Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name is a book that understands that the way to my heart is to add as many unhinged immortal beings as you can possibly fit into a book. It has so many and I’m in love with each and every one of them

This is a difficult book to review, because I often didn’t want to pick it up when I was in the middle of it, but now that I’ve finished it, I like it more the more I think about it. What I struggled with the most was the pacing, which is… strange. To make an example, there’s a time jump of several years when you’re 30% into the story, and several parts of the book feel more like a climax than the actual climax. However, I never want to give a lower rating to a book for taking a risk when it comes to structure; I think more books should try that! The issues are mostly on me for reading during exam season, something I should have avoided.

There’s something here that took me by surprise in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time, but did that happen because I was often too tired to pay attention while reading this? I don’t know. I feel like I’m not doing this book justice, and I also feel like it would be really interesting to reread, so I should definitely do that someday.
But, even if it weren’t for that, the surprising thing is exactly the kind of development that made me fall in love with The Unspoken Name, so I guess that in the end it doesn’t matter too much. I’m just here for how dramatic this novel knows how to become. And it’s a funny book in which the sense of humor works for me!

The Unspoken Name is a story about Csorwe, an Oshaaru (basically an orc! She even has tusks and I think that’s great) Chosen Bride who escapes being sacrificed to the god of her world, the Unspoken. What follows is a story about faith and loyalty and the breaking thereof, and about finding yourself outside of the shadow of gods.
I really liked how the romance fit into this: Csorwe and Shuthmili – who is by the way as cute as she’s terrifying – find common ground because they’re both girls who are dealing with the repercussion of being raised in and escaping a cult that would see them, though in different ways, as sacrifices.

There’s also a lot to say about the side characters. Oranna and Sethennai stole the show half of the time, but it’s very difficult to get a hold on who they really are, because what Csorwe says about them in her narration doesn’t necessarily match what the book shows. It makes for some interesting dissonance, and also makes you understand a lot more about Csorwe herself. Anyway, Oranna and Sethennai were probably my favorite characters in the book purely for how unnecessarily dramatic they were, and the whole situation was a trainwreck. Then there’s Tal, who seems from reviews to be a reader’s favorite, but to be honest I kind of… forgot he existed a lot of the time. I don’t really know why, given that he’s also very dramatic. Not horrible enough, probably! I liked reading how his dynamic with Csorwe developed through the story, however.

The only true negative for me was the atmosphere, or how surprisingly weak it was. This is a space portal fantasy with terrifying divinities and cults, which has so much potential as a setting – and I loved it for that! More books that understand how the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi is made up and unnecessary – but I don’t think it fully went there. Maybe Csorwe is the wrong character to have that kind of descriptions? I don’t know. Once we were out of the House of Silence I often couldn’t get a sense of setting, with few exceptions.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Conflicted Feelings: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente – Review

Palimpsest is a story about a sexually transmitted city.
It’s strange and uncomfortable; it has an idea and goes for it without ever trying to hide that, without compromises, which is something I always appreciate. It could be seen as a response to the Greek myth that says people are only half of a whole, or the soulmate trope in general: it asks why does it have to be two? As I’m someone who loves stories about cities and human sexuality but not about soulmates, I really liked what this book did.
However, I’m still really conflicted about it, because it got as many things wrong as it got right.

Some have said that this book was “ahead of its time”, and in some ways, it is. How many books with an all-queer, polyamorous cast and a happy ending are there? Not many, and it’s 2020. This was published in 2009, and I think the author received homophobic and biphobic harassment when it got more visibility due to an award nomination.
In other ways, Palimpsest is very much a book published in 2009, and I don’t mean that because of certain tropes, but because of how much of an unintentional-yet-proud display of American ignorance and self-centeredness it is.

Valente having misrepresented other cultures is not news in the slightest, but in Palimpsest you get to witness how she writes about the American character in comparison to the other three, non-American PoVs, and the difference is stark. While the American character gets to be a character, the others are written as if their culture were a personality trait.

The Italian character feels like a cobbled-up caricature of things taken from various parts of Italian history, and of course he’s passionate and sexist, of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either.
The Russian character’s whole personality is “sad”; the Japanese girl has blue hair (of course) and the way she was written gave me a weird feeling in a bad way; however I’m neither Russian nor Japanese and I can’t play the game of “spot the gross stereotype” as well as I could with Ludovico. And Ludovico’s PoV was a minefield of ignorance. I can forgive it a little more since conversations around representation and US-centrism weren’t as easily accessible and easily found then as they are today (in which there’d really be no excuse for writing a book like this and yet it keeps happening), but still.

And can we talk about the weird/unintentionally comedic effect of naming an Italian character “Nerezza”? It’s an attempt at a translation of “blackness”¹ (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, is that you?) but sounds like an insult due to the assonance with other words with a -zz sound: “schifezza”, grossness, “ribrezzo”, instinctive disgust, and since she’s from Rome, “monnezza”, garbage in Romanesco. Nerezza monnezza, the poor woman would have been bullied so much.
(If you’re going to make up names in a language you don’t know, please ask a native speaker to make sure they don’t rhyme with several insults².)

But it gets worse! In the scene in which the American woman, November, first talks on the phone with Ludovico, she realizes that he only knows very basic English, and he is embarrassed and apologizes profusely. When they meet, in Italy, one of the first things November mentions is his “gnarled and barbed” accent while speaking in English (of course).
It never occurs to her to learn one word in Italian! It never occurs to her to apologize, or to be embarrassed for her ignorance; it certainly never occurs to the author either, and given what she has written, she should be. “Oh Christo“, you say? I’m cringing into the next century.

And I’m annoyed because I know what this could have been had the author not used cultures just for the exotic flavor, had she actually done her research, had she actually asked people from said cultures to read what she wrote. The only fact that I did finish this book should tell you how good it was otherwise.

This is a story about four people who first find each other in the dream city of Palimpsest, and then have to find each other again outside of it to stay in it: here, they can be who they really are in a way they never could in the real world. It’s a story as full of yearning as it is of uncomfortable sex scenes, and it’s at its heart about the changing norms, the hidden signals and the gatekeeping of marginalized communities (the Nerezza plot point: it will never be easy for me, so why it should be for you? So much pain from that).

And Palimpsest is wonderful to read about! A magical, terrifying city that feels so freeing and yet is all but an utopia, with its own issues and disparities and people who try to cling to the past when that’s not possible, not when cities are always rewriting themselves.
I also love the writing. One could say it’s too much, but I don’t mind, I like books written in an unconventional way, in which the writing almost feels like a character in itself, in which you won’t forget it easily.

This is not a nice story; it’s messy, it focuses on all kinds of outcasts and certainly has teeth, in a way that makes me think it wouldn’t fit in even if it was published today after a good round of culture-focused editing – because today’s major issue in the queer book community isn’t so much the queerphobia, but the idea that portraying something uncomfortable must be an endorsement of it, and this book has so much of that kind of content. It has at least two plot points revolving around fraternal incest; it would need its own magical Palimpsest publishing industry to exist as it is without facing significant backlash.

My rating: ★★★½

Footnotes, for nuance
¹

When I first wrote this review, I said that this word doesn’t exist. According to the Treccani, it does, as does “giallezza” (yellowness) and “rossezza” (redness), but interestingly not “bluezza” (blueness), or “verdezza” (greenness). I’m wondering which criteria they used to include words because I’ve never seen any them used if not in awkward translation from English quotes. We don’t really do that, for example a redness of the skin is an “arrossamento”, not a “rossezza”. I guess it does exist, but it’s rare and due to the sound it also looks awkward and kind of ridiculous. If in a non-name context one needed to translate “[color]ness”, I’d always go with “l’essere [colore]” (in literal English: “the being [color]”.) In a name context, just don’t.

²

This is even more frustrating considering that we do have names that mean “black” or “dark”. Several of them! I personally would have suggested Maura because it’s somewhat uncommon (so it has the ~special~ connotation the author is going for) and has a cold ring to it (it’s not pronounced like Laura; well, Italian!Laura isn’t pronounced the way English speakers say it either, so I guess it is and you’ll have to make peace with them saying it wrong, but the actual thing is closer to “Mawra”). For nuance and transparency, I also want to point out that Nerezza rhymes with “bellezza” as well, which means “beauty”, but I promise that “Nerezza bellezza” would be even more ammunition for bullies.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★


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

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

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

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

*spoilery clarification:

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

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

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Sci-fi

Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

42036538I deeply admire this book’s dedication to not making sense.

After all, who needs to make sense when you have sword lesbians, space necromancy, rot, magical science, and a murder mystery? If someone had tried to make space for something as mundane as sense, Gideon the Ninth might have exploded in a mess of mold and bone shards, and now, wouldn’t that have been a shame.

Here, the idea that things aren’t going to make sense and that everything is going to feel mostly like a caricature of itself is something one has to get on board with before starting the novel (I mean, look at that cover. It already tells you everything you need to know.)
It’s funny, it really is, and in a way I’m not used to – when most SFF books try to outdo themselves with witty banter, this one mostly relies on dissonance, outdated memes, and deliberately horrible puns, to the point that if one were to translate it, they’d inevitable lose half the charm of the story.

The humor, the melodramatic characters and settings, the neverending cast of characters – it all works because of how confident this book is. It goes for its goal without feeling any need to explain or justify (of course Gideon lives in a tomb cult but still has access to many dirty magazines!). As long as what’s in it feels in line with the aesthetic, it works.
I’d usually say that aesthetic is important but not as much as making sure things are coherent in the world – but no, not here, there’s no way any of this would work if it took itself any more seriously.

Do I mean this never got too much even for me? Oh, it did. Let’s just say that while “I’m going for over-the-top, I might as well go all the way” is a principle I appreciate, I will never get through a 30 pages long fight scene without skimming, and that ending should have been a quarter of its length. It got to the point that some (in theory) emotionally impactful and very painful developments didn’t have any effect on me because I just wanted this book to be over, after loving pretty much everything that lead up to the ending.

Because yes, apart from that, this book’s dedication to the aesthetic didn’t get in the way of the characterization, relationships, and more emotional parts. The growing respect between the Sixth and Ninth House? Everything about the Fourth? Also, there are nine different iterations of the necromancer/cavalier duo dynamic, and it’s everything. (There are a lot of Houses, but don’t worry! There’s a more extended glossary here on Tor.com.)
At the heart of all of it, there’s the enemies-to-allies dynamic between Gideon and her necromancer Harrow, with ~tension~ (in a very gay way). The growing trust! The changes in names and nicknames! The pool scene! (Of course there’s a pool scene.)

And can we talk about Gideon for a moment? Characters who walk the line between “really competent in something very specific” and “walking disaster” are always my favorites, as are those whose first instinct is to run after things with a sword. She’s both, but what stood out to me the most was that she was a jock who could very much be both horny and crass, which… isn’t something fictional lesbians are allowed to be very often! Probably for fear of “reinforcing stereotypes”, but there’s nothing stereotypical about Gideon, and a queer book’s role isn’t “changing bigots’ minds” anyway. Here, there’s no doubt about who is the target audience. Also, “lovable fool” female main characters aren’t common in general.

Still, the best part of this book has been showing the cover to friends and relatives just to see what face they make. 10/10 would recommend

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

40815235._sy475_I almost didn’t read The City of the Middle of the Night because my previous experiences with Charlie Jane Anders – both with short fiction and with her novel All the Birds in the Sky – weren’t positive. Then I decided to challenge myself to read all the Hugo Award finalists in the Best Novel category, and I’m so glad I did; this book has some of the most interesting worldbuilding I’ve read in a while, character dynamics that deeply appeal to me, and writing so beautiful I could cry.

At its heart, this is a story about a toxic relationship between two women, the kind of toxic relationship queer women in a heteronormative society are intimately familiar with: the love for the popular, Straight best friend who claims to love you (though how is always left to interpretation, deliberately) but actually sees you as a pawn, as means to an end more than anything. It’s not a case that this book ended where it did, and the final confrontation wasn’t about the revolution or what will happen to Xiosphant. The City in the Middle of the Night is about Sophie and Bianca, what they feel for each other, why they are drawn to each other and why they chafe, always chafe in the end.
It’s a story about the importance of open-mindedness and acceptance, about how for some fighting for change is a way to help people thrive, while for others is only important as far as it gives them privilege, attention, power over others. It’s the negative of a love story, and yet there’s so much love in its pages, in the questions it raises, in the ending it chose.

Sophie and Bianca aren’t the only main characters. Half of this book is told in Mouth’s PoV, and I found those parts to be less compelling for a variety of reasons, the main one being how the supporting characters in it weren’t as well-drawn. Mouth’s and Alyssa’s relationship was an interesting foil to Sophie and Bianca’s, strained for different reasons but born from similarities between the two characters (though again, I didn’t feel it was as well-developed), and Mouth’s arc was a foil to Sophie’s. Sophie’s story is about knowledge as a bridge over misunderstanding, the importance of learning about the past, while Mouth’s was about knowledge as something that drags you down, and the need to let go of the past. I live for foils, and I thought this was really clever, because it’s true that a core part of being human is wondering how much of the past one can forgive or understand or let go. It’s often not easy to understand which between forgetting or deepening one’s understanding would help.
And, of course, Gelet society is a foil to humanity in that! It only makes sense for a book set on a tidally locked planet, half day and half night, to exist in mirrors and explore the gray between the ends of binaries, after all.

Now, let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Setting a book on a tidally locked planet is an incredibly cool concept to begin with, and the details made it even better, made it feel real, while never making anything difficult to grasp. We start the story in Xiosphant, the city in which Time has become a way to control the people through the idea of Circadianism: everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Everything is designed to make you feel like you’re running out of time, to make not wonder about the past so that you can’t talk about privilege and power being concentrated in certain groups, to make you not talk about what’s outside because the solutions that work for other countries could never work for Xiosphant, Xiosphant is special (this has a quote that is basically a parody American exceptionalism and that was my favorite moment). This book isn’t exactly subtle, but sometimes one needs to go for the throat. And this might be a horrible place, but the details about the many different kinds of currency, the shutters and the farmwheels… it was so fascinating to read.

Xiosphant’s foil is Argelo, the city that never sleeps, in which there’s always some kind of party going on, some kind of battle, sometimes both things at the same time, and everything is based on “freedom”, the freedom to do as one pleases, which usually includes trampling others and forming gangs to survive. The descriptions of the parties and locals in Argelo were breathtaking in all their extravagant details, and yet there was always that atmosphere of emptiness to it.
Both cities are dying, and have a lot in common – the violence, the lack of care and sense of community, the aversion to meaningful change – and the climate is going to destroy them in not much time, if everyone on the planet doesn’t start cooperating in some way. While reading this, especially the Argelo part, I kept thinking about how in a book that doesn’t grasp the dynamics of privilege, what privilege does to people (like, uh, most YA dystopians) Bianca would have been the heroine. I’m glad this is not that kind of book.

Argelo, Xiosphant and the City in the Middle of the Night (where the alien Gelet live) aren’t the only societies explored. We also get to know about the people in Mouth’s past, the Nomads, and their storyline had some really interesting parts, but again, like everything in Mouth’s storyline, I didn’t feel like the full implications of them were explored. When we have a storyline as well-rounded as Sophie’s, with a in-depth exploration of PTSD, of a toxic relationship and of an entire alien society, Mouth’s story just feels faded, even though I get why it was there.

I couldn’t end this review without talking about the writing, which I loved. For the descriptions, for how effective it was, for how much of this I highlighted. I understand why it’s polarizing, it keeps you at arm’s length from the characters. But, once you settle into it, it carries you in its flow like the visions of the Gelet, and it’s breathtaking.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Recent Fantasy Reads

I read two adult fantasy novels in March! (Well, three, but that third was a reread.) Given how my reading has looked like lately – very few novels and relatively little fantasy – this is almost surprising. Here’s the reviews.


29774026When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thought that the most remarkable thing about it was its length. Now that I’ve finished it, that hasn’t changed.

I think that’s where the problem sits. When I write reviews, the first thing I think about is what sets this book or reading experience apart, in a good or bad way? And here, apart from how long this was, I really can’t tell! This book felt like an amalgamation of tropes and ideas I’ve already read elsewhere, where they were done in far more interesting ways. And it has a lot of tropes I love, from dragon rider school (by the way, the “powerful” dragon Naymathun spent most of the book being a damsel in distress, it was kind of ridiculous) to plant-based magic and a forbidden f/f romance.
The book managed to do nothing interesting with them, which is an achievement.

The Priory of the Orange Tree was marketed as a new, diverse spin on traditional fantasy tropes, and while I appreciate the intent, I don’t think that was done particularly well. When I say that I love reading fantasy stories in which queer characters don’t experience homophobia, I don’t mean that you can build a society with rigid gender roles, a serious religious fundamentalism problem, and puritanical attitudes towards sex, and expect me to believe that somehow there’s no homophobia. Fantasy authors, please explore the consequences of the worldbuilding you lay down. Please.
(Also, again, unless I missed something, this is one of the most rigidly cis and gender-conforming fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long while, which wouldn’t have been so glaring if not for a) how much symbolism based on wombs there was here and b) how much of the marketing focused on this being feminist and all about women. Considering all that… it really stood out in a bad way.)

And really, if you mostly read queer SFF to begin with, the only thing that will stand out to you is how long this book is and how some of the plotlines (like Tané’s, which was my favorite character) still manage to feel underdeveloped despite that.
This is one of those books in which it’s clear that, despite the multiple PoVs, there’s a main character (Ead, who was as bland as one can possibly get with superpowers) and the others are less relevant. The book didn’t even seem to try to make me care about Loth, who was a walking plot device, even blander than Ead. And I appreciated the idea of having a main character who for once didn’t have the supreme good as a motivation – Niclays – but he too had the personality of a dishrag.
Add the painfully predictable political intrigue to that and you get a very long story in which all interpersonal dynamics are deeply uninteresting, and as a result, I never felt strongly about anything.

I think my disconnect between this and the story also had a lot to do with the fact that this book tried to be a modern version of fantasy classics, which made me realize just how much I don’t miss that kind of fantasy.
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, this very much relies on coincidences to push the story along, which today feels lazy, and it just doesn’t live up in any way to the standards I have for plotting in adult fantasy, when it had all the space it needed to do so and more;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it portrays a conflict between good people and a clearly irredeemable evil that exists just to be evil, which has never made for an interesting story and today feels flat and uninspired;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it has such a stiff writing style that I gave up on the English version and decided to read it physically in Italian, despite how uncomfortable it is to read a physical copy of this, because tone doesn’t translate well and for once that was a good thing;
🍊 Unlike most of the older fantasy I read (though I don’t doubt there were many, many exceptions to this), it has sex scenes, still written in that stiff, incredibly uncomfortable writing style, which means this has what’s probably the worst f/f sex scene I’ve ever had to read in my life. Rosebuds at the tips of her breasts?? really?

I did enjoy my time with this for the most part: I had many problems (…I’ve spent most of this review complaining), but the majority of them were background annoyances. For something in which I only cared about one character out of four, it wasn’t a bad reading experience, and I did really like the settings (the Inysh castle, the Priory, Tané’s school…). I will also forget most of it over the next few weeks.

My rating: ★★¾


41473380-1Stormsong is a sequel that does something very few sequels do: it deals with the afterwards. What happens after you’ve defeated the Big Bad and uncovered his nefarious plots? Chances are the structures that allowed the Big Bad to rise and thrive are still standing, and that’s a serious problem.

As Witchmark was one of the most nuanced takes on the outlawed magic trope and very plausibly portrayed the rich profiting from it, Stormsong is one of the most nuanced versions of the “rebellion against the establishment” plotline, and with a very interesting perspective – Dame Grace Hensley was completely part of it until a few days before, and in some ways still is. This book knows how to talk about privilege and oppression, about how this kind of discussion has to be full of grey areas and still requires steps, solutions, because injustice can’t be allowed to continue. Sometimes, those solutions will have high costs.
(Forgive me the aside, but this is the very reason no trope is tired until marginalized people have had as many chances to write it.)

In this book, what truly happened with Laneer comes into focus, and there’s also discussion of justice in the context of colonial wars. Everything in here is complicated, and this book handles all of it with… grace. (Sorry.) There are also advocates for witches’ rights, and the Amaranthines sometimes have goals of their own, and everything is twisted enough that I couldn’t even predict the solution to the murder mystery (yes, of course there’s murder too!) this time.

I still didn’t like this book as much as Witchmark. It might be due to my mental state, but my frustration at the ending had a lot to do with it. I hate cliffhangers, they make me want to not continue with the story, and while I get why a certain character didn’t get what they deserved, I’m still really annoyed and that’s never the emotion I want a book to leave me with.

The romance in this book also took more of a backseat than it did in the first. Again, I understand why this was necessary, but I still wish I would have gotten more than that, especially when I had to sit through so many scenes with Severin (why do f/f books specifically have to spend so much time on men who want to end up with the main character but obviously won’t?).
It’s also one of those romances in which you’re told that the characters were already drawn to each other since before the beginning of the story, but you aren’t shown that, not even in a flashback, so you’re already starting halfway through. There is a lot to love about Avia and Grace’s relationship, about how they came from somewhat similar situations and are going through similar pathways in different times, and there was even an occurrence of the “there’s only one bed!” trope. I liked them, of course I did, but I still wanted more from this book.

My rating: ★★★★


Have you read or want to read these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

[Audiobook Reread] Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027This was even better on reread.

The City of Brass is the first book in an adult fantasy trilogy involving a faraway hidden city of djinn, a young woman with unexpected powers, and grudges that transcend time.

I had almost forgotten how it felt to read well-plotted, satisfying, unpredictable political intrigue in which all characters are equally realized and there isn’t a clear good side. It’s such a freeing sensation. I wrote in my old review that “Daevabad is such an awesome powder keg and I can’t wait to see it explode“, and I stand by that. There’s so much backstory, all delivered in a way that doesn’t weigh on the reader, that makes everything in this city precarious and full of horrible implications.
And when I say it was unpredictable, I want to underline that this was a reread, and it managed to surprise me again.

I have to admit that the first half of this book, while well-written and atmospheric and still interesting enough to keep my attention on reread, is kind of boring the way travel fantasy often is; it takes half of the book for our main character Nahri to even reach Daevabad, and the first chapters in Ali’s PoV just aren’t that interesting. However: the second half wouldn’t work without the first, which gives you time and space to clearly see the relationships between certain characters develop, and the second half is political fantasy at its best. I can confidently say that it pays off, and I wouldn’t change anything.

This also hits the perfect balance in both making me care about the characters and not making me firmly take the side of only one character over everyone else, which is amazing for political intrigue. Everything here is a complete mess. The characters you spend most of the time with – Nahri, Ali, Dara, and Muntadhir – are often on opposing sides, but because there aren’t easy answers and there’s a certain clear amount of atrocities on all sides, I on some level cared about everyone and wasn’t rooting for only one character to “win” or for others to disappear (that’s where a lot of political fantasy fails: they make some characters incredibly unpleasant to spend time with, and you have to read about them over and over).
And do you know why this works so well? Because it’s fun. I spent so much of this reread, especially the second half, laughing.

I care about Nahri, who is just a (lying, mildly backstabbing) treasure to read about, and Ali grew on me (poor boy has a functioning moral compass. that’s going to be a problem), but somehow seeing them make terrible decision didn’t irritate me, because their inexperience made sense – neither of them has any reason to actually be good at political intrigue – and because I was just living for the situation to get even more complicated. It’s more fun that way?
After all, my favorite part of political intrigue is seeing interpersonal relationship get strained because of it, so I was really invested in both Ali’s family dynamic and Nahri’s relationship with Dara, while at the same time not having a firm idea of how I wanted them to be resolved.

36475759This also confirmed my theory that powerful, competent characters are only interesting to read about if you can make fun of them. Like, look at Dara. Scary? Absolutely! Also the character version of the “old man yells at cloud” meme. I loved his scenes because I find them funny, even though he’s… not funny (does anyone but Nahri have a sense of humor here? It wouldn’t seem so, jokes only exist to Goad the Enemy).
It helps that nothing will ever be as funny to me as “the most hated person of the realm, who people thought dead, returns; chaos ensues” combination of events. As it usually happens with characters that belong to this archetype, the story eventually uses him as a punching bag, and that was also a great time.

Another big reason I love this book is the writing. It’s not overly flowery but it’s definitely descriptive, and I loved that; I will never not love books that understand the power of a well-defined setting, that make details meaningful. Daevabad and the palace of the Nahid almost feel like characters themselves, and are such beautiful, horrible places to read about.

Can’t wait to see just how much The Kingdom of Copper will hurt!

Some observations from this reread:

  • Darayavahoush e-Afshin spends a significant amount of this book complaining. “In my time, things were better”, “when the Nahid were still ruling, things were better”, “why do you keep asking so many questions”, “why doesn’t the prince speak the most important (=my) language in this city”, etc. Interestingly, I’ve seen reviews call Nahri “whiny” (a word I don’t like using in general), but not Dara – when he’s the one who complains constantly. I think this says a lot about how we see female main characters.
  • It’s really interesting to me how healing in fantasy novels is usually a magical ability that is relegated to side/minor characters that are kind of plot devices while the main characters get to fight. Here, healing is the most important magical ability – for once, here’s a book in which the society has priorities that make sense
  • The audiobook was amazing and I can really recommend it as a format. You’ll actually know how to pronounce everything! The narrator, Soneela Nankani, makes all names sound way nicer than how I read them in my head. (The biggest shock for me, interestingly, was the true pronunciation of “Manizheh”. The Italian-style one my brain automatically went to is so sad when compared to the truth)
  • I already said this in my old review but I wish people would stop mis-categorizing this as YA, all the characters are adults and this is very much an adult fantasy with genre-typical slow pacing & attention to worldbuilding, while YA usually prioritizes faster pace and characters/romance over worldbuilding. I get that publishers had a hand in creating this mess (blurbs mostly from YA authors and all) but it’s a form of misleading marketing and also kind of sexist (it’s known that almost only women authors get this treatment).
  • If you’re interested in seeing my old review, it’s also still here on the blog! For some obscure reason, it was my most popular goodreads review until I deleted it.

My rating: ★★★★¾ [raised from 4.5]