TBR & Goals

SapphicAThon #3: TBR

SapphicAThon is back! This is a read-a-thon dedicated to reading sapphic books, hosted by Jami @jamishelves, Elise @thebookishactress and Tash @immortalbanner on twitter. The twitter account of the read-a-thon is here for more information.


The Challenges

Let’s start with the obvious: there’s no way I’m going to read all of these in a week. I’m going to give myself an option for every challenge, but some of them I might complete by counting a book twice instead of actually reading every book I write here – and for some of these I might decide to read a sapphic short story instead.

#1: Reread a book

9780803739260_NearlyGone_JKT.indd

I read A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo back in 2017 and loved it; since then, I haven’t read one contemporary mystery novel I’ve actually liked. I want to revisit this to see what about it worked for me that others don’t have (difficult to explain in a way that makes sense why you like a book if you only remember it vaguely), and also because I can’t wait to read about this messed up lesbian love triangle again. It’s shorter than 300 pages, and mysteries are generally easy to get through, so it shouldn’t take me too much time.

#2: Read a graphic novel

33163388._sx318_

The only two graphic novels left on my TBR are memoirs, so my choice will be Spinning by Tillie Walden – it’s longer than I’m used to in this format, but I already own a physical copy of it, and that’s great because I hate reading graphic novels on a screen and buying physical copies right now might not be easy.

Recommendations!

If you want to participate but are thinking, I can’t come up with any sapphic graphic novel right now, here are my three favorite sapphic graphic novels across genres, because why pass up on the occasion to talk about some of my favorites?

  • Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe (adult noir): my underrated fave! About a young journalism intern trying to solve a mystery. It’s full of queer women who do horrible things with a kind of “the end justifies the means” logic; the main character is bisexual. All the characters are the worst and it’s also such a great time.
  • Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (YA contemporary): set in high school, also one of the very few books I know dealing with an abusive relationship involving two girls. The art is gorgeous.
  • Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (adult dark fantasy): if you marginally know anything about SFF graphic novels, you’ve heard of this one, but a lot of people don’t seem to know it’s sapphic! It is, it’s only that the first two volumes are subtler about it. The third is not. Anyway, steampunk Asian matriarchy full of queer women.

#3: Read a book with a trope you love

47576225._sy475_

I can’t believe how long it took me to find an answer to this question, as I couldn’t think of either tropes I loved or sapphic books that had them. Then I remembered that one of my favorite things to read about – maybe not exactly a trope, but I say it counts – is anything that blurs the boundary between magic and science, fantasy and sci-fi. The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood is space fantasy, so it’s perfect. I mean, it is for what I said, but it might not be for a readathon because it’s 464 pages of adult SFF, which takes me a while to get through. If I can’t fit it in here, I’ll count A Line in the Dark for this prompt because “F/F/F love triangle” is for sure one of my favorite tropes.

#4: Read a book by an author of color

43892137._sy475_

For this one, I’m going to pick Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo; I’ve recently discovered that one of the two main characters is a lesbian, and I think there’s an F/F romance. Also, I can’t wait to read Acevedo’s next book, after how much With the Fire on High affected me last year (has any other book ever convinced me to take up a hobby before? No.) It’s written in verse, which means it shouldn’t take me a long time to read, too.

#5: Read a book you got for free

46287674._sy475_

The Unspoken Name could count for this, as it’s a leftover ARC from one of last year’s netgalley request sprees, and so would The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, which involves lesbian teen witches and is also an ARC from when I was still requesting them (and if there had been a prompt for “pretty cover”, this would have been the best one). If I can’t manage to get through either, I’ll look for sapphic short stories that are interesting to me, but as I don’t love to make TBRs for short fiction, I’ll choose them as I go.

#6: Read a book that has been on your TBR a long time

3973532

The book that is best described by this prompt is Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente, an old, multi-PoV book that was released when I was nine (!!) and has at least one sapphic main character. I don’t know much about it apart from the fact that its plotline revolves around a sexually transmitted city, and isn’t that a remarkable premise. I haven’t read anything by Catherynne M. Valente in a while and I really should fix that, since she wrote some of my favorite books. But again, it’s adult SFF, so it might take me a while and I might choose something shorter if I need to, like a sapphic short story I’ve been wanting to read for a while or something like that.

#7: Free choice

I probably won’t be able to read six books to begin with, much less seven, but if I manage to fulfill some of the above challenges with short fiction I just might. If I get to that point, I’ll leave this one open anyway so that I have the space to choose according to my mood, as that usually helps me not to get stuck.


Will you participate in SapphicAThon? Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★


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

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

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

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

*spoilery clarification:

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

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

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Discussion · Fantasy

On Rules and Magic Systems

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! What best time there could ever be for talking about what I like about magic in books?

(It will have footnotes. I’m preemptively sorry.)

Before I started reviewing, I wanted to write¹. I cared very much about writing a Good and Original Fantasy Novel, so I spent a lot of time reading fantasy writing advice on the internet. A lot of it was bad and I recognized it as such (don’t describe your character’s appearance because it doesn’t matter anyway? Yeah, no), and a lot of it was bad but I’m only recognizing that as I read more fantasy.


Rules? In My Magic System?

In those circles, there seemed to be very specific ideas about how one should write magic. Five and more years later, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things I thought were necessary then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to understand everything about how the magic works. Which seems to be the main point on which me and internet writing advice disagree more every year, as I read more and more SFF with magic systems that go first in a completely wacky direction and then on my favorites list.

27883214

Let’s first get one thing out of the way: having a kind of magic that is weird, incomprehensible, or mostly unexplained for various reasons, doesn’t mean that the author will use said uncharted and unexplained territory to get a character out of a bad situation. That’s lazy writing and I’m not interested in it, and I think that’s the main reason at first I thought I didn’t like undefined magic systems: because I was reading a lot of fantasy that exploited the loopholes. I specifically remember having a problem with the magic in Caraval because the limits were never established, but would I have had a problem with that had the author not used magic so much to push the story along? Probably not. It isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about using “magic” as a plot point instead of having the characters make meaningful decisions. As long as the characters do that, you can spare the reader the tedious explanations that manage to take the magic out of magic.

The thing is, realistically, one can fully explain a magic system in a satisfactory way only if that magic system is relatively simple, sometimes simple enough in a way that just doesn’t ring true to me. It might be that I have the perspective of someone studying natural sciences: in ecology, a major issue is exactly trying to describe things with rules or mathematical models, as more often than not, when it comes to more than large-scale patterns, ecosystems just won’t have it. (*points at pond* this bad boy can fit so many variables in it.) Enough that we dedicated a part of the course specifically to idiosyncrasy².

42036538

So why are the mechanisms behind magic easier to understand than the mechanisms behind everyday non-magical things? If anything, it should be the opposite. I love the kind of SFF in which there’s very clearly an entire field dedicated to studying magic, and had a great time while reading Gideon the Ninth, in which the main character, a non-necromancer surrounded by necromancers, mostly understands nothing³ (and as a result, the reader’s idea of how the magic works is extremely vague) but the story still works. All we need is a very vague idea of the limits of what magic can attempt, and then we can go from there. No more explaining, I’m trying to have fun here.

Very predictably for me, I’ve always been drawn to magic that didn’t have clear rules4; in the past, I just thought that had to mean I wasn’t very critical about fantasy. Now that I always find enough reasons to complain about pretty much everything, I doubt that was the issue; if anything, there was a flaw in the idea that things can only be good if done in a very specific way. I’d much rather have a complete mess than same old elemental magic with very clear-cut rules any day, and that has always been true. (As usual, my principle for worldbuilding is “I’d rather be confused than bored”).

I’ve seen the Sanderson-coined idea of hard vs. soft magic systems, and I have a lot of doubts about that, because my reaction to the clear division between hard and soft science is already *stares in natural sciences student*, but I especially disagree with the idea that hard magic systems are for realism5 and a softer magic system’s main point would be to cause a sense of wonder in the reader. No, to me is important that the magic feels real and believable, not akin to a set of rules I could find in the explanation sheet of a board game.

But the thing is, this is a preference. I prefer the weird, unpredictable kind of magic, but I’ve never found myself thinking that a book was badly written for having neatly defined rules. Then why do we feel fine with talking about different, more unusual kinds of magic as if they were flaws or “bad writing”?

I also think a lot of authors and writing advice approach fantasy worldbuilding as if the readers needed to use the magic themselves – and it might be useful for the author to know the limits (and maybe, though not necessarily, the workings behind) more in detail. But the reader doesn’t need to, stories don’t have that constraint, and I think that’s great: you get a chance to have fun, be realistic and go with full chaos.


It Has Footnotes!

¹ it’s not that now I don’t, but then bilingualism happened, or it happened too late for it to actually work, and things got messy. Currently, I’m at the very desirable stage of being bad at not one but two languages!

² the TL;DR of idiosyncrasy in ecology: hoping to predict how an ecological community  will respond to something basing yourself on what you’ve seen in another place? Oh, good luck with that.

³ when the other characters talk about thanergy and Gideon says “that’s death juice” = accurate equivalent of the kind of sciencespeak-to-Italian translation I constantly do in my head around physicists. (Due to life circumstances, I’m often around physicists.) This is the kind of hard-hitting realism SFF needs!

Uprwoordpres4 irrelevant hill I’m willing to die on: the magic system in Uprooted was perfect as it is, how could it be any different – what, do we want plant magic to work according to easily understandable rules? When it’s about plants? *Flashback to botany course* oh I would love to get some of those easily understandable, always true rules for real plants

5 The wikipedia page on this topic says that magic systems with clear costs and limitations, of which the reader understands the inner workings, make the story feel more realistic. I think that’s quite simply wrong. There are so many things in our everyday life we don’t fully understand the workings or sometimes even limits of, and yet we use anyway. (*looks at computer.*) I don’t know what it says about my life exactly, but I find a general feeling of ignorance and lack of convenient explanation behind something more real than something that can be easily explained in two paragraphs.


What do your favorite magic systems have in common?

Discussion

Hugo Finalists 2020: Thoughts

As you might or might not know, depending on how much you’ve been following this blog and my goodreads, I love writing posts in which I talk about award finalists (here, for example, are last years’ Hugos); this time, however, I’ve also challenged myself to read as many of the finalists as possible before writing this post, so that I could write it with a more well-rounded opinion.

I love this kind of challenge because:

  • more than anything, it helps me discover new short fiction and sometimes new short fiction authors. The problem with short fiction is that there’s a lot of it but pretty much all of it gets very little visibility.
  • it makes me try books I wouldn’t have tried otherwise (sometimes with great results, as it happened this time) with a little more guarantee that the minimum threshold of objective quality won’t be too low.

I will talk about the categories I’m interested in: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, and Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book.


Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders – read, ★★★★½ (review)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir – read, ★★★★½
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley – read, ★★★★ (review)
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire – read, ★★★★★ (review)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow – read, ★★½ (review)

I fell in love with this line-up the moment I saw it, because hello, three of my favorite books of last year made it here? That had never happened before, and prompted me to decide that, since I had liked so many of these, I also had to read the two novels I still hadn’t read by then, The City in the Middle of the Night and Gideon the Ninth.

The second was already on my TBR, the first wasn’t (I didn’t love anything I had tried by Charlie Jane Anders so far), but I ended loving them equally for different reasons – one is quiet and introspective, the other is over-the-top and fun; both are really smart books in their own way – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

As far as the books I already read, I’m so glad to see The Light Brigade here. It might not have been a five star read for me, but I still consider it a favorite because of how much it impacted me. Since I didn’t expect it to be here (it has been ignored by most SFF awards so far) it was the best surprise.
There’s only one book I didn’t love: The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I thought it was nothing special overall and had issues with its (incorrect) use of the Italian language.

Then there are two books that ended up on my list of ten best books of 2019: Middlegame, a weird, genre-bending book that made something not at all easy feel easy to follow (something I will never stop appreciating, because that’s difficult, and I’m glad many others agree!) and the masterpiece that was A Memory Called Empire, which talked about language (especially bilingualism) in the context of imperialism in a way I’ve never seen any other book do, and it will forever be important for me because of that and approximately a hundred other reasons.

For how much I’m glad that this shortlist had so many books I loved on it, it’s also an all-white list, which is a huge step back when compared to previous years and doesn’t reflect the genre accurately at all. Off the top of my head, Gods of Jade and Shadow should really have been here! I’m glad it’s in the Nebula line-up, at least.

Predicted winner: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
What I want to see win: this is hard and I’d be really happy with… all of them but one? But my answer is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, my favorite book of last year.

Best Novella

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Ted Chiang – maybe
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes – read, ★★★★ (review)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark – read, ★★★★★ (review)
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire – read, ★★★★★ (review)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – read, ★★★★★ (review)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers – not interested

I really like this lineup as well! First, it’s not all-white, and second, so many of my favorites published in 2019 are here (sadly but expectedly, they don’t include the awesome Desdemona and the Deep nor the crackling finale that was The Ascent to Godhood).

My favorite of these is probably In an Absent Dream – not only I couldn’t see one flaw in the whole novella, I also have a lot of fond memories tied to it because I listened to it in my two best days of last year – but I’d actually prefer to see win The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (the Wayward Children series has already won awards), even though I don’t see it as likely. A more likely This Is How You Lose the Time War win would be a great step for sapphic fiction – as would be The Deep, which I also liked, though not as much as the aforementioned three (so much competition for my heart in these first two categories!)

I didn’t challenge myself to read all nominees in the novella category. Having already tried a lot of Becky Chamber’s works, all of which have managed to annoy me in some way, so I don’t see any purpose to trying To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I also probably won’t be able to read Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom anytime soon, but since Ted Chiang’s stories have been nominated in two categories this year, I’m thinking about trying the anthology Exhalation sometimes in the future, even though I haven’t read anything by this author yet.

Predicted winner: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
What I want to see win: I’d be really happy about at least other three of these, but probably The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Best Novelette

The Archronology of Love, by Caroline M. Yoachim – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Away With the Wolves, by Sarah Gailey – read, ★★★★ (review)
The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye, by Sarah Pinsker – read, ★★ (review)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin – probably not interested
For He Can Creep, by Siobhan Carroll – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Omphalos, by Ted Chiang – maybe

46301916I’m so glad to see For He Can Creep here, it’s one of my favorite short fiction piece I read this year – I read it before the finalists were announced, and it’s a story about a demon-fighting cat, full of cat logic! And while reading the other stories, I found another favorite, The Archronology of Love, which is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long while. Painful in the best way, beautifully written, and I love anything related to space archaeology so much.

I didn’t love Sarah Pinsker’s – it wasn’t my kind of horror and I didn’t find it creepy – while I surprisingly quite liked Sarah Gailey’s story about accessibility for a werewolf with chronic pain (…bad track record with the author).

I’m not interested in buying Emergency Skin (it’s not available for free online) because I’ve disliked pretty much all the sci-fi stories in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, and again, Omphalos is in an anthology I don’t own (yet?).

Predicted winner: Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
What I want to see win: either The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim or For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carrol, I consider both of them favorites

Best Short Story

And Now His Lordship Is Laughing, by Shiv Ramdas – read, no rating
As the Last I May Know, by S.L. Huang – read, ★★★★ (review)
Blood Is Another Word for Hunger, by Rivers Solomon – DNF, no rating
A Catalog of Storms, by Fran Wilde – read, ★★★ (review)
Do Not Look Back, My Lion, by Alix E. Harrow – read, ★★★★ (review)
Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island, by Nibedita Sen – read, ★★★ (review)

48594209._sy475_Oh, this was an interesting! I didn’t discover any new favorites like I did in the previous category, but I didn’t hate any of the stories either (unlike last year). I decided to DNF Rivers Solomon’s for reasons unrelated to the quality of the story itself (magical pregnancy) and decided not to rate Shiv Ramdas’ because I have a complicated relationship with fantasy stories based on real tragedies, but that again doesn’t have to do with craft.

My favorites were As the Last I May Know, which engages with a very difficult question with grace, heart, and a lot to say, and Do Not Look Back, My Lion, which was set in one of those queernorm fantasy worlds I will always love, and was the only story I already read before the finalists were announced.

As for A Catalog of Storms and Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island, both of them were really well-written but I didn’t find them particularly memorable.

Predicted winner: And Now His Lordship Is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas
What I want to see win: As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer – maybe
Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge – maybe
Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee – read, ★★★★★ (review)
Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher – read, ★★★ (review)
Riverland, by Fran Wilde – probably not interested
The Wicked King, by Holly Black – maybe

My first thought when I saw these nominees was that something had gone really wrong, because only two of these are actually Young Adult NovelsThe Wicked King and Catfishing on CatNet. My second one was that the title of the award probably only means “book that isn’t adult”, which would make more sense, but I still think it’s really interesting how the YA books that interest adults/the adult SFF community (which composes the majority of the voters here for obvious reasons) are radically different from the the favorites of the YA crowd. As usual, I’m not surprised that the adult SFF crowd gets along with middle grade better than with YA (two partial truths: 1. YA is more similar to adult SFF than middle grade, which opens the ground to comparisons that are not in the young adult range’s favor; 2. a significant number of adult SFF readers won’t touch YA for the same reasons they wouldn’t even dream to look at romance, the TL;DR of it being basically the book version of girl cooties).

About these nominees: Dragon Pearl was one of my favorite books of last year, and it has I think a good chance of winning (or maybe not; I don’t know that much about this crowd’s taste in middle grade!), and I read Minor Mage out of curiosity for this post – after all, middle grade novellas go by quickly – but I don’t think T. Kingfisher’s books are for me. Every time I read something of hers, I think it’s cute/charming/somewhat fun but completely forgettable.

While I’m marginally interested in Catfishing on Catnet (because YA with a questioning main character!), Deeplight (I’ve never read anything by Frances Hardinge and anything involved with deep seas sounds vaguely interesting, even though I’ve never heard anything about this book) and The Wicked King (this is mostly curiosity due to the hype; I hate bully romances and this is very much one), I’m not particularly drawn to any of them. I may or may not read some of them before the winners are announced, I don’t know. And as I haven’t loved anything I have read by Fran Wilde and haven’t heard much about Riverland, I’m mostly uninterested in it.

Predicted winner: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
What I want to see win: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

Between Catfishing on Catnet, Deeplight and The Wicked King, which one do you think would be more worth reading?


What did you think of this year’s finalists? Have you read any of them?

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

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?

TBR & Goals · Wrap-Up

An April Wrap-Up + Wyrd and Wonder Plans

To give you an idea of how confused I am and how much we are a joke to time itself, I first wrote “May Wrap-Up” and stared at the title of this post for a full ten seconds with the vague awareness that maybe something was off, just a little.


A Brief Life Update

April was exactly like March! Which means it was exactly like the second half of February, which means I haven’t been out of my house in more than two months. Well, there were some different flowers on my balcony, I guess, the prettiest one being this Anemone:

20200422_085821


April as a Reading Month

In April, I read 9 books:

  • 5 new novels, of which one I DNFed halfway through;
  • 2 novellas, of which one was a reread
  • 1 graphic novel
  • 1 anthology.

I also ended up reading 14 short stories (yes, this was one of those months) but I will talk about them in my next short fiction wrap-up and not here.

In terms of quantity, this month was average. In terms of quality, I went from not reading a five star novel for three months to finding five in just a month, so I think I can’t complain. I don’t write ratings in wrap-ups anymore, but I’m going to mark those with a 🐉.

What I Read

39855052 It didn’t start out too well: my first two reads were the Hungry Hearts anthology, that reminded me of how easily lack of cohesion can make an anthology fail (review to come soon), and Crier’s War by Nina Varela, which I DNFed halfway through (not for me).
I then finally read a sequel right after having reread the first book (yay), and read 🐉
The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty astonishingly quickly given how long books over 500 pages take me these days. I loved every moment of it, and wow, is fantasy amazing when the author knows how to build interesting and terribly tense interpersonal relationships along with a fascinating world.

48425575._sy475_Then I read an ARC of 🐉 Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee, a steampunk novel with folktale-like elements set in a country inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation. It’s easier to follow than Lee’s usual, and the portrayal of what it’s like to be an artist in a colonized country made it stand out (also, it was interesting to see Lee write from the PoV of someone who isn’t a genius, this time). You get all this with a non-binary main character, their pacifist mecha dragon best friend, and a female duelist the main character really shouldn’t be into, but is anyway. I could call this both “delightful and fun” and “bittersweet with some horrifying undertones”, and that’s always the best combination.

Then the Hugo Finalists were announced, and I decided to read some of them for a post I’m putting together with my opinions about this year’s line-up. The first of them was Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher, a cute but forgettable middle grade read about a boy who is a not-so-good mage and his armadillo familiar. I was luckier with my attempt at reading all the nominees in the Best Novel category, where I had only two books to get to:

  •  🐉 The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders wasn’t even on my TBR, but I ended up falling in love with it, which I would have never predicted – I didn’t like anything I tried by Anders before and this didn’t even have that many good reviews from people I follow! I thought it was an incredibly smart book, a story about the downfall of societies and what might work to save humanity on a hostile, tidally locked planet. At its heart is a toxic relationship between two women involving unrequited love and the differences brought by privileged upbringing. The writing and worldbuilding are wonderful, too. My review of this one is neverending because there’s so much to say and couldn’t bring myself to cut any of it out.
  • I finally stopped procrastinating on what was my most anticipated novel for the second half of last year, 🐉 Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, and while I loved it deeply, it’s true that having expectations that high is never good (I wanted this to be an all-time favorite! As of now, it’s not). Still, it’s a really great read and just the kind of queer sci-fantasy mashup I love – with a mystery aspect thrown in the mix as well, because this book knows that you never have too many genres (or dated memes, or bones).

1684155061I also ended up reading a graphic novel, Eat and Love Yourself by Sweeney Boo & Lilian Klepakowsky, told from the PoV of a woman with an eating disorder as she finds a magical chocolate bar that makes her relive some of the moments in her past that defined the negative relationship she has with herself and her body. It gets how much small, seemingly insignificant moments can have a impact on you as an adult; it explores  the long-term effects of bullying (books that do this are so rare!) and growing up in a casually fatphobic household. The art was great and everything was easy to follow despite the frequent flashbacks. Also, I loved the cat! More comics need to have cats in them.

43549397._sy475_Then I decided to reread Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Sometimes I get this feelings about books I read a few years ago – in this case, long enough that I was still a minor – that tells me that I might not have understood them. I had liked Binti back in 2017, but hadn’t thought about it often since. In 2019, it got translated in my country, and I had bought a copy of the trilogy because I like to support translations of diverse SFF, and since then I’ve had that feeling, maybe this book is better than I remembered. I don’t feel like that often, but when I do I’m usually right, and this time I was too. I feel like I got what this wanted to say so much more and I’m glad I reread it as an adult.

36292242._sy475_I broke my ARC ban twice this month! For my two most anticipated releases of the year, which I read immediately after getting (my ARC ban exists to avoid accumulation of ARCs aka reading stress), so I’m not too annoyed at myself. The second ARC I got was 🐉 Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, a fairytale-like fantasy novel set in a country inspired by ancient Persia and Zoroastrian beliefs. I don’t want to say too much about it, because it’s the kind of book I think one should go into without knowing too much, but it was gorgeous and sapphic and maybe I even liked it more than Girls Made of Snow and Glass. Such an interesting twist on the “girl deadly to the touch” premise.


What to Expect in May


Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival 

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! Wyrd and Wonder is a month-long celebration of all things fantasy; if you haven’t heard of it yet, here’s the announcement post.

As I don’t write TBRs anymore, I thought I’d talk about what I’m planning for May here. I don’t know if I’ll actually be reading more fantasy than usual, as I’ve learned  – after trying to make monthly TBRs work for all of last year – that I can’t accurately predict what I’ll want to read, but I know that:

  • on May 6th, my review of Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust (out on July 7th) will be up;
  • on May 11th, a post I’m really excited about, On Rules and Magic Systems, will be up (…with footnotes!) That one was really fun to write, and I hope you’ll find it fun to read as well.
Other Readathons

From May 18th to May 25th SapphicAThon will also be running – my attempt at a weekly TBR will be up sometimes later this month (yes, a weekly TBR sounds more manageable) and I might take Wyrd and Wonder and SapphicAThon as an opportunity to read more F/F fantasy.

May is also the time of both the Tome Topple Readathon (May 9th-22nd) and the Asian Readathon, and while I don’t know if I plan to participate in either (as far as making an actual TBR and following challenges) but that might just be the encouragement I need to read the 600-page tome Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang. Problem is, it wouldn’t count for either SapphicAThon or Wyrd and Wonder, being not sapphic sci-fi. We’ll see.


Have you read any of these? How was April for you? Will you participate in Wyrd and Wonder and/or SapphicAThon?