Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

29094888._sy475_Reading The Winged Histories felt like trying to hold onto smoke. It’s the kind of novel that requires your full attention, one that never compromises for a moment in its journey to being the most lyrical headache the reader will ever have the luck to witness.

The Winged Histories is a book about time, and who gets to make history. To say this feels reductive, because it’s so much more, and there’s no way I’ll ever do it justice. It’s about which viewpoints are lost, about what people remember, about which stories we decide to pass down to the next generations, and the all-encompassing nature of time, the way it erodes everything.
The writing reflects this. It mimics the momentary nature of memory; it doesn’t so much have time jumps as it has details and scenes sliding in and out of focus in an ever-changing kaleidoscope.
(Like those, it has a tendency to make me dizzy. If you want to talk about this in terms of time jumps, there’s about one for paragraph, and it’s dreamlike also in the sense that a lot of it isn’t actually reliable.)
And it only makes sense for a book about the influence of time to get rid of it entirely in the narration. I felt like the last chapter was as much of a conclusion as it was an explanation for this very peculiar choice. I don’t think it could have been written in any other way.

This book is divided into four parts. I admit I struggled a lot with The History of the Stone – it needed to be there for the story to work, but also, I didn’t care about the character this revolved around – and fell in love with The History of Music. There’s a lot of music, a lot of poetry in these pages; it has always been one of the most important forms of storytelling for humans, after all. The History of Music is about songs and feels like one in itself, and in the way it talks about them, it focuses on a specific question about history – which stories are considered great? Which ones do we choose to tell? I feel like it’s relevant to the fantasy genre as it is now, because it doesn’t escape me how stories are still given more relevance if they’re about death and gloss over the happiness, deeming it unimportant, frivolous, boring – just to get to the action, the fighting, the suffering. Something I’ve always thought is that suffering is easy. Fighting is easy. Talking about it might not be, but getting there is.
I really don’t think it’s a case that this book doesn’t even glance as something as easy as fight scenes during a revolution, and that its deepest, most beautiful, most emotional part is the one set after.
There’s political intrigue; there’s war. None of it is really the point.

The History of Music is also one of the two parts focusing on the two main queer women, Seren (the narrator in this part) and Tav. Tav gets her own part at the beginning, in The History of the Sword, which talks about the erasure of the achievements of women. As I am predictable, these parts ended up being my favorite ones. We see Seren and Tav’s relationship in flashes; it feels more real than many we follow step for step.

I loved this, and yet I didn’t. It’s dreamlike in a way that keeps evading me, and I feel like I need stories to be more tethered to enjoy them fully. This is not an actual criticism of the book; I don’t think I’d change anything about it (maybe a more comprehensive glossary?). I also probably shouldn’t have reached for it while preparing for one of the most difficult exams in my course.

My rating: ★★★★

Content warnings: abusive family, references to addiction, incest between first cousins.

 

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

44804083In Come Tumbling Down, the fifth novella in the series, we return to the Moors.

While most of the stories so far could more or less stand alone, this one doesn’t, and I really recommend reading/rereading Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, or none of this would make any sense. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook of it just a few days ago – I would have missed so many little details that made this story worth reading.
And, compared to Down Among the Sticks and Bones, this is both an improvement and a step back: it feels messier than all of the novellas so far apart from Beneath the Sugar Sky, because group casts are difficult to handle and this doesn’t always get it right, but it’s at the same time a necessary conclusion to Jack’s story and a far less pedantic sequel than I expected.

If the previous novella was a story about the consequences of bad parenting most of all, and with not much nuance to give, this is about what makes a hero (or a monster), but it’s more than anything about a quest. Which means it’s a little subtler, and I really appreciated that, though it – as always for this series – has the tendency of letting its characters have OOC moments for the purpose of making them say something off and then having another character lecture them about why what they said was wrong. It’s still very didactic, but at least the narration doesn’t spend paragraphs preaching to the reader.
It was also more difficult to follow as an audiobook, as there are five main characters read by only one person, and sometimes I struggled a little to follow who was speaking.

One of the highlights for me was being able to see Sumi outside of confection or the school; nonsense shines brighter and is just plain funnier in a stark world that runs on logic as the Moors. I really liked seeing all the others as well, and I hope this won’t be the last time.
I also really appreciated how this explained more about the rules and inner workings of the Moors – I would read a whole book involving the Drowned Gods, which I would never have expected from the previous novels. Salt-rotten gothic is my favorite aesthetic.

I was also glad of how this book mentioned mental health awareness in a fantasy world, and what it means for Jack to have OCD – it’s something I don’t see enough of.

I might like some installment in this series more than others (In An Absent Dream remains my favorite, I think) but overall I think this format really works for me; short companion novellas is a format that really never gets old.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reread Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Opinions change. There are times I don’t like a book and yet I know that, if I were to reread it, I wouldn’t feel the same way. It has happened to me with The Star Touched Queen and Jade City; now here we are again.

I knew, before listening to this audiobook, that I probably would have liked it more this time around. That’s also because of how much I loved In An Absent Dream this year, and because I see this series differently as a whole; I think I have a better grasp on what it wants to be.

DownAmongtheSticksThe first time I read this book, I was 17, and I rated it two stars. Now I’m 20, and with this reread, I see it in a completely different way, and yet not. I went back and reread my review on my old Italian blog, and I still agree with almost every single thing I said then. This book is the same as it was; I didn’t read it wrong, whatever that might mean, or miss anything particularly important.
It’s just that context can do so much.

Let’s start with the thing I hated the most about Down Among the Sticks and Bones in 2017: it’s one of the most repetitive and unsubtle things I’ve ever read, and relies almost only on telling. There’s little in the book world I hate as much as a story that doesn’t trust its reader to understand and therefore beats them over the head with its message. Usually.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize, back then, just how much these books are meant to be read as a fairytale. The whole series plays with fairytale and portal fantasy tropes, and both genres tend to thrive on the familiar, on repetition.
Because of how it relied on telling more than Every Heart a Doorway did, this novella was an irritating read. If you listen to it on audiobook, as I did the second time around, it’s delightful. Not only you don’t have to worry if you miss something – oh, will the story remind you, as anyone speaking to you who wants to get their point across would – but the telling bothers you a lot less if the story is actually being told to you.
It’s not that it can’t work in written form, it’s just that most of what I saw as a flaw then I now see as just a difference in format and goal.

I still don’t like how much this story lacks in nuance.
This is true for most of Seanan McGuire’s books, especially the less recent ones I’ve read. This story won’t let you draw your own conclusions about the characters and the themes it explores, it has the tendency to tell you what to think. Which is irritating even though – because? – I would have drawn those conclusions anyway and agree with the message.
Lack of nuance also tends to come with the territory. Neither fairytales nor portal fantasy are known for it (is anyone going to pretend Narnia ever bothered with something as heretical as nuance and subtlety? Ha. Yes, lack of subtlety is probably more irritating when you disagree with the message, but then you don’t feel bad about it!)

That still doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s kind of dissonant to read about how adults often don’t allow their children to form their own preferences and opinions because they don’t really see children as people in a book that fervently demands you don’t form your own about the theme either.
One thing I liked the most about In An Absent Dream is that I felt it gave the reader more space to think on their own. This really doesn’t, and it’s the reason I can’t give it a higher rating despite how much more I appreciated this story this time around.

This time, I understood the charm the world of the Moors has, and grew attached to Jack in a way I hadn’t at all the first time. She’s a queer mad scientist in training who has to deal with mental health issues (OCD)! Of course I love her. And the author really made this world come alive with the descriptions. So creepy, so terrible, and yet I get why the twins want to stay. It’s not like our world can’t be that to a lot of people.

Another thing that has changed for me is that I’m no longer angry at the ending. I don’t fault 17-year-old me for feeling that way about an ambiguous ending that might or might not have implied a homophobic trope, and I didn’t know Come Tumbling Down would exist then. Now, of course, things have changed.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read this? What is your favorite novella in this series?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos

35053988._sy475_This book has my favorite m/f romance of the year, and maybe of ever. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it.

The Wise and the Wicked is a contemporary fantasy story following Ruby Chernyavsky, a 16-year-old Russian-American girl from a “slightly magical” family in which every woman gets to know at which age she will die. Or so they thought.

I fell in love with this story right from the beginning because of Ruby. She is the youngest of three sisters, and her mother left them when Ruby was really young. Because of that and the burden placed on her by the family’s magic, Ruby is really insecure and lost, and deals with that in a number of ways – from kleptomaniac tendencies to being closed-off and trying to believe that she’s better than others to drown out her constant self-loathing. She’s also self-centered enough to often misunderstand other people’s motives; all of this makes her an easy target for manipulative people.
I love stories about difficult, imperfect girls, and I loved Ruby (even though she is well-meaning but seriously self-centered heterosexual representation), and her growth in this book meant so much to me.

My favorite character, however, was Dov.
I haven’t felt this strongly about an m/f romance in so long, and that’s because so many male love interests in novels (especially, but sadly not only, in YA) come in three formats: “rude”, “overprotective” and “personalities are for losers”.
And Dov feels real in a way so many characters don’t. He’s sweet, and maybe a little too trusting, not because he doesn’t understand that people can hurt him, but because he chooses to see the good in others – and in a genre so full of brooding boys, this is so refreshing? He is funny without his sense of humor being at the expense of the main character, which I also value a lot.
I could feel how much Ruby felt lighter during their interactions, how she let her closed-off façade crack with him, even when she was still hiding a lot from him. Their scenes were just… the chemistry. Everything was too much for me and I often had to put down the book because I had a bad case of Feelings™. I must be getting old.
(*Acqua, sitting on a pile of villain romances, tearing up*: but he is so KIND)
Dov is trans and Jewish, and this is one of the very few books I’ve read with a trans boy in which said trans boy gets to come out on his own terms. Not because of some naked reveal scene, not because he was pressured, not because he’s asked, and that was a beautiful scene.

Many scenes in here worked for me specifically because of the writing’s attention to detail. I loved the witchy early spring atmosphere, sure, but the way the author focused on objects, and small details in people’s rooms – everything felt real and deeper, as bright as this cover. When I think of Ruby, I don’t see her in a blank space, I also think of odd ice cream flavors and science books; when I think of Dov, I see aquariums and fish drawings and hitchhiking butterflies (…that scene); all these small, not plot-relevant things about them made me feel as if I knew them, and made them memorable.

I also really liked reading about Ruby’s relationship with her sisters, who raised her, and Cece’s storyline. Cece is Ruby’s cousin, and the two are really close while still hiding things from each other, because sometimes the truth is too heavy for you to talk about it with your family. Cece is a lesbian and in a relationship with another girl, and I really appreciated that this book talked about how a family can be homophobic in subtle ways even when nobody is a blatant bigot and there are other queer people in it. At its heart, The Wise and the Wicked is a story about intergenerational trauma and the weight of traditions, how they can bring comfort as well as stifle people, and how sometimes you just need to let some of them go.

Now, onto my main and only complaint: this book doesn’t work that well as a standalone. I know the author has plans for a sequel, but we don’t actually know if it will happen (because publishing), and while this doesn’t end on a cliffhanger – it ends at what I’d consider a calm point for both the characters and the romance – it’s clear that Ruby’s arc isn’t complete, and some plotlines, like the podcast one, were left without a conclusion to a level that goes far beyond “ambiguous ending”, as for example the one in Podos’ previous novel Like Water was. It’s not disappointing and I don’t feel like I was left without an answer I needed, but without a sequel some parts of this felt somewhat unnecessary.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

34522727._sy475_The Grief Keeper is a contemporary story with sci-fi aspects following Marisol, a Salvadorian lesbian who fled her country for her life, together with her younger sister Gabi. To legally stay in the US, she is forced to take part in a program in which she’ll have to bear the weight of someone else’s grief, all of this while dealing with her own trauma.

I feel weird about calling this a sci-fi book. It is one, because it features technology that doesn’t exist in our reality, and it’s not like sci-fi isn’t made for commenting on current, relevant issues. It’s just that I’m used to having more layers of unreality between a sci-fi book’s reality and our own. What makes The Grief Keeper so heart-wrenching is knowing that if this technology did exist, this is exactly what would happen: less privileged people would have to bear the weight of more privileged people’s trauma.
There is a part of this book in which a character says that if this program is successful, it will “ease a lot of suffering.” Marisol’s well-being is barely considered, and if it is, it’s just to ensure that she still exists to protect the other subject, the privileged white American Rey, from her depression.

It’s a painful read, a necessary one, and yet it’s so hopeful. This is not a tragedy, even though some of the characters are forced to endure things no one should have to. The circumstances are horrible, but the relationships between the characters are the light in the darkness for them. Marisol and Gabi’s sibling bond was so well-written and layered: Marisol wants to protect her sister and her sister is what she is surviving for; Gabi loves Marisol but also wants to break free, to rebel like someone on the cusp of teenagehood would.
I also loved the romance. I didn’t know if I would, because Marisol is falling in love with the other subject, Rey, the girl whose trauma she has to re-experience over and over. This could have turned ugly really easily, and it didn’t. We see this connection build slowly, help Marisol with her internalized self-loathing about being a lesbian, help Rey in many ways the technology she didn’t consent to either could have never, and it’s beautiful. Their scenes in the last 30% of the book were everything.

There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a “romance cures mental illness” story, and it wasn’t; it could have had an ugly power dynamic and it didn’t. There was only one thing I didn’t like, only one thing in the whole book – this book didn’t shy away from psychiatric medications’ side effects like many YA books dealing with mental illness do, but it does somewhat fall in the opposite cliché with one quote: medication turns you into a zombie. Marisol says that the medication she’s taking is working as intended, which means that she is still anxious and depressed, but has no will. While it could be that this is a sci-fi medication meant to do exactly that, the book says that Rey is taking SSRIs, and implies that her and Marisol are taking the same pills. That’s not how antidepressants are supposed to work. Maybe some people experience this as a side effect and the book meant to show that, while also implying Marisol doesn’t know she’s experiencing side effects? I don’t know. I really would have liked more clarification about this.

One of the things that meant a lot to me was how The Grief Keeper talked about bilingualism. The main character is a Spanish native speaker, and English is her second language. Across different first languages, it was interesting to see how our feelings about English were similar, and for once, it’s so great to see a main character who has gone through the same things I do with language: struggling with idioms, with figures of speech; feeling like she has to be perfect because anything less than perfection in an ESL speaker is a sign of ignorance to monolingual speakers who don’t know a word of your language; the way we both have a relationship with language that people who don’t have to be fluent into two languages can’t understand. The amount of Spanish in this book, and the way it isn’t necessarily translated every single time, made me happy.

Another thing I loved was how Marisol and Rey connected over a (fictional) TV show, and how their understanding of their own queerness was also shaped by that show. I think that fandom has an important place in many queer people’s journey of self-discovery in a way that goes deeper than pop culture references built into a story to be relatable, and I love when books reflect that.

I was also surprised by several things: a slight twist in the ending I won’t talk about for obvious reasons, and the character of Indranie. She is an Indian-American woman, and I thought that what this book did with her and the way she is complicit in Marisol’s suffering and yet not portrayed as a fully bad person was such an interesting direction to take.

My rating: ★★★★¾

content warnings: on-page suicide attempt, depressive thoughts, rape threats and threats of homophobic violence, homophobic slurs in both English and Spanish, detention, psychological abuse of a minor at the hand of a doctor, discussion of trauma and grief, and the main characters have to deal with racist and xenophobic rhetoric and with the way the US treats latinx immigrants.

Adult · Book review · contemporary

Review: Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

43199360._sy475_This was suspenseful, intoxicating, queer, and incredibly fucked up; I loved every moment of it.
Bury the Lede is a contemporary graphic novel following Madison, a bisexual Asian-American intern at the newspaper Boston Lede, as she gets drawn into the investigation of a murder that will end up having political implications.

One of the first things to draw me to this book was the art. Stark and beautiful, with a lot of blues, purples, grays – it sets the dark atmosphere right from the beginning, and it’s dynamic and detailed without becoming overwhelming. I loved it before I started to love the story, which – I have to admit – took me a little to warm up to; there are a lot of names I needed to remember to be able to follow this, and during my first read I was somewhat confused (it was also late at night, because I needed to finish this, I needed to know the truth; I was confused but I could tell it was great). However, during my second reread I understood that this was one of the best graphic novels I had ever read.

Books like these remind me how often queer women in media aren’t allowed to be full, flawed human beings. Madison is all of these things, and so is her sometimes-lover Lexi, or the mysterious alleged murderer Dahlia, also queer like so many other side characters. They all choose to pursue what they believe is justice, and to do so, they do some incredibly unethical things. As Madison gets more and more entangled in the case, she finds herself breaking the law multiple times, using people with barely any remorse, and yet the story never treats her like a villain.

Books like Bury the Lede also remind me that portrayals of queer women as sexual beings that are neither predators nor meant to be entertainment for men are not as common as they should be, especially in graphic novels and outside of stories that are specifically meant to be romances. This isn’t in any way a romance, and I loved that about it – and it still has a sex scene between two women on the page, one that is explicit and drawn in a way that cemented my feeling that yes, this was really written with queer women in mind, and not heterosexual men (as most graphic portrayals of queer women are).
It’s a story that portrays queer women engaging in casual sex, having multiple partners, and it’s not fetishizing in the slightest. Madison sleeps with a woman and kisses a man (who is also bisexual) and is in a relationship with neither; about this I also recommend reading the author’s post about bi representation, stereotypes, and who she writes for.

I don’t know if this is meant to have a sequel, but I really hope it does; I want more. More from Madison but also from “Harold”, from Dahlia, even from the reporter of the Trombone.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content Warnings for: murder (on-page, bloody); talk of suicide that might not be suicide; mentions of pedophilia and people covering for child predators (no on-page sexual abuse); roofied drinks; on-page sex scene.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

35965482This book did the impossible, which, in this case, is making me wish I had paid attention during my mandatory philosophy class.

Sadly, the Acqua who would be fine with paying attention to high school philosophy classes instead of sneakily reading fantasy books during them isn’t the kind of person who would have ended up reading Middlegame, and as this book rightly says, you can’t have everything, even with infinite alternate timelines and even if you’re the living embodiment of logos, which I’m not.

So, this book is about evil alchemists trying to harness the Doctrine, which, as far as I understand, is basically the English name for what the ancient Greek philosophers called the logos, the rule that drives the universe. There is a fascinating history in this, written in this story like a book within a book, thin slivers of the past woven in and out of the present timeline, omens scattered in the form of excerpts of a children’s book. In the present, the immortal alchemist Reed is trying to embody different concepts into people who aren’t quite human, who look human but might one day be infinitely powerful, if they end up manifesting, if they end up being the Doctrine themselves. If this time he gets them right.
And this is where our main characters, Roger and Dodger, come in.
(Confusing? I’m not as good at explaining as this book, and this is weird.)

Roger is language, Dodger is math, and they are a harmony of opposites. We see them as children who are trying to navigate the world while being “gifted” while also discovering that they have a telepathic connection, and they might be magical, but the way the world fails them isn’t any different from the way it fails children with too many expectations on their shoulders. (The parts about Dodger never being able to understand how people work and the quote about you got a girlfriend, I got a therapist: painfully relatable.)
And then we see them during many different times of their lives, finding and losing each other and slowly learning about the puppeteers beneath reality, and it should be boring, but it’s not, and the time jumps should make it easy to get disconnected from the characters, but they don’t, because this book delights in doing the impossible. (Improbable, it whispers, as if it were a reincarnation of Nikolai Lantsov.)

Middlegame is, after all, deceptively simple: it’s really easy to follow, for something so complex – a narrative that plays at being linear just to make itself accessible when it’s actually a tapestry of timelines, with writing that gets its point across with an elegance that doesn’t call attention to itself. It has the beauty of efficiency and fits this book just right.
And it’s so clever. I want to look at all the facets and can’t and this is exactly what I want from a book, as much work as it is fun. Time is a joke to this book and it just occurred to me that as inside this book language is a trigger to math and consequently words are a trigger to time, this book in itself is words that command time in their own little universe and I, well, I should probably shut up now.

It’s not only the way it’s written, so readable even when it doesn’t seem to make sense (but it always does, sideways), that makes it not boring for something that almost feels like a slice-of-life story for a significant portion of the 500+ pages. It’s also the fact that there are books that have unpredictable twists, and then there are books that are unpredictable in essence, which you don’t even vaguely know which direction they will take until you’re near the ending, because they’re so different from everything you’ve seen before that you don’t even have something to build your expectations on.
And it’s also about stakes, of course. You know a book is taking things seriously when someone just caused mass death and you aren’t even near the climax.

Apart from that, and from what Middlegame has to say about society and the way stories shape consciousness which then shapes reality (which are all things I love to read about), I am predictable and was into this right from the moment I understood it involved evil, ruthless magical scientists. There’s no story about merging science and magic involving people being horrible that won’t interest me.
And yes, there are a few things I didn’t love about this, the main one being just how centered on America this book is despite the consequences befalling the whole world, because of course America is both the whole world and the only part of it in which interesting things actually happen.

In any case, I was trembling even while reading some of the calmest parts of this book, and maybe I can’t yet (ever?) explain fully why it affected me so much when it doesn’t make sense to me completely either, but I hope I got at least part of it, and if not, this is probably the reason I shouldn’t write reviews after midnight.

My rating: ★★★★★