Book review · Fantasy · Adult

Reread Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Opinions change. There are times I don’t like a book and yet I know that, if I were to reread it, I wouldn’t feel the same way. It has happened to me with The Star Touched Queen and Jade City; now here we are again.

I knew, before listening to this audiobook, that I probably would have liked it more this time around. That’s also because of how much I loved In An Absent Dream this year, and because I see this series differently as a whole; I think I have a better grasp on what it wants to be.

DownAmongtheSticksThe first time I read this book, I was 17, and I rated it two stars. Now I’m 20, and with this reread, I see it in a completely different way, and yet not. I went back and reread my review on my old Italian blog, and I still agree with almost every single thing I said then. This book is the same as it was; I didn’t read it wrong, whatever that might mean, or miss anything particularly important.
It’s just that context can do so much.

Let’s start with the thing I hated the most about Down Among the Sticks and Bones in 2017: it’s one of the most repetitive and unsubtle things I’ve ever read, and relies almost only on telling. There’s little in the book world I hate as much as a story that doesn’t trust its reader to understand and therefore beats them over the head with its message. Usually.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize, back then, just how much these books are meant to be read as a fairytale. The whole series plays with fairytale and portal fantasy tropes, and both genres tend to thrive on the familiar, on repetition.
Because of how it relied on telling more than Every Heart a Doorway did, this novella was an irritating read. If you listen to it on audiobook, as I did the second time around, it’s delightful. Not only you don’t have to worry if you miss something – oh, will the story remind you, as anyone speaking to you who wants to get their point across would – but the telling bothers you a lot less if the story is actually being told to you.
It’s not that it can’t work in written form, it’s just that most of what I saw as a flaw then I now see as just a difference in format and goal.

I still don’t like how much this story lacks in nuance.
This is true for most of Seanan McGuire’s books, especially the less recent ones I’ve read. This story won’t let you draw your own conclusions about the characters and the themes it explores, it has the tendency to tell you what to think. Which is irritating even though – because? – I would have drawn those conclusions anyway and agree with the message.
Lack of nuance also tends to come with the territory. Neither fairytales nor portal fantasy are known for it (is anyone going to pretend Narnia ever bothered with something as heretical as nuance and subtlety? Ha. Yes, lack of subtlety is probably more irritating when you disagree with the message, but then you don’t feel bad about it!)

That still doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s kind of dissonant to read about how adults often don’t allow their children to form their own preferences and opinions because they don’t really see children as people in a book that fervently demands you don’t form your own about the theme either.
One thing I liked the most about In An Absent Dream is that I felt it gave the reader more space to think on their own. This really doesn’t, and it’s the reason I can’t give it a higher rating despite how much more I appreciated this story this time around.

This time, I understood the charm the world of the Moors has, and grew attached to Jack in a way I hadn’t at all the first time. She’s a queer mad scientist in training who has to deal with mental health issues (OCD)! Of course I love her. And the author really made this world come alive with the descriptions. So creepy, so terrible, and yet I get why the twins want to stay. It’s not like our world can’t be that to a lot of people.

Another thing that has changed for me is that I’m no longer angry at the ending. I don’t fault 17-year-old me for feeling that way about an ambiguous ending that might or might not have implied a homophobic trope, and I didn’t know Come Tumbling Down would exist then. Now, of course, things have changed.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read this? What is your favorite novella in this series?

Adult · Book review · contemporary

Review: Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

43199360._sy475_This was suspenseful, intoxicating, queer, and incredibly fucked up; I loved every moment of it.
Bury the Lede is a contemporary graphic novel following Madison, a bisexual Asian-American intern at the newspaper Boston Lede, as she gets drawn into the investigation of a murder that will end up having political implications.

One of the first things to draw me to this book was the art. Stark and beautiful, with a lot of blues, purples, grays – it sets the dark atmosphere right from the beginning, and it’s dynamic and detailed without becoming overwhelming. I loved it before I started to love the story, which – I have to admit – took me a little to warm up to; there are a lot of names I needed to remember to be able to follow this, and during my first read I was somewhat confused (it was also late at night, because I needed to finish this, I needed to know the truth; I was confused but I could tell it was great). However, during my second reread I understood that this was one of the best graphic novels I had ever read.

Books like these remind me how often queer women in media aren’t allowed to be full, flawed human beings. Madison is all of these things, and so is her sometimes-lover Lexi, or the mysterious alleged murderer Dahlia, also queer like so many other side characters. They all choose to pursue what they believe is justice, and to do so, they do some incredibly unethical things. As Madison gets more and more entangled in the case, she finds herself breaking the law multiple times, using people with barely any remorse, and yet the story never treats her like a villain.

Books like Bury the Lede also remind me that portrayals of queer women as sexual beings that are neither predators nor meant to be entertainment for men are not as common as they should be, especially in graphic novels and outside of stories that are specifically meant to be romances. This isn’t in any way a romance, and I loved that about it – and it still has a sex scene between two women on the page, one that is explicit and drawn in a way that cemented my feeling that yes, this was really written with queer women in mind, and not heterosexual men (as most graphic portrayals of queer women are).
It’s a story that portrays queer women engaging in casual sex, having multiple partners, and it’s not fetishizing in the slightest. Madison sleeps with a woman and kisses a man (who is also bisexual) and is in a relationship with neither; about this I also recommend reading the author’s post about bi representation, stereotypes, and who she writes for.

I don’t know if this is meant to have a sequel, but I really hope it does; I want more. More from Madison but also from “Harold”, from Dahlia, even from the reporter of the Trombone.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content Warnings for: murder (on-page, bloody); talk of suicide that might not be suicide; mentions of pedophilia and people covering for child predators (no on-page sexual abuse); roofied drinks; on-page sex scene.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

35965482This book did the impossible, which, in this case, is making me wish I had paid attention during my mandatory philosophy class.

Sadly, the Acqua who would be fine with paying attention to high school philosophy classes instead of sneakily reading fantasy books during them isn’t the kind of person who would have ended up reading Middlegame, and as this book rightly says, you can’t have everything, even with infinite alternate timelines and even if you’re the living embodiment of logos, which I’m not.

So, this book is about evil alchemists trying to harness the Doctrine, which, as far as I understand, is basically the English name for what the ancient Greek philosophers called the logos, the rule that drives the universe. There is a fascinating history in this, written in this story like a book within a book, thin slivers of the past woven in and out of the present timeline, omens scattered in the form of excerpts of a children’s book. In the present, the immortal alchemist Reed is trying to embody different concepts into people who aren’t quite human, who look human but might one day be infinitely powerful, if they end up manifesting, if they end up being the Doctrine themselves. If this time he gets them right.
And this is where our main characters, Roger and Dodger, come in.
(Confusing? I’m not as good at explaining as this book, and this is weird.)

Roger is language, Dodger is math, and they are a harmony of opposites. We see them as children who are trying to navigate the world while being “gifted” while also discovering that they have a telepathic connection, and they might be magical, but the way the world fails them isn’t any different from the way it fails children with too many expectations on their shoulders. (The parts about Dodger never being able to understand how people work and the quote about you got a girlfriend, I got a therapist: painfully relatable.)
And then we see them during many different times of their lives, finding and losing each other and slowly learning about the puppeteers beneath reality, and it should be boring, but it’s not, and the time jumps should make it easy to get disconnected from the characters, but they don’t, because this book delights in doing the impossible. (Improbable, it whispers, as if it were a reincarnation of Nikolai Lantsov.)

Middlegame is, after all, deceptively simple: it’s really easy to follow, for something so complex – a narrative that plays at being linear just to make itself accessible when it’s actually a tapestry of timelines, with writing that gets its point across with an elegance that doesn’t call attention to itself. It has the beauty of efficiency and fits this book just right.
And it’s so clever. I want to look at all the facets and can’t and this is exactly what I want from a book, as much work as it is fun. Time is a joke to this book and it just occurred to me that as inside this book language is a trigger to math and consequently words are a trigger to time, this book in itself is words that command time in their own little universe and I, well, I should probably shut up now.

It’s not only the way it’s written, so readable even when it doesn’t seem to make sense (but it always does, sideways), that makes it not boring for something that almost feels like a slice-of-life story for a significant portion of the 500+ pages. It’s also the fact that there are books that have unpredictable twists, and then there are books that are unpredictable in essence, which you don’t even vaguely know which direction they will take until you’re near the ending, because they’re so different from everything you’ve seen before that you don’t even have something to build your expectations on.
And it’s also about stakes, of course. You know a book is taking things seriously when someone just caused mass death and you aren’t even near the climax.

Apart from that, and from what Middlegame has to say about society and the way stories shape consciousness which then shapes reality (which are all things I love to read about), I am predictable and was into this right from the moment I understood it involved evil, ruthless magical scientists. There’s no story about merging science and magic involving people being horrible that won’t interest me.
And yes, there are a few things I didn’t love about this, the main one being just how centered on America this book is despite the consequences befalling the whole world, because of course America is both the whole world and the only part of it in which interesting things actually happen.

In any case, I was trembling even while reading some of the calmest parts of this book, and maybe I can’t yet (ever?) explain fully why it affected me so much when it doesn’t make sense to me completely either, but I hope I got at least part of it, and if not, this is probably the reason I shouldn’t write reviews after midnight.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · contemporary · Fantasy

Recent Reads That Didn’t Work

Today, I’m going to talk about four books I DNFed in the last two months, and why I DNFed them. These are not to be considered true reviews, as I didn’t even read half of the book, but I want to talk about what makes me decide to part ways with a book.


Three Immediate DNFs

The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman: I don’t find easy to describe what exactly went wrong with this one. It was a combination of forced dialogue, characters angsting about their magic/lack thereof even before you understand which kind of magic there is in this world, and vague descriptions that made it feel like a novelization of a not particularly well-thought-out TV show. You know the ones with a bad script people rave about because the actors are pretty, but of which you can’t see two scenes without dying of secondhand embarrassment? Those, and being a book it can’t even have the pretty actors.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling: I just really wasn’t feeling this one. I started it for Spookathon, realized it really wasn’t my kind of thing, and stopped. It was starting to bore me already, there was far too much talk about rerouting intestines (please stop) instead of actual descriptions of the creepy cave, and that was… not what I wanted. I mean, caves are beautiful and awe-inducing and this book didn’t even try to describe what was in them? They’re not just holes in the rock. I’m sad because in theory I’m always there for the messed up f/f relationships, but this one wasn’t working. Maybe I’ll try again someday, I don’t know.

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware: I tried this one because of… booktube hype, mostly. It sounded interesting and I could have used it for an upcoming “out of my comfort” zone post! However, when the main character – who is in jail at the beginning of the book – started to tell me how she’s middle class and because of that feels like she doesn’t belong there while the other women clearly do, I decided that I didn’t particularly care that I was meant to dislike her and quit. I tried to give a book in which I hated the main characters a chance just a few days ago and it wasn’t worth it at all; I have better things to do with my time.


“Pokémon, but make it ugly”
― Steel Crow Saga, probably

47524040._sy475_I had read and really liked another book by Paul Krueger before, so when I started seeing positive reviews of Steel Crow Saga, I was sure that this was going to be a fun fantasy read for me. Unfortunately, me and this book didn’t get along at all, for various reasons, the main ones being my dislike of the writing and the humor, which I found more cringe-y than funny. I ended up DNFing it because I just couldn’t get into the story and kept putting it down out of boredom.

I didn’t expect to dislike the writing, since I didn’t remember having a problem with it during Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, but here I found it awkward and with a tendency to state the obvious (the kind of thing that I might notice mostly by chance and then can’t unsee for the rest of the novel), and… this might sound weird, but I’ve never disliked the descriptions in a book so much. It got to the point that I hoped the author would stop describing things.

First of all: nothing felt grounded. For the first eighty pages or so, there was very little sense of setting, and I had only a vague idea of how the characters’ surroundings were like. But the descriptions we actually got were worse, so that most of my feelings about this book ended up being puzzlement about its choices in aesthetics and character design. I mean, how do you make vaguely Pokémon-like animal companions ugly? By making them exactly like normal animals, just upsettingly oversized! And it wasn’t just that, every single description seemed to go out of its way to make everything as ugly as possible. I don’t think that the book was even trying to be unsettling (with one main exception) – it wasn’t creepy, just deeply aesthetically unpleasant. Why?

As I had just spent two weeks trying to wade through The Ten Thousand Doors of January hoping that it would get better and it didn’t, I decided to just let this one go without a rating before reaching page 100. I did see a little of potential in Lee and Xiulan’s storyline, and I always get sad when I don’t like an f/f book, but they weren’t worth the tasteless slog that were Tala and Jimuro’s chapters.


How do you know when it’s time to DNF a book?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

38914991A biopunk horror generation ship sci-fi novel with a main f/f relationship between two black girls, a strong and well-thought-out environmentalist message, really well written body horror, and, uh, plot-relevant tentacle sex.

I loved what it had to say and what it was trying to achieve, but some things – especially in the ending – just didn’t end up working for me. I’ve said this before about Nicky Drayden’s books, but there’s always something about the pacing, about the transition from one scene to the next, that just doesn’t flow as well as it should. The result is a stilted, odd-paced book. Here, the first 70% was interesting, if somewhat slow moving; then the book both gained steam and completely lost me. Things were happening too quickly, plotlines that were set up as a big deal were suddenly abandoned with very little consequence or even discussion, plot threads were left floating… like tentacles in empty space, I guess.

And it’s a shame, because this had so much potential. Escaping Exodusis set in a giant, dying space-faring cephalopod-like beast, and not only it has all the wonderful biological horror you can expect from this kind of setting, there are also discussions about classism and environmentalism – the dying beast situation is great as a metaphor for Earth and climate change – and how the two are tied; not enough books approach environmental justice even when talking about the consequences that a looming catastrophe of this scale has on people’s behavior. I also highlighted a good portion of one of Seske’s chapters, because I found it a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a young person in this situation and feeling disappointed by the adults around you. As far as this aspect goes, I loved how the dying beast situation was handled in the end, with a focus on fixing things instead of running away.
However, even this aspect of the novel felt forced. This book felt as if it set out with the idea of having this message, of ending in this specific way, and didn’t give as much thought to the journey: the characters were led to that point as if they were marionettes, instead of getting there themselves.

And it couldn’t have felt any other way, not when the characters are so flat. I finished the book realizing that I still knew nothing about the two main characters, rich, privileged Seske and beastworker Adala, apart from them being young teens and… loving each other? At times? It’s really messy, and I might have appreciated that more, if not for the fact that a lot of things in here didn’t have the space and time to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to love about Escaping Exodus. I might have been annoyed that this book, after deciding that making sense was overrated, also deliberated that consistency was for the weak, but I thought the worldbuilding was amazing. I love reading about world-ships, and the book goes into enough detail about the anatomy to make me want to know more (so, a primary heart, branchial hearts and tentacles, like cephalopods? But it has bones? Are those tentacles or arms or both? I have questions) and the society that inhabits it was just as fascinating. In Escaping Exoduspolyamory isn’t just accepted, it’s expected, and just as the society has many layers and rigidly assigned roles, so do people in the family; one can see both where these things came from and why they’re damaging or stifling to many people. It’s a matriarchy, which was interesting to see as well. I did like that it talked about what happens to trans people in these circumstances, but I didn’t love how the major trans character basically paid the price for what happened in a way that the cis main characters didn’t.

If I had to describe this in a few words as a tl;dr, I would say that Escaping Exodus feels as if The Stars Are Legion and An Unkindness of Ghosts had a charmingly messy child that takes itself far less seriously than either of them. It reminded me of both, but it’s entirely its own, very weird thing. Not my favorite book by this author, and it had enough material in it that to properly address it I think it should have been a duology, but worth reading nonetheless.

My rating: ★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore

43263188When I heard that The Perfect Assassin was going to get a companion sequel that was also about assassins but with a main f/f romance, The Impossible Contract instantly became one of my most anticipated books of the year. And it didn’t disappoint.

While reviewing a sequel, one of the first things I think about is how the sequel is in comparison to the first book. And in this case, I can say that I’ve never read two books in the same series that had such different strengths. Where The Perfect Assassin was a slow-burn mystery all set in the same city, The Impossible Contract is a fast-paced journey book involving necromancy. It’s darker and bloodier – and, in a way, also messier than the first book, not as clear in its direction or themes, but way funnier at the same time.
I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse, but what I can tell you it’s that it’s different, and that I enjoyed it a lot more.

This is the story of Thana, the daughter of the famous assassin known as “the Serpent of Ghadid”. Thana has always wanted to prove herself, to be seen as something more than “the daughter of someone famous”. She wants to be a legend herself, and this new assassination contract seems to be her chance… except it’s impossible, and she ends entangled into a web of political and magical machinations that reach as far as the capital of the empire.

And help her meet a cute healer girl. I loved Mo so much, and her relationship with Thana. They are people with very different values and strengths and… they made it work anyway, but it wasn’t easy and seamless. Thana, who learns that she doesn’t have to be a copy of her mother; Mo, who learns to not deal in moral absolutes. And it’s so interesting to see how the romance storyline is a foil to the one in the first book.
(Also, Mo deserves the world and a hug.)

I can’t not mention the third relevant character, Heru, the man Thana has been hired to kill. He is a powerful en-marabi, a necromancer, and a really self-important, irritating man obsessed with researching magic. He ended up being the funniest character in the book – not by his intention – and ended up having all the best lines.
Also, he’s the reason me and Silvia keep making zombie camel jokes.

While I can’t talk about the villain without spoilers, I will say that for a character who got relatively little page time, they were really fascinating.

I talked about the worldbuilding in this series before, but can I just repeat how… not obvious and yet so logical it is to have a water-based magic system and economy in a desert fantasy book? And the repercussions that has on a world in which there’s also blood-based necromancy? This is how you do worldbuilding.

The only thing that didn’t work for me that much was the pacing. Journey books often have pacing problems, but in some places here it was clear that a scene had been cut and then summed up, so that sometimes we’re only told about things I would have liked to see – but that’s a minor complaint, and overall I really liked this.

My rating: ★★★★½