Fantasy · Young adult

No Thoughts Only Shadow and Bone (2021)

When I decided to participate in this year’s Wyrd and Wonder, I had a lot of plans and underestimated just how strongly nostalgia would end up kicking me in the face, and honestly, that’s my fault for underestimating my 15-year-old self. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be as present as I thought I would be, even though I had low expectations; aside from Real Life issues, I also had a terrible case of Shadow and Bone brain. After watching the Netflix show (and watching. and rewatching. and then rewatching with a friend who is also now obsessed.) it took me several weeks to get out of my own head enough to actually write something like a review.

Shadow and Bone is the book that got me into blogging, and while it isn’t the book that made me discover the English book community, it’s the one that got me to stay. I loved it more than I could explain and it’s the kind of story I thought about daily for years on end, in a way I’ve only ever done with another series later on (fun fact: I found that series because of someone in the old S&B fandom!). It’s also a flawed novel that in some aspects feels was clearly written ten years ago, and that in other aspects only got worse as the series continued (worldbuilding, esp. re: Shu Han); and, to be honest, it’s a straightforward straight YA fantasy, the kind of book I today refuse to even try because none of them do anything for me anymore.

I thought I was over it. I was a fool.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Grishaverse adaptation, I was worried not only because of my attachment to it but also because it set out to adapt both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series. My worries rapidly evaporated as I read the first reviews, and I now can confirm that somehow they made it work – and, I think, Alina’s storyline was actually strengthened by that choice. I don’t necessarily think the show did Six of Crows‘ story justice (more on that later), but as that’s both the best and the least important to me of the two series, I can deal with that.

this review spoils who the villain is, of course.


The Good

If you know me and know why I love the Shadow and Bone trilogy, you can probably imagine what was my main worry: I thought that the show wouldn’t be able to make the Darkling feel convincing. As he’s the character that made Shadow and Bone stand out from a sea of similar chosen-one-love-triangle series from around 2012 and the character that made me realize I loved villains, actually, this was probably the most important part to me.

I’m happy to say that the show didn’t disappoint at all, and while his characterization is somewhat different – as is Alina’s – it works, and comparing show!Darkling and book!Darkling was actually one of the things I had the most fun with. Book!Darkling leans more into the ~mysterious, look at the ~power side of things for his manipulation, while Show!Darkling leans more into showing “vulnerability” in a oh, Ravka is (I’m) such a wounded creature… Alina, only you can save Ravka (me, I’m Ravka and Ravka is me actually) way. Both Darklings of course have elements of both, but the… balance of them is different.

Show!Darkling strikes me as more slimy, and that for me comes across especially in the way he treats Mal. In the books, he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge his existence and calls him “tracker”; in the show, he deliberately calls him “Mal” with a disdainful overfamiliarity that was almost painful to watch.

I loved how the show made explicit that a cardinal plot point of the story is the villain reading the two protagonists’ love letters and keeping them! I just find that so funny

Another thing I loved was what they did with the Darkling’s clothes, which are beautiful with an eldritch twist – those metal things look as if they’re staring at you! The show’s take on everyone’s Keftas and clothes in general was everything I hoped for. Even when it wanted “ugly”, it truly went for it: Alina’s veiled outfit is the closest a human has ever been to looking like a lamp, and I mean, it’s appropriate. That’s how the king sees her, after all.

Shows have the chance to truly make something come to life, and this one succeeded. It’s easy to make a story following the Six of Crows characters compelling because they already are, but I didn’t think anything could manage to make me care about Marie or make scenes with Ivan of all characters both interesting and enjoyable. The Jesper/Ivan fight is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show and my favorite of the ones that aren’t in the book at all. (The second one is the carriage theft and its aftermath, I’ve wanted something like that since I read Shadow and Bone and love how it went down.)

Another thing I didn’t know I needed was seeing Alina and Inej meet, and what that means for Inej! Alina is important to her in the books already and this is just taking it to another level.

I also really appreciated the general Zlatan storyline. It made the Darkling’s decision in Novokribirsk make much more practical sense instead of that scene being just the most horrifying example of showing off that Ravka has ever seen.

Miscellaneous things I loved:

  • the goat, of course
  • Leigh Bardugo and Shadow and Bone (book) cameos
  • Jesper is the only one who gets a (implied) sex scene. I call that LGBT justice
  • Mal’s friends are actually developed
  • the true-north-erase-the-scar montage was art and so painful at that
  • Ketterdam looks amazing & exactly as I imagined it & I can’t wait for more

The Complicated

I didn’t necessarily love what the show did with Alina. While I really liked the casting, I didn’t love some choices that were made – like making the cartographers’ death her fault at the beginning, which… never comes up again and makes her feel weirdly cold, and given that Jessie Mei Li’s interpretation of Alina is more “literal sunshine” than the (comparably grumpier) book version, it felt very dissonant to me. I’m also sad that Alina’s inner monologue can’t come across in this format; what could have been avoided instead is the flattening. In the books she’s also very insecure (and sickly and tired) and they got rid of most of that, which… I don’t know, it’s this trend of editing out flaws from female characters in the name of “here’s a woman who knows what she wants!” and I hate that, actually. But when I stopped comparing show and book version, I did really like following Alina’s character. There’s no version of her I won’t love; she means so much to me.

Making Alina biracial was also a chance to make something better with the worldbuilding of Shu Han and its relationship to Ravka, a chance to develop the country past a (frankly racist) stereotype. That opportunity was not taken and there was a lot of intentionally-but-clumsily included anti-Asian racism.

they finally translated it because of the show. I hope the translation is good?

Many people have said the show made them like Mal, but I firmly remain in a Mal-indifferent zone. He’s just not my type of character. I wonder how much of the recent Mal love comes from the fact that in the books he’s an unlikable character and here he isn’t as much. My friend – who hasn’t read the books and therefore didn’t have the “he’s going to be insufferable, isn’t he” kind of worry – didn’t feel drawn to him at all either, and she’s usually easier on male characters than I am.

And while the inclusion of the Crows’ plotline made the show more interesting – the first half of Shadow and Bone would feel kind of empty on screen without that! – they objectively steal the scene, which saddens me, because on a subjective level I prefer the other plotline (so much that I sometimes skipped the Crows while rewatching) and I don’t want Shadow and Bone to be… overshadowed in its own show. Also, fusing two different stories – one of which is a cautionary fairytale and the other a fast-paced heist story – just makes you feel like half of the characters are way too smart for the story they’re stuck in.

Other things I have mixed feelings about:

  • I find show!Alina way prettier than show!Genya, which just feels weird
  • the train scenes are very cool. the rest of the world seems not to have invented trains yet
  • Alina’s power being portrayed not like sun rays but like literal little suns looks kind of goofy
  • I’m fine with Kaz having plot armor of course, but wow did they weaken the Cut!
  • Nina Zenik was great but her storyline felt cut off from everything else
  • There isn’t even a mention of Nikolai’s name. He’d be so mad

The Disappointing

The Little Palace should look like something out of a fairytale. Half of the buildings in my city have more character than that. It sounds minor but atmosphere is very important to me and this might be my main dislike.

I get that it’s difficult to do establish worldbuilding in a show, but I feel like the magic system wasn’t… I don’t want to say “explained” because I don’t like magic to be explained, but grounded well. There are rules in the book that the show applies but never actually mentions, and I don’t get why it didn’t even mention like calls to like. Some of those “rules” are also plot-relevant: my friend who didn’t read the book didn’t understand what happened with the stag’s power while in the fold.

Also, no “wanting makes us weak”? The Darkling’s name being revealed so casually? I get why, but still!


Hopes for the Future

My main hope? That we get season two!

Apart from that, there are some things I’d very much like to see, like the show actually taking a chance to develop Shu Han and Alina’s relationship with her Shu heritage when Tamar and Tolya will be introduced; the Crows going on an actual heist like the one in the Ice Court instead of the lackluster halfway thing it had to be at the Little Palace (too smart for this story, I said) because otherwise this show doesn’t do justice to Six of Crows at all; also I think seeing Zoya and Inej having an actual conversation would be very cool.


I’m going to end this post with links to the two reviews that convinced me that the show was worth watching (that you should also read!) and that went more in-depth in several of the issues with the worldbuilding: Hadeer’s and Silvia’s.

Have you seen Shadow and Bone? What are your hopes for its future? Is there anything I should watch now that I’ve resurrected my Netflix account? [Will I be able to keep myself from rewatching this again? No]

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.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Fantasy

Déjà Vu: When Two Strange Books Are Strange in the Same Way

There are books so strange that they will make you think I have never read anything similar and there’s no way I ever will. Maybe they have such a weirdness to them that you can’t imagine experiencing it again with the same feel, or maybe they have an underlying thread of meaning that can’t be put into words but that you know to be true, one inexplicable and unique to them.

What happens, then, when another books proves you wrong?


Back[ground]!, maybe

Welcome back! Today I’m going to talk, as I said I maybe would in my last post, about my recent experience with Catherine House both as a well-known dark academia hater and as someone who read Vita Nostra in 2018 and hasn’t fully recovered since.

What is Catherine House: an American 2020 novel by author Elisabeth Thomas, following a young woman entering an elite, reclusive school that might or might not be a highly unethical cult preying on the most vulnerable. With its meandering nature and deep dedication to the eerie, alienating atmosphere, it seems to have disappointed most of its readership, at least on Goodreads. There have been discussions about whether this fits any of the genres it has been said to be – mystery (ehh), thriller (lmao no), horror (one could argue), dark academia (I’d argue). My interpretation of this is that we’re talking about something that is also a critique of predatory college culture, so dark academia could work.

What is Vita Nostra: a novel by Ukrainian authors Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, of which I read the 2018 English translation by Julia Meitov Hersey. Unlike Catherine House, I wouldn’t describe it as dark academia, even though it has some characteristics in common: despite it being set in a cruel Institute of Special Technologies, I doubt it was talking about school at all, for how much I could understand it – and I mostly didn’t. This both has to do with 2018!me being less experienced in looking at things sideways and with the fact that I’m not forced to know the cultural touchstones of this book the way I am with everything American. I imagine Catherine House would be just as unintelligible had I known nothing about the American college system.

To get one thing out of the way: few things annoy me as much as people who cry plagiarism the moment they encounter similarities between two pieces of media. I’m going to assume that everyone here is familiar with the concept of convergent evolution, or, at least, of artistic influence (even though that’s not necessarily what happened here). I’m more interested in wondering why these two books, which have in theory very little in common, ended up being so similar to me – and why, also, I really like them both.


Why I’m generally not interested in dark academia

halfway to off-topic? yes, and you can skip it, but I feel it provides context

It all boils down to several layers of being an outsider to its culture. Let’s start with the most obvious one: I’m not American, and the culture & aesthetic that dark academia is at the same time fascinated by and critiquing is a very American one – or, at most, deeply Anglo. That’s not to say academic elitism doesn’t exist in my country, but the differences between college and especially Ivy League culture in America and what university means to the average Italian student (often doesn’t leave home, which makes university less significant both as stage of life and economically) make it irrelevant to my negative experiences with Italian universities.
Then there’s how pretentious it is: while I don’t find that the dark academia books I’ve read or tried embraced that uncritically, I still found it grating and fundamentally uninteresting – this time also because I do know the kind of people who get that pretentious about literature, and they’re not very interesting to me. (They usually, as elitist Italians, very much make fun of the English and their Shakespeare. Yes, If We Were Villains was an interesting experience [only] in that.) But what matters the most is that I’m a natural sciences student. The difference between a professor having a decades-long obsession with Ancient Greek and one having a decades-long obsession with slime mold is that the casual cruelty and unrealistic pressure put on students is more of the “completely unhinged” kind rather than “stiff and pretentious”, which is way funnier than anything these books I’ve tried so far came up with. As usual, I’m only wishing you’d be weirder, as my reality is.

You know what these two books, incidentally, are not lacking in?


Déjà Vu

Let’s start with the cover of Vita Nostra.

I can’t tell you what its illustration means, if it means anything at all; I can only tell you that it captures the feeling of reading this book perfectly. I don’t know if it was meant that way, but to me, the person on the cover is the reader. This is one of the first things I noticed about both Vita Nostra and Catherine House: I couldn’t look at anything directly. So much of them is symbolism, so much of them is subtext, so much of them is a distant, unhurried reflection with an urgent undercurrent – something is very, very wrong.

To read these books, you have to get out of your usual framework for understanding most of speculative fiction. Both novels have something that could be described as a sci-fantasy twist, but it doesn’t work as either science or a magic system, nor it is a clear-cut metaphor as it could be in straightforward fabulism – no, one could see it as weirdness for the sake of it, unexplained, but to me, it’s an emotion made literal. In both books, we’re dealing with unrealistic academic pressure and what might be nonconsensual experimentation, though obtaining real answers on that is always a challenge; the two things end up overlapping. There’s this sense of isolation, too: the setting is remote, the characters can’t talk to their families and reality might not be such. Everything about these stories feels so empty in the way their pages are sometimes filled with unsettingly mundane events, in the distance they add by telling and never showing, by introducing you to way too many characters you never get to really know – recreating the feeling of alone in a crowd.

And maybe it’s in Ines’ assignment about a painting that is almost a blank canvas, and maybe it’s Sasha’s impossible mental exercises, but there’s this feeling of trying to break through reality into another dimension with only the effort of your own brain, of trying to juggle incompatible truths (which sometimes are physically so) because you have to, you can’t be anything different, and you don’t know what is happening to you anymore (Where are you? When was the last time you felt?) – all of it mirrored by the effort it takes to follow the book without letting all of it run through your brain meaninglessly. The writing is deceptively simple, all the sentences make sense on their own. Together, however? It’s not so different from a feeling I get while studying sometimes.

By which I mean that Vita Nostra and Catherine House are more a portrayal of a feeling than a story, and by “feeling”, I mean depression compounded by unrealistic pressure and a deep alienation from reality. I think that at heart they are talking about two different situations in two very different contexts (I wish I could be more sure about Vita Nostra) but this is the running thread, and both their conclusions manage to be very ambiguous while maintaining an ominous, inevitable feeling to them. I know this feeling! I’ve been this feeling several times and I always have a stream of it running somewhere; I know many who have felt in similar ways. These books have the removed universality I wasn’t getting from the more painfully American, less strange side of this genre. It is, yet again, another case of non-white and non-western writers coming up with some of the most universal stories, even though that may not translate to “commercial appeal”. (On my opinion on that, see my previous post.)

These two novels read like having a depressive episode while in school, and I mean that as praise.


Have you read or want to read any of these? What are your thoughts on dark academia? What has been your most unexpected case of bookish déjà vu?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★½

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

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

woodward

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

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

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

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

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.

I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.

Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.

That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her.
I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity.
This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.

Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.

I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★¾