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

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Book review · Young adult

Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

38612739Pet is a story about how evil – any kind of evil – thrives in plain sight when people start refusing to look for it, to acknowledge that it can and does exist. It’s a story about how this refusal of any kind of discomfort, this hiding from the world’s truth, hurts and silences victims.

It follows Jam, a black trans girl with selective mutism who lives in Lucille, a town in a future version of America that would look like an utopia to us. Not only the people around Jam accept all of her as she is, Lucille as a whole doesn’t have “monsters” anymore: no police to fear, no hoarding billionaries or evil politicians or backstabbing bigots. Evil has been defeated, people say, but as Jam soon discovers, that’s never really the case.

This is a charming little book. It’s so short, but it has so much to say, with this world balanced between surreal and futuristic, in which creatures can come through paintings and monsters are still so familiar. It’s not contemporary, but it’s that kind of book that feels more real than reality, and one I would recommend to readers of all ages. I think that it’s technically a much-needed lower YA, as the main character is 15, but it’s accessible even to younger readers, and adults could get a lot out of it as well. From what Petsays about the nature of evil to what it says about what makes a monster, or an angel – not the appearance, not what they are, but what they do – there are a lot of important messages and reminders in this book.

I think it’s really interesting how, in an age range that is supposedly geared towards teenagers (so, from 13 to 19, and even then, people will tell you that it’s technically meant to be 14-17), characters that are younger than 16 are so uncommon in YA. I think this is one of the reasons this book felt so unlike every YA novel I had ever read before – Jam is a 15-year-old girl who actually feels like one, and Pet talks about the typical difficulties of being a young teen in the world: Jam doesn’t know how to communicate with her parents anymore, she’s slowly realizing that the world is uglier than she has believed for all her life, and is terrified that people won’t listen to her just because of her age. I remember experiencing all of these things myself, and it’s sad that the YA age range usually avoids dealing with these topics to favor storylines that are more appealing to adults instead.

Pet also focuses a lot on family dynamics, both in Jam’s own family – Jam’s relationships with her parents, Bitter and Aloe, is really developed, which is also uncommon in YA – and in her friend Redemption’s, in which Jam has been told “hides a monster”. I loved the portrayal of Redemption’s family, it’s so uncommon to see extended families and polyamory representation (Redemption’s parents are a woman, a non-binary person, and a man, but aunts and uncles are almost like parents to him too) in books, but even families that look perfect can have their ugly sides. And this is still a story with a happy ending, the best possible ending given the circumstances. Just because it has an important message, it doesn’t mean it has to be constantly painful.

And then there’s the relationship between Jam and Pet, the creature that came through Jam’s mother’s paining. I loved what this book did with Pet, especially what Pet meant to Jam – their complicated friendship, their disagreements abou how to pursue justice, and how Pet taught Jam to be brave and that sometimes discomfort is a positive thing.

I hope Pet ends up reaching a lot of people; I think most could get something useful from this.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler-y theories

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

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

39679076House of Salt and Sorrows is a standalone YA gothic murder mystery set in a high fantasy world.

This book doesn’t get that heterosexuality is not a personality trait.

I’m not saying this to be funny: no one in this book had a personality. I can’t tell you anything about the main character apart from the fact that she’s attracted to Cassius and cares for her sisters; she was more a placeholder than a character. The boys were even worse, existing in the book just to be handsome, vaguely mysterious, and exchange possessive glares that the book will carefully specify are masculine while fighting for the main girl.
And while I knew, getting into a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, that not every sister was going to be developed, I didn’t expect their attraction to boys to replace the personality of all of them (in the older ones; the younger one is never anything more than a “creepy little girl” stereotype.)
Four sisters are dead at the beginning of the book, and the living ones are worried not because of that, or not because maybe they’re going to die next, but because their supposed “curse” scares men away and they think they’re going to grow old and die unkissed, without ever having danced with a boy.
Yeah. Priorities!

So, let’s be kind and say that this book is plot-driven.
The plot wasn’t that great. House of Salt and Sorrows is a gothic mystery with a really interesting premise and solid background, but the execution ended up being really messy. All the tension relied on the usual “is the main character *gasp* insane or is that magic?” trope, which is cheap and I hate it, especially when the answer is so obvious and when the book constantly approached even only the possibility of mental illness in really insensitive ways.
By the way, in case that wasn’t already clear: there is no diversity whatsoever in this book. The whole cast is all-straight, and, unless I missed something, also all-white and all-abled (which: the realism, where?). There’s one old blind man whose entire personality was “crazy” who appeared for half a scene, and that’s it. No diversity, bland unnecessary romance, love triangle… did we all somehow time-travel to 2013?

The mystery was kind of underwhelming, but it wasn’t terrible. The foreshadowing was somewhat unsubtle and heavy-handed at times, but it didn’t give away the whole story immediately as many YA mystery books do; the revelation wasn’t the most unpredictable thing ever, but it was fine – I was mostly annoyed by how rushed the resolution was.

And I still didn’t dislike this, not really.
I mean, I clearly had many problems with it, but the thing is, it kept my interest. I’m barely reading these days and I finished it really quickly – which yes, that also means that there wasn’t much substance to it, but it was a fun ride most of the time, and I wanted to know what happened. I never really thought about DNFing it.

Another reason I didn’t dislike this book is that I got into it for the island gothic aesthetic, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Have you ever watched a movie or a show in which the acting was bad and the plot was mediocre but the setting and the costume design made it worth watching at least once, purely as eye candy? House of Salt and Sorrows is the book version of that. The descriptions are beautiful, and the island atmosphere is perfect. I loved all the mentions of coastal marine life, the descriptions of tide pools, all the details this book gave me about buildings and dresses and shoes and accessories.

This is deeply forgettable and really flawed, and not something I would ever reread, but it was worth reading once just for that.

My rating: ★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

41555968And here I am, continuing my tradition of reading series out of order. I mean, it was fine¹ when I did that with the Xuya series, and I also believe that while sequels don’t have to stand on their own, spin-offs absolutely should, so why not try and read something when there are five books of worldbuilding before that one? This kind of thing obviously can’t go wrong².

You don’t need to have read the Memoirs of Lady Trent series to understand Turning Darkness Into Light. However, I think it could be much more meaningful to you if you had, as some of the characters from that series are often mentioned, and as this novel is told entirely through letters, lists, journal entries and translations of ancient tablets. This is a really interesting choice, and I loved this somewhat mixed-media aspect, but this format isn’t really suited to descriptions that don’t feel like awkward infodumps, which is probably the reason I still have no idea how a Draconian looks like.

This is the story of Audrey Camherst (Lady Trent’s granddaughter) as she translates ancient tablets from a long-lost Draconean civilization in a place where anti-Draconean sentiment seems to be on the rise, and betrayal could be lurking on every corner. It’s also the story of the Four who hatched from a single shell – yes, this novel has a story within a story, which is an aspect I loved.

More than anything, Turning Darkness Into Light is about the importance of narratives, of the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of ourselves as much as of “the other”, and how nothing is ever “just a story”. Writing fiction is, and has always been, inherently political.
It also makes some really good points about how bigotry isn’t something in which only extremists engage, and the subtle, non-violent kind is just as dangerous as the unsubtle, violent one, as the two are tied together. One can’t exist without the other.

The positives end there. I don’t have much else to say; Audrey as a character didn’t stand out that much to me, and neither did most characters, Cora being the only exception. I appreciated that the portrayal of an antagonistic relationship between a man and a woman that had an undercurrent of attraction but didn’t turn into a romance, as an idea, but I didn’t really believe it as much as I’d hoped. The format didn’t help with that, as I felt it added a lot of distance between me and the characters.

This is a solid novel, if not a really memorable one, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent is one of the series that I’m considering and will maybe start this year.

My rating: ★★★


¹ narrator: it was not fine. She struggled for half of the first novella she tried.
² narrator: keep telling yourself that.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?