Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

40794181I think that at its heart, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a great message. It is based on some really clever and interesting ideas, especially the ones surrounding the role of doors, of magic and portal fantasy. I also thought that the writing was – usually, more on that later – beautiful without needing to draw that much attention to itself, every word chosen carefully. It had a harmony to it, as if it were made to be read out loud; I think it would sound amazing as an audiobook.

I was also going to say that this book had a solid portrayal of the psychological consequences of childhood abuse, but something that happened in the second half made me change my mind. One didn’t need that to make January’s struggle to talk back and disobey realistic. It kind of undermined the whole thing.
Anyway, abuse does have a relevant role in this story, as the biracial main character is raised by a racist white man and abused both by him and by her white maid; at one point the main character also experiences forced institutionalization and abuse at the hand of psychiatrists, which I wish I had known before reading.

The rest of the book is… fine. I don’t have much to say about it, because one of my problems with it was exactly how unremarkable it was. All the characters but January didn’t have any dimension to them. All the portal worlds but one are barely described.
Also, it took me more than two weeks only to get through the first 30%. It was partly my fault, but everything I have to say on the pacing isn’t good.

While I said that the author clearly put effort in choosing the right words, the same didn’t happen when it came to including Italian ones. This led to jarring sentences and weird moments, like the one in which the Italian-American love interest calls the main character a “strega”, as if that were a compliment. It does mean “witch”, yes, but not in the way the English word does. It doesn’t carry the same connotations, the aspect of the cool independent woman who saves herself. I asked the people around me, and it doesn’t make any of us think of mysterious, dangerous but alluring magic. A strega is an old woman with a pointy hat and warts. He basically called her a hag.

It might be that the character, having grown up in America, sees the word as just a translation – but then, why not use the word “witch”, if that’s what you mean. And why use Italian words at all, if you don’t even bother to get the plural right? Was that a sign of laziness, of not even caring that other languages don’t do plurals the way English does, or was it done to cater to monolingual anglophones who might be confused by an Italian plural but still want a sprinkle of ~exotic flavor~?
I don’t know, I don’t particularly care, but in a book that attempted to talk about exotification among other things, this struck me as hypocritical.

My rating: ★★½

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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

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 · Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Uncategorized · Young adult

Reviews: Very Different Books, Same Rating

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read at the end of June, the urban fantasy mystery Borderline by Mishell Baker, first in a series, and the contemporary with a paranormal twist Release by Patrick Ness.

I rated them the same way, even though I rounded one up and one down on goodreads, (and you can probably tell which one I gave four stars to), because when you don’t have half-stars but your rating system does, “[book] is not that much better than [other book] but [book] feels more like a four and [other book] feels more like a three” is sometimes necessary.


25692886Borderline is the first book in an urban fantasy trilogy following Millie, a bisexual amputee with borderline personality disorder who, at the beginning of this book, starts investigating the case of a missing Seelie noble.

I’ve read a lot of books with diverse casts, but even in them, disability is almost always an afterthought. Not here: Borderline has a mostly-disabled/mentally ill cast, with a heroine who is a wheelchair user (lost her legs in a suicide attempt) and side characters who are dealing with trauma, side characters with dwarfism, side characters who have bipolar disorder.
I really appreciated how this book made the characters’ disabilities relevant to the plot while not becoming in any way an issue book – it’s a fun and sometimes dark urban fantasy mystery, just more diverse than average.

What I liked the most about this book is Millie. I’ve never read about a main character quite like her – she’s a liar, she has a certain amount of charisma, and she’s emotional, unreliable, manipulative and the book allows her to be horrible at times. She faces consequences for what she does, but at the same time you understand her and for the most part still like her. Female characters usually aren’t allowed to be any of these things without being flattened to unpleasant stereotypes, and she isn’t. She’s a mess, and the book doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes living with mental illnesses is just ugly, but she isn’t portrayed that way for shock value, and you can feel that. [the portrayal of BPD is ownvoices.]
How Millie talked about her own behavior and sometimes explained “this [lashing out] made me feel less terribly in that moment but it was definitely not a victory, don’t try this at home” – I understand that more than I’d like to, and her narration made everything feel so real.

However, I can’t say the same about the side characters. I never really got to know them – maybe because Millie doesn’t either, at least in this book? – and didn’t care about certain deaths I was probably supposed to care about.

The plot itself revolved around the role of the fae in the entertainment industry. I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas in the set up, as this book plays with the concept of “muse” with its idea of the “echo”, but as I don’t care that much about filmmaking and as Millie’s narration didn’t manage to make me care about it either, I didn’t feel strongly about most of the plot.
I also thought that for a book set in Los Angeles with a main character who was once a director, there was surprisingly little sense of setting or atmosphere.

My rating: ★★★½


33640498As one might imagine from the title, Release is a story about letting go. Of a somewhat toxic relationship, of some insecurities, of a family that doesn’t love you. It follows Adam Thorn, a seventeen-year-old gay boy who grew up in a family that loves him… conditionally: they’re religious and homophobic, and will never let him be who he truly is.

This is also a story with an odd paranormal element, something that feels like a fairytale in fragments: it’s both Adam’s story and a story about a dead girl that I think was making a point about breaking cycles of violence. I also couldn’t help but think that this story would have been more cohesive, would have made more sense, without this scattered fairytale, but I’m not sure. All the times I’ve ever seen someone say this about a magical realism/contemporary fantasy/fabulist book I liked, my reaction was “how could it have been a better book when the whole message of the book was in the paranormal element? You wanted to read a different story that said different things”, so I will just say that this probably made sense in some way, and I didn’t get half of it. Maybe if I had read the books this novel is inspired by I would have? I don’t know.

Apart from that, I don’t have much to say. The portrayal of what it’s like to grow in a religious place when you’re queer and not religious was very intense to read, as always, and Adam’s character arc was very well-written – especially when it came to those scenes about him struggling with feelings of self-loathing (he doesn’t fully believe his romantic love is lesser because he is gay, or that he asked to be sexually harassed, but these are insecurities in the back of his head) because that’s what happens to kids who are told that they have to hide what they feel, that their feelings don’t matter, that they are a nuisance.
I also really liked how this book didn’t shy away from portraying “explicit” (by YA standards) queer sex – and, also, from what the main character felt on an emotional level in those scenes.

Apart from Adam, the characters didn’t stand out. They performed the role they had in the story, but they were never more than “the supportive best friend”, “the loving new boyfriend”, “the homophobic parents” or “the cowardly ex”.
Overall, this is a solid story, but I’m not sure how much it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

36683928Spin the Dawn is the first book in a Chinese-inspired fantasy series. If you think that this book’s cover is beautiful, I can now tell you that its inside is even better, and that it is worth reading just for the descriptions and atmosphere, if you care about that sort of thing.
I certainly do.

One of the first things I noticed while reading this book was that I could visualize everything perfectly – from the dresses and the needlework to the landscapes and the magic – so much that I was actually happy when, once the sewing competition ended, this became a travel fantasy. Travel fantasy is very hit-or-miss for me, but when I love the author’s writing (especially the descriptions), I always end up loving it, and this was no exception.

It was so refreshing to read about a heroine who wasn’t a warrior in a book about a competition that didn’t in any way involve fightingSpin the Dawn is about a competition to become the Emperor’s personal tailor; in this world of demons and magic that can spin sun rays and paint with the blood of the stars, it’s exactly as beautiful as one would think, and the mythology is just as interesting.
Maia, the main character, isn’t good at wielding traditional weapons – her “weapons” are needles and especially her magical scissors, but this doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I always appreciate when YA fantasy portrays characters who have a different sort of strength from the usual warrior archetype.

I almost wanted to give this book five stars, because I did love parts of it, and it’s been a while since a YA fantasy novel captivated me so much. However, some tropes this book employed left a bad taste in my mouth – crossdressing plotlines usually have transphobic implications in some scenes (which is why I skimmed the ~gender reveal~) but what I didn’t expect was the whole “I’m disguised as a boy and I’m attracted to a boy, people think we’re *gasp* gay“. It almost felt like the book was playing it for laughs, and… that’s really not good, especially not in a book in which there are no explicitly queer characters. [there’s also a really ableist trope at the end of the ARC, bus as I’ve heard it was removed from the final copy, I won’t let it influence my rating.]

It might be that this is the first straight book I’ve read in a month, but the romance wasn’t great – it’s the typical “kind of naive girl + mysterious boy with an eye color far more striking than his personality” dynamic that is everywhere in YA fantasy. I wouldn’t hate m/f YA fantasy romances so much if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of male love interests sound like the same person. It’s also one of these mortal + old immortal romances, except the love interest doesn’t sound old at all (I don’t get why he had to be immortal in the first place), and I didn’t get why the two liked each other at all either – their banter was fun at times, but what did they see in each other? I don’t know, I liked them enough as individual characters (especially Maia) but as a couple… I just didn’t feel it.

My rating: ★★★¾