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

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★

Discussion · Fantasy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Examples

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.