Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★¾

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


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

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

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

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

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★½


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

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Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore

43263188When I heard that The Perfect Assassin was going to get a companion sequel that was also about assassins but with a main f/f romance, The Impossible Contract instantly became one of my most anticipated books of the year. And it didn’t disappoint.

While reviewing a sequel, one of the first things I think about is how the sequel is in comparison to the first book. And in this case, I can say that I’ve never read two books in the same series that had such different strengths. Where The Perfect Assassin was a slow-burn mystery all set in the same city, The Impossible Contract is a fast-paced journey book involving necromancy. It’s darker and bloodier – and, in a way, also messier than the first book, not as clear in its direction or themes, but way funnier at the same time.
I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse, but what I can tell you it’s that it’s different, and that I enjoyed it a lot more.

This is the story of Thana, the daughter of the famous assassin known as “the Serpent of Ghadid”. Thana has always wanted to prove herself, to be seen as something more than “the daughter of someone famous”. She wants to be a legend herself, and this new assassination contract seems to be her chance… except it’s impossible, and she ends entangled into a web of political and magical machinations that reach as far as the capital of the empire.

And help her meet a cute healer girl. I loved Mo so much, and her relationship with Thana. They are people with very different values and strengths and… they made it work anyway, but it wasn’t easy and seamless. Thana, who learns that she doesn’t have to be a copy of her mother; Mo, who learns to not deal in moral absolutes. And it’s so interesting to see how the romance storyline is a foil to the one in the first book.
(Also, Mo deserves the world and a hug.)

I can’t not mention the third relevant character, Heru, the man Thana has been hired to kill. He is a powerful en-marabi, a necromancer, and a really self-important, irritating man obsessed with researching magic. He ended up being the funniest character in the book – not by his intention – and ended up having all the best lines.
Also, he’s the reason me and Silvia keep making zombie camel jokes.

While I can’t talk about the villain without spoilers, I will say that for a character who got relatively little page time, they were really fascinating.

I talked about the worldbuilding in this series before, but can I just repeat how… not obvious and yet so logical it is to have a water-based magic system and economy in a desert fantasy book? And the repercussions that has on a world in which there’s also blood-based necromancy? This is how you do worldbuilding.

The only thing that didn’t work for me that much was the pacing. Journey books often have pacing problems, but in some places here it was clear that a scene had been cut and then summed up, so that sometimes we’re only told about things I would have liked to see – but that’s a minor complaint, and overall I really liked this.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

40794181I think that at its heart, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a great message. It is based on some really clever and interesting ideas, especially the ones surrounding the role of doors, of magic and portal fantasy. I also thought that the writing was – usually, more on that later – beautiful without needing to draw that much attention to itself, every word chosen carefully. It had a harmony to it, as if it were made to be read out loud; I think it would sound amazing as an audiobook.

I was also going to say that this book had a solid portrayal of the psychological consequences of childhood abuse, but something that happened in the second half made me change my mind. One didn’t need that to make January’s struggle to talk back and disobey realistic. It kind of undermined the whole thing.
Anyway, abuse does have a relevant role in this story, as the biracial main character is raised by a racist white man and abused both by him and by her white maid; at one point the main character also experiences forced institutionalization and abuse at the hand of psychiatrists, which I wish I had known before reading.

The rest of the book is… fine. I don’t have much to say about it, because one of my problems with it was exactly how unremarkable it was. All the characters but January didn’t have any dimension to them. All the portal worlds but one are barely described.
Also, it took me more than two weeks only to get through the first 30%. It was partly my fault, but everything I have to say on the pacing isn’t good.

While I said that the author clearly put effort in choosing the right words, the same didn’t happen when it came to including Italian ones. This led to jarring sentences and weird moments, like the one in which the Italian-American love interest calls the main character a “strega”, as if that were a compliment. It does mean “witch”, yes, but not in the way the English word does. It doesn’t carry the same connotations, the aspect of the cool independent woman who saves herself. I asked the people around me, and it doesn’t make any of us think of mysterious, dangerous but alluring magic. A strega is an old woman with a pointy hat and warts. He basically called her a hag.

It might be that the character, having grown up in America, sees the word as just a translation – but then, why not use the word “witch”, if that’s what you mean. And why use Italian words at all, if you don’t even bother to get the plural right? Was that a sign of laziness, of not even caring that other languages don’t do plurals the way English does, or was it done to cater to monolingual anglophones who might be confused by an Italian plural but still want a sprinkle of ~exotic flavor~?
I don’t know, I don’t particularly care, but in a book that attempted to talk about exotification among other things, this struck me as hypocritical.

My rating: ★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

37578998For something that took me more than a month to complete, this was surprisingly fun. It’s just that the writing leaned into the aspect I didn’t like in Jade City even more than in the first book – giving you far more details than you actually need to understand the story – and that’s how we got a 600-page sequel that was at the same time far too long and far too short for what it was trying to do.

I’ll try to explain what went wrong, which I can sum up as “I’ve never read a book in which the pacing was so bad“. The scenes themselves are slow, often full of paragraphs and paragraphs of useless infodumps; I skimmed most of the non-dialogue parts in the second half and still didn’t struggle at all with understanding the story. (It was more fun that way, actually.)
Why far too short, then? Because in this book, the sense of passage of time goes completely out of the window after 30%. There are enormous time jumps between chapters, and you’re not told that so much time has passed until, for example, the book tells you that the character who was pregnant a few chapters ago is also pregnant now… with another child. Where did that year go?

Which is how I started focusing on odd details, one of them being the unusual amount of pregnancies in this book. I joked that this book, sequel to Jade City, should really have been called Pregnancity: every single relevant female character but the villain (and even a few of the not relevant ones) gets pregnant in this book, some of them multiple times, for a total of six pregnancies. I guess that’s what happens when you put too many straight people on an island.

The only major gay character, the token self-loathing gay cousin, is away in another country, and queer women don’t seem to exist. I won’t tell you that this book is bad because it has none, but I do wish there had been less overwhelming heterosexuality and more female characters in general (…all of them can get pregnant because there are only a few relevant ones to begin with).
Now that I got my complaints out of the way, let’s talk about what I liked.

Jade War is an ambitious sequel. A lot of things about it didn’t work for me, but something I never lost was my interest in it, or my attachment to the characters. I loved reading about these complicated family dynamics, seeing how far the character would go for each other and for what they believe in – sometimes, maybe too far; there were a few scenes that surprised me that way, and yet they made so much sense. I’ve always been interested in stories about families and stories about loyalty and its limits, and this is both, so it’s perfect.
Also, can we talk about how refreshing it is to read an adult book in which sibling relationships are the backbone of the story? We’re lucky if even YA novels remember that siblings are a thing.
I might not have been there for the politics and the overly-detailed worldbuilding, but I was always there for the quieter scenes, the ones in which I saw the characters interact. There was always tension, and it always felt personal and real. I loved all of them.

(Also, not to be predictable, but I’m really fascinated by Ayt Mada and would love to have her PoV.)

Once I stopped forcing myself to wade through the text walls, the plot also turned out to be really engaging, complex and surprising, and this time I also loved the ending.
So, will I continue the series? It depends on how long the third book will be and how willing I’ll be to get into something just to skim it, but I really do want to know what happens. I even have some theories:

Spoiler-y theories

Since Jade City had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Lan, and Jade War had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Shae, it only makes sense that Jade Legacy will have a plot-relevant duel halfway through involving Hilo, only I have a hunch that this time it will actually be lethal for him. I don’t know who the opponent is, I just hope it’s not Bero.

My rating: ★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

36510722Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fantasy story set in the 1920s. It follows Casiopea Tun, a young woman from a small town in Yucatán, as she travels through Mexico with Hun-Kamé, a Maya god. Hun-Kamé is trying to regain his throne as the god of death, but his closeness with Casiopea makes him more human every day; Casiopea is escaping her abusive and racist family for a free life, but being tied to the god of death might kill her.

This is a journey book. One of the main things I look for in journey books is atmosphere, and here it was amazing: from Uukumil to Mérida to Mexico City, I could visualize everything, and I always love reading fantasy novels that aren’t set in a stereotyped Englishland. It’s not like you can find books set in Mexico and based on Maya mythology every day, after all.
However, the setting wasn’t always enough to keep my attention, and if I had to point out what I struggled with the most while reading this book, I’d say that it was the fact that I couldn’t get invested in the relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, even though I really liked them as individuals and also liked them as a couple as an idea. Something got lost in the execution, but as I’m not sure what that something is, I can’t say if it’s more on me or on the book.
Also, I didn’t need so many chapters following Martín. Every time I got to his chapters, I put the book down and started doing something else. I kind of get why they were there, but sometimes they felt redundant, and Martín was a combination of unlikable and uninteresting that never works well as a main character.

As most of this novel is about Casiopea and Hun-Kamé going around Mexico and meeting various other paranormal creatures, some definitely less friendly than others, not getting really invested in them did make this journey not always that interesting to read about. But I can say that it was worth it, without a doubt – this book had one of the best endings I’ve read in a fantasy book this year, not because it was surprising, not really, but because it made sense in a way that made it powerful, it fit the story perfectly. It helps that I love when books go in that direction.

Another thing I loved about this book? The level of detail that the author put into everything, from the setting to the characterization to the parts talking about history – I recognized myself in Casiopea at times, for what this book said about what it’s like on a mental level to live in a strict Catholic environment and then finally leave, but what I really didn’t expect was to recognize pieces of the story of my own (Italian) family.

For example, the name Casiopea in itself. It’s a Greek name, which her town’s priest calls “Greek nonsense”, and… I have several ancestors who were named after “Greek nonsense” themselves and who were born around the time Casiopea was born. I never thought I would see characters deliberately not giving their children names of saints in a fantasy book, but I guess the Catholic church being awful around the world also meant that people tried to do the same things around the world to defy it in their everyday life.

I have more mixed feelings about the writing. Gods of Jade and Shadow is written in a way that should resemble a myth, but it didn’t work for me. It felt more removed than the average fantasy book, but it didn’t feel like a myth either, it felt like a halfway thing, and… I got used to it, but I can’t say I liked it.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · contemporary · historical fiction · Short fiction

Reviews: Two M/M Adult Books + Two Non-Binary Graphic Novels

After making a post with two short reviews of F/F YA books I had read recently, today I’m making one for two M/M adult ones (a novella with a trans main character and a historical fiction book with steampunk aspects) and two graphic novels with non-binary main characters.


Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

32146161Coffee Boy is a new adult romance novella following Kieran, a young trans intern who gets a crush on his supervisor Seth, who has himself a crush on their boss.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one, because it’s very short, but I can say that the romance was adorable (novellas are the best length for romance, it’s the truth), and that it’s so refreshing to read a contemporary romance with trans representation in which there is no outing anywhere in the book. There is some misgendering, because the main character doesn’t always pass, and there are some scenes about well-meaning but condescending and sometimes outright clueless “allies” that were… very awkward and very real, at the same time – but, overall, this is a happy story.

Anyway, if “younger person who can’t keep his mouth shut” and “older, distinguished grump who is actually secretly a mess” is your kind of thing, I really recommend it! And it’s for sure a short, cute romantic read perfect for Pride month.

My rating: ★★★★½


The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

22929563What happens when you care about the characters a lot but the writing meanders so much that you almost end up DNFing a book? You end up skimming. Which is why I didn’t enjoy The Watchmaker of Filigree Street as much as I could have.

It was as if the author felt the need to describe every single thing. Which, sometimes, was interesting, as I love details – especially when it came to the steampunk aspects, and the atmosphere was perfect – but for the most part, wasn’t. There were whole scenes that could have easily been cut, or maybe I just missed their significance because at that point I was so bored that I was skipping paragraphs. That’s possible. It’s just… how can one put together such a compelling premise, featuring historical gay people, steampunk technology, clairvoyance and bombings and make a boring story out of it? I don’t know. This book managed, and its characters weren’t even that bland.

Or – Nathaniel could have won the “blandest man of the year” award, but Grace wasn’t bland at all, if unlikable, and Mori was… unlike every character I had ever read about before, in a good way. The romance was also very sweet, and there was a mechanical octopus, and the book said so many interesting things about chances vs. choices, but this book was still so boring that nothing could save it – not even that ending, the best possible ending, or the fact that I knew it was going to be slow beforehand.

One more thing: I feel iffy about some things in here – it’s not my place to talk about how the anti-Asian racism is portrayed, but know that, if you’re interested in reading this book, there’s a lot of it in here (and, just like the misogyny in this book – which is also what you would expect from English people of the time, but still, ehh – not all of it is explicitly challenged).

My rating: ★★★


The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912I wouldn’t have thought the day people in my country could walk into a bookstore and find a YA book with a non-binary main character on the shelves was going to be anytime soon, and I’m so glad to know that I was wrong.
I knew that book was probably going to be translated, seeing how the popular Italian YA books usually are. This one was, and I can’t even complain: it’s a graphic novel with a happy ending, one that doesn’t make a mess with the character’s pronouns, and overall a cute read.

It means a lot.

I’ve seen a few reviews say that we shouldn’t call this cute, or fluffy, because the main character gets outed. And I know. But this had such a light tone overall, and the main character is accepted by the people around him (the prince is genderfluid and both he/him and she/her pronouns are used during the story), including his family, so that by the end this story felt more like a reassurance to me – even if bad things could happen to you, you can still have a happy ending.

What I’m more annoyed by is the fact that books with this exact storyline (this one, Simon vs., and more recently Red, White and Royal Blue) or books that I really did found to be about queer pain (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugoare the ones that get the most popularity and then are almost the only ones that could even get a chance of being translated, so that the message becomes more “bad things will happen to you”. But you know, we don’t really get to be picky about representation here.
[This is why, by the way, I’m so glad that Leah on the Offbeat exists: no outing or queer pain in that one, and it got translated.]

Anyway. This is a story about a dressmaker with big dreams and a prince who likes to wear dresses, with an f/non-binary romance, set in an alt-history version of Paris. The art is very cute, and while it isn’t exactly my thing – I think I just prefer more realistic stlyes? – I still had fun with this.

My rating: ★★★★


The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill

42369064The Tea Dragon Festival is a companion prequel to the graphic novel The Tea Dragon Society, a cute fantasy graphic novel I liked but didn’t love. This installment convinced me a lot more. It features both old and new characters and just as many adorable dragons. The art is gorgeous, as always, but this time I liked both the characters and the setting more (there were fungi and beautiful woods! I loved that a lot.)

The story follows a non-binary main character who loves gathering food from the forest, and a confused dragon who woke up after eighty years of sleep. The story was cute, but what made it truly stand out was how it normalized queerness and sign language. Also, it’s so refreshing to read about a world in which people of many different ethnicities coexist and the world doesn’t always default to western customs – see which kinds of food was drawn and sometimes the eating utensils, for example.

Another thing I really appreciated was that this graphic novel said that just because something is easy for you, it doesn’t mean it has no value. More than anything, this is a story about community, and finding your own place in it, and I thought it was wonderful.

The only thing I didn’t love was the part at the end that attempted to explain dragon taxonomy, made a mess in which it mixed up species and subspecies, and capitalized specific epithets. I kind of wish it hadn’t been there at all, because I care about that sort of thing.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read or want to read any of these?