Discussion · Fantasy · middle grade

Going Back to Fairy Oak

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

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

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

Jo Walton, The Suck Fairy

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

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

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

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

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

this book has a beautiful naked hardcover

But this is Italian, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

some of the other books in the series

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion · Fantasy

On Fantasy and Italy

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

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

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

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


Italy, Fantasy, and Acqua

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

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

original Italian cover of LoTR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

original Italian cover of The Hobbit

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

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

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


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

Discussion · Fantasy

Blog Tour: Where Dreams Descend, and the Use of Color

Hello! Welcome to what’s probably going to be my last Blog Tour post for a long while. It should have technically been a review, but my 3-star review of this book is going to go up later on, because for today I wanted to do something different and focus on the positive.


From the moment I saw the cover of Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, I knew I had to read it. Silhouettes in red and black and gold, fading into glitter, a mystery appearing through the curtains and demanding your attention. And it’s so red. Maybe I’m biased because that’s my favorite color, but this cover called to me instantly. And I can say that it fits the story perfectly.

The more I read, the more I realize that color is one of the most important parts of descriptions for me. It’s not just there to tell the reader how things look like; it’s one of the most effective tools in the writer’s arsenal to set the tone, give layers to the atmosphere, craft effective symbolism, and help the reader remember things. When I say that the descriptions in a book were vivid, this is usually what I mean: I can see it clearly in my mind, and the colors look like they’re ready to burn the imaginary canvas.

And that’s something Where Dreams Descend gets. I’m not an artist, but there were scenes I would have painted if I could, that I remember perfectly not because of what happened in them but because of the use of color. Kallia in her green cloak and red boots, standing in the snow, surrounded by the people of the ghost city Glorian, all dressed in muted tones. Kallia in red, descending from the sparkling chandelier, flames dancing around her – so much of the best symbolism in this book is tied to fire; no wonder it’s so red.

What I am is a synesthete: color has always been a vital part of remembering things for me. I learned numbers and the alphabet in color; their very essence can’t be separated for the color I see them in. Which is why, for me, books that rely on this kind of writing result particularly memorable for that alone.

One such category of books are those based around spectacles and circus-like settings, as Where Dreams Descend is. The glamour of them exists to conceal, to draw the reader’s attention to the appearances and away from the tricks below, the mystery in waiting. It’s not a case this kind of attention to color is common in this subgenre – just think about the black-white-silver color scheme of Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, with only the occasional drop of red, like petals falling on a stage or maybe blood. Think about Stephanie Garber’s choice of making the main character of her YA fantasy book Caraval have a form of synesthesia that conflates color and emotion.

A non-superficial use of color also serves to set your book apart. The color schemes of the books I mentioned are all different from each other, but what they have in common is that they don’t feel like an encore of the Generic Fantasy Aesthetic. Which I guess would also help if you were the kind of reader who knows how to make aesthetic posts tumblr-style (I, again, am not), because they wouldn’t feel the exact same as every book before in their genre. What I can say is that I sometimes may end up disappointed by the actual plot of these stories – not all mysteries are as interesting, not all surprises are as satisfying – but I remember them in a way I wouldn’t otherwise.

Other Examples

There are many other ways to use color deliberately – not only as a superficial descriptor – to make a story work better:

Color-coding: sometimes the worldbuilding has many different categories for one reason or another, and the reader is going to forget and confuse all of them unless you make them easy to remember. One of my favorite ways to do so is color-coding them. I know I would have never been able to get into Mo Dao Zu Shi had the many different sects not been color-coded in the adaptation, as the cast of character is neverending; I loved the symbolism of the kefta among the various Grisha in Shadow and Bone, color-coded according to their powers; or the Hexarchate factions from Ninefox Gambit, which without the faction colors would have made the book even more difficult to follow.

Memorable symbolism: so you have significant symbols in your story and you don’t want them to feel too banal; what you want is the reader to remember them. Give them a color that would make them stand out! Another book I described as vivid this year was The Empress of Salt and Fortune, a novella that knows the importance of using color to make its descriptions effective in the little space it has: I still remember the red lake and won’t forget the specific significance of black salt.

Setting the tone: maybe I’m yet again biased because red, but I remember how different from the rest of the book the scenes in the Red Room from The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz felt. The Red Room is a special, magical place, and it feels like one. As the main character Mercedes says, red loves you back. It’s one of my favorite books for a reason, after all.

Colors also have cultural significance, which adds another layer to the previous points – keeping of course in mind that every culture has its own ideas about colors’ meanings, if you’re writing outside your own. For example, there’s a certain blue = sad correlation in English, but we don’t really have that in Italy or in the Italian language.


Have you read any of these? Is there any book you remember specifically for how it used colors?

Discussion · Miscellaneous

Looking at Three Years of Search Terms

Yesterday I saw imyril @There’s Always Room For One More‘s post about Blog Stats and Search Terms, so I thought: why not discover what mysteries my search terms hold? I’ve had this blog for three years, which means that by now I have a big enough list of them that there’ll probably be something… interesting in there. In this case, “interesting” usually means “I have no idea of why that brought you to my blog, but thanks?”.


Most Mentioned

#1

Tthe first surprise was that the books that brought more people to my blog aren’t at all the books I talk about most often; in fact, my most popular review in terms of views, the one my search terms mentioned the most, is of a YA mystery from 2018 I barely remember reading: People Like Us by Dana Mele. As with most of my reviews from 2018, I kind of hate it and can’t tell if I’d agree with anything I wrote in it now, but if you want to see how far I’ve come, it’s here.

If you read my posts fairly often: did you even know I had read this book? Because I kind of forgot about it until now. Still, I like that this happened with a book about lesbians and murder, at least that’s appropriate to what kind of blog this is. Now, let’s see if I can understand why this happened.

Most Common PLU Search Entries:

kay people like us” = Kay is the main character; in my review, I stated that she has “the personality of a drying puddle”, so I’m not surprised I forgot everything about the book. However, several people found her interesting enough to look her up on the internet, so I may be wrong.

people like us book ending explained“, “people like us book ending“, “people like us book spoilers” = there are at least ten different iterations of this in my search terms, several of which potentially spoiler-y. Which is odd, because I didn’t think it was that ambiguous of an ending? In any case, they’re coming to the wrong blog, because the scene that is considered ambiguous isn’t mentioned in the review and I… don’t remember it happening.

I’m surprised so many people were looking for answers! It’s more popular than I thought, which is a positive thing, given that this is after all a very morally gray sapphic story.

#2

The second most-mentioned book? Way more on brand: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I mean, it makes sense: it’s a book I liked and talked about a decent amount of times, it’s not easy to understand by any means, and it has won/been nominated for several awards. And, again, murder lesbians! I’m glad the internet recognizes this about me, at least.

Something that likely helped my review of this in getting so many views is its title, which includes the word “discussion”: I think many people finished this book looking for answers or for things to make more… tangible sense than they do (they don’t and you have to live with it! I love that about this book). While I do talk about my interpretation of the ending in my “discussion”, I mainly wrote it to draw parallels with a novelette with similar themes, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn (one of my favorites ever), so I don’t know how helpful it was. Sorry for the unintentional clickbait?

Some of the Time War Search Entries

this is how you lose the time war discussion questions“, “this is how you lose the time war book club questions” = interesting! Maybe the discussion part of my post could be useful for this, I don’t know. By the way, if you’re reading this for a book club, definitely also read the Carrie Vaughn novelette. It’s way simpler and shorter but it’s on that topic.

this is how you lose the time war explained” = …this is the wrong book for explanations. No answers, only interpretation?

this is how you lose the time war summary” = oh, good luck with this one too.

this is lose time war” = I mean, I get it. This is pretty much how my own English felt like to me after I finished the book.

Miscellaneous Search Entries

And now we get to the very chaotic rest of the list!

From Villain Fans

I know this is all because of my How I Fell in Love With Villains, in Five Steps post and I love that it’s happening. This is my niche!

villians in love” = aw. Definitely try The Ascent to Godhood and The Stars Are Legion, and if you find that you don’t clash with the writing style, please please read The Machineries of Empire to get to Revenant Gun. It’s going to be the best kind of horrible.

villain as romantic love interest fantasy books” = I think the most romantic of my villain recs is The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard + its spin-off specifically focusing on that couple, Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murder.

books with redeemed villain romance” = I don’t really go there. If it’s not evil I don’t want it? Still, I get why that might be necessary to have a capital-R Romance (so, happy ending instead of my personal “one murders the other” fave ending). Maybe Spinning Silver might fit this? But it’s not exactly a redemption arc. And neither is Mo Dao Zu Shi, but I think it might appeal to people who are interested in villain-related tropes but very much want a happy ending

Looking For Recs

gay urban fantasy” = not as easy of a rec as I’d like because it’s not a popular genre right now, but I think Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen could fit this.

tor.com novellas” = some that should definitely get more attention are Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney and the Persons Non Grata series by Cassandra Khaw! And, in general, I think the quality of the imprint is pretty high, so I’d recommend most of them.

ya books that deserve the hype and those that don’t 2019” = love the “those that don’t” part! Anyway: two 2019 YA books that deserved all the hype were The Weight of the Stars and With the Fire on High; two that didn’t were Girls of Storm and Shadows and House of Salt and Sorrows.

The Confused or Confusing Ones

alien assassin’s convenient wife” = …um. I’ll leave that role to someone else?

amazon” = this isn’t weird per se but I have no idea of how it got several people here; I avoid buying there if I can help it and I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this name on this blog before now.

onyebuchi n solomon” = the way this is written and the fact that there seem to be facebook results from googling this makes me think they weren’t looking for authors Tochi Onyebuchi and Rivers Solomon. Sorry? (You Should Still Read The Deep)

Looking For Clarifications

spin the dawn lgbt” = they’re about to be very disappointed, because that was one of the straightest books I’ve read last year – and it also had a cis-woman-crossdressing plotline, with all the implications going with that.

how does the book final draft by riley redgate end” = in the best possible way! trust me 🙂 [no, seriously, I don’t think it could have ended any better.]

queens of innis lear trans princess” = I guess it depends on your interpretation? It’s fake-medieval fantasy, so the characters don’t really have the words for it, but I can see that. [and, in any case, if that character is trans, the word you’re looking for is “prince”]

s a chakraborty pronunciation names” = I can’t help – how does one even write down pronunciation anyway? – but what I can say is that I really liked the audiobook, so if you’re curious that could be a way?

Overall

This was… interesting and mostly unexpected. Outside of these categories, I was really glad to see several mentions of The Dark Beneath the Ice! That’s a book I want more people to find. And a lot of people found me by searching Arkady Martine, too, which is more expected than most things on this list.


What is the weirdest thing in your Search Terms section? What are you known for in the internet’s judgment?

Adult · Discussion · Sci-fi

On the Importance of Queer Worlds

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 series about 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
¹

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.

²

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.

³

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?

Discussion · Fantasy

On Rules and Magic Systems

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! What best time there could ever be for talking about what I like about magic in books?

(It will have footnotes. I’m preemptively sorry.)

Before I started reviewing, I wanted to write¹. I cared very much about writing a Good and Original Fantasy Novel, so I spent a lot of time reading fantasy writing advice on the internet. A lot of it was bad and I recognized it as such (don’t describe your character’s appearance because it doesn’t matter anyway? Yeah, no), and a lot of it was bad but I’m only recognizing that as I read more fantasy.


Rules? In My Magic System?

In those circles, there seemed to be very specific ideas about how one should write magic. Five and more years later, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things I thought were necessary then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to understand everything about how the magic works. Which seems to be the main point on which me and internet writing advice disagree more every year, as I read more and more SFF with magic systems that go first in a completely wacky direction and then on my favorites list.

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Let’s first get one thing out of the way: having a kind of magic that is weird, incomprehensible, or mostly unexplained for various reasons, doesn’t mean that the author will use said uncharted and unexplained territory to get a character out of a bad situation. That’s lazy writing and I’m not interested in it, and I think that’s the main reason at first I thought I didn’t like undefined magic systems: because I was reading a lot of fantasy that exploited the loopholes. I specifically remember having a problem with the magic in Caraval because the limits were never established, but would I have had a problem with that had the author not used magic so much to push the story along? Probably not. It isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about using “magic” as a plot point instead of having the characters make meaningful decisions. As long as the characters do that, you can spare the reader the tedious explanations that manage to take the magic out of magic.

The thing is, realistically, one can fully explain a magic system in a satisfactory way only if that magic system is relatively simple, sometimes simple enough in a way that just doesn’t ring true to me. It might be that I have the perspective of someone studying natural sciences: in ecology, a major issue is exactly trying to describe things with rules or mathematical models, as more often than not, when it comes to more than large-scale patterns, ecosystems just won’t have it. (*points at pond* this bad boy can fit so many variables in it.) Enough that we dedicated a part of the course specifically to idiosyncrasy².

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So why are the mechanisms behind magic easier to understand than the mechanisms behind everyday non-magical things? If anything, it should be the opposite. I love the kind of SFF in which there’s very clearly an entire field dedicated to studying magic, and had a great time while reading Gideon the Ninth, in which the main character, a non-necromancer surrounded by necromancers, mostly understands nothing³ (and as a result, the reader’s idea of how the magic works is extremely vague) but the story still works. All we need is a very vague idea of the limits of what magic can attempt, and then we can go from there. No more explaining, I’m trying to have fun here.

Very predictably for me, I’ve always been drawn to magic that didn’t have clear rules4; in the past, I just thought that had to mean I wasn’t very critical about fantasy. Now that I always find enough reasons to complain about pretty much everything, I doubt that was the issue; if anything, there was a flaw in the idea that things can only be good if done in a very specific way. I’d much rather have a complete mess than same old elemental magic with very clear-cut rules any day, and that has always been true. (As usual, my principle for worldbuilding is “I’d rather be confused than bored”).

I’ve seen the Sanderson-coined idea of hard vs. soft magic systems, and I have a lot of doubts about that, because my reaction to the clear division between hard and soft science is already *stares in natural sciences student*, but I especially disagree with the idea that hard magic systems are for realism5 and a softer magic system’s main point would be to cause a sense of wonder in the reader. No, to me is important that the magic feels real and believable, not akin to a set of rules I could find in the explanation sheet of a board game.

But the thing is, this is a preference. I prefer the weird, unpredictable kind of magic, but I’ve never found myself thinking that a book was badly written for having neatly defined rules. Then why do we feel fine with talking about different, more unusual kinds of magic as if they were flaws or “bad writing”?

I also think a lot of authors and writing advice approach fantasy worldbuilding as if the readers needed to use the magic themselves – and it might be useful for the author to know the limits (and maybe, though not necessarily, the workings behind) more in detail. But the reader doesn’t need to, stories don’t have that constraint, and I think that’s great: you get a chance to have fun, be realistic and go with full chaos.


It Has Footnotes!

¹ it’s not that now I don’t, but then bilingualism happened, or it happened too late for it to actually work, and things got messy. Currently, I’m at the very desirable stage of being bad at not one but two languages!

² the TL;DR of idiosyncrasy in ecology: hoping to predict how an ecological community  will respond to something basing yourself on what you’ve seen in another place? Oh, good luck with that.

³ when the other characters talk about thanergy and Gideon says “that’s death juice” = accurate equivalent of the kind of sciencespeak-to-Italian translation I constantly do in my head around physicists. (Due to life circumstances, I’m often around physicists.) This is the kind of hard-hitting realism SFF needs!

Uprwoordpres4 irrelevant hill I’m willing to die on: the magic system in Uprooted was perfect as it is, how could it be any different – what, do we want plant magic to work according to easily understandable rules? When it’s about plants? *Flashback to botany course* oh I would love to get some of those easily understandable, always true rules for real plants

5 The wikipedia page on this topic says that magic systems with clear costs and limitations, of which the reader understands the inner workings, make the story feel more realistic. I think that’s quite simply wrong. There are so many things in our everyday life we don’t fully understand the workings or sometimes even limits of, and yet we use anyway. (*looks at computer.*) I don’t know what it says about my life exactly, but I find a general feeling of ignorance and lack of convenient explanation behind something more real than something that can be easily explained in two paragraphs.


What do your favorite magic systems have in common?

Discussion

Hugo Finalists 2020: Thoughts

As you might or might not know, depending on how much you’ve been following this blog and my goodreads, I love writing posts in which I talk about award finalists (here, for example, are last years’ Hugos); this time, however, I’ve also challenged myself to read as many of the finalists as possible before writing this post, so that I could write it with a more well-rounded opinion.

I love this kind of challenge because:

  • more than anything, it helps me discover new short fiction and sometimes new short fiction authors. The problem with short fiction is that there’s a lot of it but pretty much all of it gets very little visibility.
  • it makes me try books I wouldn’t have tried otherwise (sometimes with great results, as it happened this time) with a little more guarantee that the minimum threshold of objective quality won’t be too low.

I will talk about the categories I’m interested in: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, and Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book.


Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders – read, ★★★★½ (review)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir – read, ★★★★½
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley – read, ★★★★ (review)
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire – read, ★★★★★ (review)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow – read, ★★½ (review)

I fell in love with this line-up the moment I saw it, because hello, three of my favorite books of last year made it here? That had never happened before, and prompted me to decide that, since I had liked so many of these, I also had to read the two novels I still hadn’t read by then, The City in the Middle of the Night and Gideon the Ninth.

The second was already on my TBR, the first wasn’t (I didn’t love anything I had tried by Charlie Jane Anders so far), but I ended loving them equally for different reasons – one is quiet and introspective, the other is over-the-top and fun; both are really smart books in their own way – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

As far as the books I already read, I’m so glad to see The Light Brigade here. It might not have been a five star read for me, but I still consider it a favorite because of how much it impacted me. Since I didn’t expect it to be here (it has been ignored by most SFF awards so far) it was the best surprise.
There’s only one book I didn’t love: The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I thought it was nothing special overall and had issues with its (incorrect) use of the Italian language.

Then there are two books that ended up on my list of ten best books of 2019: Middlegame, a weird, genre-bending book that made something not at all easy feel easy to follow (something I will never stop appreciating, because that’s difficult, and I’m glad many others agree!) and the masterpiece that was A Memory Called Empire, which talked about language (especially bilingualism) in the context of imperialism in a way I’ve never seen any other book do, and it will forever be important for me because of that and approximately a hundred other reasons.

For how much I’m glad that this shortlist had so many books I loved on it, it’s also an all-white list, which is a huge step back when compared to previous years and doesn’t reflect the genre accurately at all. Off the top of my head, Gods of Jade and Shadow should really have been here! I’m glad it’s in the Nebula line-up, at least.

Predicted winner: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
What I want to see win: this is hard and I’d be really happy with… all of them but one? But my answer is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, my favorite book of last year.

Best Novella

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Ted Chiang – maybe
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes – read, ★★★★ (review)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark – read, ★★★★★ (review)
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire – read, ★★★★★ (review)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – read, ★★★★★ (review)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers – not interested

I really like this lineup as well! First, it’s not all-white, and second, so many of my favorites published in 2019 are here (sadly but expectedly, they don’t include the awesome Desdemona and the Deep nor the crackling finale that was The Ascent to Godhood).

My favorite of these is probably In an Absent Dream – not only I couldn’t see one flaw in the whole novella, I also have a lot of fond memories tied to it because I listened to it in my two best days of last year – but I’d actually prefer to see win The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (the Wayward Children series has already won awards), even though I don’t see it as likely. A more likely This Is How You Lose the Time War win would be a great step for sapphic fiction – as would be The Deep, which I also liked, though not as much as the aforementioned three (so much competition for my heart in these first two categories!)

I didn’t challenge myself to read all nominees in the novella category. Having already tried a lot of Becky Chamber’s works, all of which have managed to annoy me in some way, so I don’t see any purpose to trying To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I also probably won’t be able to read Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom anytime soon, but since Ted Chiang’s stories have been nominated in two categories this year, I’m thinking about trying the anthology Exhalation sometimes in the future, even though I haven’t read anything by this author yet.

Predicted winner: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
What I want to see win: I’d be really happy about at least other three of these, but probably The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Best Novelette

The Archronology of Love, by Caroline M. Yoachim – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Away With the Wolves, by Sarah Gailey – read, ★★★★ (review)
The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye, by Sarah Pinsker – read, ★★ (review)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin – probably not interested
For He Can Creep, by Siobhan Carroll – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Omphalos, by Ted Chiang – maybe

46301916I’m so glad to see For He Can Creep here, it’s one of my favorite short fiction piece I read this year – I read it before the finalists were announced, and it’s a story about a demon-fighting cat, full of cat logic! And while reading the other stories, I found another favorite, The Archronology of Love, which is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long while. Painful in the best way, beautifully written, and I love anything related to space archaeology so much.

I didn’t love Sarah Pinsker’s – it wasn’t my kind of horror and I didn’t find it creepy – while I surprisingly quite liked Sarah Gailey’s story about accessibility for a werewolf with chronic pain (…bad track record with the author).

I’m not interested in buying Emergency Skin (it’s not available for free online) because I’ve disliked pretty much all the sci-fi stories in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, and again, Omphalos is in an anthology I don’t own (yet?).

Predicted winner: Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
What I want to see win: either The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim or For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carrol, I consider both of them favorites

Best Short Story

And Now His Lordship Is Laughing, by Shiv Ramdas – read, no rating
As the Last I May Know, by S.L. Huang – read, ★★★★ (review)
Blood Is Another Word for Hunger, by Rivers Solomon – DNF, no rating
A Catalog of Storms, by Fran Wilde – read, ★★★ (review)
Do Not Look Back, My Lion, by Alix E. Harrow – read, ★★★★ (review)
Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island, by Nibedita Sen – read, ★★★ (review)

48594209._sy475_Oh, this was an interesting! I didn’t discover any new favorites like I did in the previous category, but I didn’t hate any of the stories either (unlike last year). I decided to DNF Rivers Solomon’s for reasons unrelated to the quality of the story itself (magical pregnancy) and decided not to rate Shiv Ramdas’ because I have a complicated relationship with fantasy stories based on real tragedies, but that again doesn’t have to do with craft.

My favorites were As the Last I May Know, which engages with a very difficult question with grace, heart, and a lot to say, and Do Not Look Back, My Lion, which was set in one of those queernorm fantasy worlds I will always love, and was the only story I already read before the finalists were announced.

As for A Catalog of Storms and Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island, both of them were really well-written but I didn’t find them particularly memorable.

Predicted winner: And Now His Lordship Is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas
What I want to see win: As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer – maybe
Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge – maybe
Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher – read, ★★★ (review)
Riverland, by Fran Wilde – probably not interested
The Wicked King, by Holly Black – maybe

My first thought when I saw these nominees was that something had gone really wrong, because only two of these are actually Young Adult NovelsThe Wicked King and Catfishing on CatNet. My second one was that the title of the award probably only means “book that isn’t adult”, which would make more sense, but I still think it’s really interesting how the YA books that interest adults/the adult SFF community (which composes the majority of the voters here for obvious reasons) are radically different from the the favorites of the YA crowd. As usual, I’m not surprised that the adult SFF crowd gets along with middle grade better than with YA (two partial truths: 1. YA is more similar to adult SFF than middle grade, which opens the ground to comparisons that are not in the young adult range’s favor; 2. a significant number of adult SFF readers won’t touch YA for the same reasons they wouldn’t even dream to look at romance, the TL;DR of it being basically the book version of girl cooties).

About these nominees: Dragon Pearl was one of my favorite books of last year, and it has I think a good chance of winning (or maybe not; I don’t know that much about this crowd’s taste in middle grade!), and I read Minor Mage out of curiosity for this post – after all, middle grade novellas go by quickly – but I don’t think T. Kingfisher’s books are for me. Every time I read something of hers, I think it’s cute/charming/somewhat fun but completely forgettable.

While I’m marginally interested in Catfishing on Catnet (because YA with a questioning main character!), Deeplight (I’ve never read anything by Frances Hardinge and anything involved with deep seas sounds vaguely interesting, even though I’ve never heard anything about this book) and The Wicked King (this is mostly curiosity due to the hype; I hate bully romances and this is very much one), I’m not particularly drawn to any of them. I may or may not read some of them before the winners are announced, I don’t know. And as I haven’t loved anything I have read by Fran Wilde and haven’t heard much about Riverland, I’m mostly uninterested in it.

Predicted winner: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
What I want to see win: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

Between Catfishing on Catnet, Deeplight and The Wicked King, which one do you think would be more worth reading?


What did you think of this year’s finalists? Have you read any of them?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #4: Growing Out of YA? (And More)

Welcome to the fourth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review all the short fiction I read in April, 14 stories (…yes I ended up reading a lot of short stories) which include 5 Hugo Award finalists.
  • review a YA anthology
  • talk about my current relationship with YA books and what said YA anthology made me understand about it

Recent Reads

Short Fiction

I read a lot of short fiction this month (short stories are so underrated and yet are doing so much and I love this format a lot) so I decided to implement emoji tags for clarity:

  • the 2020 Hugo finalists I review in this post are marked with a 🚀
  • while I recommend most of these, my new favorites are marked with 🌠

51175276._sy475_St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk (Tor.com): a bittersweet sapphic story involving magical beekepers that has an atmosphere of inevitability to it, the cost of it all looming in the distance until the end. It only makes sense that tarot reading is featured in it – so much of this story in some way involves fate – and that its title names three saints closely associated with bees. Bees as a legacy that keeps drawing you in. There’s something mysterious about it, too, because the story doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to understand it; it doesn’t have one word out of place. I really liked it.

Escaping Dr. Markoff by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark): sometimes if you explore the motivations of the unimportant side character you get something far more interesting that the original story! This is about the horror movie Female Assistant who is in love with the Mad Scientist, and it plays with these stock characters by following someone whose only characteristic is usually the obsession for and the total devotion to the male Mad Scientist. And maybe, if you give a character the space to be something more, the story might break in very interesting ways (involving erotic and queer twists, because why not). Fun and meta and really smart – I’d probably get even more out of this if I knew anything about horror movies, but we know that’s not possible – and wow, was that An Ending.
I found it because of Hadeer’s wrap-up, so thank you!

29387827._sy475_The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho (not for free online): not my favorite from Zen Cho, also because I was told it was an f/f romance, and while it has sapphic characters, I wouldn’t describe it as such – not like I would with If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Still, it was a lovely read. It’s set in hell, where the main character – a Malayan girl named Siew Tsin – has been forced to marry a man; now the man has taken yet another wife, a terracotta wife. It’s a light, smart story about personhood and waking up from a paralyzed state of mind, with really interesting details in the worldbuilding and a lot of heart; I wish I could have had more of a sense of who the characters were.

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny) 🚀: about a world in which the line between emotion and the weather is very thin, and maybe natural disasters are something more than a natural disaster, and sometimes the people are part of the weather and the weather is people. The lines in here are air-thin and it’s a story about family, about leaving or staying – and sometimes those things are their own kind of storm too. Don’t expect it to make too much sense, it’s one of those ambiguous/symbolic stories I talked about in my last short fiction time. I really liked the writing and the weirdness of it all, but it didn’t stay with me emotionally.

48594209._sy475_As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang (Tor.com) 🚀: in this world, to use a weapon of mass destruction, the president has to kill a child himself.
This story follows the child, Nyma, and it’s about costs, the necessity of making something unimaginably difficult vs the overwhelming pressure that wars can put on a country, and as a story it doesn’t give you a clear answer about which path is worse. It has some beautiful poetry in it as well. The worldbuilding is very vague (and let’s just say that calling something “the Order” won’t help me take it seriously), but for the most part that wasn’t a problem. Powerful, hearbreaking, and thought-provoking.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny) 🚀: so far I haven’t found any of Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction to be particularly memorable, even though all of them are solid stories, and this one was no exception – a horror novelette about a mystery author who decides to write her new novel in an isolated cabin. The horror comes from a very unexpected place given the set-up (the premise sounds cliché? It’s not), which was clever, but I didn’t find this creepy at all – it was kind of boring, but horror is very hit-or-miss for me. Mostly a story about the importance of a good assistant.

51dwoeoslsl._sx284_bo1204203200_The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) 🌠🚀: new favorite. I love reading about space archaeology – the whole “the past of the future” set-up really appeals to me – and this was also a very emotional story on a human level. About grief and the subjectivity of memory, what is lost in the act of remembering, the love and understanding that are gained, the pain that slowly loses its edge but never quite stops hurting; about how destruction is so often tied with discovery. Everything related to the Chronicle technology was so interesting, and so was the answer to the mystery (mysterious mass death!). Also, women in science and side relevant gay couple.

Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny) 🚀: I thought I would never read anything by Sarah Gailey again after how angry one of their short stories made me last year (STET, which tried to tackle a heavy, ecology-related topic with so much ignorance it was appalling) but since they got nominated for the Hugo again, here I am. And… I finally liked something written by this author! It was my fifth try. Anyway, this is a story from the Uncanny special issue about disabled people in fantasy, and it’s pretty much about accessibility for a werewolf who has chronic pain in her human form, which is a great concept. It had one (…and then two) really heartwarming female friendships, a happy ending, and the atmosphere was really good as well. Really straightforward, and sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs to be.

52667367._sx318_sy475_Water: A History by KJ Kabza (Tor.com): we don’t get many stories about elderly queer characters, much less in space! This is about an old sapphic woman on an arid planet in which water is the most important thing and going outside the colony is dangerous. About the importance of intergenerational friendships and the risks that make life worth living. It hits in a very specific way when read while on lockdown after a particularly arid spring (that’s why you should research stories before reading them, Acqua), but I didn’t find anything about it particularly remarkable aside from that and I don’t think it will stay with me.

Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (in the Upgraded anthology, reprinted on Lightspeed) 🌠: Hello! I’m in love. Who knew biopunk horror could be heartwarming? Anyway, this is a weird, sweet romance between two outcasts, and it’s set in a creepy space city that rearranges itself cyclically, has a strong preference for well-intentioned body horror, and is the perfect setting for a story that involves replacing body parts. Gorgeous writing featuring artistic murder, the usual asides of weird for the sake of alliteration that I love so much about Lee’s descriptions (“a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements”) and the occasional very specific and cursed™ detail (of course tentacles are “ever-popular” as a replacement). Another new favorite; I will never not love stories about cities.

53284124._sy475_Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr (Tor.com): queer, fucked up twist on Alice in Wonderland with lots of murder and various other questionable things, because what’s morality in such a place? It really doesn’t hold back and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending, but I have to say that, as with all books that try to make Alice in Wonderland darker, a lot of whimsy is lost in the process, and I miss it. Still here for the unapologetically toxic stories about loyalty, especially since I don’t often get a sapphic version!
(Very predictably of me, I always love when we do. Please give me novels like that!)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny): an older story and a Hugo nominee back in 2017, because who said that newest stories should get all the spotlight. Anyway, this is as much about a supernatural (phoenix-like) creature’s revenge as it is about the way stories are always centered and making excuses for rich white men. My overall opinion is that it’s really well-written (as usual for Brooke Bolander) but that there’s such a thing as too straightforward and unsubtle in a short story, and Our Talon Can Crush Galaxies really sits on that limit.

51097037._sy475_If You Take My Meaning by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) – you probably already know about my new favorite book The City in the Middle of the Night (if not: here’s the review!), and this is set in the same universe. This novelette isn’t going to make any sense without having read the novel, but since I recently did, this was the epilogue I wanted the book to have even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, and it was perfect. The integration with the Gelet is in progress! People mess up and try to reach for the way to right certain wrongs, which also includes more mistakes! More direct digs at Xiosphanti culture and more subtly at America’s worst points! (That line about Xiosphanti believing in repression way more than was healthy or realistic… yes.) So many things are said about culture, understanding, and the importance of community vs the corruption and relative irrelevance of the people in power. And finally we also get some insight into Alyssa’s thoughts, as one of my main disappointments had been that by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t understand her at all.
Meanwhile I’m wondering whether what this novelette said about love a certain trio is meant to be interpreted as polyamory, a really strong friendship, or neither – because who needs to categorize things in structures that are so singularly unhelpful once one has gone through integration? Anyway, I love that for them and love that they have their priorities in order. (What’s this kind of arrangement for, if not to sleep in a pile like cats? I approve.)

36426163Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May (Toil & Trouble) – women accused of witchery find power in each other while in their prison; I listened to it on scribd. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be something different from what it was once it turned out to involve religious abuse, because that aspect was used as a prop for the message (an effective-if-unnuanced exploration of how the not-like-other-girls line of thinking is misogynistic and contributes to victim blaming) instead of being explored like something in its own right. I don’t want to read a portrayal of forced penance if you’re not going to do anything with it – I’ve already had enough of that.

 Anthologies

This month’s anthology was Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond. I read it for free thanks to the scribd free trial: I chose it out of all the anthologies on my TBR because it was the most expensive (12€ for an ebook? No thank you) and as it turns out, that was a good choice – for all the wrong reasons, the main one known as “at least I didn’t pay for this”.
But let me explain why.

35858798Let’s say you’re an editor with some very interesting anthology ideas, and you’re fascinated by these concepts:

🍜 an anthology of interconnected stories that all take place in the same neighborhood at the same time, in which each story is full of tiny references to the others and forms a seamless web that enhances each story’s meaning;
🍜 an anthology that spans across genres, from contemporary romance and horror to gang rivalries and ghost stories and superhero tales, in which stories have little to do with each other in tone and themes and only have a tiny thread (here, food) to tie them together

Then, please, don’t be like Hungry Hearts. Only choose one of the two. If this had stopped at the first of the two points, if it had been an anthology of interconnected contemporary stories all involving food in some way, it could have been so good. I can only describe the result of trying to do cross-genre connected stories as a complete mess.

It doesn’t help that the individual quality of the stories themselves was questionable. While it’s true that I’m realizing that this kind of YA doesn’t work for me as much as it used to, most of these stories were incredibly bland and couldn’t even be saved by the food descriptions.

The only story I loved was The Grand Ishq Adventure by Sandhya Menon, a contemporary story about a girl who decides to go to restaurants alone to face her anxiety, which was wonderful in every aspect, from a beginning that draws you in (the voice in this story was amazing) to a delicious continuation and an ending with a sweet twist. There were other stories that worked, like the bittersweet Rain by Sangu Mandanna, the fiery revenge story Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco, and Panadería ~ Pastelería by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was like the dessert at the end of a meal. All of these were contemporaries or contemporaries with a slight magical twist, so that I could believe they coexisted in the same universe, and were well-written. All the other stories were either a boring blur or completely outside of the tone of the rest of the anthology.

I think the editors were going for something that felt not only like a story made by many interconnected parts but also a meal with many courses, and so were trying to get as much variety inside of it as it was possible, but the result was dissonant and messy.
There’s still a lot to love about this, from the diversity to the food descriptions (you really can’t go wrong with those) and especially the celebration of foods that mainstream white, western American society would consider “too weird”, but apart from these things, most of this was forgettable.

My rating: ★★


About Me and the YA Age Range

While reading Hungry Hearts, I started wondering if my lack of interest in it was also tied to me being tired of stories about high schoolers, which I started noticing while trying out series on Netflix. I don’t think I would have liked Hungry Hearts at any point of my life, but even in the stories I liked – with the exclusion of Sandhya Menon’s – I struggled to feel interested in anything they talked about. This is usually not a problem I have with short fiction.

But I do still like YA books, so this doesn’t make sense! I thought.
Then I looked at my reading so far this year, and:

of all the 45 books I’ve read so far this year, only 5 were YA.

I didn’t expect this at all. And yes, that’s counting Hungry Hearts. It’s not like I’m not liking them, not necessarily (there was a 5 star book!), but interestingly most of them were audiobooks, because YA books are easier to follow and less intimidating for me when I started to really try out the format this year. Would I have read any YA had I not wanted to try audiobooks?

I was surprised to find this out, because this was in no way a conscious choice; my TBR is still 50% YA and 50% adult, I’m just avoiding the YA books without even realizing I was doing so.

In a way,  I thought this wouldn’t happen to me. I spent half of my teen years being a mostly-YA reader and following reviewers way older than me – way older than 20 – who read mostly YA; in a way, I grew up knowing that while it prioritizes (or at least, it should prioritize) teens, YA is in fact for everyone, and that sometimes a book’s age range depends more on the publisher’s ideas about effective marketing than on anything about its content. A lot of YA SFF is following characters who are so clearly aged down for marketing reasons that it gets kind of ridiculous.

Still, here I am, 20, tired of YA and yet not even noticing that until I tried some TV shows. But I did DNF several YA books this year, too – I just didn’t think much of it. I’m realizing that the main reason I keep coming back to YA even though it appeals to me less and less is that I don’t quite know where to find what I want in adult fiction, especially the non-SFF part of it, which I should try to explore more.

Also, it’s relevant to mention that in my experience YA-focused content gets a lot of attention on blog posts compared to adult SFF.

So, what does this mean?

  • my main response, since I am who I am, is that my TBR could definitely handle a cut! It makes no sense for it to be half YA when YA books aren’t even a quarter of what I read.
  • I will definitely still be reading YA, at the rate that feels natural to me – I’m not the kind of person who thinks excluding an entire age range from their reading on principle is a good idea. It’s just that the rate at which I reach for YA is currently really low.
  • I probably should face the truth and start considering myself an adult SFF reviewer instead of someone who reviews that and YA in equal amounts, as if I were stuck in 2018. (Thinking back, a lot of my YA reading in 2019 was due to ARCs. Not requesting/barely requesting ARCs anymore is doing a lot for making me understand what I actually want to read and I strongly recommend it.)

Have you read any of these? Has your relationship with an age range category changed over time?

Discussion · Fantasy

On That One Trope In F/F Fantasy

Hello! Today I’m writing a discussion post, something I almost never do, because I’ve read yet another F/F fantasy that featured a very specific but very common trope I hate, so I wanted to talk about it more in depth.

I’ve already mentioned this a few days ago in my short review of Crier’s War, but this is bigger than a single book and it would be unfair to make it about individual authors’ choices; I think it already starts when you look at which F/F fantasy books get acquired.


A Cliché in the Making

So far this year, I’ve read six F/F fantasy novels; in all of them but one, at least one of the two main characters is being pressured or forced to marry a man. As a queer reader of fantasy, I’ve already met this trope many times before, but now it really seems to be everywhere.

As with many clichés, it has roots in reality, in the history and sometimes in the present of sapphic women. Still, just like there’s no need for all our stories to be about facing homophobia, especially in fantasy, I don’t understand why the majority of our fantasy stories need to feature this trope, over and over and over.

We know about publishing’s tendencies not to see marginalized people outside of books whose plot directly concerns their marginalization, and we were seeing a very unsubtle reflection of that a few years ago, when most books about queer characters were still about coming out, conversion camps, and queer pain in general. Things are much better now (it was difficult to see F/F fantasy at all, back then!), but I’m starting to suspect that the prevalence of this trope is nothing more than a subtler version of publishing’s homophobia, of the idea that sapphic women can’t exist in stories that aren’t dealing with the fight against heteronormative pressure.

The idea that sapphic women’s stories, sapphic women’s romantic lives, still have to always revolve around a man.

Because that’s what this is, in the end! I’ve now read several F/F fantasy books in which the main character spends more scenes interacting with the man who really wants to marry her than with her actual love interest (happened in The Winter Duke, happened in Stormsong, happened in Girl Serpent Thorn), and no wonder the actual romances felt underdeveloped. I hope that one day F/F fantasy won’t be full of stories about “smashing the patriarchy” or “fighting against heteronormativity”, that one day our books won’t be important more than anything else; I hope that we just get to be. Still, I’ve even seen this trope in books that don’t have homophobia at all in them, like The Winter Duke and Crier’s War, which was honestly baffling. (Why do so much and yet change so little?)

Now, since I know the internet’s tendency is to polarize, I want to point out that I don’t believe this trope or the books featuring it are “problematic” (I hate this word) or “homophobic”. I obviously find it really annoying, and the prevalence of it is very likely rooted in publishing’s homophobia, but the problem doesn’t lie in the books themselves and I don’t want this post to become yet another reason for those who don’t read F/F books to hate on F/F books or for us queer people to self-police our expression even more. Fiction can be a way to talk about our reality, and the many forms heteronormativity takes are part of it.

I’ve seen this happen so many times: someone talks about an element they have a problem with just because they find it too prevalent in queer books (examples: bi characters in love triangles with a boy and a girl, queer characters in contemporary who avoid labels) but then others turn the argument and use the presence of that element as a starting point to hate on queer books they disliked. No, we shouldn’t be using the language we use to speak out against homophobia to hate on queer books just to validate our preferences. I want to point this out because I know I’ve probably done something similar to some extent in the past, as I learned this way of covering up the insecurities I had about my taste from Tumblr back in 2016. (Fandom discourse thrives on this kind of thinking.)

29774026So: I liked some of the books I read that had this trope (I loved Girl, Serpent, Thorn!); I hated others, sometimes because of this trope, which I would probably find annoying even if it wasn’t so common (preference); I wouldn’t dream to say that any of these books are homophobic, “objectively bad” or doing something bad for the genre. I might not have liked The Priory of the Orange Tree for many reasons (one of them is that Sabran is forced to marry a man and get pregnant, but it’s far from the main one) but the fact that it got translated in my country? That’s a huge step forward, actually.

I think a big part of pushing for diversity is pushing for variety inside diverse stories, for marginalized people not to be relegated to one kind of story all the time until that kind of story has become uncool “problematic” (and then we switch to another subtly bigoted cliché). I want F/F fantasy to be a genre where sapphic women can find all kinds of fantasy stories depending on what they’re looking for that day; where people like me who mostly don’t like to read about queer women in forced marriages can find many books to read anyway. (A great way to start would be not having so many fantasy stories revolve around royalty, but that’s true for the whole genre.)

Also, a shout-out to The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar! It’s a very underrated and gorgeously written F/F fantasy novel that happens to be the only one without this trope I’ve read this year, though it does still revolve around royalty.


What do you think of this trope? Which tropes would you like to see more often or less often in F/F fantasy?

Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #3: Ambiguous Endings in Fiction (and more)

Welcome to the third post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. In 2019, I wasn’t reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will:

  • review four short stories, including a Nebula finalist and recently published stories by well-known SFF authors like Alix E. Harrow and Yoon Ha Lee;
  • one short story collection from a well-known horror author;
  • talk about ambiguous endings with a focus on short fiction vs novels.

Recent Reads

Short Fiction
  • 46301916For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com): this is from a completely new-to-me author; I decided to read it because it’s a Nebula Award finalist. And… it was amazing? It’s about cats fighting the Devil to protect a poet, full of delightful cat logic and very interesting cats (I’m sorry but I want an entire book about Nighthunter Moppet now). It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but it talks about the nature of temptation in a way that doesn’t feel too one-dimensional and yet makes sense even for a cat. I think I would have liked this even more had I been already familiar with Christopher Smart (as usual, everything kind of assumes you already know English classics), but that was interesting to learn anyway.
  • The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow (Uncanny): this was wonderful, and yet I don’t fully love it. It’s as much of a modern witchy twist on Apollo and Daphne as it is a commentary on how society shapes women to turn our anger inwards, our problems against ourselves, so that we’re pretty much trapped by our own minds. And it’s beautifully written, but there’s something about Harrow’s complete lack of subtlety coupled with the predictable trajectory of the story that makes most of her short stories (and her book) not work for me. It’s just so obvious and there’s not much to take away from the journey. Still, I didn’t think this was bad, and I loved how the author mentioned which kinds of plants she was talking about (that’s the way to go if you’re writing about witches!), even though I spent the first third of the story wondering which kind of tree she actually meant with “sycamore”, since that can mean several wildly different species and I have very weird priorities. (I’m still not sure, by the way.)
  • The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe by Cameron Van Sant (Clarkesworld): this is from the author of one of my favorite short stories, the very trippy Super-Luminous Spiral, so I was immediately intrigued. This is set… around a space whale carcass? And I think the main characters are something like space mermaids (they/them pronouns are used for both). This is kind of sad but it’s also a story about love at the end of the world, so not completely sad? Weird, but this time not a kind of weird that resonated much with me. I don’t really know if I got it.
  • The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies): apparently, this is Space Mermaid week! This is a story about a mermaid who wants to become an astronaut, and it’s about sisterhood, relativity, and the way learning science can shift one’s worldview. Also, now I want a scrimshaw depicting a sacrifice to eldritch gods. Apart from the descriptions, though, this is… not my kind of thing. It’s very sweet, and it reminded me of the flash fiction of The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales in its gentle, unhurried nature (…which one wouldn’t expect if only familiar with Lee’s longer works). However, this is not a flash piece and wouldn’t work as one, and it has no sense of urgency behind it. I would recommend it to fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, because they’re somewhat similar in nature (alien space crew!) and because I felt pretty much the same way about them: lovely message, boring story.
Collections

The collection of short stories I read this month was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I loved both her memoir In the Dream House (review) and her short story The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (review) in February, so it seemed like a good idea to read this as well.

33375622Some of this was brilliant and daring, some of this really wasn’t, and most of it bored me.

There’s a running thread of unease and alienation in this collection, of things never being quite right, of details that might seem innocent becoming more and more uncomfortable as you look at them. It’s a collection about bodies, especially women’s bodies, representing the impact of the psychological violence against them as a physical manifestation. It forces the reader to look at it, to acknowledge it exists; just because a lot of it is subtler than a punch, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

The stories are ambiguous and twisted, and there’s enough material and subtext to write pages-long reviews of most of them. But here’s where the issue comes in: I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel drawn to dissect or discuss them, or spend any more time on them. I just wanted this book to be over.

This had to do both with personal taste (this is not my kind of body horror, apparently) and because some parts were frankly overdone.
Let’s take the longest story in this collection, Especially Heinous. My biggest takeaway from it is that litfic-adjacent authors can get away with almost everything and have it praised as an incisive masterpiece, and “everything” includes bad fanfiction. Not only I didn’t care because I didn’t know the show this was rewriting (as it happens with fanfiction), it had nothing new to say – it read like a cheap fever dream with nods at twice-reheated commentary.

There were two stories that I really liked, Real Women Have Bodies, an eerie story about the damaging effects of beauty standards with an f/f relationship at the center, and Eight Bites, about the ways fatphobia and misogyny are tied, and how their impact is seen across generations. Mothers was also a really interesting piece about the double-edged nature of fantasy, but I find myself already forgetting most of what I thought about it apart from my feelings about the writing (those descriptions were… something else. I really have no complaints about the writing).

This is probably the first time the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me: individually, I only actually disliked two stories; together, I found myself thinking that again? a lot. I can’t even say it was repetitive, because it isn’t that, exactly; these stories explore an array of different experiences. It was emotionally monotonous to the extreme, however.

My rating: ★★½


On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

As I don’t doubt many others are, I tend to be annoyed by ambiguous endings in novels. Of course, there are a lot of situations in which they can make sense, and giving the readers space to find answers themselves can sometimes be a good thing, but there’s always that undercurrent of… betrayal, in a way: the book took a certain amount of time to set up a question, and the reader dedicated a certain amount of time to reading it, but then the book didn’t give an answer. Of course it can be frustrating, especially when there isn’t going to be a sequel.

Something I realized while reading Her Body and Other Parties is that I don’t feel that way at all when it comes to short fiction. The shorter a story is, the more I appreciate what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out. While I didn’t feel compelled to dissect the stories in that collection – for reasons different from their ambiguity – I did see a lot of parts that would have been perfect for that, and if I had been reading this with others, maybe I would have. I remember having a lot of fun with the more ambiguous parts of Salt Slow just a few months ago. I want to be confused and have something to untangle.

Everyone takes away something different from a novel, it’s the fun part of reviewing; with short fiction, this is true to the extreme. People can read Machado’s short stories and come to a completely different conclusion about what they actually mean, and I’m not even really interested in knowing if there is a real answer, the truth of what the author was trying to say – more in various interpretations and how the reader got there. So, Her Body and Other Parties wasn’t necessarily the most interesting collection to read, but it was a really interesting collection to read reviews of.

I think my feelings on this topic have a lot to do with time, how much time the story required me to spend on it just to finish reading it. If it took me an hour, I’m fine with doing all the work myself, but if it took me three days (so, average book-length), I’m going to feel differently about it.


How do you feel about ambiguous endings? Have you read any of these stories?