Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F YA Books

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f young adult books I’ve read recently, one contemporary and one fantasy.

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

31180248I’ve now read all the books Becky Albertalli has written, and of them, Leah on the Offbeat felt like the most realistic one to me. There’s an amount of teenage drama that would be annoying, if I didn’t remember how it was like to be in high school and hear about my classmates’ relationship problems.

Teenagers are messy, teenage relationships are even messier, and I loved how this book didn’t shy away from that for a moment. The result is a novel with a plot that is less solid than Simon vs.‘s, but one that actually feels like a story about real teenagers. I mean, it features a friend group that is mostly queer and the characters aren’t even out to each other for most of high school, and yes, that’s far more common than YA books would lead you to believe.

Leah Burke as a character felt so real to me. She constantly says the wrong thing, she overreacts, she misinterprets, she doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s a 17-year-old girl, not a role model, and I liked her so much for it. Sometimes she reminded me of myself, sometimes she reminded me of things some of my classmates have done. Teenage girls have… a lot of emotions and don’t always cope in the healthiest ways, and this book knows that. What I don’t get is all the hate Leah got for being a realistic teenage girl, but I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing how the book community is usually about girls who don’t deserve a halo.
Her relationship with Abby was very cute, but not without misunderstandings, because both girls are insecure and kind of take it out on each other at times (see: the label policing conversation – that’s Leah being a dick because she feels guilty about 100 other things; I never got the impression that the book wanted me to agree with her). However, their dynamic didn’t feel unhealthy to me overall.

I have to say that reading these books also makes me kind of sad, because while I’m always glad I can find happy queer stories (this time, one that was translated in my language!), this hasn’t been my high school experience, not even close– and to see books that say things like “you’ll miss these years!!”… well, I hope not. They were a five-year-long nightmare. I’m a year out of high school and I miss nothing.

Also: this time the pop culture references felt less overwhelming, maybe because I expected them, but the translation continued to make very questionable choices. I especially disliked the way the minor non-binary character was handled, as this book had the Italian version of “she uses they/them pronouns”.

My rating: ★★★★

The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

36998181Me and E.K. Johnston’s writing just don’t get along. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just that the narrative choices don’t make any sense to me: in years of reading fantasy, I’ve never read a book that had at the same time this many infodumps and a worldbuilding as generic, inconsistent and lacking in details as The Afterward.

Let’s talk about what I mean:

  • generic: this book has a typical medieval fantasy aesthetic, with knights and kings and magical gems, which is fine, if not exactly my preference;
  • inconsistent: what sets it apart from many other fantasy books is that it has gender equality to a degree and less queerphobia, which would have been great if the book hadn’t gone about it in an extremely inconsistent way, for example by telling us that the language shifted to include non-binary people but constantly using binarist phrasings – and since we’re talking about the way things are phrased, some parts were really uncomfortable to read as an aromantic person;
  • lacking in details: the Mage Keep is the only place that was really described, and I have no idea how anything else looked like. It relied a lot on the idea that the reader could envision a generic medieval fantasy world, but that’s both boring for me and lazy writing.

I had a similar problem with That Inevitable Victorian Thing – at this point, I doubt she’s able to write worldbuilding that doesn’t fall apart if you look at it twice – so I think she’s just not the author for me.

Now, let’s mostly focus on the positives, since this was, after all, a three star book – and three stars isn’t a bad rating for me.
The Afterward is a quietly subversive fantasy novel. It looks generic on the surface, and its world is, but what it does with the set-up isn’t. Instead of having a group of men with the one woman™ go on a quest, it’s a group of female knights (one of which is a trans woman) and thieves with only one man, and the story centers an f/f relationship between two young women of color. What it did with arranged marriage tropes was really interesting to see too, as it didn’t approach it the way most YA fantasy novels do.

I thought that The Afterward would be about what happens after the quest, but it isn’t, not really – half of it is set during the before. I can’t really complain about that, since those are the parts of the book in which we actually see the f/f couple instead of only hearing about it while the girls are separated. However, the quest itself wasn’t that interesting to read about.

And finally: the f/f romance. I loved Olsa and Kalanthe’s dynamic, but they aren’t in the same place for most of the book. Which is sad, because the scenes in which they were together were enough to make me at least believe in the romance, so I wonder how strongly I would have felt about it had it had more page time.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Sci-fi · Young adult

DNF Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

25528808That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a standalone ucronic near-future sci-fi book.

DNF at 40% because I have no patience left and this is bothering me so much. Also, I made a goal for this year to DNF books that are not working for me. So, here we are.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a book whose premise is basically “what if colonialism didn’t bring everywhere racism, homophobia and other similar problems”, and it’s not an easy concept to explore at all. I was willing to give it a chance, but this is not how you do worldbuilding.

The worldbuilding in That Inevitable Victorian Thing lacked consistency and had a lot of unexplored unfortunate implications:

•This is, supposedly, a society in which racism isn’t (as much?) a thing. And yet, the attitude of the Empire towards people of color is “let’s collect them all”, it felt almost fetishistic. Look how progressive this alt-history sci-fi monarchy is! Yes, having a multiracial queen is cool, but was it the way to do it?
Margaret’s political training had included lessons in how to determine ethnicity based on a person’s appearance, and therefore she could often guess a person’s heritage without asking.
…what about no?
Also, the Empire’s traditions are still strictly white British ones, because of course.

•This book (in which supposedly colonialism wasn’t as terrible) is set in Canada and yet there are no native characters – not even one – in the first 40% of the book. Why? This isn’t just erasing the hardships of marginalized people, this is pretending they don’t exist. Was genocide a thing? If yes, am I supposed to root for all of this?

•For a supposedly progressive society, it is obsessed with genes, and yet the author never explored its stance on eugenics (…some passages seemed pro-eugenics, and since there are no canon disabled characters in the first 40%, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were yet another pro-eugenics future that is presented as utopia instead of dystopia).

•For a society that is supposedly not against queer people (though bigotry does exist, here and there), it’s incredibly binary, even more than today’s society. There’s no mentions of trans/nb people whatsoever, and when the intersex character discovers she’s intersex her reaction was so cissexist I decided to put down the book. I’m sure she will come to accept herself! But then this society isn’t queer-friendly at all.

(If you want to see how a truly queer-friendly society looks like, read the Tensorate series by JY Yang. If you want to read about a truly queer-friendly society that is also a dystopian space empire, try Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee! It criticizes colonialism; there is genetic manipulation but the book doesn’t erase people with developmental disabilities. Also, both these series have an all-PoC cast.)

So: the worldbuilding is full of holes. But that wasn’t my only problem with it. There were no descriptions of the setting, the futuristic technology was underdeveloped – I had no idea of how anything looked like. Alt-history near-future sci-fi is such a cool idea! But there’s no atmosphere, no coherent aesthetic, just so much wasted potential.

Now, the plot. Was there one? The first 30% is characters preparing for a debut ball in which nothing happens (…it’s over in one scene). There’s no conflict whatsoever.

For a book with such shitty worldbuilding, was it full of infodumps. I stopped at chapter 11, which is basically one big infodump. I mean, just look at this:

There was, of course, some debate on how much of the Computer was God, though the Church of the Empire was adamant in its declaration that the Computer was made by people to better understand God’s design and was, therefore, not divine in its own right. There were several dissenting groups, mostly in the American States, who stridently decried the use of the Computer to store genetic codes and determine compatibility.

…really interesting, isn’t it? Well, it goes on for paragraphs!

I also highlighted many instances of “cheatery narration”: the narration is in [character 1]’s PoV, then tells the reader about the feelings of [character 2], and goes back to [character 1]. This happened at least three times: not enough times to establish an omniscient PoV, enough times to make me wonder if an editor read this at all.

Also: boring characters, but that’s usually what happens when you have no conflict.

Why did I put up with this for 100+ pages, then? I wanted to love this. This is one of my favorite covers of all times and I wanted an excuse to buy a copy because I just love this so much (I only buy physical copies of my favorite books). Also, it has a main f/f ship.
Sadly, this didn’t work for me at all.

My rating: ★½