Book review · Young adult

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

The writing in this book? Amazing. The rest had… a point, and pretty much nothing else.

Burn Our Bodies Down is a contemporary-set horror novel following 17-year-old Margot as she tries to reconnect with what’s left of her family in the reclusive town of Phalene, after being isolated and lied to by her abusive mother all her life.
As it turns out, her mother learned her ways from someone else, and the darkness that follows Margot could have deeper roots than she could ever imagine.

It is, at its heart, about the cyclical nature of interpersonal violence and the price of ignoring its effects for generations. I really appreciated what it said, and the path it offered to Margot in understanding her family’s history – without ever shying away from all the complicated feelings that come with that. I also appreciated that it’s a book about a lesbian that doesn’t have a romance, because queer people exist outside of romantic plotlines, and yes, queerness is part of our lives even when we aren’t in love.
If this had been a straightforward dark contemporary about cycles of violence, I would stop here; unfortunately, it’s not, and having a strong message doesn’t erase that it was a complete mess of a horror novel.

I don’t think horror needs to be scary necessarily – this isn’t – but I expect something like suspense at the very least, and Burn Our Bodies Down was lacking in that. When your horror novel relies on missing answers, on the unknown, there should be at least a sense of what the consequences might be for the main character if she doesn’t find out. As we know nothing, most of this novel just felt like following Margot around as she interacts with very lackluster characters – seriously, anyone who isn’t a Nielsen is as flat as a piece of paper, and the Nielsen who aren’t Margot are… alike – without any sense of urgency. It isn’t that she’s safe, or that there isn’t a sense of unease running through everything, but it’s all so unspecific and not enough to carry a whole novel, not – again – when the characters are like that.

Then came the reveals. They were all at the same time in the last pages, and even if it weren’t for my dislike of this pacing choice when the rest of the book had been so empty, I wouldn’t have liked them, because they were just… cheap. Instead of leaving the supernatural-metaphorical aspect be, the book tries to explain it too much, and even throws fake science in it to make it feel more grounded. Which is the last thing one should do, and also a pattern, as Wilder Girls had the exact same problem. The result is that both books end with an embarrassingly bad twist related to environmental topics, the kind I’d expect in a cli-fi parody.

I’ll admit, I am sensitive to anything that doesn’t treat topics like climate change or pollution with the weight and research they deserve, but aside from that – this is just the coward’s choice. Don’t justify yourself at every step; let the weirdness speak on its own.

My rating: ★★

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: ★★★★★

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 · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau

I never thought I’d find a contemporary-adjacent YA that fits in my books that will cause problems on purpose list, but now I have!
The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel is gorgeous and deeply, unapologetically weird, to the point that there are entire sentences of which I don’t understand the meaning; it’s full of strange choices in wording and imagery that contribute to it becoming a goldmine for cursed™ quotes; and there’s a deliberate attention to rhythm in word choice and sentence structure to mimic the pattern of anxiety-fueled obsessive thinking acting on language. It’s really good and kind of unreadable, by which I mean perfect in a genre that most of the time doesn’t even know how it would look like to take a risk. Weird is a good thing to be!

⇝ so, what is this book
This is technically a story about Lu, who during the last year of high school starts to reconnect with a girl who was once her friend and may now be something different. At the same time, she’s dealing with the fact that her grandmother is terminally ill.
This is actually a queer coming-of-age story that feels at the same time surreal, unrealistic and more real than reality, dancing between completely removed and uncomfortably close. It talks about periods, masturbation, sexual desire, drug use, self-harm and the significant repercussions of casual homophobia more unflinchingly than most contemporary YA I’ve read, but does so in its own way – which is to say, everyone speaks in slang all the time for reasons that aren’t given. They’re clearly there – I don’t think anything in this book can be described as casual – and I do not get them. This choice gives this book a very unique voice, and also got in the way of me feeling actual emotions about what was happening multiple times. Unusual choices were also made when it came to imagery, and I want all of you to witness what is probably the most cursed description of a sex scene I’ve ever had to read:

She’s anemone and I am clown and I swim gently into her stunning embrace.

This book: metaphors!
Me, a person who has sadly experienced tumblr: I never want to see the world “clown” in anything related to sex ever again

⇝ hypotheses on the slang
A common critique seems to be that no one speaks like this. I think the book is fully aware of that, given that in here everyone speaks like this. I don’t think this was a failed attempt at connecting with the youth, given that as far as ESL me understands, this is… not necessarily modern slang? Like, girls are betties and cigarettes are tars and I don’t think that’s contemporary – the author isn’t that old. Was this an unusual attempt to make the story feel timeless by dating it the wrong way?
Or maybe it’s a choice based on sound over meaning. Because:

⇝ an interpretation that turned out being canon
I was drawn to this book mainly because the writing has a rhythm I’m familiar with, the one my brain has when it gets stuck on something. It’s hard to define anxiety-disorder-sourced obsessive thoughts in terms of sound, but one thing my brain does is to turn certain sentences whose rhythm it finds pleasing in the non-musical version of an earworm. Well, so many sentences here match that rhythm and have repetitive and rhyming patterns, which, again, is a stuck brain hour™ sign. To give you an idea of how… unmistakable it is, this is the quote from the preview that made me decide I had to read this book:

And she’s cracking up and I’m all aglow.
Glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer.
I laugh and hum and pick up my marker and draw.
Shine little glowworm, shimmer, shimmer.

Sometimes it’s not that blatant, sometimes it’s just in the descriptions of a person being everyday, every-guy, average hit hero, or Lu being errands-girl extraordinarie (notice how this time it didn’t use “betty”! It’s a sound thing), or the beach being clash, rubble-and-trash-strewn excuse of a shore – the oh-so satisfying feeling of these words, they match! It feels almost cozy. And it takes a lot of skill to get there, because while I have this, uh, gift, I can’t actually make it happen deliberately to write weird poetry.
Then, as it turns out:

Then I get all slo-mo OCD and spell each word out, fitting spaces and hyphens into random places, feeling the different sizes and rhythms on my tongue. Just me and my obsessive anxiety disorder, having a blast, […]

&

Phrases loop in my mind, round and round, like a rogue Ferris wheel spun way out of whack. I count and I count. So mop, so OCD. Hello, my name is Lucy Butler and I’m a compulsive letter counter.

As I said: deliberate! This book only causes problems on purpose, as the best ones do.
More seriously: I love weird, clearly, and I love talking about it half joking and half in awe. What I don’t love is people calling something bad writing because it doesn’t match their experience of how a human mind works.

⇝ an interpretation that didn’t, but hear me out
Identity is a complex matter. At the same time, such strong non-binary vibes from Lu.

⇝ but Acqua, the story?
It’s mostly about finding courage – to take a chance and tell a girl you like her; to dump your toxic boyfriend and homophobic friends; to be there for the rest of your family when they need you. The F/F romance is sweet and just messy enough, because the characters are dealing with mental illness and casual homophobia, both internalized and not – even though most people in Lu’s life don’t actually mean to hurt her that way.
It’s good and at the same time enhanced and overshadowed by the writing.

My rating: ★★★★

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: ★★★

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party is a contemporary novel about what happens when the narrative about yourself you built in your own head starts hindering your potential. It is about the differences between yourself, your perception of yourself, and others’ perception of you, and how one can find spaces for exploration in those gaps as well as places to get stuck in.

On the surface, it’s a very typical coming-of-age story about Codi, a white American teenage lesbian living in Atlanta, who has always been “the quiet kid”. She has her art and her two best friends, but after forming an unexpected new friendship with a “popular” boy (who is gay and closeted), she decides she wants to change that.

Like most coming-of-age stories, it includes a romance (F/F, of course), but it’s not the focus – because, beneath the surface, Late to the Party is mostly a story about friendship. It follows Codi as she understands what her relationships mean to her, why she feels stuck, and how friendships can be outgrown but can also shift in their meaning to you as you change. It does all of this while following mostly queer characters, and how that influences the dynamic.
I feel like often the message of this kind of book can be very one-note, become the party-lover you were always meant to be! get out of your comfort zone! who cares about your boring friends!, but this book deals with it with enough nuance for it not to feel this way.

It’s one of those stories that have just have enough truth to them to hurt. While I did enjoy this as an adult, I know that probably wouldn’t have been true as a teen – sometimes when you’re struggling there are things you’re not ready to hear or deal with, and they hurt. (I would have taken it personally, probably; one thing that you won’t learn in this community when talking about “hurtful books” is that sometimes when a book hurts you isn’t because there’s something wrong with it but because you need therapy.)
Despite this, I did feel like something was missing. There isn’t much to Codi as a character apart from her shyness, her desire to grow out of it, and her love for her art. To make some examples, she struggles with her self-esteem but mental health isn’t even discussed in this book; and while this is a story about friendship between queer people, it’s yet again a gay book in which the portrayal or discussion of anything but rigorously cis and gender-conforming queerness is very lacking. And I think that’s where many of my issues with this book come from – it’s good and it achieves what it sets out to do, but it still feels somewhat surface-level; I think it could have done so much more.

On other minor negatives:
🏠 it has no sense of atmosphere and relies on the reader’s assumed familiarity with America to make up for that. Too bad for the book that I have no idea of how Atlanta looks like;
🏠 the characterization could have used some help in general; while Codi’s close friends and brother are well-drawn characters, the same can’t be said about most of the supporting cast, and sadly this includes the love interest.

My rating: ★★★¾, and I can say that the audiobook was pretty good.

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

There’s nothing as powerful as reading books involving Pride in June.

Felix Ever After is a story about love. It’s a love story just as much as it is one about how love can be difficult to accept, especially when you’re a Black trans person and so much of the world seems to want to tear you down. Felix’s arc in regard to recognizing and accepting love instead of chasing the approval of people who hate him was wonderful to read.

Felix Ever After is also about questioning. There isn’t much questioning representation out there that isn’t specifically about a character first discovering they’re queer, but like coming out, questioning is usually a process. I loved how both the internet and the people at the LGBT discussion group were important to Felix’s journey – who at the beginning of the book identifies as a trans boy (and has already transitioned) and then discovers that demiboy fits him better.
By the way, it’s great to read an all-queer friend group in which various people have different opinions on labels, parades and LGBT spaces (many love them! Many find them overwhelming, in different ways.)

Like many other queer YA books, this has a plotline involving outing, and yet it’s handled in a way I hadn’t seen before, one that felt completely different. From the beginning, the emotional impact of it is never brushed off. Other characters, the ones portrayed as supportive, don’t make it about themselves. And, most importantly, the question hanging in the air isn’t whether people will accept Felix, this story grapples with outsider approval in a completely different way. What matters to this book is that the main character gets to reclaim what was taken from him – in this case, with his art (Felix is a painter). It doesn’t just feel different, it is different, which is why ownvoices reinterpretations of “tired tropes” are vital.
While we’re on this topic: this book has a love triangle, as the main character is in love with and loved by two boys. One of the two relationships works out, the other doesn’t; I still really appreciated how this book talked about loving multiple people at the same time, true love doesn’t need to be one.

Let’s get to the… not exactly complaints, let’s say complicated points. I’m in awe of how much this book is doing, and not only in the sense of representation – so many things are discussed: the many forms privilege can take & their consequences, marginalized people’s relationship with outsider approval, queer intra-community dynamics, unsupportive parents, labels and their limits, the role of morality in art (and many others I would tell you about if not for the fact that I can’t highlight an audiobook).
And here’s the thing: this is very unsubtle and sometimes its dialogue and introspection sound like a repurposed twitter thread, disclaimers included. However, I don’t think that lack of subtlety is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to difficult topics in YA, and we’ve seen that being subtler and allowing teens to be messier on-page can have consequences, especially for queer authors of color, so let’s move on.

Overall, I loved this and think this is how quality YA contemporary looks like. There’s a mystery aspect that isn’t obvious and yet isn’t exactly the center of the story, there are not one but two romance dynamics to explore (one friends to lovers, one enemies to lovers), supportive friendships and friendships that have to end, all inside an queer friend group (glad this book knows that’s realistic)… and I’m just realizing now that this is shorter than 400 pages. How.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Similar Ratings, Very Different Books

Here I am again, back with some very gay books I read recently of which I haven’t posted the reviews yet. One is a novel in verse with an F/F established couple; the other a genrebending M/M novella.


I think that at this point it’s safe to say that dual PoV novels in verse don’t work for me. I’ve looked at what set the poetry novels that did work for me and the ones that didn’t apart, and the pattern is clear.

I love Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style, so I did end up liking this, but when I think about my experience with her previous novels, Clap When You Land pales in comparison – despite having something that her previous two books don’t have but really matters to me, a sapphic main character and F/F romance. Unsurprisingly, the very sweet, supportive and already established relationship between Yahaira and Dre was my favorite part of the novel (also because I could see a lot of myself in Dre; I, too, was a teenage plant gay who easily fell into all-or-nothing thinking).

When talking about Acevedo’s books, many people will recommend the audiobooks. This time, I will too, but for the wrong reasons: I read this alternating between ebook and audio, and the two narrators really helped me tell the two girls apart in the scenes in which they’re both in the same place, as I didn’t feel they had distinct enough voices in that situation. It wasn’t a problem for the rest of the book, as they are apart for most of it – but that’s also something I didn’t love, because it takes so long for them to even learn about each other, and we end up not seeing a lot of them together.

I appreciated that this was more than anything a story about sisterhood, family, grief, and the double-faced nature of tragedies, how they can tear you apart while bringing you closer to other people. After all, this starts with two sisters discovering each other’s existence because their father, who had two families in two different countries, just died in a plane crash.

This book has many things going for it: it’s about Black women supporting each other, it’s a contemporary mostly set in the Dominican Republic, and it talks about what it’s like to have to leave, what it’s like to be bilingual in the DR compared to the US, and many other differences between the two countries with all kinds of impacts. I wish I had liked it more, that I hadn’t felt like the characters were more like faded outlines than people, which I really do think was caused by the format. Poetry, to me, feels personal in a way that just doesn’t suit the added distance inherent to a multi-PoV book.

My rating: ★★★½

[apart from all I’ve already mentioned, TW for sexual assault in both plotlines]


On the surface, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a story about Demane, a “sorcerer” accompanying the Captain he loves in a dangerous journey across the desert and then the Wildeeps, where he’ll have to face something powerful and horrible. It’s not necessarily always linear, and there’s very little plot, because its heart is elsewhere.

I want to point out that I can’t do this novella justice. This is a book whose very structure and use of English is a commentary on language and what’s considered respectable, portraying the experience and struggles of a multilingual protagonist with that. I know I missed half of it because I’m ESL and don’t recognize the nuances of different forms and registers of the English language that well. The irony isn’t lost on me and I’m not sure how I feel about it?

That’s far from the only thing this novella did with language, however. Code-switching is part of its structure on multiple levels, and language is used to lay down the worldbuilding, which even holds a sci-fantasy twist inside. One of the things I look for the most in short fiction is the unraveling of genre boundaries, so I really appreciated what I understood of this book. There are pieces of dialogue written in other languages as well – not something I often see in fantasy stories that don’t seem to be directly tied to the Earth we know currently. I think this choice might have been made to use how these languages are coded in American society to “translate” the situations in terms an American might understand, which I have mixed feelings about.
(There are some… let’s say puzzling choices made with Italian words, but this is an American book and I don’t have it in me to have expectations anymore.)

It’s also really gay! (But keep in mind, this is not a happy story.) It explores expectations placed on male sexuality and the meaning of masculinity across cultures, and the shock Demane feels relating to this as well, for many reasons – one of the more prominent being that while he’s great at fighting (superhumanly so), his heart has always been in protecting and healing.
My appreciation for this is somewhat dampened by the absence of even one named female character (especially given that of the few women who do appear is an underage sex slave).

My rating: ★★★


Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★½

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

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★½