Book review · Fantasy · Nonfiction

Mini Reviews: Recently-Read Queer Books

Today, I’m posting the reviews of three queer books I’ve read between the end of May and now, mostly very short or in genres I’m not familiar with; these reviews are shorter than my usual, which may be a good thing.

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson is a memoir aimed at a young adult audience that talks about growing up as Black and queer in America. It’s a powerful book and accessible for those who need it most, including teens who aren’t used to reading nonfiction, while dealing with difficult topics. It’s the kind of book that makes me glad I finally decided to start reading nonfiction in my free time this year.

It’s a necessary reminder that we can’t sort people into boxes and we should push back against the societal tendency to do so; a reminder that we can’t talk about different kinds of marginalization without considering the way they influence each other.

What more can I say? I flew through this while highlighting every chapter in multiple places. I know I was wary of nonfiction as a teen, but there are certain things that fiction doesn’t get, at least not right now, like how coming out can be like outside of the two extremes fictional coming out stories keep pushing at queer people, and so many other things.
Highly recommended to pretty much everyone.

[I’m not really comfortable with rating memoirs but I did give it 5 stars on goodreads.]

Queer portal fantasy, but make it Ikea AU!

As many others, I was first drawn to Finna because of its premise; after all, why not use the liminal space potential of retail stores to literally blur the boundaries between worlds? In that, Finna did deliver, and not without driving home certain points (love how the horror aspect comes from a world in which employees are all basically clones that exist to support the corporation aka “the Mother” because the workplace is your family!, and “shoppers” pay in blood.) After all, there are stories suited to subtlety, and this one never was.

Still, I don’t think this will stay with me for long. While I really liked the beginning, I just didn’t find the time the two main characters spent in the parallel worlds to be that interesting to read. For obvious reasons, every world is very underdeveloped, and we never get a setting that feels… real in any way after we leave the real world? I don’t mean “realistic”, I don’t particularly care about realism in a weird portal fantasy, I mean that everything felt very cheesy.

As far as the main characters go, I really liked reading about them, and wish I could have seen more of their relationship before the break-up instead of being told about it. I liked the way Finna talked about how mental illnesses can impact relationships, and I liked seeing the now-exes go on an adventure together and grow closer again, but it wasn’t enough for me to truly get attached to them.

Something I’m more likely to remember about Finna is the answer it gives to the miserable and wearing conditions (especially for who is visibly marginalized like the LI, Jules, who is Black and non-binary) retail workers are in. It’s a hopeful story in the end.

My rating: ★★★¼

Murder husbands and Dragon Kingdom politics!
Of Dragon, Feasts and Murder is a novella set in the Dominion of the Fallen universe that can be read as a standalone, but I especially recommend it to fans of the series who want to have a more detailed understanding of the Dragon Kingdom. It was my favorite setting in the series, and as all places in this universe, it’s far from free of its own brand of rot (literally and not).

One of the things I appreciated the most about this novella was how it refused to fall into a simplistic portrayal of any side. There are people who are firmly in the wrong, but the core reason beneath the murderous political machinations is the fact that necessary change isn’t happening.

At the same time, I’m surprised by how long it took me to read this? Maybe because most of this is made up of talking, and while I did really like said talking – I live for Thuan and Asmodeus’ thorny relationship dynamic – I didn’t feel much tension or urgency, which is unusual for a murder mystery.

Anyway this would have been worth reading even only for how it referred to Asmodeus as “sweet, murderous delight”. (No seriously the Empress Dowager’s scenes!!)

My rating: ★★★½

Have you read or want to read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Short, Gay Urban Fantasy Books

Today, I’m reviewing a few short novels and stories I read lately, and they all happen to be gay urban fantasy, because I’m predictable.

46284528._sy475_Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall is one of the most trope-y and unnecessarily overdramatic things I have ever read, and I was living for it.
I mean, it is a story about Kate, a paranormal investigator, as she tries to solve the murder of a werewolf, falls for a vampire prince (don’t let the name fool you, Julian is a vampire woman), while also trying not to anger various other paranormal creatures.
Everyone in this book is a combination of queer, ridiculous, and horny, often all three, and… I didn’t know how much I needed an f/f vampire romance until I read this book. I loved how these tired and often ugly tropes felt a lot less unbearable and even interesting when one makes them gay and doesn’t expect the reader to take everything seriously. For example, drama with ex-girlfriends from the point of view of a lesbian is a lot more interesting than the drama with exes in straight books. I loved all of it.

“My girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and my new assistant were all staring at me.”

When I say that this is tropey, I mean that this does read a little like fanfiction, also because so many parts of it are obviously references to more well-known urban fantasy series, and that’s part of the fun. The minor character who is very clearly an Edward Cullen reference was hilarious, and I mean, after years of being told by the very straight urban fantasy genre that I needed to take books like Twilight and its sparkly vampires or the Fever series and the walking personification of toxic masculinity that was its love interest seriously, this is so refreshing. Nothing about this book demands that! And urban fantasy works so much better this way.

On the negatives, I will say that while the sex scenes aren’t bad, they could have used less weird metaphors and descriptions (it could have been part of the parody aspect, but it usually wasn’t over-the-top enough to be funny, so maybe it wasn’t?) and that the pacing felt a bit wobbly, but overall, but I haven’t laughed this much while reading a book in months, so I’m definitely not here to complain. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s exactly what it needs to be.

My rating: ★★★★

26300164._sy475_This month I also read Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship by Aliette de Bodard, a short story set in the world of The House of Shattered Wings.

This is a really cute f/f romance between two fallen angels! It can be read independently from the novels, but it does work better if you know a little about the characters and world already. That way, for example, you can understand the full implications of two fallen angels infiltrating an enemy House (they end up kissing there. of course they end up kissing there.)

This mostly reminded me that I can’t wait to read The House of Sundering Flames and get more of Emmanuelle’s PoV, and also it confirmed that I do really like Selene, when I’m not reading about her as the Head of the House. She is arrogant and cold, but there’s more to her than that, and her and bookish, quieter (but far from spineless) Emmanuelle balance each other perfectly.

It’s also nice to read about a Paris before the war that destroyed it in the books, even though from here, you can already see that injustice and rot were already everywhere in the society; the war just made it impossible to ignore even for the powerful.

My rating: ★★★★¾

I also read the short story at the back of the UK edition of The House of Shattered Wings, The House, In Winter, and… please, if it’s a possibility for you and if you’re interested in reading this book, try to pick up this edition, it’s even better than the book itself. I’ve never been more glad to have the UK edition of something. (For once, the American ones aren’t the ones having the additional content.)

The best kind of short stories really are the ones that manage to make you feel a lot about a character you already know is dead in the novel. I’m in so much pain. And I want, really want more content about that one fallen angel.

Also, the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the level of details!! This is quality content. I’ve read so many things written by Aliette de Bodard this month and this is unambiguously one of the best ones.

My rating: ★★★★★

As usual, if you have short story recommendations, especially if queer, throw them at me!

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 · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Reviews: Space Opera Edition

19175494On a Red Station, Drifting is a novella set in the Xuya universe, the first according to publication order, and of course I unintentionally read this (companion) series backwards. It also ended up being my least favorite so far.
…which means I can tell you that this series gets better with each book.

This novella is a story about the repercussions of war on a space station. We do not actually see anything about the war, but we see how the station struggles with resources when more and more refugees come in. I thought this was a really interesting choice, and that’s one of the things I like the most about this series – it focuses on the stories we usually do not see in sci-fi books. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about space battles, but I also like to read about characters living their lives in space. This kind of point of view usually gets ignored.

It’s also a story about family and the way difficult circumstances tend to strain those bonds. Many of the characters in this story resent each other – Quyen is looking for control while the station’s AI is deteriorating, Linh is dealing with the consequences of choices made on a distant planet, and other characters are looking for escape, or desperately trying to challenge inequality with the wrong means.
The characters’ decisions were never unbelievable, but the constant clashes between them, paired with the (very short) length of this story, prevented me from ever really caring about anyone.

The main reason I didn’t like this story as much as the other two novellas was the way it talked about suicide. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happened felt a lot like the usual “suicide is selfish” narrative. Now, I know the characters’ thoughts about that are both due to the fact that they were obviously upset and also to the way their culture thinks about suicide, but it still hurt to read. I wish I had know it was there, because now I kind of wish I hadn’t read it. I prefer to believe basic mental health awareness exists in space.

Anyway, I still really enjoyed many aspects of this book – mainly because I love the worldbuilding. It’s set in a Vietnamese space empire, and with every novella I get to know more about the details, from the way marriage is seen to the inequalities that exist in this universe. My favorite parts are always the ones that have to do with Minds, and the station’s AI was my favorite character in this book.

My rating: ★★★¼

TheCollapsingEmpireI thought I hated sci-fi books. That was before I decided to try the adult ones instead of limiting myself to YA, as YA sci-fi tends to disappoint me more often than not.

The Collapsing Empire is one of the books that helped me understand I actually love this genre, and I’m so glad I decided to pick it up. I may haven’t found a young adult book that gets the mix of politics, science and action right yet, but this one does. It’s also surprisingly easy to read, for an adult book heavy on politics. It’s violent, but it also made me laugh a lot.

The first time I read it, I rated this book a full five because I was surprised by how much I liked it. With this reread, I decided to lower it to 4.5: some of the character weren’t as developed or as interesting as they should have been.

It mainly follows three PoVs:
🌟 Cardenia Wu, the new empress, who is trying her best to rule a collapsing empire. Deserves better, but she’s kind of bland;
🌟 Marce Claremont, a physicist. He’s kind of a stereotypical character, as he’s a socially awkward, physically weak scientist, and while I didn’t feel strongly about him, I did end up liking him;
🌟 Kiva Lagos, merchant and disaster bisexual (it’s canon!) whose vocabulary is mainly composed by swear words. This would have been irritating in any other book, but not here – I loved her and her rude pragmatism a lot, she’s my favorite PoV character.

One thing that I missed the first time I read this book was the environmentalism. The empire is falling apart, but (most of) the people in power are either in denial or trying to make more money out of the situation, because priorities. It’s really entertaining how disgusting some people – like the villainous Nohamapetan family – can be in those situations, but the parallels with global warming aren’t as fun.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Short fiction

October Short Fiction: Gods, Dinosaurs and Aroace Princesses

Today I’m reviewing some (mostly queer) short fiction I’ve read this month, including The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion by Lynn E. O’Connacht and short stories by some of my favorite authors.

41800952The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion is a retelling of Trushbeard following an asexual lesbian princess and an aroace queen. This novella follows a queerplatonic relationship, and diverse fairytale retellings are always something I’m looking for.

This is a fantasy book about two people who experience aphobia getting together and supporting each other, about the way an aphobic society doesn’t see relationships that aren’t romantic or sexual as worthy and important as the ones that are.

However, the way this story was written didn’t work for me. I appreciated what it was doing, but I couldn’t get into the format. This novella is told in verse and the characters are telling the story of how they met to each other, interrupting each other often. I think I would have liked this more if it had been told another way; this kind of storytelling adds distance between the reader and the events.
While the distance made this book an easier read at times – there’s a difference between reading a scene about forced kissing in a traditional format and reading it this way, because you know the characters are fine now – it also made me feel disconnected from everything. I liked reading about Edel and Marian, I liked their banter, and it’s always great to read something in which a non-romantic queer relationship is centered, but I didn’t feel strongly about these characters or their relationship.

My rating: ★★¾

I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) from the author. All opinions are my own.

Short Stories

By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & A. Merc RustadUncanny Magazine, Issue Twenty-Three – ★★★★
This story follows a Deaf paleontologist who is trying to communicate with a velociraptor through sign language. I love reading stories about humans interacting with animals, and it becomes objectively more interesting when the main characters are a scientist (…disabled women in science!) and a dinosaur. I loved seeing how the characters learned to understand (and not eat) each other. Anyway, I would have read more of this – if not a whole book, at least a novella – to know more about both the main character and Velma the velociraptor.

Court of Birth, Court of Strength by Aliette de Bodard, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #261 – ★★★★★
This is a prequel set in the world of The House of Shattered Wings and it’s the story of how Samariel and Asmodeus met. I love everything about this world and its characters, so when I knew this existed, I started reading it immediately. It confirmed that I love Asmodeus a lot and it also made me understand that I’ll suffer when I’ll reread the first book in this series. I loved these two as a couple far more than I wanted. I mean, the premise of “gay fallen angels trying to find a lost child in post-apocalyptic Paris, featuring lots of flirting and questionable morals” would have sounded awesome even if I hadn’t already known the characters in question, and I’m pretty sure you don’t need to know them to enjoy this, but knowing the context adds a lot. Now I want to know what’s up with House Harrier…
Another thing I liked was how this story talked about loyalty and whether the end justifies the means – would you save a child if doing so would risk starting a war? (Why do I like it so much when characters are in all-around terrible situations and everyone is wrong?)

A Taxonomy of Hurts by Kate Dollarhyde, Fireside Magazine, Issue #58 – ★★★½
I loved the premise of this story – it’s set in a world in which people’s painful memories have a shape. The narrator is able to see them and touch them, and they get obsessed with classifying them (hence the “taxonomy”). They also want to know how their own hurts look like. I liked the message about trauma and supporting each other inside a relationship, but the story itself was very short and not that memorable. However, every story that mentions the fungus Laccaria amethystina is a good story.

Between the Firmaments by JY Yang, serialized story on (first link is part one, here are part two and part three) – ★★★★
This serialized story follows two gods, Bariegh of the Jungle and Sunyol, as they fall in love in a city in which being a god is both forbidden and dangerous. This is a story about what colonization does to a country and its culture – Bariegh, Sunyol and young Sisu live in a place in which the colonizers, the “blasphemers”, have found a way to trap and harvest magic from gods, so they have to stay hidden. But it’s also a story about belonging, finding your own people, and reclaiming what was yours in the first place.
I really liked the queer romance, but what I loved the most about this story was the writing: I loved Bariegh’s narration and the descriptions of the magic.

Starsong by Tehlor Kay Mejia in Toil & Trouble, edited by Jessica Spotswood & Tess Sharpe – ★★★★½
I loved this one! It follows a latinx witch whose magic is tied to stars and astrology. It’s a modern-day story about recovery, finding hope in yourself and your life again, and the cute beginning of an f/f romance. I would read at least a novella of this, I loved Luna and I want to know more about the girl she met through instagram.
[This is probably the only time the short story I was interested in out of an entire anthology is at the beginning, so that I can get it for free by reading the preview on google play.]

The Coin of Heart’s Desire by Yoon Ha Lee, Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 100, reprinted from Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales, edited by Paula Guran – ★★★★★
This one surprised me. Not because of the beautiful descriptions or the fact that the worldbuilding is really good for a very short fairytale, as I expect all of those things from Yoon Ha Lee’s short fiction. This time, I just really didn’t see the ending coming. This is a story about a teenage empress, dragons, and bargains. Some aspects of it were inspired by Korean folklore. I always fall in love with Lee’s worlds and now I want to know more about this one too.

Have you read any good short fiction lately?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

Vanishers_Cover5In the Vanishers’ Palace is an adult fantasy f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast with an all-Vietnamese cast. In this book, the “beast” is a shapeshifting dragon, and since the only thing that is better than both f/f romances and monster romances is an f/f monster romance, I knew I had to read it.

Monster romances have always been one of my favorite kinds of romance. I’m sure there are others out there, but In the Vanishers’ Palace is the first f/f one I’ve ever read, and I’m glad I found it – I’ve been looking for a f/f couple with this dynamic for a while, after loving so many m/f ones. Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who tries to remain emotionally distant and Is Totally Not Into Yên but uses fruit to flirt was exactly the kind of character I wanted to read about.

The thing about Beauty and the Beast retellings is that the relationship usually starts on an unequal footing, and this can lead to unaddressed unhealthy aspects in the relationship (too many of them read more like Stockholm syndrome than romance). This never happened in this book – Yên’s agency and her choices are really important here, and this is a story about two characters in an unhealthy place working together to make it less so. It doesn’t work out immediately, it isn’t easy, and I really liked reading about their journey.
I loved Yên and Vu Côn both as characters and as a couple.

In the Vanishers’ Palace is a story about healing. Not only because the inciting incident itself happened because of an illness and some of the major characters are healers, but because this is a story set in a postcolonial world. The “Vanishers”, mysterious and powerful creatures, have left, but they left behind a broken world. Not only their experiments caused people to catch new, deadly illnesses, but the survivors now value only what’s “useful” – and this includes people. In the Vanishers’ Palace is a story about leaving behind that mindset.

My favorite aspect of the worldbuilding was the Vanishers’ palace itself. From magical libraries to stairways that seem not to lead anywhere, from waterfalls that defy gravity to dangerous gardens and windows opening on the floor, it was a place of beauty and horror and one of the best settings I’ve read in a while. I have a weakness for magical buildings and this was everything I wanted and more. This dreamlike but deadly atmosphere reminded me of Roshani Chokshi’s books – I feel like this book could appeal to those who liked The Star-Touched Queen and want to read something shorter and less slow-paced.

I also really liked the side characters. Yên was a teacher when she lived in her village and she also becomes a teacher for Vu Côn’s two children, Thông and Liên, who were adorable disasters.
And, as usual, the writing was wonderful – it was atmospheric without being heavy, the dialogue felt natural, and I loved the descriptions.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

27693272The House of Binding Thorns is the best fantasy I’ve read so far this year, the opposite of second book syndrome, and part of a series you need to read if you’re interested in diverse SFF.
I really liked The House of Shattered Wings, but this was on a completely other level – the character arcs actually went somewhere, the conspiracy was unpredictable but didn’t come out of nowhere, and there were even more queer characters.

If The House of Shattered Wings followed the events surrounding the mysteries and past of House Silverspires, this book follows another house of fallen angels in fallen historical Paris: House Hawthorn, and its relation with the underwater Dragon Kingdom in the Seine.
We follow:
✨ Madeleine, a woman who is trying to recover from angel essence addiction while not falling victim to political intrigue, which seems to be everywhere in House Hawthorn;
✨ Philippe, a Vietnamese ex-immortal who is trying to bring someone back to life;
✨ Thuan, a shapeshifting bisexual Dragon Prince, also Vietnamese, who is a spy in House Hawthorn;
Françoise, a pregnant Vietnamese woman who is trying to survive in this post-magical-war Paris with her trans girlfriend, a fallen angel;
✨ not PoV characters, but a major characters anyway: Asmodeus, gay fallen angel, antivillain, in an arranged marriage with a prince from the Dragon Kingdom, and Ngoc Bich, a dragon princess. I loved them both, Asmodeus because he’s awful and Ngoc Bich because she’s awesome and just a bit awful.

In the first book, not being able to connect with the characters was one of my main problems. Here, that didn’t happen – I loved all of the new ones (Thuan’s and Françoise’s PoVs were my favorites), but Madeleine grew on me a lot, and some of the side characters were just as memorable as the PoV ones.
I read this book in two days, which is something I haven’t been able to do with novels – especially not with adult fantasy – lately. But this was so good that I just couldn’t stop reading it. So much political intrigue, most of it revolving around a gay antivillain, of course I loved this.

I also really liked the setting – in The House of Shattered Wings, I wanted to know more about the Dragon Kingdom, and a significant part of this book is set there. This also meant that this book gave an even more overwhelming sense of rot than the first book, and it may sound weird, but the atmosphere is beautiful also because of it. Ruins have their charm, and it makes sense that in a series about falling the settings is falling apart too.

There’s not much romance in this series – there is an established f/f couple in this book, another one in the first book, and a m/m arranged marriage with the kind of plotline I love (which means: tension between enemies) – but all the romance here is wonderful. I’d read more of it and I almost never say that.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

39684978The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is the second novella set in the Xuya universe I’ve read. It follows many different characters as they try to piece together a mystery: is the disappearance of deep space scientist Bach Cuc tied to the space citadel that vanished thirty years before, together with all its inhabitants and princess Ngoc Minh?

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a very unique story for its genre. It’s a story about family, especially about the way relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters can develop. It’s a quiet space opera, beautifully written, and underrated – I feel like most novellas don’t get the recognition they deserve, especially the ones that aren’t already tied to popular series or from (but some books of the novella line are underrated too).

We follow four perspectives:
✴ Suu Nuoc, one of the Empress’ former lovers. He was a general and is now an officer in the Purple Forbidden City on the First Planet. He is investigating Bach Cuc’s disappearance with the help of the spaceship The Turtle’s Golden Claw. I didn’t have any strong feelings about him but I loved the mindship, and that was the main reason I liked his perspective.
✴ Diem Huong lost her mother in the Citadel’s disappearance when she was six. She is now an engineer, working with disorganised genius Lam (women in science!) to find the citadel again. Her story is about understanding her mother’s choices.
✴ Mi Hiep is the Empress of the Dai Viet Empire. Through her perspective we see court intrigue, the beginning of a war, and the many difficult choices a ruler has to make. She had a very complicated relationship with her older daughter, and it ended in disaster and mystery.
✴ Thousand-Heart Princess Ngoc Ha is the mother of The Turtle’s Golden Claw and Ngoc Minh’s younger sister. She is a complex, flawed character who has always felt overshadowed by the other people in her family, and has mixed feelings on both Ngoc Minh’s possible return and her mindship daughter.

I had already noticed this in The Tea Master and the Detective, but I love the worldbuilding in this series. Not only it’s about a Vietnamese space empire, the technology is unique– this is a place where people can give birth to Minds (the AIs of spaceships), where people can travel through deep spaces (in which time and maybe some other things have no meaning) or even disappear in them, where an Empress can ask her ancestors for advice through mem-implants, and sometimes said ancestors give unrequited advice too.
I’ve never seen anything similar to this, and it’s a fascinating world.
Another thing I liked about the worldbuilding was how being queer was normalized. Yes, Ngoc Minh had a reputation of being a rebel princess both because she had mysterious powers and because she disobeyed the Empress and married her wife even though she was a commoner (and her status, not her gender, was the problem).

Onto the things I did not like: this is the third book I’ve read by this author, and while I always like her characters, love the wordbuilding, the descriptions and even the set up of the plot, I never like the way she ends the story. I’m not sure whether it’s a matter of flawed writing or writing that just isn’t my taste. One time the ending felt understated, one time it felt pointless, and this time it made this novella feel like a story that was cut in half, except the second half does not exist.
I also thought the “mystery” of the citadel was obvious, but the resolution still felt too abrupt – while this ending did have emotional impact in two of the PoVs, it had little in the Empress’ (which has other things to think about, a war we will never see) and in Suu Nuoc’s, who didn’t know Ngoc Minh and didn’t care about anyone in the citadel. On the other hand, this ending must have had an impact on the mindship The Turtle’s Golden Claw, who was really invested in what happened, but we never see how she feels because we do not have her PoV.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

This is my review during the first read. With my reread, I raised the rating to 4.25 out of 5. You can see the updated review here.

23601046The House of Shatterd Wings is a very interesting book. It’s a blend of post-apocalyptic urban fantasy, historical fiction and mystery, set in a Paris as fallen as the angels who inhabit it, and with some influences from Vietnamese mythology. I’ve never found anything similar, and I probably never will.

What drew me in right from the first chapter was the atmosphere. I usually don’t like post-apocalyptic settings – for many reasons, the main one being that I like pretty and don’t like sad, and this kind of places are usually very not pretty and very sad – but this version of Paris was fascinating. Books set in Paris are usually praised for their atmosphere, because there’s a lot to work with (it’s not that difficult to write pretty descriptions of a place that is both well-known and objectively pretty) but Dark!Paris works even better as a fantasy setting. It’s as beautiful as it is creepy.
Also, everything about this book gives such a sense of rot. There’s something deeply wrong with this city and everyone who lives in it, and the shadows of the past are – quite literally – still affecting the present.

This book can be seen as a murder mystery, but I find it’s mostly about political intrigue between fallen angels and their Houses, with murderous magic and old grudges around. There’s also commentary on colonialism from the point of view of one of the PoV characters, Philippe, who is Annamite (Vietnamese). Colonialism influenced both his homeland, its magic, and Paris’ magic in ways no one expected.

This story is told mainly through three PoVs. There’s Philippe’s, and then there are Madeleine’s (the human alchemist of House Silver Spires, dying because of her addiction to a specific kind of magic) and Selene’s (the head of House Silver Spires).
I loved that this book had very little to no romance, but there was an established relationship between two women (Selene and her lover Emmanuelle) and I’m always here for powerful lesbians.

I have to say, though, that the characters weren’t as interesting as the worldbuilding and weren’t exactly the driving force of the story, and I would have liked them to be more developed. I found them distant, even if they weren’t badly written, but surprisingly this didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment of the story: the suspense, the intrigue and the mysterious magic were enough to keep my interest, and I almost read this in one sitting.

What brought me to lower the rating was the ending. I didn’t like the ending at all. It felt pointless, and the answers to the mystery were unsatisfying, the kind that the reader couldn’t have figured out along with the characters because they barely knew that person even existed. I know it’s only the first book in a series, so I understand why it felt so abrupt and unresolved, but I wanted more from those last chapters.

My rating: ★★★¾

I read this book for the “read a book with a villain/antihero as a main character” of Marvel-A-Thon.

TW: death of a side gay character; the main f/f couple is ok at the end of the book.

Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

366865471The Tea Master and the Detective is a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes retelling in which Holmes is a woman and Watson is a sentient spaceship.
With a premise and a cover like these, I had to read this – and not only it lived up to my expectations, it surpassed them.

The Tea Master and the Detective is a standalone novella set in Bodard’s Xuya universe; you do not need to have read the other short stories and novellas to read this one, but reading this made me want to. It was as beautiful as it was short and a great introduction to this universe; now I will certainly look more into it.

The main characters of this book are the spaceship The Shadow’s Child, who is also the narrator, and Long Chau, a woman with a mysterious past and surprising deductive abilities. I loved both of them and their dynamic. Non-romantic relationships between humans and non-human (or: not exactly human anymore, in this case) sentient beings are one of my favorite things to read about. In this book there’s no romance at all, and it’s great to read about competent women in stories that have nothing to do with romance, women who are allowed to be cold and forthright without being portrayed as evil.

The worldbuilding was really interesting, and this novella made me want to know more about it. This is a universe in which spaceships are sentient and can travel through deep spaces (which are terrifying), and tea is an artThe Shadow’s Child is hired by Long Chau also because she’s a tea master and can brew tea tailored to Long Chau’s needs (to drink someone else’s tea can be dangerous).

There is a mystery element here, and it wasn’t too predictable, but that wasn’t why this book worked for me – the story of The Shadow’s Child finally confronting her fear after the traumatic event of a few years before and her conversations with Long Chau were the best parts.

My rating: ★★★★¾