Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Young adult

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

The writing in this book? Amazing. The rest had… a point, and pretty much nothing else.

Burn Our Bodies Down is a contemporary-set horror novel following 17-year-old Margot as she tries to reconnect with what’s left of her family in the reclusive town of Phalene, after being isolated and lied to by her abusive mother all her life.
As it turns out, her mother learned her ways from someone else, and the darkness that follows Margot could have deeper roots than she could ever imagine.

It is, at its heart, about the cyclical nature of interpersonal violence and the price of ignoring its effects for generations. I really appreciated what it said, and the path it offered to Margot in understanding her family’s history – without ever shying away from all the complicated feelings that come with that. I also appreciated that it’s a book about a lesbian that doesn’t have a romance, because queer people exist outside of romantic plotlines, and yes, queerness is part of our lives even when we aren’t in love.
If this had been a straightforward dark contemporary about cycles of violence, I would stop here; unfortunately, it’s not, and having a strong message doesn’t erase that it was a complete mess of a horror novel.

I don’t think horror needs to be scary necessarily – this isn’t – but I expect something like suspense at the very least, and Burn Our Bodies Down was lacking in that. When your horror novel relies on missing answers, on the unknown, there should be at least a sense of what the consequences might be for the main character if she doesn’t find out. As we know nothing, most of this novel just felt like following Margot around as she interacts with very lackluster characters – seriously, anyone who isn’t a Nielsen is as flat as a piece of paper, and the Nielsen who aren’t Margot are… alike – without any sense of urgency. It isn’t that she’s safe, or that there isn’t a sense of unease running through everything, but it’s all so unspecific and not enough to carry a whole novel, not – again – when the characters are like that.

Then came the reveals. They were all at the same time in the last pages, and even if it weren’t for my dislike of this pacing choice when the rest of the book had been so empty, I wouldn’t have liked them, because they were just… cheap. Instead of leaving the supernatural-metaphorical aspect be, the book tries to explain it too much, and even throws fake science in it to make it feel more grounded. Which is the last thing one should do, and also a pattern, as Wilder Girls had the exact same problem. The result is that both books end with an embarrassingly bad twist related to environmental topics, the kind I’d expect in a cli-fi parody.

I’ll admit, I am sensitive to anything that doesn’t treat topics like climate change or pollution with the weight and research they deserve, but aside from that – this is just the coward’s choice. Don’t justify yourself at every step; let the weirdness speak on its own.

My rating: ★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

woodward

Over the Woodward Wall is on one side a very straightforward children’s books, on the other a very meta experiment in mirroring.
This is A. Deborah Baker’s first book, which in our world means “the first novella Seanan McGuire wrote under this pseudonym”, but if you’ve read Middlegame, it means something completely different. And that’s where my main doubt comes in: would someone who hasn’t read Middlegame get much out of this at all? Because I’m not sure.

This is the story of Avery and Zib, two children who couldn’t be more different but have tied fates, as they stumble in a different world on their way to school. If you’ve read Middlegame, you also know that twins Roger and Dodger were as different as twins can possibly be while still being close in a way no one else can ever be, therefore encompassing the rest of reality between them – like two letters at opposite ends of the alphabet. This similarity has plot relevance in Middlegame, as Over the Woodward Wall sits inside it, but not here; here noticing the parallels is something that enriches the reading experience, but even if you can’t, you’ll be perfectly fine.
Because, if it weren’t for the existence of Middlegame, this wouldn’t be anything but perfectly fine in the most forgettable way possible.

This isn’t a children’s book, the same way Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children isn’t YA but an adult response to the YA portal fantasy genre – one that imitates its structure and some of its characteristics. By which I mean, Over the Woodward Wall is a cuckoo and doesn’t even really make for a good children’s book; I know that if I had read it in middle school, I would have found it bland, boring, and way too interested in its own cleverness. I would have found the Crow Girl bits very compelling, as I found them interesting and cool to read now, especially the tiny spin on gender and being fragmented it took – I wanted more of that, and less of the rest.

And is it preachy. Every single character in the Up-and-Under is interested in giving the main ones life lessons, only disguised in a quirky way – that is, when the narration isn’t already trying to do that to the reader. While this is clearly a stylistic choice more than a flaw, it’s one I don’t really get along with: it’s tedious, and I would have felt talked down to had I been a kid. Now I know that books written like this are soothing to listen to while doing chores, but don’t work for me on ebook at all. And that’s a shame, I feel like this book is (even more) full of easter eggs and meta commentary that I could find while I constantly felt like skimming all of it.
I hope there’s going to be an audiobook of Over the Woodward Wall, because it’s the format I would recommend it in, and even then, almost only to Middlegame fans.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

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.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

One of the best things about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is how it makes its world come alive. It takes place during a festival that only happens once in decades, Solstasia, and it felt magical in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
Between the Patron Deities (who doesn’t love a good faction-like system?), all the mythical creatures (talking hyenas? chipekwes? serpopards? yes), and the challenges we get to witness both inside the actual Solstasia competition and outside of it (…the wakama match is one of the best scenes), this world was so interesting to read about, and just fun.
It also felt grounded. One has to see a city’s worst sides to fall in love with it, and this book never shies away from Ziran’s issues – the xenophobia, the corruption, the opulence existing side by side with poverty; the way the city’s history might be darker than anyone imagines, with real repercussions on the present.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is narrated in dual PoV, and while I liked both protagonists, I was surprised the most by Malik.
Boys in YA often seem to come from the same mold, especially if they have a “love interest” role. They react to traumatic events and other difficulties in almost always the same ways, the designated Acceptable Manly Ways™, which are to use sarcasm to cover wounds or become closed-off and brooding, which ~enhances their mysteriousness~.
Malik has anxiety.
Malik has anxiety and several panic attacks on the page.
 Some very realistically portrayed ones, by which I mean uncool and embarrassing and weird and oh no now you’re going to cry again; and this book gets it. It gets how panic attacks lower your self-esteem and feed off your low self-esteem; it gets what it means to grow up knowing that everyone kind of sees you as the village freak; it gets how they make living (and taking part in an important competition) in a place that discriminates against Malik’s people even more difficult. This books gets it, and that’s why this first chapter of Malik’s story ends up being about self-acceptance.
(This book also has content warnings in the beginning, which is kind and also shouldn’t be rare.)

Karina couldn’t be more different from Malik, being the daughter of Ziran’s Sultana, and yet the two have a lot in common – in the end, they just want to be accepted as they are. Karina wants people to appreciate who she is, but also knows she doesn’t really want to rule. She’s an impulsive mess, which made for a lot of really interesting developments, some of which involving necromancy! I love her.
Her story also involved learning to see the people around her more clearly instead of taking them for granted, and the way it ended was just… perfect. (The female friendships…)
And since I forgot to mention that before: this book is casually queer-inclusive. When Karina decides that the Solstasia competition reward will be her hand in marriage – she needs the heart of a prince: an important ingredient to perform a certain necromantic ritual – the competition isn’t closed to women, because law says she can have a wife. Now she just has to make sure that a woman won’t win, because that’s someone she can’t use the corpse of!

Please don’t let the marketing mislead you. Before I actually tried this book, all I knew about it was that it had the enemies-to-lovers trope and that someone needed to save a younger sibling, which didn’t make it sound interesting at all – I don’t even like these tropes. Especially the sibling one. And I still loved this, because it’s that good. It helps that Malik has more than one sister, so you get to see that he cares about his siblings, instead of being told about it for all the book and shown the contrary. It helps, more than anything, that this book puts thought into things as it builds over its premise – so it doesn’t even matter that I wasn’t so drawn to the premise.
Also, publishing should stop being so attached to comp titles, because the way the marketing (nonsensically) pushed the comparison with Children of Blood and Bone almost made me not read this. Just because it’s West African fantasy it doesn’t mean that they’re alike.

I listened to the audiobook, which I liked: in this novel storytelling is a form of magic, so it’s great to have someone tell it to you.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review

Stories from the End of the World: Thoughts on Books About Natural Disasters

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


Conclusions

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?

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau

I never thought I’d find a contemporary-adjacent YA that fits in my books that will cause problems on purpose list, but now I have!
The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel is gorgeous and deeply, unapologetically weird, to the point that there are entire sentences of which I don’t understand the meaning; it’s full of strange choices in wording and imagery that contribute to it becoming a goldmine for cursed™ quotes; and there’s a deliberate attention to rhythm in word choice and sentence structure to mimic the pattern of anxiety-fueled obsessive thinking acting on language. It’s really good and kind of unreadable, by which I mean perfect in a genre that most of the time doesn’t even know how it would look like to take a risk. Weird is a good thing to be!

⇝ so, what is this book
This is technically a story about Lu, who during the last year of high school starts to reconnect with a girl who was once her friend and may now be something different. At the same time, she’s dealing with the fact that her grandmother is terminally ill.
This is actually a queer coming-of-age story that feels at the same time surreal, unrealistic and more real than reality, dancing between completely removed and uncomfortably close. It talks about periods, masturbation, sexual desire, drug use, self-harm and the significant repercussions of casual homophobia more unflinchingly than most contemporary YA I’ve read, but does so in its own way – which is to say, everyone speaks in slang all the time for reasons that aren’t given. They’re clearly there – I don’t think anything in this book can be described as casual – and I do not get them. This choice gives this book a very unique voice, and also got in the way of me feeling actual emotions about what was happening multiple times. Unusual choices were also made when it came to imagery, and I want all of you to witness what is probably the most cursed description of a sex scene I’ve ever had to read:

She’s anemone and I am clown and I swim gently into her stunning embrace.

This book: metaphors!
Me, a person who has sadly experienced tumblr: I never want to see the world “clown” in anything related to sex ever again

⇝ hypotheses on the slang
A common critique seems to be that no one speaks like this. I think the book is fully aware of that, given that in here everyone speaks like this. I don’t think this was a failed attempt at connecting with the youth, given that as far as ESL me understands, this is… not necessarily modern slang? Like, girls are betties and cigarettes are tars and I don’t think that’s contemporary – the author isn’t that old. Was this an unusual attempt to make the story feel timeless by dating it the wrong way?
Or maybe it’s a choice based on sound over meaning. Because:

⇝ an interpretation that turned out being canon
I was drawn to this book mainly because the writing has a rhythm I’m familiar with, the one my brain has when it gets stuck on something. It’s hard to define anxiety-disorder-sourced obsessive thoughts in terms of sound, but one thing my brain does is to turn certain sentences whose rhythm it finds pleasing in the non-musical version of an earworm. Well, so many sentences here match that rhythm and have repetitive and rhyming patterns, which, again, is a stuck brain hour™ sign. To give you an idea of how… unmistakable it is, this is the quote from the preview that made me decide I had to read this book:

And she’s cracking up and I’m all aglow.
Glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer.
I laugh and hum and pick up my marker and draw.
Shine little glowworm, shimmer, shimmer.

Sometimes it’s not that blatant, sometimes it’s just in the descriptions of a person being everyday, every-guy, average hit hero, or Lu being errands-girl extraordinarie (notice how this time it didn’t use “betty”! It’s a sound thing), or the beach being clash, rubble-and-trash-strewn excuse of a shore – the oh-so satisfying feeling of these words, they match! It feels almost cozy. And it takes a lot of skill to get there, because while I have this, uh, gift, I can’t actually make it happen deliberately to write weird poetry.
Then, as it turns out:

Then I get all slo-mo OCD and spell each word out, fitting spaces and hyphens into random places, feeling the different sizes and rhythms on my tongue. Just me and my obsessive anxiety disorder, having a blast, […]

&

Phrases loop in my mind, round and round, like a rogue Ferris wheel spun way out of whack. I count and I count. So mop, so OCD. Hello, my name is Lucy Butler and I’m a compulsive letter counter.

As I said: deliberate! This book only causes problems on purpose, as the best ones do.
More seriously: I love weird, clearly, and I love talking about it half joking and half in awe. What I don’t love is people calling something bad writing because it doesn’t match their experience of how a human mind works.

⇝ an interpretation that didn’t, but hear me out
Identity is a complex matter. At the same time, such strong non-binary vibes from Lu.

⇝ but Acqua, the story?
It’s mostly about finding courage – to take a chance and tell a girl you like her; to dump your toxic boyfriend and homophobic friends; to be there for the rest of your family when they need you. The F/F romance is sweet and just messy enough, because the characters are dealing with mental illness and casual homophobia, both internalized and not – even though most people in Lu’s life don’t actually mean to hurt her that way.
It’s good and at the same time enhanced and overshadowed by the writing.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Maybe it makes sense that in a book full of symbolism based around cards the worldbuilding is about as solid as a house of them, and maybe it makes sense that in a book about stage magicians all the side characters feel like props to make the main ones shine, but it was about as interesting to read as it sounds.

The thing about Where Dreams Descend is that if it can sacrifice something to increase its own mysterious, dazzling atmosphere, it will. The result is a book that is all smoke and no substance, which again, it’s somewhat appropriate given the subject matter, but unsatisfying to read. It keeps adding mystery after mystery, raising questions and never answering them, and no storyline is ever given closure. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to understand things on the first try, and I can mostly get over how everything seemed so unsubstantial once you got through the layer of fondant, because was it some really beautiful fondant, but it also felt so contrived. Mystery for the sake of it, followed by meaningless reveals that don’t actually give answers, or explain anything apart from how much the publisher hopes you’ll buy the sequel.

In the end, Where Dreams Descend felt so much like that instagram cake meme that was everywhere in July – all concerned with appearances and tricking you, but when the “reveal” comes the book is like “you would have never guessed it was cake!” and you’re like “sure, never” because you’re too exhausted to even complain about how repetitive everything feels.
If you’re the kind of person who values atmosphere even more than I do, you’re probably have at least fun with this. I hope, however, that you don’t mind cliffhangers.

Now that I’ve complained enough, let’s get to the good parts: the writing fits the book perfectly. It’s ornate and descriptive without ever giving too much detail, making everything feel kind of haunted and or ghost-like beneath the glitter. I really appreciated how it managed to convey the atmosphere of Glorian, the underlying feeling of wrongness, and how it felt for Kallia – bright, always shining, burning – to be there. There would be a lot to say even about the use of color as symbolism in here, which was way more successful that anything this book was trying to do with the suits of cards and long-lost families, if this review weren’t already too long.
I also found the ways it talked about memory magic to be really interesting. It may sound over-specific, but this isn’t the first time I’ve found the concept of trading memories of fire in a frozen city, and I will always find that idea fascinating. Was anything ever explained? No, and I’m going to thank the book for that because the last thing this needed were infodumps that wouldn’t have made it make sense anyway without a stronger background.

It’s also a book with a main character whose entire role isn’t reacting to things that happen to her, who has has deep down a desire to connect with people, but mostly unashamedly wants the spotlight. That’s not something we often see, especially in YA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kallia were received as “unrelatable” or “unlikable” (because she wears “revealing” clothing and wants to be admired). I just wish the book would have understood that making a stronger cast of side characters wouldn’t have stolen the spotlight from her; I don’t think it’s possible to do that.

I mostly found the two male characters Kallia is somewhat involved with to be boring, because the way they were described and even the way they acted felt like a YA love interest template. (As if the book were checking things off a list titled here are the attributes that are considered to be appropriate to praise in a straight man!) And did they even have a personality apart from hiding things? Because I’m not sure it came across.

If I had read this book a few years ago, I know I would have liked it more, just like I enjoyed Caraval back then despite being equally flimsy and to be honest not as well-written or interesting, so I’m giving what’s in the end a positive rating; I mostly recommend it to those who liked Caraval and Ace of Shades but want something that feels even more mysterious and sets the atmosphere even better.

My rating: ★★★