Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.
I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.
Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.
That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her. I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity. This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.
Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.
I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.
Today, I’m reviewing two books I read recently in a genre I almost never reach for: anything to do with natural disasters and their fallout. I’m a natural sciences student, which means this topic isn’t something I usually want to be reading about in my free time as well.
Last year, I identified “being about natural disasters” as one of the reasons The Fifth Season didn’t work for me. I wanted to see if I could find something in the genre I actually like, or if this is a topic I just can’t read about.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Me and the post-apocalyptic genre just don’t get along. Or, more specifically: remind me I should be wary of anything that uses Mad Max as a comp. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve now read several books it’s compared to, and the main thing they have in common is that they think very frequent action scenes are a good way to keep the reader interested, which is never going to work for me. I mean, I’m going to get through the book very quickly, that’s true; and that’s because nothing encourages me to skim as often.
Most action scenes are boring, and so is this book. So much of it felt like characters moving around from one place to another to either fight someone/something or recover from fighting someone/something, without any other aim. When I consider not finishing while I’ve only 20% left, there’s usually something very wrong with the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here – I think I’m just not the right kind of reader for this, and that’s fine. This book is doing a lot of things, some subtly and some not, like questioning the very heart of the post-apocalyptic genre: isn’t the concept of “apocalypse” what happens when a catastrophe befalls the privileged, after all? The Diné have gone through their own apocalypse before, it’s just not called that by the rest of the world.
There’s also the reversal of several tropes common in paranormal fiction, one of the most interesting examples being the character of Kai – a male love interest whose characteristics and capabilities are usually associated with female characters in fantasy. To avoid spoiler territory, I will say that for example he is kind of there to be very pretty, even if that’s far from his only role. Because of these things, he was probably the most interesting character around; I found most of the side ones to be extremely underwhelming, with maybe the exception of Coyote. This very much includes a certain someone who is built up as this legendary figure and then is actually as interesting as cardboard with an Evil Hat™. I see possessiveness as insecurity, and given that it seems a huge part of his character once we meet him, I was never able to take him seriously (this, by the way, is a big part of why straight villain/heroine sexual tension rarely works for me anymore. The evil man archetype from this subculture™ is so fragile and kind of pathetic.)
As far as the other side characters, there’s a good reason we never really get to know them, or have a feeling on who they really are, and that reason is the main character, Maggie. She holds everyone at a distance, and that reflects on the story. This is a book about a traumatized woman who has known nothing but fighting and death for a long while, and her character arc involves learning that she can be something else as well. I don’t have any complaints about the development, but the thing about this book is that it feels very much like a set-up for the sequels, and just when we’re getting to a somewhat interesting part with Maggie’s arc, it ends. I’m not going to read the sequel because clearly this is not my kind of thing independently from execution, but I do wonder if the side characters get more development as Maggie learns to let people in. I hope that’s the case.
My rating: ★★½
Depart, Depart by Sim Kern
I wish I could not shelve this book as contemporary. Depart, Depart follows Noah, a Jewish trans man who ends up in a shelter after a hurricane devastates Houston. It’s a story about what societal collapse brings out in people – about connection and grief and rage, about how catastrophe puts even more of a target on marginalized people’s backs.
I usually can’t read stories about natural disasters, but this one worked for me – I couldn’t stop reading it. Maybe it’s because it’s short even for a novella, maybe it’s because it’s not as hopeless as it could have been, despite being realistically bleak; maybe it’s because reading from the point of view of someone who is also constantly afraid makes it paradoxically less exhausting. (I don’t have to feel all of it on my own, I guess?)
The most chilling part of reading Depart, Depart is that it feels exactly like something one could see playing out. Not only because it follows a climate disaster that could actually happen in the present, but because of how real the characters and their dynamics felt. The portrayal of the queer “found family” feels close to reality from the big picture – how queer people quickly group together from the beginning, because there’s safety in numbers, but also how the most privileged and rich don’t care about the others once they’re safe themselves – to the details, like accusations of oppression olympics during tense moments, the non-binary person wondering about vegan options, Mountain Goats mentions… I’m not American but if you’ve been around US trans twitter for enough time, you know these people. That’s why it hurts.
All the while, Noah is being haunted by visions of his great-grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany as a boy. There are parallels between Noah’s situation and Abe’s, and this story also follows what it means for Noah to be Jewish and raised in an atheist family – the history that goes with that, and what has been passed down to him in good and bad and all the ways in between.
After all, this felt like a story about how we can’t change what was, but we can choose to not repeat someone else’s – or our own – mistakes. Noah has left behind people in the past to tragic circumstances, but now he can choose to stay with the people he’s grown to care about – because something Depart, Depart highlights is the importance of connections between people, how they save us in the most difficult times.
My rating: ★★★★½
So, these were surprisingly readable! While Trail of Lightning didn’t work for me, it wasn’t mainly because of the natural disaster elements, though that’s still a background I don’t feel particularly drawn to when it comes to picking up fantasy stories.
I’m realizing that for the most part, I prefer stories about natural disasters to be as close to reality as possible – which sounds paradoxical when one of the reasons these are usually so unreadable for me is “anxiety disorder”, but I think I know why. I really appreciated Depart, Depart, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy a novel – if that makes sense, it’s closer to the kind of liking I get from reading nonfiction, though not exactly. My brain was in a completely different mode, and while I’m in that ~serious mode, I honestly can’t be bothered with fantasy worldbuilding or something like that: ~serious mode already takes up a lot of energy. I will never be the kind of person who says that fantasy can’t deal with difficult and heavy topics (it… should) but if it’s a topic I have a lot of anxiety about at the moment, I prefer to stay away from them.
What’s your opinion on books following natural disasters & the post-apocalyptic genre? Have you read or want to read any of these?
The Unspoken Name is a book that understands that the way to my heart is to add as many unhinged immortal beings as you can possibly fit into a book. It has so many and I’m in love with each and every one of them
This is a difficult book to review, because I often didn’t want to pick it up when I was in the middle of it, but now that I’ve finished it, I like it more the more I think about it. What I struggled with the most was the pacing, which is… strange. To make an example, there’s a time jump of several years when you’re 30% into the story, and several parts of the book feel more like a climax than the actual climax. However, I never want to give a lower rating to a book for taking a risk when it comes to structure; I think more books should try that! The issues are mostly on me for reading during exam season, something I should have avoided.
There’s something here that took me by surprise in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time, but did that happen because I was often too tired to pay attention while reading this? I don’t know. I feel like I’m not doing this book justice, and I also feel like it would be really interesting to reread, so I should definitely do that someday. But, even if it weren’t for that, the surprising thing is exactly the kind of development that made me fall in love with The Unspoken Name, so I guess that in the end it doesn’t matter too much. I’m just here for how dramatic this novel knows how to become. And it’s a funny book in which the sense of humor works for me!
The Unspoken Name is a story about Csorwe, an Oshaaru (basically an orc! She even has tusks and I think that’s great) Chosen Bride who escapes being sacrificed to the god of her world, the Unspoken. What follows is a story about faith and loyalty and the breaking thereof, and about finding yourself outside of the shadow of gods. I really liked how the romance fit into this: Csorwe and Shuthmili – who is by the way as cute as she’s terrifying – find common ground because they’re both girls who are dealing with the repercussion of being raised in and escaping a cult that would see them, though in different ways, as sacrifices.
There’s also a lot to say about the side characters. Oranna and Sethennai stole the show half of the time, but it’s very difficult to get a hold on who they really are, because what Csorwe says about them in her narration doesn’t necessarily match what the book shows. It makes for some interesting dissonance, and also makes you understand a lot more about Csorwe herself. Anyway, Oranna and Sethennai were probably my favorite characters in the book purely for how unnecessarily dramatic they were, and the whole situation was a trainwreck. Then there’s Tal, who seems from reviews to be a reader’s favorite, but to be honest I kind of… forgot he existed a lot of the time. I don’t really know why, given that he’s also very dramatic. Not horrible enough, probably! I liked reading how his dynamic with Csorwe developed through the story, however.
The only true negative for me was the atmosphere, or how surprisingly weak it was. This is a space portal fantasy with terrifying divinities and cults, which has so much potential as a setting – and I loved it for that! More books that understand how the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi is made up and unnecessary – but I don’t think it fully went there. Maybe Csorwe is the wrong character to have that kind of descriptions? I don’t know. Once we were out of the House of Silence I often couldn’t get a sense of setting, with few exceptions.
As queer SFF moves from an once-in-a-while presence – seen at the same time as a weird curiosity and a revolutionary statement – to something of which we get several dozens of new titles every year, I’m seeing more and more discussions regarding the role of anti-queer bigotry in those titles, and whether it should be playing one at all.
As everything I often see on twitter, this is not a new discussion, and if you’re around in queer SFF circles at all, you’ve probably seen it many times; you might especially have seen a push for stories in which queerphobia Just Isn’t A Thing. Since I love talking about worldbuilding, I thought I’d give my opinions on this anyway.
(With footnotes. Who would have thought.)
What Is A Queer World, And Why It Matters
When I talk about SFF worlds in which various forms of anti-queer bigotry aren’t a thing, or as I will call them in this post, “queer worlds”, I don’t mean what is often phrased as “a story in which the characters just happen to be queer”, because bigotry is not a surface-level thing born from nowhere, and you can’t expect to do away with it and leave everything the same¹. For clarity, I’ll say that the “just happen” category is what I’d call “books with no on-page queerphobic aggressions”: for example, you can write books set in the contemporary US with no on-page queerphobic aggressions, but you can’t write a “queer world” book, because the society in the US has homophobia, transphobia and other connected forms of bigotry embedded in it.
I want to talk about those SFF worlds in which the author tried to portray a society completely different from our own, in which queerness isn’t only “not an issue” but an integral part of the worldbuilding.
I sometimes see worldbuilding dismissed as something secondary, not that interesting, something “white dudes who write adult fantasy are obsessed with” (seriously)², but worldbuilding isn’t so much the background of a story as it is the foundations of it. It’s vital, and in a genre that is as much about how thing are as it is about how things could be, imagining stories in which there is no place for homophobes, transphobes, other assorted bigots and the structures they support/are supported by has its own weight. So much about our notion of “important queer stories” is about “stories rooted in queer pain” (especially marketing-wise), but as an actual queer person, they aren’t the most important to me³.
The First Time I Read About One…
I remember reading the short story Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee, a prequel to Ninefox Gambit, back in early 2017. That was my first encounter with a queer world. And when I read that short story – weeks before I could get my hands on the book – I knew that the novel would be a favorite. What are made-up worlds for if not to completely do away with homophobia, make polyamory the norm, and write an all-queer seriesabout villainous geniuses trying to outsmart each other? I don’t think I can explain what Ninefox Gambit did to “used to only find gay people almost only in issue books” 17-year-old me, but I’m not surprised it has occupied my brain ever since.
I remember that when I read that short story, I kept getting stuck on the details. It has a short-story appropriate worldbuilding, but there was so much about it, stuff that maybe was only mentioned in passing, that just made me go you can do that? you can just do that??, like Shuos Meng and their five-people marriage; I didn’t even know polyamory could be a thing back then.
The novel was even more of a revelation because of 1) it being half written in what I call “realistically mimicking sciencespeak”, a form of communication I kind of grew up with and was therefore close to, and for 2) the way it… let queer people be evil. I know, that sounds paradoxical, but what I usually heard even only about cis gay people was:
“gays go to hell” – nuns in Catholic middle school
“homophobia is bad, some gay people are perfectly normal™” – my family
“gay people are gross. I’m not homophobic, I’m just old school” – high school math teacher, during a math lesson
“gay teens aren’t allowed to have flaws. If you’re a lesbian you don’t even get a personality” – queer YA written for the straight gaze
“this is a gays only event!! also flawed lgbt people are freaks and created homophobia and asexuals are the source of our oppression” – tumblr in 2016
Lovely times! Anyway, Machineries of Empire was the first time I saw only queer/trans people at the center of a story… and many of them were very competent, compelling, evil people. There was no trying to appeal to homophobes’ morality, no fears of “making us look bad”, no attempt at saying that “actually, we’re normal people too!” because the book didn’t even bother to, it was queer and it was weird and it was gloriously abnormal. To write a queer world is to disregard bigots’ reality, which I think we should do more often, but also, you know what? Queer villains are very sexy and that’s reason enough.
Some of My Favorite Examples
Something queer worlds are great for is also examining preconceived notions about gender, especially in the context of gender essentialism and gender roles. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley has a cast made up only of women and it’s one of the most gory, brutal things I’ve ever read, which was surprisingly refreshing – taking male characters out of the picture entirely really makes you notice the way female characters almost never get to be written, and you also get so many lesbians. [Again, the F/F/F love triangle with the villainess sex scene was the best part, because queer villains >> everything else]
Temper by Nicky Drayden has some of the most imaginative, vivid and plain out weird worldbuilding I’ve ever read. Among the many things that set it apart: in this society, there are 3 genders one can be assigned at birth (kigen for intersex people, who are very common, female, male) – and it also features a trans side character in this context. Temper isn’t many people’s concept of “queer book”, as far as I remember the mc isn’t queer, but the world certainly is – and I mean, as a whole this is a story about how being assigned some role at birth that doesn’t reflect you sets you up for a lot of struggles. [This is so underrated. Please read it.]
I want to point out that by “queer world” I don’t necessarily mean “queer utopia”: for example, in stories like the Tensorate by JY Yang, while homophobia doesn’t exist and children get to choose which gender to be confirmed as (before that, everyone uses they/them for them), most of this series is set in a strictly binarist society – you’re expected to either choose to be a man or a woman, and the Tensorate explores the life of non-binary characters in that situation. It’s really interesting to read stories about places with biases completely different from our own, with completely different bigoted ideas backing them. If you’re even marginally interested in queer worlds and haven’t read these yet, what are you doing? [By the way, The Ascent to Godhood is also a queer villainess story!]
But what if we want to talk about utopian narratives? Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is the only one I can think of, and it’s about a young Black trans girl with selective mutism discovering what it means for her “utopia” (mostly-utopia? As usual, it’s complicated) to have monsters. A beautiful story portraying a future America without transphobia and other kinds of discrimination (and no billionaries or police either!), and still not what I’d define a light book. This is the only YA on the list, because I couldn’t think of any others – YA seems to find the kind of worldbuilding necessary to lay down a queer world to be too much.
I read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie later than many of the books on this list, but its success likely paved the way to them. In this trilogy, the characters in the Radch either don’t seem to have a concept of gender, or have a radically different one from ours; the narrator refers to everyone as “she” to translate this situation. Reading it is also an experiment in exploring your biases, if you catch yourself thinking of someone with different pronouns by accident. If you haven’t read it but the thought of backlist discourages you, I can say that it’s also an incredibly compelling story and I remember never wanting to put it down.
Footnotes! Not Sorry This Time Either
Or, you could! Many successful authors of queer SFF do this. I also think it’s a very boring approach and makes the worldbuilding inherently inconsistent. You can’t have a society that is exactly like our own (or, exactly like Medieval France or Edwardian England… you get the point) just with no homophobia. That’s not how things work, but it’s common in US publishing because the idea that you can take an aesthetic and some of its core elements outside of its overall context is a popular one in all its aspects – I’m wondering if this is yet another side effect of seeing your society as the default and therefore not being able to see the parts that make it what it is, or what it’s a consequence to. This is the same fault that leads to hilarious things like books pitched as “a desert society inspired by 16th century Florence”, but then I remember that stuff like that really can get published.
Counterpoint: it is true that worldbuilding the way Men Have Done It is often used to gatekeep what does and doesn’t qualify as “good worldbuilding”. My post On Rules and Magic Systems was a somewhat sideways attempt at tackling part of that (oh really Brandon Sanderson writes the most realistic™ magic systems… according to writing advice popularized by Brandon Sanderson. Revolutionary!), but I really should have framed it in a larger context: I’m so tired of seeing unconventional worldbuilding – especially when from marginalized authors – be dismissed. Still, acting like focusing a lot on worldbuilding is a white man’s thing does a disservice to them too.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, and yet I’m sure that’s not necessarily true for everyone else, and more than anything I will never push for designing one type of story as the most progressive™, empowering™ and uplifting™ kind of queer or want to participate in similar tiresome endeavors. One can’t on the surface push for diversity but deep down want all queer people to fit into one box.
What are your favorite queer worlds?Have you read any of these?
Here I am again, back with some very gay books I read recently of which I haven’t posted the reviews yet. One is a novel in verse with an F/F established couple; the other a genrebending M/M novella.
I think that at this point it’s safe to say that dual PoV novels in verse don’t work for me. I’ve looked at what set the poetry novels that did work for me and the ones that didn’t apart, and the pattern is clear.
I love Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style, so I did end up liking this, but when I think about my experience with her previous novels, Clap When You Land pales in comparison – despite having something that her previous two books don’t have but really matters to me, a sapphic main character and F/F romance. Unsurprisingly, the very sweet, supportive and already established relationship between Yahaira and Dre was my favorite part of the novel (also because I could see a lot of myself in Dre; I, too, was a teenage plant gay who easily fell into all-or-nothing thinking).
When talking about Acevedo’s books, many people will recommend the audiobooks. This time, I will too, but for the wrong reasons: I read this alternating between ebook and audio, and the two narrators really helped me tell the two girls apart in the scenes in which they’re both in the same place, as I didn’t feel they had distinct enough voices in that situation. It wasn’t a problem for the rest of the book, as they are apart for most of it – but that’s also something I didn’t love, because it takes so long for them to even learn about each other, and we end up not seeing a lot of them together.
I appreciated that this was more than anything a story about sisterhood, family, grief, and the double-faced nature of tragedies, how they can tear you apart while bringing you closer to other people. After all, this starts with two sisters discovering each other’s existence because their father, who had two families in two different countries, just died in a plane crash.
This book has many things going for it: it’s about Black women supporting each other, it’s a contemporary mostly set in the Dominican Republic, and it talks about what it’s like to have to leave, what it’s like to be bilingual in the DR compared to the US, and many other differences between the two countries with all kinds of impacts. I wish I had liked it more, that I hadn’t felt like the characters were more like faded outlines than people, which I really do think was caused by the format. Poetry, to me, feels personal in a way that just doesn’t suit the added distance inherent to a multi-PoV book.
My rating: ★★★½
[apart from all I’ve already mentioned, TW for sexual assault in both plotlines]
On the surface, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a story about Demane, a “sorcerer” accompanying the Captain he loves in a dangerous journey across the desert and then the Wildeeps, where he’ll have to face something powerful and horrible. It’s not necessarily always linear, and there’s very little plot, because its heart is elsewhere.
I want to point out that I can’t do this novella justice. This is a book whose very structure and use of English is a commentary on language and what’s considered respectable, portraying the experience and struggles of a multilingual protagonist with that. I know I missed half of it because I’m ESL and don’t recognize the nuances of different forms and registers of the English language that well. The irony isn’t lost on me and I’m not sure how I feel about it?
That’s far from the only thing this novella did with language, however. Code-switching is part of its structure on multiple levels, and language is used to lay down the worldbuilding, which even holds a sci-fantasy twist inside. One of the things I look for the most in short fiction is the unraveling of genre boundaries, so I really appreciated what I understood of this book. There are pieces of dialogue written in other languages as well – not something I often see in fantasy stories that don’t seem to be directly tied to the Earth we know currently. I think this choice might have been made to use how these languages are coded in American society to “translate” the situations in terms an American might understand, which I have mixed feelings about. (There are some… let’s say puzzling choices made with Italian words, but this is an American book and I don’t have it in me to have expectations anymore.)
It’s also really gay! (But keep in mind, this is not a happy story.) It explores expectations placed on male sexuality and the meaning of masculinity across cultures, and the shock Demane feels relating to this as well, for many reasons – one of the more prominent being that while he’s great at fighting (superhumanly so), his heart has always been in protecting and healing. My appreciation for this is somewhat dampened by the absence of even one named female character (especially given that of the few women who do appear is an underage sex slave).
Palimpsest is a story about a sexually transmitted city. It’s strange and uncomfortable; it has an idea and goes for it without ever trying to hide that, without compromises, which is something I always appreciate. It could be seen as a response to the Greek myth that says people are only half of a whole, or the soulmate trope in general: it asks why does it have to be two? As I’m someone who loves stories about cities and human sexuality but not about soulmates, I really liked what this book did. However, I’m still really conflicted about it, because it got as many things wrong as it got right.
Some have said that this book was “ahead of its time”, and in some ways, it is. How many books with an all-queer, polyamorous cast and a happy ending are there? Not many, and it’s 2020. This was published in 2009, and I think the author received homophobic and biphobic harassment when it got more visibility due to an award nomination. In other ways, Palimpsest is very much a book published in 2009, and I don’t mean that because of certain tropes, but because of how much of an unintentional-yet-proud display of American ignorance and self-centeredness it is.
Valente having misrepresented other cultures is not news in the slightest, but in Palimpsest you get to witness how she writes about the American character in comparison to the other three, non-American PoVs, and the difference is stark. While the American character gets to be a character, the others are written as if their culture were a personality trait.
The Italian character feels like a cobbled-up caricature of things taken from various parts of Italian history, and of course he’s passionate and sexist, of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either. The Russian character’s whole personality is “sad”; the Japanese girl has blue hair (of course) and the way she was written gave me a weird feeling in a bad way; however I’m neither Russian nor Japanese and I can’t play the game of “spot the gross stereotype” as well as I could with Ludovico. And Ludovico’s PoV was a minefield of ignorance. I can forgive it a little more since conversations around representation and US-centrism weren’t as easily accessible and easily found then as they are today (in which there’d really be no excuse for writing a book like this and yet it keeps happening), but still.
And can we talk about the weird/unintentionally comedic effect of naming an Italian character “Nerezza”? It’s an attempt at a translation of “blackness”¹ (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, is that you?) but sounds like an insult due to the assonance with other words with a -zz sound: “schifezza”, grossness, “ribrezzo”, instinctive disgust, and since she’s from Rome, “monnezza”, garbage in Romanesco. Nerezza monnezza, the poor woman would have been bullied so much. (If you’re going to make up names in a language you don’t know, please ask a native speaker to make sure they don’t rhyme with several insults².)
But it gets worse! In the scene in which the American woman, November, first talks on the phone with Ludovico, she realizes that he only knows very basic English, and he is embarrassed and apologizes profusely. When they meet, in Italy, one of the first things November mentions is his “gnarled and barbed” accent while speaking in English (of course). It never occurs to her to learn one word in Italian! It never occurs to her to apologize, or to be embarrassed for her ignorance; it certainly never occurs to the author either, and given what she has written, she should be. “Oh Christo“, you say? I’m cringing into the next century.
And I’m annoyed because I know what this could have been had the author not used cultures just for the exotic flavor, had she actually done her research, had she actually asked people from said cultures to read what she wrote. The only fact that I did finish this book should tell you how good it was otherwise.
This is a story about four people who first find each other in the dream city of Palimpsest, and then have to find each other again outside of it to stay in it: here, they can be who they really are in a way they never could in the real world. It’s a story as full of yearning as it is of uncomfortable sex scenes, and it’s at its heart about the changing norms, the hidden signals and the gatekeeping of marginalized communities (the Nerezza plot point: it will never be easy for me, so why it should be for you? So much pain from that).
And Palimpsest is wonderful to read about! A magical, terrifying city that feels so freeing and yet is all but an utopia, with its own issues and disparities and people who try to cling to the past when that’s not possible, not when cities are always rewriting themselves. I also love the writing. One could say it’s too much, but I don’t mind, I like books written in an unconventional way, in which the writing almost feels like a character in itself, in which you won’t forget it easily.
This is not a nice story; it’s messy, it focuses on all kinds of outcasts and certainly has teeth, in a way that makes me think it wouldn’t fit in even if it was published today after a good round of culture-focused editing – because today’s major issue in the queer book community isn’t so much the queerphobia, but the idea that portraying something uncomfortable must be an endorsement of it, and this book has so much of that kind of content. It has at least two plot points revolving around fraternal incest; it would need its own magical Palimpsest publishing industry to exist as it is without facing significant backlash.
My rating: ★★★½
Footnotes, for nuance
When I first wrote this review, I said that this word doesn’t exist. According to the Treccani, it does, as does “giallezza” (yellowness) and “rossezza” (redness), but interestingly not “bluezza” (blueness), or “verdezza” (greenness). I’m wondering which criteria they used to include words because I’ve never seen any them used if not in awkward translation from English quotes. We don’t really do that, for example a redness of the skin is an “arrossamento”, not a “rossezza”. I guess it does exist, but it’s rare and due to the sound it also looks awkward and kind of ridiculous. If in a non-name context one needed to translate “[color]ness”, I’d always go with “l’essere [colore]” (in literal English: “the being [color]”.) In a name context, just don’t.
This is even more frustrating considering that we do have names that mean “black” or “dark”. Several of them! I personally would have suggested Maura because it’s somewhat uncommon (so it has the ~special~ connotation the author is going for) and has a cold ring to it (it’s not pronounced like Laura; well, Italian!Laura isn’t pronounced the way English speakers say it either, so I guess it is and you’ll have to make peace with them saying it wrong, but the actual thing is closer to “Mawra”). For nuance and transparency, I also want to point out that Nerezza rhymes with “bellezza” as well, which means “beauty”, but I promise that “Nerezza bellezza” would be even more ammunition for bullies.
Have you ever gone through a stressful time in your life and then thought well, now that I have some free time, why don’t I create some problems for myself?
If so, don’t worry! I have just the right reading list for you.
Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney: compared to a lot of other books on this list, Desdemona and the Deep is a really nice, straightforward, very queer novella involving humans just as much as fae or goblins. However, and I say this especially for ESL speakers like me, keep a vocabulary/some reliable internet translator at hand. Context won’t be enough; you’re going to need it.
Desdemona and the Deep, describing anything: …and they glowed with that gallimaufry of moonlight, twilight, and predatory flower-light…
me, a confused Italian: wtf is a gallimaufry??
Desdemona and the Deep, grinning up to its “festooned eyelids”: …and Chaz spared them a single glare from her alluvial larimar-on-scarlet eyes
me: oh sure. I know how that looks like
It’s intentionally over-the-top, and it’s a really fun time if that’s not too much for you. For me it wasn’t, because I like books that cause me problems and make me learn something, even if that something is a word I will never use, like “gallimaufry”.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: I’m ranking this in the low-level problems category even though, I will admit, I didn’t fully understand this book nor was able to fully follow the timeline, but I got enough and getting more than that wasn’t necessary, because this novel is a masterpiece in being deceptively simple. Making a definitely non-linear story in which time repeatedly rewinds on itself feel linear is an achievement most authors don’t have the skill for. This feels straightforward, if weird – but it’s the farthest thing from the first, while the second describes it perfectly. My dear philosophical alchemical book. Unlike most of the books on this list, Middlegame goes out of its way to be readable, and it will still confuse you a lot!
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: when I say that this book feels like an overgrown short story, I mean that it’s written in a style you’re probably familiar with if you’ve read a lot of short SFF – evocative vague sci-fi with a lot of flowery thrown in. It’s… definitely not for those who don’t like poetry, despite not having any actual poetry in it. I will fully admit that I think this style works better in a shorter format, but this was still a remarkable book made out of very pretty confusion. It being epistolary time travel doesn’t help, but if you too are a simple gay who will persevere for the enemies-to-lovers spy F/F romance, you’ll reach an ending that is a delight.
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley: I still have no idea what happened and hated almost every moment of reading this book (realistic and kind of apocalyptic near-future sci-fi about war… let’s just say it’s not my thing) but it was one of my favorites of last year and I think about it often. It has one of the best endings I’ve ever read, one that made reading a book I pretty much disliked everything about worth it, even though I’m still not sure anything about the book makes sense, because it’s one of those time travel books (those that make This Is How You Lose the Time War feel as if it made sense). What’s linear time, you ask? This book doesn’t seem to care.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: if it were up to me, this would go into the “low-level” tier, but it would be wrong to talk about Ninefox Gambit without taking consensus mechanics into account, and the crowd has spoken, mostly in the vein of Acqua, why does this read like a math textbook on acid. If you also happen to be completely immune to sciencespeak (I grew up around physicists, math space-fantasy cannot hurt me), I really recommend the mass murder magic math book! If not, you need the opposite ability than with Desdemona and the Deep: do not focus on the details. You’re not going to get them anyway, just like when your mother has decided she really, really needs to explain you that one math problem you didn’t get right now but you’re just trying to eat dinner: if the book tells you that “such a storm would scramble vectors”, just go with the idea that it’s something to avoid, whatever it might mean (if you have an overactive visual imagination like me, come up with your own very cool visual description of having your vectors scrambled! I recommend imagining a lot of fractals as you read this), and go on eating your scrambled eggs.
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente: if The Light Brigade wins the award for best ending, Radiance wins the award for best prologue, as the prologue itself is a retro sci-fi meta commentary on prologues, and it only gets weirder from there. Making sense of something is infinitely more difficult when you’re not able to discern what’s fictional and what’s not inside the canon of the book, which is what happens with a meta narrative ever-rewriting itself through excerpts of nonexistent films in an alternate, decopunk fantasy version of our solar system. The best kind of trippy! And, as this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” understands, you can never truly have too many genres.
Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko: this is the only book on the list I can confidently say I didn’t get. It was ominous and metaphysical and overwhelming, and technically it’s about a magical school (but was it really?). My confusion is probably the result of a combination of symbolism being lost in translation, me not being familiar with the cultural context this was created in, and this book being generally, uh, obscure. It’s still an interesting experience, as long as you’re fine with the distinct possibility that you won’t understand three quarters of what you read – it pretty much makes as much sense as its cover does, which is to say, I don’t know what that is, but it sure gives me a certain feeling.
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: or, a compilation of things I’ve said about this book scattered around this blog and its comments
“It took me ten tries to get through the first chapter and I’m not even sure why I did this to myself, but I did it and now I feel accomplished”
“one of the most boring things I’ve ever read and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’ve also four-starred it because it’s great (it’s not. But it kind of is?)”
“I hate-read this book. I hate-read it because there was no way something as convoluted and heavy as this really got published and won awards”
“this is what happens when your novel is 90% worldbuilding and basically the book equivalent of a 18th century philosophy shitpost.”
“a terrible slog with cw: cannibalism levels of questionable content”
“if you want to read a story about the slow fall into chaos of a not-so-utopian utopia because of a heretical brothel, two deity children and a group of stabby celebrities, this may be for you!”
“I ended up giving this book four stars for the effort. The author’s or mine? I don’t know, but there sure was a lot of effort involved”
“TL;DR: read it! Then judge me for recommending it to you.“
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: adult SFF authors in an experimental mood scare me and this book is the reason why. What about a novel in which there’s technically no time travel and the timeline would be, could maybe have been linear but there’s pretty much a time jump in every paragraph, if you want to call it that, because this isn’t so much a story as a staircase of moments sliding in and out of focus as you go up and down in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of memories? And not all memories would conform to every definition of truth. Reading it feels like trying to hold onto smoke, it’s an authentic lyrical headache – one I loved deeply, and the part called The History of Music will always be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.
Have you read any of these? Do you have any recommendations for this? [Also, why can’t “a problematic book” mean “a book that causes problems on purpose”. That would be way funnier]
Today, I’m reviewing two adult science fiction novels I’ve read recently! Both are new releases; one is a new installment in a well-loved series and one an introspective futuristic novel translated from Chinese.
I first decided to read Network Effect because of the hype. I know, I know, that kind of thing usually doesn’t end well, but while I love Murderbot, I don’t think one character is ever enough to carry a whole novel – not when I hadn’t felt anything about any other character in the last two novellas. However, since I know this will probably be a Hugo nominee next year, and since I had just read Exit Strategy (of which I won’t post a full review just because I found it that uninteresting), this seemed like a good idea.
And at first, it didn’t go well. I was kind of bored for the first 30% and I considered DNFing the book, because none of the human characters were that interesting (as usual for this series, and to a degree I think this is a deliberate choice) and there was that weird alien contamination plotline I wasn’t a fan of. However, I like the narration and I do care about Murderbot (also, these books are funny), so I continued.
And, once ART/Perihelion was in action, I couldn’t stop screaming internally. I’m understanding just how much it wasn’t a case that Artificial Condition was my favorite of the novellas. ART and Murderbot have Feelings about each other! Which they’d never want to admit! And it’s so funny to see two characters be dragged by all the humans around them because they won’t admit they’re friends – and the effect is strengthened by Murderbot’s organic and inorganic parts running almost completely on denial.
Also, the way Amena (Mensah’s teenage daughter) ends up being the middleman of the situation? Perfect, best character dynamic of the year, award-deserving
I still didn’t strongly care about the plot, or the world; while I like the commentary around the existence of corporations and their profit-driven way of life being inherently tied to AIs (an certain people’s) lack of rights, I just don’t find this universe to be that interesting! It’s very straightforward, which I guess makes it accessible, but it doesn’t do much more than throw acronyms at you without much context. Why write sci-fi if you won’t even try to use the Cool Factor!
I might read the recently-announced Fugitive Telemetry next year, because Network Effect finally gave me the feeling that the plot is going to branch out from the repetitive outline of the novellas, which all kind of felt like remixes of each other – we’ll see. This was overall a fun time, and I wouldn’t mind rereading it someday (…though I’d probably be skimming the first 30%)
My rating: ★★★¾
Vagabonds is a Chinese science-fiction novel by Hugo-Award winning author Hao Jingfang, translated into English by Ken Liu, and I listened to an audiobook narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. This was a buddy read with Silvia, and if you’re interested in reading this book, I really recommend reading it with a friend. It will give you the motivation to get through what’s a 640-page-tome/21-hour-audiobook, and discussing it – because there will be a lot to discuss – is half the fun. (All of the fun? This was many things but it wasn’t fun.)
“This is the tale of the fall of the last utopia.” ― Vagabonds, prologue.
Don’t let the prologue fool you: Vagabonds is not that kind of sci-fi. It’s not a war story, even though the possibility and memory of war are ever-present shadows; it’s not a story about an apocalypse. It is a slow-paced, introspective novel about a group of young Martians returning to their planet after having spent years studying on Earth, where they started to question everything about their way of life. This is a tale about the fall of the very concept of utopia in the characters’ mind; a story about loss of faith accompanied by gain of insight. A story about how a society came close to becoming the very thing it swore to never be.
While it follows many characters, the closest thing to a main character Vagabonds has is Louying, the granddaughter of the Martian consul and one of the eighteen-year-olds returning from Earth. We follow her journey in discovering the history of her family and some ugly truths tied to it; we follow her as she asks questions and tries to find answers that work for her, and a place that might fit her after the way her experience in with living on two very different planets shaped her.
Louying has been taught she lives in an utopia, while the citizens of Earth believe her grandfather is a dictator; the truth is much more complicated than either statement. This book navigates these questions – what makes an utopia; what is freedom; what it means to be a dictator – while exploring many different points of views. It compares Martian collectivism against the individualism of Earth, digs into each society’s failing, and it never gives you definitive answers, but it still exposes the dangers of cultural exceptionalism, supremacy and close-mindedness. At its heart, Vagabonds is a story about the importance of communication between different viewpoints, how we can all learn a lot from each other.
I’m always here for stories that talk about what utopia might mean. I find the very concept of utopia as we usually conceive it inherently disturbing because stasis seems encoded in its very foundation, when that’s antithetical to human nature, or nature in general. (If ecological stability in an ecosystem is always is a dynamic equilibrium, I don’t have reasons to believe the situation is much different for human societies.) This book gets how every generation perceives its society in a different way and always strives for change, as it’s natural, but sometimes doesn’t understand the impact it may have.
I liked the lack of answers paired to a very well-defined, resonant character arc. At the same time, my usual bookish habitat is western queer SFF, so I kept thinking that Mars is a dystopia without considering any of these things just for its treatment of women – all people involved in politics are men and so are most people this book shows being involved in the sciences (all the relevant female characters are artists); you can also see the reflection of this in how the men around Louying treat her. I recognize this as the simplistic take it is, and yet it’s not something I can brush off. Maybe it’s because it isn’t an element of comparison – I don’t have any reason to believe book-Earth is any better in this – so the book chose not to engage with that. I don’t know; I’ll just say that it kept jumping up at me. Especially considering how multifaceted the worldbuilding is, how the book manages to talk in detail about the role of art, architecture, history, revolutions and innovation in a society, also going into the details of physics and engineering on Mars.
In an American categorization, this book would probably be seen as something standing on the line between genre and literary fiction, with the premise of the first and the mood and aim of the second. As I’m only familiar with the first, I can say that compared to the average sci-fi, is significantly slower, descriptive and meandering, with an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The characters are wonderfully crafted but you’re not reading the story for them (for the most part, I say, thinking about Dr. Reini), and there are some beautiful parts involving space exploration on the surface of Mars, but they’re again not the point. I ended up liking this book for what it was, but I think it’s important to know all of this before going into it – it’s not what you usually get from a sci-fi Saga Press tome. As for the translation, this is possibly the best translation I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them. It probably helps that the translator is an author himself.
My rating: ★★★★
Have you read or want to read any of these? Can you tell I wrote one of these in a hurry because conjunctivitis means I can’t look at a screen for too long? I say it shows
Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!
Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.
It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.
This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.
Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.
Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.
Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.
Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.
My rating: ★★★★★
Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so. The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.
I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.
While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.
Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.
it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.
There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.
I deeply admire this book’s dedication to not making sense.
After all, who needs to make sense when you have sword lesbians, space necromancy, rot, magical science, and a murder mystery? If someone had tried to make space for something as mundane as sense, Gideon the Ninth might have exploded in a mess of mold and bone shards, and now, wouldn’t that have been a shame.
Here, the idea that things aren’t going to make sense and that everything is going to feel mostly like a caricature of itself is something one has to get on board with before starting the novel (I mean, look at that cover. It already tells you everything you need to know.)
It’s funny, it really is, and in a way I’m not used to – when most SFF books try to outdo themselves with witty banter, this one mostly relies on dissonance, outdated memes, and deliberately horrible puns, to the point that if one were to translate it, they’d inevitable lose half the charm of the story.
The humor, the melodramatic characters and settings, the neverending cast of characters – it all works because of how confident this book is. It goes for its goal without feeling any need to explain or justify (of course Gideon lives in a tomb cult but still has access to many dirty magazines!). As long as what’s in it feels in line with the aesthetic, it works.
I’d usually say that aesthetic is important but not as much as making sure things are coherent in the world – but no, not here, there’s no way any of this would work if it took itself any more seriously.
Do I mean this never got too much even for me? Oh, it did. Let’s just say that while “I’m going for over-the-top, I might as well go all the way” is a principle I appreciate, I will never get through a 30 pages long fight scene without skimming, and that ending should have been a quarter of its length. It got to the point that some (in theory) emotionally impactful and very painful developments didn’t have any effect on me because I just wanted this book to be over, after loving pretty much everything that lead up to the ending.
Because yes, apart from that, this book’s dedication to the aesthetic didn’t get in the way of the characterization, relationships, and more emotional parts. The growing respect between the Sixth and Ninth House? Everything about the Fourth? Also, there are nine different iterations of the necromancer/cavalier duo dynamic, and it’s everything. (There are a lot of Houses, but don’t worry! There’s a more extended glossary here on Tor.com.)
At the heart of all of it, there’s the enemies-to-allies dynamic between Gideon and her necromancer Harrow, with ~tension~ (in a very gay way). The growing trust! The changes in names and nicknames! The pool scene! (Of course there’s a pool scene.)
And can we talk about Gideon for a moment? Characters who walk the line between “really competent in something very specific” and “walking disaster” are always my favorites, as are those whose first instinct is to run after things with a sword. She’s both, but what stood out to me the most was that she was a jock who could very much be both horny and crass, which… isn’t something fictional lesbians are allowed to be very often! Probably for fear of “reinforcing stereotypes”, but there’s nothing stereotypical about Gideon, and a queer book’s role isn’t “changing bigots’ minds” anyway. Here, there’s no doubt about who is the target audience. Also, “lovable fool” female main characters aren’t common in general.
Still, the best part of this book has been showing the cover to friends and relatives just to see what face they make. 10/10 would recommend