Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name is a book that understands that the way to my heart is to add as many unhinged immortal beings as you can possibly fit into a book. It has so many and I’m in love with each and every one of them

This is a difficult book to review, because I often didn’t want to pick it up when I was in the middle of it, but now that I’ve finished it, I like it more the more I think about it. What I struggled with the most was the pacing, which is… strange. To make an example, there’s a time jump of several years when you’re 30% into the story, and several parts of the book feel more like a climax than the actual climax. However, I never want to give a lower rating to a book for taking a risk when it comes to structure; I think more books should try that! The issues are mostly on me for reading during exam season, something I should have avoided.

There’s something here that took me by surprise in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time, but did that happen because I was often too tired to pay attention while reading this? I don’t know. I feel like I’m not doing this book justice, and I also feel like it would be really interesting to reread, so I should definitely do that someday.
But, even if it weren’t for that, the surprising thing is exactly the kind of development that made me fall in love with The Unspoken Name, so I guess that in the end it doesn’t matter too much. I’m just here for how dramatic this novel knows how to become. And it’s a funny book in which the sense of humor works for me!

The Unspoken Name is a story about Csorwe, an Oshaaru (basically an orc! She even has tusks and I think that’s great) Chosen Bride who escapes being sacrificed to the god of her world, the Unspoken. What follows is a story about faith and loyalty and the breaking thereof, and about finding yourself outside of the shadow of gods.
I really liked how the romance fit into this: Csorwe and Shuthmili – who is by the way as cute as she’s terrifying – find common ground because they’re both girls who are dealing with the repercussion of being raised in and escaping a cult that would see them, though in different ways, as sacrifices.

There’s also a lot to say about the side characters. Oranna and Sethennai stole the show half of the time, but it’s very difficult to get a hold on who they really are, because what Csorwe says about them in her narration doesn’t necessarily match what the book shows. It makes for some interesting dissonance, and also makes you understand a lot more about Csorwe herself. Anyway, Oranna and Sethennai were probably my favorite characters in the book purely for how unnecessarily dramatic they were, and the whole situation was a trainwreck. Then there’s Tal, who seems from reviews to be a reader’s favorite, but to be honest I kind of… forgot he existed a lot of the time. I don’t really know why, given that he’s also very dramatic. Not horrible enough, probably! I liked reading how his dynamic with Csorwe developed through the story, however.

The only true negative for me was the atmosphere, or how surprisingly weak it was. This is a space portal fantasy with terrifying divinities and cults, which has so much potential as a setting – and I loved it for that! More books that understand how the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi is made up and unnecessary – but I don’t think it fully went there. Maybe Csorwe is the wrong character to have that kind of descriptions? I don’t know. Once we were out of the House of Silence I often couldn’t get a sense of setting, with few exceptions.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy

Reviews: Queer Graphic Novels

Hi! I’m back with two short reviews of graphic novels today, one of which I just finished and one of which I’ve read in May but somehow forgot to post the review until now. [Seriously, you don’t know how many reviews I’ve written but still have to post here. Anyway.]


Spinning is a memoir in graphic format about growing up and falling out of love with something that has been an integral part of your life. This is the story of how the author grew up with figure skating, but realized it was never really for her too late to disentangle herself from it easily. It talks about the weight of expectations, self-imposed and not; about the very present weights of homophobia and sexism and how they take a toll on young lesbians; there are some parts that are subtly about how sexism is entrenched in figure skating.

Throughout this book, there is a tired, lost atmosphere, and you can feel the exhaustion seeping through the pages – the repetitive nature of Tillie’s life, the cold, the loneliness even when surrounded by people, the feeling of being forced to wake up early every morning. This is strengthened by the art style, with its vague and dreamlike nature, which I think works better for introspective contemporaries like this one than for a sci-fi like On a Sunbeam (which I didn’t love). Despite all of this and its length, it’s a really quick read; it took me less than a hour to get through.

Reading memoirs about real lgbtq+ people’s experiences is always interesting to me because I can compare it to fictional portrayals, and see what is missing in them; specifically, I’m surprised that these things – which are all present in Spinning – aren’t common in YA contemporary: stories about kids with absent parents that actually explore what it means to grow up ignored, especially when you’re struggling with mental health; how most homophobic reactions to coming out are actually dismissive or awkward more than threatening; the confusion of growing up queer and not knowing whether you like or want to be like certain girls or want to be near them; unusual forms of self-harm.

And, unlike most fiction and like most of real life, it’s a really open-ended, fragmented story; it has no answers or big, important, dramatic moments, but it feels real in a way fiction can never really be, and I appreciated it a lot for that.

My rating: ★★★★

I also want to point out that this needs content warnings for sexual assault from a teacher, homophobia from various people including siblings, bullying, and car accidents.


The best surprise Pride month gave me was definitely Monstress Vol. 4 being translated in my country without any notice, and it being full of Gay Villainess content!

Rereading all the previous installments before getting to this was the best choice I could have done, and I ended up enjoying The Chosen immensely; I think it might even be my favorite so far. I mean, this series is somehow managing to get gayer with every volume, so I’m not surprised.

It’s still difficult to follow, but after a few rereads I think I can more or less see the outline of what is going on right now, even though I’m still confused about certain details; and while the scope of all of this + the beauty of the art are so overwhelming that I tend to miss the subtler things, like character development, they are there! I really appreciate seeing how Maika’s priorities are shifting as she understands more about the ancient gods, and how Kippa is finding her own footing amidst all of this. This is turning more explicitly into a series about the senselessness of war and cyclical nature of harm, and I’m interested in seeing where the authors will bring these themes to.

My priorities haven’t shifted, by which I mean I’m mostly here for the art (as usual) and the gay villainess aesthetic of it all. And this volume gave me a horrible F/F arranged marriage with backstabbing and a blood pact! (I’ve been looking for this kind of thing since The Stars Are Legion‘s Jayd/Rasida storyline… I can’t believe how much this is reminding me of it.)
Also, my favorite eldricht-god-possessed villainess – yes there’s more than one and I’m living for it – kissed Maika with ulterior motives! This series is a gem.

Do I know where this series is going? Honestly, no, but I have some theories and can’t wait to find out what Tuya is really up to. I also hope to see more of the Dracul.

My rating: ★★★★★


Have you read any of these? What are your favorite queer graphic novels?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Conflicted Feelings: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente – Review

Palimpsest is a story about a sexually transmitted city.
It’s strange and uncomfortable; it has an idea and goes for it without ever trying to hide that, without compromises, which is something I always appreciate. It could be seen as a response to the Greek myth that says people are only half of a whole, or the soulmate trope in general: it asks why does it have to be two? As I’m someone who loves stories about cities and human sexuality but not about soulmates, I really liked what this book did.
However, I’m still really conflicted about it, because it got as many things wrong as it got right.

Some have said that this book was “ahead of its time”, and in some ways, it is. How many books with an all-queer, polyamorous cast and a happy ending are there? Not many, and it’s 2020. This was published in 2009, and I think the author received homophobic and biphobic harassment when it got more visibility due to an award nomination.
In other ways, Palimpsest is very much a book published in 2009, and I don’t mean that because of certain tropes, but because of how much of an unintentional-yet-proud display of American ignorance and self-centeredness it is.

Valente having misrepresented other cultures is not news in the slightest, but in Palimpsest you get to witness how she writes about the American character in comparison to the other three, non-American PoVs, and the difference is stark. While the American character gets to be a character, the others are written as if their culture were a personality trait.

The Italian character feels like a cobbled-up caricature of things taken from various parts of Italian history, and of course he’s passionate and sexist, of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either.
The Russian character’s whole personality is “sad”; the Japanese girl has blue hair (of course) and the way she was written gave me a weird feeling in a bad way; however I’m neither Russian nor Japanese and I can’t play the game of “spot the gross stereotype” as well as I could with Ludovico. And Ludovico’s PoV was a minefield of ignorance. I can forgive it a little more since conversations around representation and US-centrism weren’t as easily accessible and easily found then as they are today (in which there’d really be no excuse for writing a book like this and yet it keeps happening), but still.

And can we talk about the weird/unintentionally comedic effect of naming an Italian character “Nerezza”? It’s an attempt at a translation of “blackness”¹ (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, is that you?) but sounds like an insult due to the assonance with other words with a -zz sound: “schifezza”, grossness, “ribrezzo”, instinctive disgust, and since she’s from Rome, “monnezza”, garbage in Romanesco. Nerezza monnezza, the poor woman would have been bullied so much.
(If you’re going to make up names in a language you don’t know, please ask a native speaker to make sure they don’t rhyme with several insults².)

But it gets worse! In the scene in which the American woman, November, first talks on the phone with Ludovico, she realizes that he only knows very basic English, and he is embarrassed and apologizes profusely. When they meet, in Italy, one of the first things November mentions is his “gnarled and barbed” accent while speaking in English (of course).
It never occurs to her to learn one word in Italian! It never occurs to her to apologize, or to be embarrassed for her ignorance; it certainly never occurs to the author either, and given what she has written, she should be. “Oh Christo“, you say? I’m cringing into the next century.

And I’m annoyed because I know what this could have been had the author not used cultures just for the exotic flavor, had she actually done her research, had she actually asked people from said cultures to read what she wrote. The only fact that I did finish this book should tell you how good it was otherwise.

This is a story about four people who first find each other in the dream city of Palimpsest, and then have to find each other again outside of it to stay in it: here, they can be who they really are in a way they never could in the real world. It’s a story as full of yearning as it is of uncomfortable sex scenes, and it’s at its heart about the changing norms, the hidden signals and the gatekeeping of marginalized communities (the Nerezza plot point: it will never be easy for me, so why it should be for you? So much pain from that).

And Palimpsest is wonderful to read about! A magical, terrifying city that feels so freeing and yet is all but an utopia, with its own issues and disparities and people who try to cling to the past when that’s not possible, not when cities are always rewriting themselves.
I also love the writing. One could say it’s too much, but I don’t mind, I like books written in an unconventional way, in which the writing almost feels like a character in itself, in which you won’t forget it easily.

This is not a nice story; it’s messy, it focuses on all kinds of outcasts and certainly has teeth, in a way that makes me think it wouldn’t fit in even if it was published today after a good round of culture-focused editing – because today’s major issue in the queer book community isn’t so much the queerphobia, but the idea that portraying something uncomfortable must be an endorsement of it, and this book has so much of that kind of content. It has at least two plot points revolving around fraternal incest; it would need its own magical Palimpsest publishing industry to exist as it is without facing significant backlash.

My rating: ★★★½

Footnotes, for nuance
¹

When I first wrote this review, I said that this word doesn’t exist. According to the Treccani, it does, as does “giallezza” (yellowness) and “rossezza” (redness), but interestingly not “bluezza” (blueness), or “verdezza” (greenness). I’m wondering which criteria they used to include words because I’ve never seen any them used if not in awkward translation from English quotes. We don’t really do that, for example a redness of the skin is an “arrossamento”, not a “rossezza”. I guess it does exist, but it’s rare and due to the sound it also looks awkward and kind of ridiculous. If in a non-name context one needed to translate “[color]ness”, I’d always go with “l’essere [colore]” (in literal English: “the being [color]”.) In a name context, just don’t.

²

This is even more frustrating considering that we do have names that mean “black” or “dark”. Several of them! I personally would have suggested Maura because it’s somewhat uncommon (so it has the ~special~ connotation the author is going for) and has a cold ring to it (it’s not pronounced like Laura; well, Italian!Laura isn’t pronounced the way English speakers say it either, so I guess it is and you’ll have to make peace with them saying it wrong, but the actual thing is closer to “Mawra”). For nuance and transparency, I also want to point out that Nerezza rhymes with “bellezza” as well, which means “beauty”, but I promise that “Nerezza bellezza” would be even more ammunition for bullies.

Book review · Fantasy · Nonfiction

Mini Reviews: Recently-Read Queer Books

Today, I’m posting the reviews of three queer books I’ve read between the end of May and now, mostly very short or in genres I’m not familiar with; these reviews are shorter than my usual, which may be a good thing.


All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson is a memoir aimed at a young adult audience that talks about growing up as Black and queer in America. It’s a powerful book and accessible for those who need it most, including teens who aren’t used to reading nonfiction, while dealing with difficult topics. It’s the kind of book that makes me glad I finally decided to start reading nonfiction in my free time this year.

It’s a necessary reminder that we can’t sort people into boxes and we should push back against the societal tendency to do so; a reminder that we can’t talk about different kinds of marginalization without considering the way they influence each other.

What more can I say? I flew through this while highlighting every chapter in multiple places. I know I was wary of nonfiction as a teen, but there are certain things that fiction doesn’t get, at least not right now, like how coming out can be like outside of the two extremes fictional coming out stories keep pushing at queer people, and so many other things.
Highly recommended to pretty much everyone.

[I’m not really comfortable with rating memoirs but I did give it 5 stars on goodreads.]


Queer portal fantasy, but make it Ikea AU!

As many others, I was first drawn to Finna because of its premise; after all, why not use the liminal space potential of retail stores to literally blur the boundaries between worlds? In that, Finna did deliver, and not without driving home certain points (love how the horror aspect comes from a world in which employees are all basically clones that exist to support the corporation aka “the Mother” because the workplace is your family!, and “shoppers” pay in blood.) After all, there are stories suited to subtlety, and this one never was.

Still, I don’t think this will stay with me for long. While I really liked the beginning, I just didn’t find the time the two main characters spent in the parallel worlds to be that interesting to read. For obvious reasons, every world is very underdeveloped, and we never get a setting that feels… real in any way after we leave the real world? I don’t mean “realistic”, I don’t particularly care about realism in a weird portal fantasy, I mean that everything felt very cheesy.

As far as the main characters go, I really liked reading about them, and wish I could have seen more of their relationship before the break-up instead of being told about it. I liked the way Finna talked about how mental illnesses can impact relationships, and I liked seeing the now-exes go on an adventure together and grow closer again, but it wasn’t enough for me to truly get attached to them.

Something I’m more likely to remember about Finna is the answer it gives to the miserable and wearing conditions (especially for who is visibly marginalized like the LI, Jules, who is Black and non-binary) retail workers are in. It’s a hopeful story in the end.

My rating: ★★★¼


Murder husbands and Dragon Kingdom politics!
Of Dragon, Feasts and Murder is a novella set in the Dominion of the Fallen universe that can be read as a standalone, but I especially recommend it to fans of the series who want to have a more detailed understanding of the Dragon Kingdom. It was my favorite setting in the series, and as all places in this universe, it’s far from free of its own brand of rot (literally and not).

One of the things I appreciated the most about this novella was how it refused to fall into a simplistic portrayal of any side. There are people who are firmly in the wrong, but the core reason beneath the murderous political machinations is the fact that necessary change isn’t happening.

At the same time, I’m surprised by how long it took me to read this? Maybe because most of this is made up of talking, and while I did really like said talking – I live for Thuan and Asmodeus’ thorny relationship dynamic – I didn’t feel much tension or urgency, which is unusual for a murder mystery.

Anyway this would have been worth reading even only for how it referred to Asmodeus as “sweet, murderous delight”. (No seriously the Empress Dowager’s scenes!!)

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

43561631The Never-Tilting World is a queer post-apocalyptic fantasy book inspired by ancient Mesopotamian mythology and climate disasters. It’s a really peculiar book, and yet, despite my love for weird queer novels, I never fell in love with it. I did enjoy it a lot, yes – it was overall a really fun time and the audiobook was amazing, making the four PoVs work perfectly with four different narrators.

Let’s start from this book’s main strength: the worldbuilding is inherently cool. It’s set on a tidally locked planet (instant love for me), it has an interesting spin on what could have been a very tired elemental system but wasn’t, with a sprinkle of creepy plant magic. This book understands how to maximize the cool factor with the characters as well, having two goddess with rainbow-shifting colored hair as main characters, and involving undead underworld priests covered in lapis lazuli. And it’s really diverse, having an all-PoC cast, an F/F romance, an amputee main character and another with PTSD, with some really great conversations around trauma, including what’s more or less their world’s version of therapy.

However, while The Never-Tilting World is made up of a lot of very interesting and often unique ideas, they never quite came together in a satisfying way, and you could see the scaffolding too much.
This book has two storylines, one that is a hate-to-love romance during a desert chase, one that is a goddess/bodyguard love story featuring a descent into darkness. And everything about them felt like the author came up with the pitch before actually writing the story. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the result felt a lot more like a list of ingredients than a book. I wanted more depth from it, from the relationships, instead of it relying on tropes over and over, but that’s difficult to achieve when the novel seems to think that the way to keep the reader engaged is throwing either romance tropes or fight scenes against monsters at them. (Fight scenes are really not that interesting. I promise. Please let the characters have an actual conversation for once.)
The result is character work that is shoddy in places, predictably.

This book is inspired by climate disasters, and it was promoted as a book that had “climate change” as a theme. Did it, though? I guess that it does in the sense that it’s a story about young people doing what it takes to change the status quo in an increasingly hostile environment, and it talks about how the powerful believe they can survive by living in a bubble (the golden city) while stealing resources from poorer people, but the thing about fighting climate change is that it’s nothing so cool as fighting monsters; rather the often depressing and too slow work of, among many things, pushing for better policies, learning to deal with our problems instead of making them someone else’s, listening to scientists and indigenous people, reshaping the ways we conceptualize growth and economy, changing our priorities and whole way of living. This is not a problem we’re good at dealing with as humans, and the fact that you can’t solve it by whacking something might have something to do with that. The solutions this book gives to the environment-warping magic do not resonate, so far.
Maybe that will change in the sequel, I don’t know – it’s true that there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and this novel kept my interest enough for me to want to read The Ever-Cruel Kingdom. Something in the ending made me think this might be aiming for “we can solve this problem only if all the world works together”, which would already be thematically a better path. I hope that’s what it meant, as there is already one egregious case of wasted potential: Odessa’s descent into darkness.

You’re telling me that you had a whole character arc tied to greed for power in a book about climate disasters and you didn’t tie the “greed” and “climate disasters” themes together? Why? Is that not one of the main driving forces of real-world climate change?

I also found Odessa’s arc, like most “descent into darkness” arcs, unsatisfying: it relies too much on magic that warps the character’s mind. It deprives the main character of agency, and generally makes for a very uninteresting story. Hundreds of pages of a main character falling into a trap, slowly, with stilted magic-induced character development: not great!
(Also, let’s add “character eavesdropping on other character’s therapy session” to the “content warnings I didn’t know I needed” folder.)

Acqua, you might say, you spent the whole review complaining. But you still said you liked this?
Mainly because I’m a simple gay distracted by shiny cool things and this book is full of them and gay girls, so this was actually a great time, as long as I wasn’t thinking too much about how much better it could have been if only it had done certain things differently. But I don’t want to undermine that this book did get a lot right, mostly pertaining to Lan’s storyline and the ways it talked about power.
Lan’s arc around trauma, survivor’s guilt, and her attraction to Odessa was really well-written; if Odessa’s arc disappointed me, the exploration of the power dynamics between her and Lan, the way they shifted as Odessa changed, was really interesting to read. So was the subplot revolving around abuse in religious orders, which was accompanied by some hard truths this kind of stories don’t often deal with – everyone has the potential to be an abuser, and switching the people in power won’t put an end to abuse if the power structure itself isn’t changed.

Also, it was fun. It was entertaining and it was tropey but tropes exist because they work, so yes, I enjoyed this a lot, and I want to know what happens next.

My rating: ★★★½

This is my third book by Rin Chupeco, and so far all the books I’ve read by them have been either 3.25 (The Girl from the Well) or 3.5 stars (The Bone Witch, The Never-Tilting World), which is… really interesting, considering that they’re an author I still want to pick up more books from in the future.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!


46802653._sy475_Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.

It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.

This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.

Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.

Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.

Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.

My rating: ★★★★★


45166076._sy475_Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.

I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.

While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.

Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.

*spoilery clarification:

it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.

There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

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?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

36292242._sy475_After loving Girls Made of Snow and Glass, I’ve been anticipating Bashardoust’s second novel for years. I broke my ARC ban for it (yes, again) and it didn’t disappoint. Faith partially restored in YA fantasy!

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a standalone YA fantasy novel inspired by ancient Persia, its folklore, and Zoroastrian beliefs. It follows Soraya, the shah’s reclusive sister, whose touch is deadly because of a div curse.

It’s the kind of fantasy story I prefer not to say a lot about, one I’d recommend going into without knowing much at all, because it’s really short and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, as it’s true for most books that rely on not quite being what they seemed. It makes so much sense that the original title of this was She Was and She Was Not, as so much of Girl, Serpent, Thorn relies on shifts of the main character’s perspective on the world and herself. It’s intricate in an elegant way (as the cover is); a little game of characters-as-mirrors that comes together in a wonderful story about the inherent power of self-acceptance.
The new title is just as appropriate, for spoilery reasons I hope you’ll decide to discover for yourself.

I could continue by praising the atmosphere for paragraphs, or Melissa Bashardoust’s effective, light writing, but I want to say that a big part of the reason I loved this book is that I, too, would fall in love with the moth girl. (And I did, of course I did, it’s Parvaneh.) The F/F romance isn’t even that prominent, but it stole my heart in a few scenes. This book is so short, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, and I mean that in the best way.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an atmospheric, almost fairytale-like story about growing up unloved, and the vulnerabilities that kind of experience opens; at the beginning of the story, Soraya can’t see other people, much less herself, clearly. (This also has one of the most chillingly realistic portrayals of lovebombing I’ve ever seen.)
It’s full of twists, betrayal, and trust, be it misplaced or not; it has as much beauty as it has thorns – and it has a lot of thorns, as the best stories featuring plant magic do. It also happens to have one of the best endings I’ve read in YA fantasy in a long time.

My rating: ★★★★½

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 · Fantasy · Sci-fi

Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

42036538I deeply admire this book’s dedication to not making sense.

After all, who needs to make sense when you have sword lesbians, space necromancy, rot, magical science, and a murder mystery? If someone had tried to make space for something as mundane as sense, Gideon the Ninth might have exploded in a mess of mold and bone shards, and now, wouldn’t that have been a shame.

Here, the idea that things aren’t going to make sense and that everything is going to feel mostly like a caricature of itself is something one has to get on board with before starting the novel (I mean, look at that cover. It already tells you everything you need to know.)
It’s funny, it really is, and in a way I’m not used to – when most SFF books try to outdo themselves with witty banter, this one mostly relies on dissonance, outdated memes, and deliberately horrible puns, to the point that if one were to translate it, they’d inevitable lose half the charm of the story.

The humor, the melodramatic characters and settings, the neverending cast of characters – it all works because of how confident this book is. It goes for its goal without feeling any need to explain or justify (of course Gideon lives in a tomb cult but still has access to many dirty magazines!). As long as what’s in it feels in line with the aesthetic, it works.
I’d usually say that aesthetic is important but not as much as making sure things are coherent in the world – but no, not here, there’s no way any of this would work if it took itself any more seriously.

Do I mean this never got too much even for me? Oh, it did. Let’s just say that while “I’m going for over-the-top, I might as well go all the way” is a principle I appreciate, I will never get through a 30 pages long fight scene without skimming, and that ending should have been a quarter of its length. It got to the point that some (in theory) emotionally impactful and very painful developments didn’t have any effect on me because I just wanted this book to be over, after loving pretty much everything that lead up to the ending.

Because yes, apart from that, this book’s dedication to the aesthetic didn’t get in the way of the characterization, relationships, and more emotional parts. The growing respect between the Sixth and Ninth House? Everything about the Fourth? Also, there are nine different iterations of the necromancer/cavalier duo dynamic, and it’s everything. (There are a lot of Houses, but don’t worry! There’s a more extended glossary here on Tor.com.)
At the heart of all of it, there’s the enemies-to-allies dynamic between Gideon and her necromancer Harrow, with ~tension~ (in a very gay way). The growing trust! The changes in names and nicknames! The pool scene! (Of course there’s a pool scene.)

And can we talk about Gideon for a moment? Characters who walk the line between “really competent in something very specific” and “walking disaster” are always my favorites, as are those whose first instinct is to run after things with a sword. She’s both, but what stood out to me the most was that she was a jock who could very much be both horny and crass, which… isn’t something fictional lesbians are allowed to be very often! Probably for fear of “reinforcing stereotypes”, but there’s nothing stereotypical about Gideon, and a queer book’s role isn’t “changing bigots’ minds” anyway. Here, there’s no doubt about who is the target audience. Also, “lovable fool” female main characters aren’t common in general.

Still, the best part of this book has been showing the cover to friends and relatives just to see what face they make. 10/10 would recommend

My rating: ★★★★½