters and keeping them! I just find that so funny

Another thing I loved was what they did with the Darkling’s clothes, which are beautiful with an eldritch twist – those metal things look as if they’re staring at you! The show’s take on everyone’s Keftas and clothes in general was everything I hoped for. Even when it wanted “ugly”, it truly went for it: Alina’s veiled outfit is the closest a human has ever been to looking like a lamp, and I mean, it’s appropriate. That’s how the king sees her, after all.

Shows have the chance to truly make something come to life, and this one succeeded. It’s easy to make a story following the Six of Crows characters compelling because they already are, but I didn’t think anything could manage to make me care about Marie or make scenes with Ivan of all characters both interesting and enjoyable. The Jesper/Ivan fight is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show and my favorite of the ones that aren’t in the book at all. (The second one is the carriage theft and its aftermath, I’ve wanted something like that since I read Shadow and Bone and love how it went down.)

Another thing I didn’t know I needed was seeing Alina and Inej meet, and what that means for Inej! Alina is important to her in the books already and this is just taking it to another level.

I also really appreciated the general Zlatan storyline. It made the Darkling’s decision in Novokribirsk make much more practical sense instead of that scene being just the most horrifying example of showing off that Ravka has ever seen.

Miscellaneous things I loved:

  • the goat, of course
  • Leigh Bardugo and Shadow and Bone (book) cameos
  • Jesper is the only one who gets a (implied) sex scene. I call that LGBT justice
  • Mal’s friends are actually developed
  • the true-north-erase-the-scar montage was art and so painful at that
  • Ketterdam looks amazing & exactly as I imagined it & I can’t wait for more

The Complicated

I didn’t necessarily love what the show did with Alina. While I really liked the casting, I didn’t love some choices that were made – like making the cartographers’ death her fault at the beginning, which… never comes up again and makes her feel weirdly cold, and given that Jessie Mei Li’s interpretation of Alina is more “literal sunshine” than the (comparably grumpier) book version, it felt very dissonant to me. I’m also sad that Alina’s inner monologue can’t come across in this format; what could have been avoided instead is the flattening. In the books she’s also very insecure (and sickly and tired) and they got rid of most of that, which… I don’t know, it’s this trend of editing out flaws from female characters in the name of “here’s a woman who knows what she wants!” and I hate that, actually. But when I stopped comparing show and book version, I did really like following Alina’s character. There’s no version of her I won’t love; she means so much to me.

Making Alina biracial was also a chance to make something better with the worldbuilding of Shu Han and its relationship to Ravka, a chance to develop the country past a (frankly racist) stereotype. That opportunity was not taken and there was a lot of intentionally-but-clumsily included anti-Asian racism.

they finally translated it because of the show. I hope the translation is good?

Many people have said the show made them like Mal, but I firmly remain in a Mal-indifferent zone. He’s just not my type of character. I wonder how much of the recent Mal love comes from the fact that in the books he’s an unlikable character and here he isn’t as much. My friend – who hasn’t read the books and therefore didn’t have the “he’s going to be insufferable, isn’t he” kind of worry – didn’t feel drawn to him at all either, and she’s usually easier on male characters than I am.

And while the inclusion of the Crows’ plotline made the show more interesting – the first half of Shadow and Bone would feel kind of empty on screen without that! – they objectively steal the scene, which saddens me, because on a subjective level I prefer the other plotline (so much that I sometimes skipped the Crows while rewatching) and I don’t want Shadow and Bone to be… overshadowed in its own show. Also, fusing two different stories – one of which is a cautionary fairytale and the other a fast-paced heist story – just makes you feel like half of the characters are way too smart for the story they’re stuck in.

Other things I have mixed feelings about:

  • I find show!Alina way prettier than show!Genya, which just feels weird
  • the train scenes are very cool. the rest of the world seems not to have invented trains yet
  • Alina’s power being portrayed not like sun rays but like literal little suns looks kind of goofy
  • I’m fine with Kaz having plot armor of course, but wow did they weaken the Cut!
  • Nina Zenik was great but her storyline felt cut off from everything else
  • There isn’t even a mention of Nikolai’s name. He’d be so mad

The Disappointing

The Little Palace should look like something out of a fairytale. Half of the buildings in my city have more character than that. It sounds minor but atmosphere is very important to me and this might be my main dislike.

I get that it’s difficult to do establish worldbuilding in a show, but I feel like the magic system wasn’t… I don’t want to say “explained” because I don’t like magic to be explained, but grounded well. There are rules in the book that the show applies but never actually mentions, and I don’t get why it didn’t even mention like calls to like. Some of those “rules” are also plot-relevant: my friend who didn’t read the book didn’t understand what happened with the stag’s power while in the fold.

Also, no “wanting makes us weak”? The Darkling’s name being revealed so casually? I get why, but still!


Hopes for the Future

My main hope? That we get season two!

Apart from that, there are some things I’d very much like to see, like the show actually taking a chance to develop Shu Han and Alina’s relationship with her Shu heritage when Tamar and Tolya will be introduced; the Crows going on an actual heist like the one in the Ice Court instead of the lackluster halfway thing it had to be at the Little Palace (too smart for this story, I said) because otherwise this show doesn’t do justice to Six of Crows at all; also I think seeing Zoya and Inej having an actual conversation would be very cool.


I’m going to end this post with links to the two reviews that convinced me that the show was worth watching (that you should also read!) and that went more in-depth in several of the issues with the worldbuilding: Hadeer’s and Silvia’s.

Have you seen Shadow and Bone? What are your hopes for its future? Is there anything I should watch now that I’ve resurrected my Netflix account? [Will I be able to keep myself from rewatching this again? No]

Discussion · Fantasy · middle grade

Going Back to Fairy Oak

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Who’s afraid of the suck fairy?“. Well, I am.

I’ve known this feeling since I tried to reread City of Bones in 2017; as I’ve learned, the book that is your favorite at 15 might not look so great two years and two hundred books later. We can talk about this in a boring “your tastes will change, that’s natural and good!” way, or we can do so in a fantasy way: nothing about you changed… the suck fairy happened to the book.

You read a book you used to love, and—something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous.

Jo Walton, The Suck Fairy

For this post, I’m reading the new installment in the Fairy Oak series, which I loved in middle school; it has fairies in it and I’ll be crushed if it sucks, so it’s perfect for the topic. Also, after my last post, I feel like dedicating at least one post to an Italian fantasy book is the right thing to do.

For the 15th anniversary of the Fairy Oak series, author Elisabetta Gnone returns to Fairy Oak with a new story. For this post, I went back too.

I’m not going to write an actual review of Fairy Oak: La storia perduta because it wouldn’t make sense to review in English a book that doesn’t even exist in said language; I’m going to use it as a comparison – one between my current feelings for this series and how I felt about it at the time; one between Italian fantasy and US publishing’s idea of Italian fantasy.

I didn’t feel the way I felt while reading the other books in the series when I read La storia perduta, both for my own limitations (I’m 21 instead of 12) and the book’s (it’s a low-stakes story set between already-written books, it didn’t have much space to be its own thing) but it was still a nice time – for the nostalgia, the gorgeous illustrations, and because reading something created outside US publishing’s direct sphere of influence is always a breath of fresh air…

…for the most part. This book is made of flashbacks, and the parts set in the present are exactly the kind of “the characters you loved are now straight married and with kids” thing I despise. Back in middle school I related so much to the main character Pervinca – I, too, was boyish and messy and the less perfect sibling; if I had had magic I would have also been the only Dark Mage in a family of Light Mages – that to read about her happy straight marriage and three kids just feels like a lie. Not like I expected anything different from an Italian book, but I wish I could be more than one part of me at a time, Italian and not trapped in a heteronormativity web. I don’t need it, but it sure would be nice.

this book has a beautiful naked hardcover

But this is Italian, at least.

Americans’ idea of Italian-inspired fantasy often doesn’t feel Italian to me at all; much of it is either stereotypical or simply baffling. The average American Italian-inspired fantasy will involve some fake version of Venice, the mafia, or the Catholic Church (all three if the author is feeling inspired) and a lot of google-translate Italian thrown in where English would have been just fine.

So I’m going to explain why the Fairy Oak series feels Italian to me (well, Ligurian, as both me and the author are) even though it isn’t even trying to be set in Italy, because I don’t think most of these things would even register as Italian-inspired to many. I believe that part of this “Italian inspiration” isn’t intentional, it just bled into the books, which now feel like home.

⇝ The plot of this last book revolves around recognizing cetaceans, together with an illustrated guide; the year’s event is the return of the whale. This is the most Ligurian thing ever. The Ligurian sea is a cetacean sanctuary! (My university has an entire course about that and I gave that exam just a few months ago!)

⇝ There’s so much about sailing and fishing and ropemaking when the book is mostly set on land; that’s very Ligurian too. My family history is made of these things, and in a book that is about roots and tangled family trees and the repeating nature of history, it’s appropriate.

Multiple generations living under one roof and many elderly characters whose only role in the story isn’t dying to teach the main characters about grief. Just a lot of Old People, most of them somewhat nice, which is something American fantasy just doesn’t do.

⇝ In the main series, the enemy is a rainstorm that takes away people: a Ligurian fear made character. A “simple” rainstorm, not a hurricane or a tornado; it’s a… local metereological fear. We (mostly) don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes, but in Liguria, every few years the November rainstorms get deadly.

Magic ≈ Plants. Just like all Ligurian towns, this book is set in a small piece of land between the mountains and the sea, and the two sides come together, green earth and saltwater. There’s sailing, yes, but there’s also more botany than one would expect, because there’s magic in what grows out of the earth in the little space we have. Some magical lessons are set in the greenhouse, the whole town is built around a talking oak, fairies are tied to flowers, and even most of the human magical characters are named after plants. It’s like Prebogión. (Genoese word: mixture of spontaneous weeds that are gathered to make soup or ravioli filling; there are at least 35 plants that can be put in it but some should be used sparingly.)

some of the other books in the series

Fairy Oak doesn’t feel the need to dress up as Italian because it isn’t written to be Italian, it just is. It doesn’t matter that most characters have English names or that the setting clearly isn’t Liguria. The English words are just a dressing: the concept of fantasy is inherently English in the Italian imagination, and this is a fantasy book after all.

There’s nothing that even suggests the characters are speaking in English, which has some… interesting consequences when it comes to names. There’s an evil character named Lesser Skullcup, like the flower (Scutellaria minor, lesser skullcap), but with a misspelling. Yes, “Lesser” is his name. This is the first time I’ve seen the English equivalent of the nonsensical fake Italian names of American Italian-inspired fantasy!

I’m so used to Italian-inspired American-hearted books written by authors who only care about Italy as a decoration that finding the exact opposite was an Experience. Does it make me think less of the quality of the writing? Yes; I’m bilingual, this is ridiculous. Do I still kind of love it? Also yes.

I’m going to end this post with a picture I took in 2019, both for Atmosphere reasons and to explain just how literally I mean “between the mountains and the sea” and “the little space we have” when I talk about Liguria.

Vernazza, once Ligurian fishing port and now beloved Ligurian tourist trap.

Would you reread or continue the series you loved in middle school, or do you feel the shadow of the Suck Fairy hanging over them?

Discussion · Fantasy

On Fantasy and Italy

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Fantasy from around the world“.

I thought about writing a recommendation list: authors writing in English from non-English speaking countries get very little visibility, but my blog can’t provide much of it anyway, and I imagine that most names I have in mind would show up on a lot of lists already. So I’m going to talk about Fantasy in Italy instead: my thoughts on my country’s overall perspective on this genre, and what that means for me as a mostly-SFF blogger in the English booksphere.

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

I’m going to talk about my experience with what’s accessible in bookstores to an average reader; I actually know the behind-the-scenes of writing fantasy in Italy very little, and I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about Italian fantasy literature because it’s not easy to find unless you already know where to look for. And there are reasons for that, mostly tied two main Italian assumptions: Fantasy is an English genre and Fantasy is a kid’s genre.


Italy, Fantasy, and Acqua

My feeling has always been that Italy and fantasy don’t really get along. I don’t know whether this is just a coincidence, but we don’t have a widely-used word for the fantasy genre the same way we do for science fiction (“fantascienza”), as if it were always inherently an outsider. That’s not to say that the concept of magic, in one way or another, hasn’t been a significant part of our culture – it has, in Italian literature and legends and even historical events – but it’s not really the same thing.

What I can say is that true fantasy, fantasy-as-the-English-know-it, is perceived as something for children.

original Italian cover of LoTR

We all know that in the English-speaking book world there are people turning up their nose at genre fiction; it happens all the time, even though it might not happen as often or with as little pushback as it did before social media was a thing. It’s not what I’m talking about here, even though this happens in Italy too. I’m saying that fantasy is specifically perceived as “for children” in a way science fiction is not, in a way that doesn’t match the common stereotypes I see in the English book world (“genre fiction is commercial and therefore valueless” and “adult fantasy written by women must actually be YA”).

No, all fantasy is specifically for kids, including fantasy written by men. The first Italian translator of The Lord of the Rings, Vittoria Alliata, was only 17, and given how I’ve heard people talk about fantasy for most of my life I can imagine why that choice was made. (Probably not because they valued the abilities and thoughts of teen girls, I’m saying.)

Some relatives also gifted me a copy of A Game of Thrones when I was 13, and I guess that their thought process wasn’t “this is appropriate young teen reading material”, “my niece can handle it”, but “everyone talks about this series these days, so it must be good, and it’s fantasy, so it must be ok for kids”. The Average Middle Aged Italian Person who doesn’t really follow SFF in any form still thinks “ah yes. Kid books” when they see fantasy. With the Game of Thrones TV show becoming more well-known for its violence through the years, this might be changing; it’s definitely changing with younger generations, because few of us are that detached from the Anglosphere anymore.

This is the main reason, outside of the queerness, I rarely mentioned what I read to any adult as an older teen. This is one of the main reasons, outside of queerness, I started reading in English: sometimes the translations, even by major Italian publishing houses, were terrible (“would a kid notice?”) and series were often left unfinished (“oh, this wasn’t successful, and clearly not because we didn’t put any thought or money into it! Let’s try with the first book in another random fantasy series. Kids have a fish’ attention span anyway”). I don’t have a high opinion of Italian publishing in general, but I could be wrong about their reasoning: maybe they are this thoughtless with every genre and age range.

This might be one of the reasons fantasy books written by Italians shine in the pre-teen age range. One of my favorite and formative series was Fairy Oak by Elisabetta Gnone, a series about twin witches living in an enchanted town. It’s very Italian in its being way more concerned with atmosphere than with plot; very Ligurian (this author is from my region) in its values and culture; very English because it’s fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the setting is a hybrid between Liguria and an English small town; it’s not a coincidence that the characters have a mix of English and Italian names. Also, just look at the title.

I consider the Fairy Oak series to be several steps above most English middle grade I’ve read, and not just because of how important and close it is to me, but I don’t feel similarly about any Italian fantasy book aimed at an older audience. That’s also because I don’t know it very well and a lot of it doesn’t appeal to me for homogeneity (male and/or heterosexual) reasons. That’s not to say I’ve never read any of it, but… almost, because if the kind of stories that appeal to me are being written, they’re not easily found, and that’s a problem in itself.

As for what I read that wasn’t written for middle schoolers: I read all Licia Troisi books up until 2015, and while the stories of the Mondo Emerso wouldn’t look in any way out of place among Throne of Glass-type fantasy (though it predates Throne of Glass by almost a decade) I wouldn’t put the best ones anywhere near a “best YA books I’ve read” list, despite the nostalgia. What some of them do have is better covers:

Original cover art for the second Mondo Emerso series, the Guerre del Mondo Emerso trilogy

The main problem is, most Italian fantasy isn’t well-known even in Italy, and outside the middle grade age range, “big authors” like Licia Troisi are the exception to the rule. It never feels like publishers are trying to make it a thing. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: fantasy is an English genre, and so we’re only going to spend money on translated works we know were successful in the US if we’re to spend money on any fantasy book at all.

original Italian cover of The Hobbit

And that’s how I ended up on the other side of this language barrier. I’m sure there are people who specifically look for hobbies that require them to be fluent in languages they wouldn’t otherwise use as much, but I’m not one of them! If I could have been an SFF book blogger by reading Italian books, I probably would have: at heart, I’m a lazy person. A dragon who would have happily slept on its pile of Italian fantasy books. (When I think of fantasy my mind always goes back to the cover of the first fantasy book I read, The Hobbit, with Smaug sleeping on a pile of gold on the cover.)

I’m here instead, and this place changed me a lot; I didn’t even realize how much until I wasn’t here very much anymore. It gave me the language to describe some of my experiences, for how much it shouldn’t have had to; it helped me interact with many people who have a perspective completely different from mine, and certain things are invaluable for someone who for various reason can’t travel much. (English social media also exposed me to a significant amount of nonsense that is culturally different from the usual nonsense I’d encounter in my everyday life: there’s value in that too!)

The underlying reasons I ended up in this place might not be the best, but I’m glad to be here.


What are some misconceptions about fantasy people around you have? I’m curious about what everyone encounters more often; maybe we’re more similar than I realize.

lists

Favorite Books of 2020

2020 was a weird year, and between my disappearance from the book community and the fact that time has long ceased to have any meaning, the concept of “yearly favorites” felt less important than it usually was to me. However, this is my favorite post to write, and I believe that talking about the good that stays with us is the most important thing about book blogging, so here are my 8 favorite novels out of the 80+ books I read, and some non-novel favorites. I’m sorry this is late; I hope you’ll find something here you’ll like too.

my favorite book of the year is at the end of the list.


The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

Weird F/F sci-fantasy with themes of surviving religious abuse, some of the funniest scenes ever written, and a cast of somewhat-to-fully unhinged magical beings. Of course I loved it, for that and for being one of the few fantasy books that managed to actually surprise me with a twist this year.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

This book feels haunted (it haunts me). Nothing happens (everything happens) and it feels like a depressive episode (it changed my life) and I forgot most of it (I think about it almost every day) and the ending hurt to read (the ending was perfect). I gave it four stars, originally (I almost DNFed it) but it’s one of those books you only learn to love with distance (it never really leaves you, and you will be forever followed by its atmosphere of gloom).

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I could tell you what this is, but I think that if you’re here you already know, so instead I’m going to say that I didn’t get this book.

I mean, I loved it, I flew through it and felt a lot and just really appreciated how out there and absurd and unapologetically itself it was, but I think so much of what actually happened didn’t register, mostly because Gideon has a very… unusual perspective. It reminds me of what happened to me when I read Radiance back in 2017 – it didn’t make sense the first time but rereading it just made everything click. By which I mean, this book has so much rereading potential and I should just get to it already.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

I, too, would like to have a morally questionable immortal moth girlfriend. Apart from the very Acqua-relevant queer monster theme, this was a wonderful story about what isolation does to a person’s self-esteem and about taking back the power from what has been used to hurt you. Sweet but sharp, short but subversive, this is one of the most remarkable YA fantasy novels that came out in the last few years.


The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty

What is there to say but the slow set-up that was the worldbuilding in The City of Brass is definitely paying off? This is a series that gets that the best kind of court intrigue comes from putting together a web of complex, messed up relationships wrapped in centuries of feuds, rivalry, trauma and bloodshed. It hurts. It’s hilarious. I love most characters and I don’t want them to be hurt, but that’s simply not possible. Many people in this book don’t have a sense of humor but somehow I still spent half of the time laughing. It’s perfect.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Steampunk folktale fantasy featuring a mecha dragon with a telepathic bond, a remarkably cruel magic system, and a walking disaster of a protagonist. Reading from the point of view of a character who isn’t special but gets their time to shine is fun – I’d do worse in their place and be just as way too into the beautiful enemy prime duelist (Acqua-relevant content). And if I were a weapon of mass destruction I’d also choose to be a pacifist! It’s not the happiest of stories but thinking about it makes me happy, our ideas of humor just match. It also has great commentary on art, colonization and war – all tied into the remarkably cruel magic system, of course.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

The main surprise of the year: I went into this book thinking I wasn’t going to like it, and I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. After having read so many books about oppressive societies and revolutions, I kind of thought I already knew the beats – but this book is a different thing entirely. It’s the kind of unreal and distant story that feels closer to reality than any of the books attempting to portray a realistic conflict I’ve read, because it’s not interested in telling easy lies about the nature of power. It’s a dreamlike, complex novel with wonderful worldbuilding set on a tidally locked planet (always there for weird sci-fi worlds), with one of the most interesting messed up friendships I’ve ever read at its center. It’s also a deeply queer story in its look at what it means to outgrow a friendship, at unrequited love, even at biopunk body mods. [And: every book that makes fun of cultural exceptionalism has a special place in my heart.]

Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

I don’t know if I can do this book justice. I loved Night Shine for its atmosphere, for the way Tessa Gratton’s writing manages to make everything feel real while keeping the magic alive, for its attention to detail and what it said about the allure of invisibility; but mostly, because it’s the F/F villain romance I have always been looking for. (The Sorceress Who Eats Girls? Best character of the year.) It’s also a story about queerness and the power of being a monster, which as themes are really important to me, as were the complicated friendships and this book’s total disregard for binaries – while talking about gender, while talking about the distinction between friendship and romance. It’s the kind of book that reminds me of the potential of queerness in fantasy, the kind of story that reminds me of why I read.


Non-Novel Favorites

Unlike my top 5 favorite novels, these are so different from each other that ranking them wouldn’t really make sense.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (review): it convinced me that nonfiction about heavy topics is worth it by being the worst-best case of genre soup I have ever experienced, and when I talk about the importance of looking at things sideways, I mean this – follow the mark left by a phenomenon through the human imagination and archetypes.

Monstress Vol. 4: The Chosen by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (review): with each volume, the story gets more complex, gradually makes less and less sense, and gets more explicitly queer. All three things are appreciated and making sense is for the weak.

Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney (review): overwritten and overwhelming goblin chaos; distilled essence of that feeling of wild joy one can get by watching things explode. Fae are for the lost and the queers and the freaks and this book gets it.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (review): quiet, introspective fantasy about the details that changed a kingdom and the women who made that happen; it looks at revolution from an angle I hadn’t seen before and with writing of a quality I hope I’ll see again.


Favorite Short Stories

My opinion is that the best short stories are more about the feeling than the point. If you want to know what these are actually about, longer reviews can probably be found in my Short Fiction Time posts.

Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed): I, too, would sleep with a city who would like to lovingly rearrange and replace my body parts ❤ Favorite story of the year.

The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed): a beautiful story about memory and grief featuring space archeology, alien and familiar at the same time.

The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta): gory and grotesque in a way that is all but banal and that I won’t easily forget; at the same time a fever dream and a reflection on what we find horrifying or depraved and what we don’t. Always here for the messed up F/F content.

Stop your women’s ears with wax by Julia Armfield (Salt Slow collection): gay story with a feral energy that just keeps building, keeps rising, cackling loudly like the best fae stories even though it’s not technically a fae story at all – it just finds the same glee in destruction.


Have you read any of these? What were your favorites of last year?

Tag

The Moody Book Tag

I found this Tag on Jocelyn @yogi with a book‘s channel and I thought it could be fun to do; it was created by Slanted Spines.


1. Do you consider yourself a mood reader?

Yes, and I’ve disliked a book simply for having read it at the wrong time before (it happened with Jade City by Fonda Lee, which I DNFed twice then loved); that was why I struggled so much with ARCs. The other way around seems to happen less often, and is difficult to tell apart from a simple case of Suck Fairy. The only case of which I’m certain is The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, which I read while getting into my favorite genre (adult sci-fi) and deeply loved but found hollow on reread (because part of my love for it was… probably transferred from other great science fiction novels I was loving at the time; I don’t know if that makes sense). It was good, just not that good.

2. Do you set TBR lists and do you stick to them?

Yes, I set TBRs, and no, I often don’t stick to them. I love lying to myself!

3. Do books affect you emotionally? Does the mood of a book rub off on you?

Yes, a lot, I’m an emotional sponge – that’s why I avoid sad books unless I know I’m also going to be so in awe of them that it barely registers. If it’s going to be sad, it has to be otherworldly, else I’m not going to finish the book. I’m already good at focusing on the negatives and at becoming sad for no reason, pain is cheap and easy to come by, I don’t need a book to also make me sad if that’s the only thing it’s going to give me. (Despite this, I’m not really drawn to happy stories either, and my experience says that if something has been described as “hopepunk”, it will get on my nerves.)

4. When you’re feeling sad, what do you read? (Or do you not read when sad?)

When I’m really sad, I don’t read; apart from that I don’t notice anything different (I’m always kind of sad? Who knows. What are “feelings”)

5. Most often, do you use reading to escape, to learn, or to critically reflect?

I don’t really have a goal, I mostly read out of curiosity (the main reason I rarely reach for sequels unless I loved the first book is that I already know what to expect…) and every story that works for me is good for different things. My favorite stories are, again, the balanced ones that are good for more things at the same time, but I won’t look down on mostly escapism (what, for example, Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic was to me) or things that aren’t escapism at all (like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi).

6. What is a book that made you laugh out loud?

I remember that by the end of the first time I read Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee I had laughed so much that my ribs actually hurt. I wouldn’t describe it as a happy book, but I’m not sure I ever read something that made me happier. According to my sense of humor, the funniest thing to ever exist is very competent characters doing extremely unwise things that somehow kind of work. This book starts with the novel’s antagonist kidnapping a spaceship fleet and only gets worse. Also, reading a whole book while rooting for the antagonist even though you like the main characters is a very interesting experience. Raven Stratagem is chaos made book. I love everyone in it.

7. What is a book that has made you cry? Or, if you don’t cry, one that really moved you?

Crying can be a bad sign; the book that made me cry the most had a surprisingly homophobic twist and I read it when I was just realizing I was gay; there are many ways to be upset and that wasn’t a “good” one. Anyway, apart from that – I can say that some of my favorite books made me tear up in joy at some point (some books I remember that did: Crooked Kingdom, Raven Stratagem, The Wise and the Wicked) and that’s my favorite kind of crying, but there are also times in which I actually cry because of pain and it’s not for the wrong reasons. The book I remember the most for this is Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente in the section There Are No Firebirds in Leningrad.

8. What is a book that you didn’t even know how you felt about?

All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil. There are books that have been called out for “romanticizing” abuse when they clearly weren’t (see Never-Contented Things) and that I defend without question, there are authors who have been accused of extremely serious things for what then turned out to be bullshit reasons (see what happened to Tamsyn Muir and Isabel Fall) and I have no problem with saying that either; in a culture that is obsessed with policing stories about trauma in ways that ultimately only hurt survivors that’s something I always try to remember.

The thing about the controversy with All of Us With Wings is that this time it isn’t based on blatant or borderline-bad-faith misinterpretation of the text, but on the very role of stories, because this was – as far as I remember – showing a relationship between a 17-year-old and her 28-year-old employer in a somewhat good light. Given the author’s note at the beginning, I’m not sure I can accept an easy answer about this story being inherently harmful by existing, and that might mean I need to reexamine a lot of things to have an answer (but it can’t be a Simple Theoretical Exercise given my own personal baggage, ha.) For now, it stays there, awkwardly hanging in the corner of “I don’t know what to say about this”.

9. Are you more likely to read on a sunny day or a cloudy day?

Right now, I’m not likely to read at all! I don’t think it makes much of a difference for me, but I’m more likely to feel more strongly if I’m reading while it’s darker outside. It makes things feel more real and reality less close.

10. Do you usually “set the mood” when you read? Music, lights, smells, etc?

No, not really, that would take too much effort.

11. Can you leap from book to book or do you need buffer time between them?

I can leap from a book to another; the biggest obstacle for me is always starting the book, but that doesn’t seem to be influenced by other books.


I’m not tagging anyone because I’m tired and lazy, but don’t let that stop you if you like the questions! What is the book you’ve had the most confusing feelings about? Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

I first read Radiance back in 2017, and it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year; despite that, I didn’t understand it.

It’s not a case that the other list I remember putting this book on was the “books that will cause problems on purpose” one. As I’ll try to explain soon, Radiance is many things, but most importantly, Radiance is weird even for a Cat Valente book. Of course, as usual, “only understood half of it” is not even remotely part of my favorites’ lists exclusion criteria, but it’s a very good reason to reread the book. This time around, I think I got it.

The synopsis describes this book as a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery“. If you’re thinking, are you sure, isn’t that a little too many genres?, I’m going to say: the description is wrong, but only by omission; Radiance is that and more. I think I lost count of the genres, they kept spilling from this book’s pockets like pictures in that old tumblr meme. Noir? Horror? Fairytale? Gothic? New weird? This book has all of them, all the while making fun of the idea of a linear narrative. A more accurate description would be “meta genre soup“, but I doubt that would make it to the back cover.

This whole book is built on wonder. (Or, at least, that’s how it feels at the beginning, so we’ll go with that; this is spoiler-free.) It draws you in with its beautiful writing – this book has my favorite prologue, which is of course meta material about prologues and somehow still works – and worldbuilding, then starts weaving the mystery of a woman.

Before moving to the next point – the woman, our Severin – I want to dedicate a paragraph to the setting and atmosphere, because they deserve it. This decopunk alt-history novel is set in a solar system in which every planet is more or less inhabitable by humans and already has its (very weird) life forms. We read about filmmaking culture in the moon cities, kangaroos on Mars, vanished towns from Venus, the bridge of flowers between Pluto and Charon, the salt winds and encrusting corals of Neptune. It’s beautiful, it makes no sense, I wouldn’t change anything about it.

Then there’s the reason I love this book as much as I do, the substance: Severin Unck. An androgynous, bisexual character in a decopunk universe that is in many ways still backwards; a child-actress-turned-documentarist who is seeking reality in a world of nice-looking lies; a character who hates fiction stuck under layers and layers of genre. And, as this book says, dead. Nearly conclusively dead. She is, at the very least, not answering her telephone.

Severin might be dead, but she comes alive in a way most fictional characters will never; there’s an energy to the way she is written, even though we only see her in pieces: transcripts of interviews, of documentaries, of the movies her father made, diaries from other people’s points of view, and even the movie her own father is making to come to terms with her mysterious disappearance – to give himself closure, to give himself an answer, to do her justice. Can he? In a book that is often far too weird to make sense of, its portrayal of the father-daughter relationship and grief is nothing but human. These are things we know, and Percival Unck’s search for the perfect movie about Severin might be an unusual coping mechanism, but it’s understandable.

However, that’s also where things get truly weird: as Radiance itself says, the lens does not discriminate between the real and the unreal. Well, neither does the book: the boundaries between its reality and the fictional narrative built inside of it get more and more blurred as the story goes on. Understating what actually happened to Severin is a challenge, but this time I think I have a solid theory. After all, a nonfiction girl stuck in genre soup stands out as a thorn would, or a pin, or something so sharp reality might cut itself on it.

Something to keep in mind: Radiance is a book about seeing and being seen. Severin, with her neverending series of stepmothers, a Gothic filmmaker for a father, and a life spent around cameras, is constantly watched and looking for answers, for the truth (her death is far from the only mystery). The answer is in the eye, but what answer are you going to get when your truth has been put together like a movie?

Another thing I didn’t get the first time I read this book, at least not fully, is just how queer it is. Severin isn’t the only bi character, and the happy ending of a very specific subplot is one of my favorite details in an otherwise bittersweet book.

It’s over-the-top, of course. It’s too much, and it makes for a very slow read – I wouldn’t try to get through Radiance quickly, even though once I got into the story it singlehandedly resurrected me from my reading slump. The only thing I didn’t like about it is the one thing I don’t like about Cat Valente’s books: it borrows details from various cultures in a way that sometimes makes for some of the most interesting symbolism I’ve ever seen… and sometimes feels thoughtless, as it often happens in American SFF. When that happens, the book ends up feeling like a parody of itself. It’s nothing compared to the epically-failing situation in Palimpsest, however, and I wouldn’t have thought much about it had I not known that it’s a pattern for this author.

My rating: ★★★★

Wrap-Up

Spring is Here

And so am I! Mostly. I wouldn’t say I’m back exactly, but the blog is back online for the time being.

I decided I was going to be mostly offline back November for my own sanity. Predictably, at least in hindsight, I ended up liking how that felt. After a while, I also found another time-occupying thing to do online that has nothing to do with books or social media (and requires me to write in Italian: my English got worse); then, with exams and everything, I kind of lost contact with the English booksphere. But while I don’t miss certain aspects of this place – the overwhelming American nature of it, and everything that concerns “book twitter” as an entity more than the people themselves – I do miss talking about books with people.

(Yes this was up yesterday for a few hours, yes that was a mistake)


What Does This Mean?

I’m around again: though not even nearly as often, and I hope my relationship with this place will be different. You can read most of what was going wrong in this post I wrote last fall; I don’t want to feel like that again.

A smaller TBR: I’m deleting most YA books I know I won’t pick up anytime soon, those I expect I’d give around 3.5 stars; I don’t have the time to try things I know I won’t love. My goodreads TBR is currently around 110 and I hope to get it under 100… somehow (I don’t think that will happen)

Broom season just begun!

I’m not sure which broom this one is exactly (bad: I definitely should!) but it’s the only broom in bloom™ in the shrubland right now. The ginestra spinosa/spiny broom (Calicotome spinosa) and the ginestra di Spagna/Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) aren’t quite there yet, which only means we will have different but very similar species of brooms in bloom™ for a few months. Does that have anything to do with books? No and I don’t care, they’re pretty.


What about books?

This should, after all, be a book blog…!

I haven’t read much. I’ve been listening to the same book since the end of last year, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone; as far as reading-through-words-on-a-screen, I haven’t been doing any of it for the sake of my eyesight. I’m liking this absurd space opera, even though I find it way too easy to follow – when it comes to adult sci-fi, I want my brain to hurt, otherwise it’s just not good worldbuilding to me.

A brief list of my thoughts so far:

  • I appreciate the gay. a lot.
  • there’s such a thing as too much action & this book really isn’t afraid of being too much
  • sometimes it feels like superhero fiction and that’s not really my thing
  • it would give the judgemental bores who made “mary sue checklists*” a stroke and that’s good, I approve
  • I’m around halfway through and my #1 wish for the story is “get weirder”
  • not that it isn’t weird at all, but you know, there’s Room for Improvement

*I don’t know how much of a common experience it is, but when I found those “how not to write a mary sue” advice posts at 15 I took them very seriously, when 90% of what they said is fuffa (Italian; means something between crap and empty and vapid and right now I can’t find the right English word).

However, I have read some short fiction (of course I have, whose blog do you think you’re reading, etc) and the two most memorable stories were:

I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You by Karin Tidbeck (Strange Horizons, 2013): I tried it because I was curious about the author’s translated novel, Amatka, given that I’ve been wanting to know more about non-English fiction lately.
It follows a woman who is undergoing psychiatric treatment and is asked to try the “latest experimental therapy”, the Sadgoat: she is literally assigned a goat to care for, and it even seems to work… but something else might be going on. This is the kind of story that I recommend to other fans of weird, ambiguous short fiction that is more about a feeling than about the underlying mechanisms of something. It wouldn’t satisfy the kind of reader who is always looking for definite answers, but if you’ve ever had to deal with psychiatrists’ tendencies to… obfuscate, and the feeling that gives you – this is perfect. It’s also a really interesting twist on the concept of scapegoat, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

Then there’s Seven Night for Dying by Tessa Gratton (in Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite by Zoraida Córdova e Natalie C. Parker). I have no interest in the whole anthology but the editors were so kind to put Gratton’s story at the beginning so I could read all of it on google play without buying the book. Anyway. This was everything I’ve ever wanted from a YA vampire story. It’s bold, it feels like it shouldn’t be happening but you want it to, and I can feel why the main character is drawn to the vampires. The concept might not even be that original, the vampire lore is what we’re used to, but that doesn’t matter at all: it’s written so well that it just comes alive, and its structure – short snippets that are just slightly ambiguous at times – makes it a quick but memorable read with a strong atmosphere and forbidden feel to it. Also, reading about a girl who is given a choice when choices are all but a given in these stories – not when it comes to teenage girls and the dangerous allure of “turning” – has its own meaning. I wish I could get more, but it’s perfect as it is.


A Short List of Interesting Stuff

Two non-fiction posts I didn’t necessarily agree with on all points but that I did find really interesting to read:

  • The Trouble With Easy Criticism by Ritesh Babu: I don’t know anything about most of the things this post references, as it’s about a completely different sphere of media, but I do feel like my ideas and trashed posts about projection and today’s reviewing culture + the ones about not liking some of my old reviews were going for something like this, partly, but not fully – there are some parts of this I don’t really feel. It’s Complicated and that’s why I remember this post.
  • And, to talk about complicated: Complications and Contradictions: All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil, review by Alex Brown on Tor.com. Someday I’ll be able to fully unpack my feelings about this book; in the meantime, I really recommend this review and appreciate it for not taking the easy way out, which is condemning the book.

What About You?

As I said, I didn’t keep up with anything. Please tell me about the best books you’ve read in the last ~5 months, or tell me about your best posts, or anything like that – I want to know!

Also: December was such a weird time for me that I didn’t even think about it, but: my “best of 2020” post never went up, would you be interested in reading it even though it’s April and there’s nothing on there you can’t guess? Let me know; as far as the rest, I hope my next post here won’t be as late as this one has been.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is a YA fantasy novel following Tarisai, a girl born in the Swana region of the Arit Empire, as she is sent to court by her secretive, powerful mother to become one of the prince’s closest advisors… and maybe also kill him. If you’ve read a lot of YA fantasy, you’ve already read or heard of many stories with the same hook, and you might think you know where this is going. But do you? Raybearer is never quite what it seems at first sight.

This is a difficult book to talk about without spoilers. We first follow Tarisai when she’s just a child who is starved for affection, then we see her grow into her role at court and outside of it, always ready to question the rules and what she has been sold as the truth. At the beginning of the story, she knows nothing – not about how the world works, not about the costs of an empire, not even about herself. Between discoveries, developments, and actual plot twists, I feel like I’ve read a trilogy’s worth of material – and yet I never felt like I was being taken through things too quickly. Because of this, this novel may take a little to grow on readers, but among the many reasons I think you should keep reading, it’s worth it just to witness Tarisai’s growth.
So much her early decisions are shaped by wanting to be loved, and I deeply appreciated how this book flipped a common YA trope on its head – it has a realistic portrayal of the long-term repercussions of isolation and parental neglect while also not having the parental figure be completely absent. [If you don’t read a lot of YA: parents are often noticeably absent and that’s just not dealt with, which is… unrealistic and unoriginal.]

Raybearer is a very unusual book. I don’t mean that in the sense of “strange” (you know I love those, but I wouldn’t say this one is), more for how it frames its own story. It spans years, when most YA doesn’t; it draws inspiration from many different places, folktales and traditions while centering West African culture; it’s a story about an empire that doesn’t shy away from talking about the inherent violence of imperial assimilation and the differences between justice and order. And while Raybearer is not lacking in romantic elements, friendship is even more of a driving force for Tarisai, and the prince’s council was the most intriguing part of the book for me. A group of kids who grow up extremely close and then have their minds linked together by their love for each other and for the prince? That was a lot.

Another thing about Raybearer I loved was how alive it felt – and the audiobook really helped with that, Joniece Abbott-Pratt is an amazing narrator and made the story come to life. Even the rhymes! (This book has many of them – there’s so much attention to developing the cultures here.) Unlike most audiobooks I’ve listened to so far, this one doesn’t just read them to you in a dull tone. Then there are the descriptions, that are as vivid and colorful and unforgettable as the cover of this book would make you think.

A list of things I didn’t like as much:
🌟 The main one is that the climax felt underwhelming, and I think that’s because there are some truly… explosive development around 80% (the scenes set on right before and then on Heaven, if you know what I mean) and what followed just couldn’t match how much all of that made me feel. The epilogue, however? Perfect.
🌟 I didn’t feel strongly about the romance, but this dynamic with the love interest being the protector isn’t really my type, so that’s probably on me – I did think it was sweet. Also, what this book does in its portrayal of toxic vs. non-toxic masculinity with the character of Sanjeet is important;
🌟 I’m not a fan of stories that don’t question the divine and magical right to rule in general; I also know I wouldn’t have noticed it and/or minded it as much when I was a teen. I think this is one of the cases in which the conflict between “I want this fantasy trope and the implications of it I find morally abhorrent to die” and “no trope is truly dead until marginalized authors get to use it, and non-ownvoices readers shouldn’t demand from marginalized authors a subversion that is palatable to them” is at its strongest for me.

This was a truly remarkable read and I’d recommend it to all readers of YA fantasy who want something that feels new in a landscape that feels somewhat same-y. It’s also the kind of story that is perfect for a reader who doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading, as I was in these months, because listening to it in small bites over the course of a few months didn’t impact my enjoyment at all.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Fantasy

Déjà Vu: When Two Strange Books Are Strange in the Same Way

There are books so strange that they will make you think I have never read anything similar and there’s no way I ever will. Maybe they have such a weirdness to them that you can’t imagine experiencing it again with the same feel, or maybe they have an underlying thread of meaning that can’t be put into words but that you know to be true, one inexplicable and unique to them.

What happens, then, when another books proves you wrong?


Back[ground]!, maybe

Welcome back! Today I’m going to talk, as I said I maybe would in my last post, about my recent experience with Catherine House both as a well-known dark academia hater and as someone who read Vita Nostra in 2018 and hasn’t fully recovered since.

What is Catherine House: an American 2020 novel by author Elisabeth Thomas, following a young woman entering an elite, reclusive school that might or might not be a highly unethical cult preying on the most vulnerable. With its meandering nature and deep dedication to the eerie, alienating atmosphere, it seems to have disappointed most of its readership, at least on Goodreads. There have been discussions about whether this fits any of the genres it has been said to be – mystery (ehh), thriller (lmao no), horror (one could argue), dark academia (I’d argue). My interpretation of this is that we’re talking about something that is also a critique of predatory college culture, so dark academia could work.

What is Vita Nostra: a novel by Ukrainian authors Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, of which I read the 2018 English translation by Julia Meitov Hersey. Unlike Catherine House, I wouldn’t describe it as dark academia, even though it has some characteristics in common: despite it being set in a cruel Institute of Special Technologies, I doubt it was talking about school at all, for how much I could understand it – and I mostly didn’t. This both has to do with 2018!me being less experienced in looking at things sideways and with the fact that I’m not forced to know the cultural touchstones of this book the way I am with everything American. I imagine Catherine House would be just as unintelligible had I known nothing about the American college system.

To get one thing out of the way: few things annoy me as much as people who cry plagiarism the moment they encounter similarities between two pieces of media. I’m going to assume that everyone here is familiar with the concept of convergent evolution, or, at least, of artistic influence (even though that’s not necessarily what happened here). I’m more interested in wondering why these two books, which have in theory very little in common, ended up being so similar to me – and why, also, I really like them both.


Why I’m generally not interested in dark academia

halfway to off-topic? yes, and you can skip it, but I feel it provides context

It all boils down to several layers of being an outsider to its culture. Let’s start with the most obvious one: I’m not American, and the culture & aesthetic that dark academia is at the same time fascinated by and critiquing is a very American one – or, at most, deeply Anglo. That’s not to say academic elitism doesn’t exist in my country, but the differences between college and especially Ivy League culture in America and what university means to the average Italian student (often doesn’t leave home, which makes university less significant both as stage of life and economically) make it irrelevant to my negative experiences with Italian universities.
Then there’s how pretentious it is: while I don’t find that the dark academia books I’ve read or tried embraced that uncritically, I still found it grating and fundamentally uninteresting – this time also because I do know the kind of people who get that pretentious about literature, and they’re not very interesting to me. (They usually, as elitist Italians, very much make fun of the English and their Shakespeare. Yes, If We Were Villains was an interesting experience [only] in that.) But what matters the most is that I’m a natural sciences student. The difference between a professor having a decades-long obsession with Ancient Greek and one having a decades-long obsession with slime mold is that the casual cruelty and unrealistic pressure put on students is more of the “completely unhinged” kind rather than “stiff and pretentious”, which is way funnier than anything these books I’ve tried so far came up with. As usual, I’m only wishing you’d be weirder, as my reality is.

You know what these two books, incidentally, are not lacking in?


Déjà Vu

Let’s start with the cover of Vita Nostra.

I can’t tell you what its illustration means, if it means anything at all; I can only tell you that it captures the feeling of reading this book perfectly. I don’t know if it was meant that way, but to me, the person on the cover is the reader. This is one of the first things I noticed about both Vita Nostra and Catherine House: I couldn’t look at anything directly. So much of them is symbolism, so much of them is subtext, so much of them is a distant, unhurried reflection with an urgent undercurrent – something is very, very wrong.

To read these books, you have to get out of your usual framework for understanding most of speculative fiction. Both novels have something that could be described as a sci-fantasy twist, but it doesn’t work as either science or a magic system, nor it is a clear-cut metaphor as it could be in straightforward fabulism – no, one could see it as weirdness for the sake of it, unexplained, but to me, it’s an emotion made literal. In both books, we’re dealing with unrealistic academic pressure and what might be nonconsensual experimentation, though obtaining real answers on that is always a challenge; the two things end up overlapping. There’s this sense of isolation, too: the setting is remote, the characters can’t talk to their families and reality might not be such. Everything about these stories feels so empty in the way their pages are sometimes filled with unsettingly mundane events, in the distance they add by telling and never showing, by introducing you to way too many characters you never get to really know – recreating the feeling of alone in a crowd.

And maybe it’s in Ines’ assignment about a painting that is almost a blank canvas, and maybe it’s Sasha’s impossible mental exercises, but there’s this feeling of trying to break through reality into another dimension with only the effort of your own brain, of trying to juggle incompatible truths (which sometimes are physically so) because you have to, you can’t be anything different, and you don’t know what is happening to you anymore (Where are you? When was the last time you felt?) – all of it mirrored by the effort it takes to follow the book without letting all of it run through your brain meaninglessly. The writing is deceptively simple, all the sentences make sense on their own. Together, however? It’s not so different from a feeling I get while studying sometimes.

By which I mean that Vita Nostra and Catherine House are more a portrayal of a feeling than a story, and by “feeling”, I mean depression compounded by unrealistic pressure and a deep alienation from reality. I think that at heart they are talking about two different situations in two very different contexts (I wish I could be more sure about Vita Nostra) but this is the running thread, and both their conclusions manage to be very ambiguous while maintaining an ominous, inevitable feeling to them. I know this feeling! I’ve been this feeling several times and I always have a stream of it running somewhere; I know many who have felt in similar ways. These books have the removed universality I wasn’t getting from the more painfully American, less strange side of this genre. It is, yet again, another case of non-white and non-western writers coming up with some of the most universal stories, even though that may not translate to “commercial appeal”. (On my opinion on that, see my previous post.)

These two novels read like having a depressive episode while in school, and I mean that as praise.


Have you read or want to read any of these? What are your thoughts on dark academia? What has been your most unexpected case of bookish déjà vu?