Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #5: On Rating Short Fiction (and more!)

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

This time, I will:

  • review six short stories (nothing like last month’s fourteen, I know; that’s just how my relationship with short fiction is, it comes and goes)
  • write a DNF review of an anthology
  • explain why I don’t give a rating in the aforementioned reviews.

What I Read

Short Fiction
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The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu (Tor.com): A Snow Queen retelling with physics! Abstract and unusually formatted (with footnotes); not an easy one to follow, but really interesting nonetheless. It talks about the nature of evil, how we tend to rationalize and dismiss it, because that’s how it always has been. I’m not sure I fully got the scenes of the Robber Queen and the Lap Women: maybe an acknowledgment of the importance of friendship and elders in this situation, coupled with the distance that it has inevitably already formed? Apart from that, gorgeous writing; this is the kind of science fairytale I could see myself returning to.

A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential by JY Neon Yang (Clarkesworld): trans mecha phoenix pilot story in space! I think this one definitely could have been shorter (there are parts that kind of drag, which shouldn’t happen in a novelette! Of course it happened on Clarkesworld) and I’m generally not going to mesh well with stories that heavily involve religion without actually talking about the religion (in this case, basically AU Catholicism in space), but I recognize that there wouldn’t have been the space for that here. Still, I… really, really liked this? Especially the ending. There’s a lot to say about how the idea pushed on queer people (sometimes even by other queer people) that figuring oneself out is quick and easy is one of the ways society compels us to accept the roles we’ve been forced into – but sometimes you don’t know who you are because you’ve never been given the chance to be anything else. Powerful and so, so non-binary.

Beyond the Dragon’s Gate by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com): What I love most about queer SFF are the new perspectives it brings; this talks about AIs’ relationship with their hardware in a trans perspective – while also having human trans characters. By the way, no wonder the non-binary marshal is fascinating despite the little space they have to shine, it’s a Lee story with typical Lee elements (including Unfriendly Architecture, which I love). I liked how AIs crossing the Turing Threshold was likened to a carp turning into a dragon, it reminded me of one of my favorite novelettes (Zen Cho’s imugi story, which I think is inspired by tales with similar elements).

Taraxacum by Cristina Stubbe (Anathema): I read this one for sapphicathon! I’m in the middle of preparing myself for the phytognostic part of the botany exam, which involves dealing with a lot of weeds; this is about magical weeds, so it felt right. Specifically, it’s about dandelions growing on the windowsill in slightly magical ways. It’s a latinx sapphic story about grief, a relationship that ended unexpectedly, written like many diary entries. It’s quiet and full of botanical magic, just what I need to not mind that a short story is excessively straightforward. I really liked it.

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The Insects of Love by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com): dreamlike story about an entomologist looking for her dead sister… maybe. You can draw completely different conclusions depending on how you look at it. It’s barely grounded and one could question everything about it, as you have no way of knowing what’s actually real inside the universe of the story. I appreciate the attempt at sci-fi entomology (one really can’t have too many bugs in a book, I say), but I would have liked this a lot more if the author had asked someone with basic knowledge of taxonomy to proofread it, as it’s full of obvious and jarring mistakes.

Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café by Vida Cruz (Strange Horizons): written like a tourist guide, inspired by stories from and current political situation of the Philippines, this is about a Café staffed by supernatural creatures, and one of the main ingredients is human heartbreak. It’s explicitly and deliberately political, which makes me think I would have gotten more out of this had I been more familiar with the context. Still, it was an interesting read, especially Maria Makiling’s outlook on non-humans and her goals (and everyone’s ideas about her goals). I also really liked that it’s a multilingual short story, as I don’t see them often – most of the parts not in English (I think they’re in Tagalog and Cebuano?) are already translated for English-only speakers, but not all of them – and, of course, the food descriptions.

Anthology
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This month’s anthology was The Mythic Dream edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, but sadly, it ended up being mostly “this month’s attempt at an anthology”, because I rather quickly realized that I was hating it. After having disliked most of Hungry Hearts (which I forced myself to finish) last month, I decided to just DNF this one. It’s not that all the stories in it were bad – they weren’t, actually! I liked the one at the beginning by Seanan McGuire, and the one by JY Neon Yang – but the majority of them were mediocre, forgettable, and didn’t say anything interesting nor came together in a way that made reading the weak ones worth it. Even the two stories I mentioned wouldn’t have been anything special outside the anthology, not when I’ve been reading so much great short fiction at the same time for free online.

I just think short fiction retellings aren’t that great of an idea. What sets a retelling apart is in the execution, and even with deconstructions and stories that play with format (like JY Neon Yang’s) there’s only so much that can be done in a short story. The result is… not that interesting 90% of the time? Outside of this anthology, even Variations on an Apple, a lovely & very peculiar retelling of the Iliad by my favorite author, is one of my least favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s; and The Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu was good but it’s not a favorite. I just don’t think short fictional retellings are for me.


Why I Don’t Rate Short Fiction (Mostly)

If you’ve been following this series of short fiction reviews this year, you might have noticed that on this blog I don’t rate any of the short stories I read, and this is a recent development – in the past, when I wrote reviews of short stories, I always rated them. What changed?

Mostly, I’m finding that it isn’t useful to me, at least here. For the short stories I do mark on goodreads as “read”, I use ratings because I notice that having a rating calls attention to a review the way a text-only one doesn’t; short fiction is already something that gets little to no attention. However, this isn’t a problem on this blog, and mostly: I want people to read why I liked or didn’t like a short story and see if it would be for them instead of just basing themselves on the rating.

As I already find difficult to sum up what I felt about something so short with a rating, I don’t want people to ignore something just because I gave it three stars! Especially when in this format, “like” or “dislike” has so much to do with personal connection to themes and writing, more than it does with actual craft, at least most of the time. More than in novels for sure.

To be honest, I also find the one-to-five star rating useless when it comes to short fiction, because as far as I’m concerned all of short fiction is divided in “favorite” (will forever remember, left me something, maybe even changed my life – yes that has happened but it’s a discussion for another day, don’t dismiss short fiction) and “not a favorite, will forget about it”, with some exceptions being stories that I hated – but that happens rarely. I can try to translate that to star ratings, and I do, but it’s not accurate. There’s so much difference between a five (favorite) and a four (not a favorite), while there isn’t so much between a four and a three or a three and a two.

So I don’t rate it. I try to explain what I thought of it in words; I hope it works.


Have you read any of these? How do you rate short fiction?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★


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

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

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

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

*spoilery clarification:

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

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

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

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

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

This time, I will:

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

Recent Reads

Short Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Anthologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★


About Me and the YA Age Range

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does this mean?

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

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

Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

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

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

This time, I will:

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

Recent Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★½


On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

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

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

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

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


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

Book review · Discussion · Fantasy · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #2: Reading From People You Disagree With (and More)

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

This time, I will be reviewing four short stories, of which two are Nebula finalists, one short story collection from an acclaimed SFF author, and talk about the importance of reading from people you disagree with.


Recent Reads

Short Stories
  • The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta, 2020): I will never forget this. It’s decadent, visceral, and very gory, with a thick, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s about a messed up relationship between an actress and the young woman who basically becomes her servant, including BDSM and a dynamic that is both toxic and intoxicating. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from the grotesque! (The fantasies about vore, of course, are there just for literary purpose! If you don’t know what that means, please, don’t google it.) The points it makes about sex and violence, about what we see as depraved and oddly don’t, about body horror being something so tied into the feminine… it really is true, when our bodies are the landscapes of everyday horror themselves. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, but this new story is still my favorite short from Carmen Maria Machado.
  • 26199196Variations on an Apple by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2015): What if you were in love with a city?
    The Iliad, retold in Yoon Ha Lee’s signature math-fantasy style. Dizzying, wonderfully queer, and suffused with a quieter sadness than one would expect from a story about war, it talks about fate, and the unstoppable potential of human discord. It’s an even more remarkable experience if one is familiar with either Ninefox Gambit or Lee’s game Winterstrike, as some parts of it felt like glancing at those through a distorting glass. Also, of course cities have no concerns for something as human as gender. It’s not my favorite by Yoon Ha Lee (my favorites remain Ghostweight and The Knights of Chains, the Deuce of Stars) but really good nonetheless; some parts almost read like poetry, and the writing is sharp enough to cut.
  • Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, 2019): cannibalism, lesbianism, and the othering, oppressive nature of western anthropology all rolled into a short horror story, one told through excerpts of fictional books and articles. Original, and manages to pack a punch in very little space.
  • His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (Tor.com, 2019): a story about freedom, loyalty and gay love between a human and a jinni set in India. Like the previous one, I tried it because it was announced as a Nebula finalist. I feel like the characters had a lot of backstory I couldn’t see nor feel in this space, and I didn’t feel attached to them as a result, but I did really like the escaping devadasi subplot. Overall, nice, but not that memorable for me.
Collections

40855636In February I read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, a collection of short stories from N.K. Jemisin, an author I’ve had mixed experiences with before. That didn’t change, since this collection was even more of a mixed bag than I’d usually expect. Still, it made me want to at least try both the Dreamblood duology and The City We Became; I don’t have any doubt about her skill, especially when it comes to the writing in itself – there’s hardly a word out of place.

In fantasy, I love her worldbuilding. I now want to read The Killing Moon purely because of how much I liked the world in The Narcomancer; it was so vibrant and atmospheric and intriguing. I also love the way she talks about cities – especially New York and New Orleans. The concept of a city itself having a deep, positive power despite all its flaws is one that appeals to me, and so does reading about the complicated relationships marginalized people have with the place they live in and the other people who live there with them. Of course, The Effluent Engine and The City Born Great were two of my favorites. Jemisin always has a fantastic grasp on atmosphere, which shines in this kind of stories.
Sadly, I don’t seem to get along with her sci-fi stories the same way? This is probably more on me than on her, because while sci-fi is my favorite genre, there are some subgenres of it I really can’t get into (cyberpunk and the like) and several of the sci-fi stories fell into that. The Evaluators was the main exception, and it would have been interesting if the ecology in the story had made any sense.

One particularly low point was L’Alchimista, in which the author attempted to write about Italian characters in real-world Italy without even trying to get the Italian language right.

“Mi scuza”
– N.K. Jemisin, 2006.

…that’s like having an American character apologize by saying “Hi’m sorpy”. You can’t expect your readers to take you seriously while talking about Italian food and politics after you do that! As usual, I’m left wondering what American authors have against putting effort into other languages.
Still, since it was written more than ten years ago, I hope she’d make different choices today and it doesn’t influence my interest in her other works. And I do like how she writes about food when she’s not writing about Italy; I really liked the food witchery  in Red Dirt Witch and what she did in Cuisine des Mémoires, because stories that explore the link between food and memory have always been my kind of thing.

Overall, this was very interesting, because I didn’t feel the same way about two stories. Some I loved, some I couldn’t even finish, some I finished and hated, some I liked but didn’t feel strongly about, some I liked while partially disagreeing with – it’s far from my favorite collection, but as far as reading experience, it was one of the most dynamic and I never quite knew what to expect next.


On Reading From People Who Disagree With You

The idea for this discussion was born when I read the first story in How Long ’til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight, which has since been reprinted on Lightspeed Magazine, where you can read it online. It’s a response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (a story I’m only tangentially familiar with because of discussions on twitter) based on Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

This story made me think about how we in the book community frame the idea of reading from people who we disagree with. Because I disagree with some points in the story, especially its concern with passive corruption¹ (it’s probably because it reminds me of the twisted, nonsensical book twitter ethics towards fiction²).

The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a story that celebrates diversity while underlining the importance of strong boundaries against intolerance, which can’t be just seen as a “difference of thought” – something I strongly agree with. What I don’t agree with is the process through which this story thinks people become intolerant. Reading this story gave me a reason to truly dissect why I don’t think this feels right to me, which I don’t think I would otherwise done; it means that I did get something out of it, just not necessarily what the author put on the page.

And… being able to read something I disagreed with without feeling attacked by it is something I see as a progress. I learned reviewing from looking at what other people did, and tried to use that framework to talk about my own feelings. But the thing is, we are all hobbyists, and it’s difficult to tell – especially if personal and painful topics come into play – when something stops being an interpretation and starts becoming projection. Couple that with general insecurity about one’s own opinions, and you get defensive callout mentality. There’s a lot of it in the book community, and it’s often rewarded – in places like book twitter, anger and lack of nuance get more traction than anything else – and I’m still trying to disentangle from it; I’m not completely sure I’m successful (also, the worst part about misguided righteous anger is that it feels good). But if I tried to avoid stories like these, that make me a little uncomfortable by having parts I strongly agree with and parts I don’t, and examined what my knee-jerk reactions were, I wouldn’t have reasons to realize this even was a problem.


¹ coming in contact with bigotry will make you partially a bigot? And having come in contact with it means you will spread it and need to get murdered to save the utopia? People never come up with horrible ideas on their own if you shelter them enough…? Simplistic and I don’t think people even work like that.

² Book twitter increasingly seems to operate with the assumption that fiction influences real life (concern towards possible passive harm) but what we accuse others of on the internet somehow doesn’t influence real life (lack of concern towards probable active harm). As you can imagine, it’s hell. I recommend reading this interview by Tamsyn Muir and what happened to Isabel Fall if you want to know about recent examples.

³ In case it wasn’t clear, I agree about them being dangerous, but not the “they will contaminate you” part. It’s far more complicated than that.


Have you read any of these? How did you learn to review? Have you ever gone through realizing that you were doing some parts of it badly?

Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Completing the Wayward Children Reread

I finally finished listening to all the Wayward Children novellas on audiobook! My current ranking and ratings are:

  • In an Absent Dream ★★★★★ (review)
  • Every Heart a Doorway★★★★¾
  • Come Tumbling Down★★★★ (review)
  • Beneath the Sugar Sky★★★★
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones★★★½ (review)

At this point, this is probably my favorite novella series? It would have been the Tensorate, if it weren’t for how dreadfully boring The Descent of Monsters was (I tried to reread it; I couldn’t).

And today I’m posting the two missing reviews, Every Heart a Doorway and Beneath the Sugar Sky.


EveryHeartaDoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway‘s subversive take on portal fantasy is nothing short of one of the most interesting premises I’ve found in SFF in the last few years.

It’s a novella that reads at the same time like a boarding school mystery and a love letter to fantasy fans. It’s the kind of book that understands why we find solace in fictional worlds, sometimes even worlds more explicitly terrible than our own, and spins those feelings into a wonderful reverse portal fantasy. It’s the kind of book that understands the place gender and marginalizations have in who feels the need to escape reality the most, and applies this reality to a diverse cast. And it is, more than anything, a really compelling, charming read.

Between this and In an Absent Dream, I’m not sure which is my favorite of the series. In that one, I loved the message, the world, and how much it made me think; here, apart from my appreciation for the school as a setting, I loved every single character: their interactions, their quirks, even the ones I didn’t love the first time around (how could I think Jack was boring back then, I don’t know).
And Nancy remains my favorite. Her story is about the inherent power of stillness, which is something I haven’t seen often, because we tend to understate just how much potential is hidden in the ability to fade into the background.

For a story about murder, it’s really quiet, because that’s who Nancy is – quiet, understated Nancy from the underworld, who could live only on pomegranate juice if she were allowed to do so. At times, she was so quiet she almost felt like a side character in her own story, but that’s kind of her nature. Her development is really subtle as well, which is why this novella is one of my favorites in the series: unlike some of the sequels, it understands the use of subtlety; it takes after portal fantasy and fairytales in its atmosphere and symbolism but not in the way it is told. It doesn’t beat us over the head with a message, and Nancy doesn’t undergo a drastic change either.

A central theme in this whole series is the idea of “being sure”, of having to make a choice and live with it. Nancy has been temporarily exiled from the underworld because its lord thinks Nancy should be able to choose where she lives – and in the beginning, she feels like she is sure, of course she’s sure she wants to live in the Halls of the Dead. In this story, she makes friends, she understands how she could fit into the “real” world, and then, only then, she’s able to actually make her choiche – hers, not her parent’s or her lord’s, because she truly understands her options. In that, the underworld has been fairer to her than most world are to the children of this series.
The final scene of this novella didn’t fail to make me tear up this time around either, because of what it says about agency and belonging, in just a few lines.


27366528I love when books manage to surprise me on reread! For some reason, I remembered Beneath the Sugar Sky as significantly more boring than it actually was. It’s not my favorite in the series, and of all the worlds we have visited so far, Confection is probably the one that interested me the least (the whole “everything is candy” gets old fairly quickly), but I still loved it. Mostly because of how it builds over Every Heart a Doorway, deepening the reader’s understanding of this universe – I really liked that the concept of “worlds from” and “worlds to” was introduced, I had forgotten that, but it clears up some things – and of the characters.

The characters were really what made this book worth it for me. I loved reading about Cora, Kade (especially Kade) and Christopher so much. Their banter is amazing, and I would read a novella about them just walking around even in a very ordinary world, as they are anything but and would make it interesting anyway.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is, in its own (at times very odd) ways, about assumptions. About how Cora has to deal with the horrible assumptions people (and our whole culture, really) make about her because she’s fat; about how making the assumption that undoing death in a nonsense world is impossible might have been the very thing that could have stopped the main characters. The delivery of the message is heavy handed and at times repetitive, but for how much I might not like that, it’s on par with most of the series; and in this instance, some of the repetitive nature also feels justified – Cora has been sent to what’s basically candy-land, of course she’s thinking a lot about how people would assume that’s all she’s ever wanted. It doesn’t feel like the narration is intruding to preach at you as it did in Down Among the Sticks and Bones.

My favorite scenes were the ones set in the Halls of the Dead, as they were the first time around. I’m so happy for Nancy (and Nadia), and I loved this portrayal of the underworld. It’s so quiet, peaceful and beautiful, and I get why Nancy was drawn to it.
And now I want to know more about the baker! I’m not saying more because of spoilers, but I hope that someone will appear again in future books.

CWs: apart from the discussion on fatphobia, there’s mention of the main character having attempted suicide in the past.


What Next?

  • Across the Green Grass Fields has been announced! And it’s about a world of magical horses? Nine-year-old me would have given so much for a book like that.
  • As I have no intention to stop cooking (the same things over and over more or less, because I’m lazy), I have to find a new audiobook to listen to! I’m not sure what it will be yet.

Tell me all your Wayward Children opinions, if you have any!

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #1: How Do You Rate Anthologies? (and more)

Hi! Welcome to a new series of posts.

“Short Fiction Time” will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I’ve mentioned before that I haven’t been reading as much short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

In this post, I’ll be reviewing what I’ve read lately, and talk about reviews of anthologies and short story collections.


Recent reads

Short Stories
  • 50636271._sy475_The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods by Maria Dahvana Headley (Tor.com): I tried this one pretty much on a whim. While I found its beginning really compelling and the format really original as well – braiding comparisons between common shitty boyfriend antics and godly misbehavior from Greek myths – I found myself kind of bored in the end, when the story turns into… a long list? It’s probably meant to mirror the way one might invoke a goddess, but it was boring to read. I didn’t really get the point of that, though of course Headley’s writing is gorgeous.
  • I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married by Fonda Lee (MIT Technology Review): structured like a r/relationship reddit post and just as wild as reddit posts sometimes get, this is a tale about online dating in a very near future, and it’s… creepy. Both because of the main character’s lack of self-examination (which was realistic for the kind of structure this went for, wasn’t it) and for the way I know some people trust algorithms this much. A compelling read with an ending that made me laugh. Some people never learn.
  • Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny): she’s one of the authors I had bookmarked (she’s been nominated for awards and I hadn’t read anything by her yet), so I decided to start with this one. And… oh wow. Way to start a story? I don’t know if I’m meant to, but I find fictional firearm unsafety very funny (…that’s a very specific trope). Anyway, this starts with gun sex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Apart from that, this is a story about trauma, and finding ways to survive and be ourselves in the connections we form. A really unusual read about gay supersoldiers, and what can I say, I definitely won’t forget it easily.
Collections

42870948._sy475_In January I read Salt Slow by Julia Armfield.

This managed to gross me out in so many different yet very quiet ways, so of course I really appreciated it.

Salt Slow is a collection about unruly women. Women who defy the rules of reality, who are messy and ugly and feral, or turn so; women who are violent, long for the worst, howl at the moon.
In a society in which even a hint of these things in a woman is met with retaliation, it’s really refreshing to read stories that bend reality to allow us to be. This book isn’t afraid of gore, of going to dark places, and Julia Armfield’s prose certainly has teeth – both in the sense that this book will happily sink them in you and in the sense that almost every single story contains multiple occurrences of the word “teeth”. (why?)

Salt Slow has the kind of attention to detail that makes magical realism and contemporary fantasy truly magical for me – it cares about the mundane and the small, finds the shine and the rot in it. Most of its power comes from exploring speculative paths based on very real, very unremarkable events, turning an average day into an experience of quiet horror.

These stories all have the kind of conclusions that made me think, which I appreciate immensely. I know this will stay with me, as almost every single story did (interestingly, all of them but the one that gives the title to the book).
I often ended the stories feeling uneasy, and even more often, confused. I had to work to make them make sense, or to find a sense – sometimes the sense is a condensation of a story and your own experiences – and I will never turn down a puzzle, so this was fun as well.

As for what it talks about apart from the unifying thread, there are a lot of themes discussed here that are personal to me – most of all, the experience of being raised as a Catholic woman when you’re queer (Cassandra After) – and some that were not, like divorce (Smack), miscarriage (Salt Slow) or a marriage growing cold (Granite).

Individual reviews of the stories that stood out for me the most:

  • My favorite was probably Stop your women’s ears with wax: not only because it centers an f/f relationship, though that is really appreciated too, but because of its sheer energy. It’s vibrant, unforgiving in its attention to detail, and has so much restlessness and color that it all blurs together. It’s about girl bands – kind of a response to sexism in the music industry and the way female bands and their fans are seen with disdain or not at all, with a disturbing turn evoking a fae court-like atmosphere.
  • Cassandra After was probably the most personal to me, as it’s about being a Catholic-raised queer. Me and the main character don’t have the same experiences with it exactly, but this story gets how the shame that is written into us rewrites our experiences, makes it harder for us to do right by our loved ones, cleaves the connection between us and our communities, between us and our own bodies. This is a soft, quiet ghost story – the main character is visited by her dead ex-girlfriend, and both are looking for closure – and haunting stories have a special place in my heart, always. It’s about grief, regret, and the many small-yet-so-heavy ways things are more difficult for queer people, even in absence of explicit homophobia.
  • The Great Awake was also remarkable, a beautiful, slow, sleepy story about sleeplessness, following the relationship between two women who each envy what the other has. It’s dreamlike and unhurried, and the ambiguous ending was a really interesting choice. I appreciated the exploration of the consequences of sleeplessness, but for me it’s more than anything about the sleepless, isolating nature of cities, and how we can survive them only by forming connections.

I want to also mention the two stories about puberty-as-metamorphosis, Mantis (which I reviewed here) and Formerly Feral (probably the most stunning symbolism I’ve seen in a long while), as I think those are also really interesting and would especially appeal to Wilder Girls fans.

My average rating of this might not be five stars, but that’s definitely how I see this collection.

What Next?

As I loved reading Salt Slow – only one story every day, slowly, to give myself the time to think about them – I’m going to make an effort to read at least a short story every day. I’m currently reading How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and will probably review it in my next Short Fiction Time.


Now, onto the discussion topic of the month:

On Anthologies, Collections, and Ratings

The first anthology I ever read was Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins. When it came to writing a review – one I can’t link, as it’s on my old Italian blog – I didn’t even ask myself how to do that; the answer seemed obvious. An anthology is made of a certain number of short stories, there’s no content outside of them. It should go without saying that the most accurate way to review an anthology is to review and rate every single story. And as far as the overall rating is concerned, there’s nothing more accurate than the average rating.

That was 2016. I was sure of all of this then, but I’m not so sure now, because I realize this is not the way I remember anthologies. I don’t remember the stories of Summer Days and Summer Nights that didn’t speak to me; I remember the ones that did, I remember the one that changed my life – The End of Love by Nina LaCour, the first time I ever saw a sapphic girl be the protagonist of anything at all – and what if the average rating is a little under four? I remember it as something that is fully a four and nothing less. And this is one of the least glaring examples.

The most glaring for me is probably Three Sides of a Heart. In it, the average rating for me was also a little under four, and I originally rated it a four on goodreads – when it’s the anthology that completely changed my mind on love triangles as a trope, as it was its goal to do, to convince readers love triangles have potential. That’s because some of the short stories were such standouts (Vega by Brenna Yovanoff, and especially Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton) that I completely don’t mind I DNFed some others. I changed the rating to five a few days ago.

Today, I think of anthologies and collections as more than a sum of their parts. I can’t even fully describe why, but I don’t feel like the way I recall them is accurately described by my average rating of the stories. I also think that not resonating/agreeing with all stories is a feature instead of a bug; an anthology should present as many facets and perspectives as possible, and it’s only natural that I’m not going to like all of them. I’ve moved from reviewing every story and saying almost nothing about the anthology as a whole to doing the opposite. Not all stories are as interesting, not all of them deserve as much space, but my feelings on the book as a whole do.


  • Have you read any of these?
  • What reviewing/rating method works best for you and describes your feelings about the anthology/collection more accurately?
  • Are there any anthologies and collections you recommend?
Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?