Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

One of the best things about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is how it makes its world come alive. It takes place during a festival that only happens once in decades, Solstasia, and it felt magical in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
Between the Patron Deities (who doesn’t love a good faction-like system?), all the mythical creatures (talking hyenas? chipekwes? serpopards? yes), and the challenges we get to witness both inside the actual Solstasia competition and outside of it (…the wakama match is one of the best scenes), this world was so interesting to read about, and just fun.
It also felt grounded. One has to see a city’s worst sides to fall in love with it, and this book never shies away from Ziran’s issues – the xenophobia, the corruption, the opulence existing side by side with poverty; the way the city’s history might be darker than anyone imagines, with real repercussions on the present.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is narrated in dual PoV, and while I liked both protagonists, I was surprised the most by Malik.
Boys in YA often seem to come from the same mold, especially if they have a “love interest” role. They react to traumatic events and other difficulties in almost always the same ways, the designated Acceptable Manly Ways™, which are to use sarcasm to cover wounds or become closed-off and brooding, which ~enhances their mysteriousness~.
Malik has anxiety.
Malik has anxiety and several panic attacks on the page.
 Some very realistically portrayed ones, by which I mean uncool and embarrassing and weird and oh no now you’re going to cry again; and this book gets it. It gets how panic attacks lower your self-esteem and feed off your low self-esteem; it gets what it means to grow up knowing that everyone kind of sees you as the village freak; it gets how they make living (and taking part in an important competition) in a place that discriminates against Malik’s people even more difficult. This books gets it, and that’s why this first chapter of Malik’s story ends up being about self-acceptance.
(This book also has content warnings in the beginning, which is kind and also shouldn’t be rare.)

Karina couldn’t be more different from Malik, being the daughter of Ziran’s Sultana, and yet the two have a lot in common – in the end, they just want to be accepted as they are. Karina wants people to appreciate who she is, but also knows she doesn’t really want to rule. She’s an impulsive mess, which made for a lot of really interesting developments, some of which involving necromancy! I love her.
Her story also involved learning to see the people around her more clearly instead of taking them for granted, and the way it ended was just… perfect. (The female friendships…)
And since I forgot to mention that before: this book is casually queer-inclusive. When Karina decides that the Solstasia competition reward will be her hand in marriage – she needs the heart of a prince: an important ingredient to perform a certain necromantic ritual – the competition isn’t closed to women, because law says she can have a wife. Now she just has to make sure that a woman won’t win, because that’s someone she can’t use the corpse of!

Please don’t let the marketing mislead you. Before I actually tried this book, all I knew about it was that it had the enemies-to-lovers trope and that someone needed to save a younger sibling, which didn’t make it sound interesting at all – I don’t even like these tropes. Especially the sibling one. And I still loved this, because it’s that good. It helps that Malik has more than one sister, so you get to see that he cares about his siblings, instead of being told about it for all the book and shown the contrary. It helps, more than anything, that this book puts thought into things as it builds over its premise – so it doesn’t even matter that I wasn’t so drawn to the premise.
Also, publishing should stop being so attached to comp titles, because the way the marketing (nonsensically) pushed the comparison with Children of Blood and Bone almost made me not read this. Just because it’s West African fantasy it doesn’t mean that they’re alike.

I listened to the audiobook, which I liked: in this novel storytelling is a form of magic, so it’s great to have someone tell it to you.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review

Stories from the End of the World: Thoughts on Books About Natural Disasters

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read recently in a genre I almost never reach for: anything to do with natural disasters and their fallout. I’m a natural sciences student, which means this topic isn’t something I usually want to be reading about in my free time as well.

Last year, I identified “being about natural disasters” as one of the reasons The Fifth Season didn’t work for me. I wanted to see if I could find something in the genre I actually like, or if this is a topic I just can’t read about.


Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Me and the post-apocalyptic genre just don’t get along.
Or, more specifically: remind me I should be wary of anything that uses Mad Max as a comp. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve now read several books it’s compared to, and the main thing they have in common is that they think very frequent action scenes are a good way to keep the reader interested, which is never going to work for me. I mean, I’m going to get through the book very quickly, that’s true; and that’s because nothing encourages me to skim as often.

Most action scenes are boring, and so is this book. So much of it felt like characters moving around from one place to another to either fight someone/something or recover from fighting someone/something, without any other aim. When I consider not finishing while I’ve only 20% left, there’s usually something very wrong with the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here – I think I’m just not the right kind of reader for this, and that’s fine. This book is doing a lot of things, some subtly and some not, like questioning the very heart of the post-apocalyptic genre: isn’t the concept of “apocalypse” what happens when a catastrophe befalls the privileged, after all? The Diné have gone through their own apocalypse before, it’s just not called that by the rest of the world.

There’s also the reversal of several tropes common in paranormal fiction, one of the most interesting examples being the character of Kai – a male love interest whose characteristics and capabilities are usually associated with female characters in fantasy. To avoid spoiler territory, I will say that for example he is kind of there to be very pretty, even if that’s far from his only role. Because of these things, he was probably the most interesting character around; I found most of the side ones to be extremely underwhelming, with maybe the exception of Coyote.
This very much includes a certain someone who is built up as this legendary figure and then is actually as interesting as cardboard with an Evil Hat™. I see possessiveness as insecurity, and given that it seems a huge part of his character once we meet him, I was never able to take him seriously (this, by the way, is a big part of why straight villain/heroine sexual tension rarely works for me anymore. The evil man archetype from this subculture™ is so fragile and kind of pathetic.)

As far as the other side characters, there’s a good reason we never really get to know them, or have a feeling on who they really are, and that reason is the main character, Maggie. She holds everyone at a distance, and that reflects on the story. This is a book about a traumatized woman who has known nothing but fighting and death for a long while, and her character arc involves learning that she can be something else as well. I don’t have any complaints about the development, but the thing about this book is that it feels very much like a set-up for the sequels, and just when we’re getting to a somewhat interesting part with Maggie’s arc, it ends. I’m not going to read the sequel because clearly this is not my kind of thing independently from execution, but I do wonder if the side characters get more development as Maggie learns to let people in. I hope that’s the case.

My rating: ★★½


Depart, Depart by Sim Kern

I wish I could not shelve this book as contemporary.
Depart, Depart follows Noah, a Jewish trans man who ends up in a shelter after a hurricane devastates Houston. It’s a story about what societal collapse brings out in people – about connection and grief and rage, about how catastrophe puts even more of a target on marginalized people’s backs.

I usually can’t read stories about natural disasters, but this one worked for me – I couldn’t stop reading it. Maybe it’s because it’s short even for a novella, maybe it’s because it’s not as hopeless as it could have been, despite being realistically bleak; maybe it’s because reading from the point of view of someone who is also constantly afraid makes it paradoxically less exhausting. (I don’t have to feel all of it on my own, I guess?)

The most chilling part of reading Depart, Depart is that it feels exactly like something one could see playing out. Not only because it follows a climate disaster that could actually happen in the present, but because of how real the characters and their dynamics felt. The portrayal of the queer “found family” feels close to reality from the big picture – how queer people quickly group together from the beginning, because there’s safety in numbers, but also how the most privileged and rich don’t care about the others once they’re safe themselves – to the details, like accusations of oppression olympics during tense moments, the non-binary person wondering about vegan options, Mountain Goats mentions… I’m not American but if you’ve been around US trans twitter for enough time, you know these people. That’s why it hurts.

All the while, Noah is being haunted by visions of his great-grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany as a boy. There are parallels between Noah’s situation and Abe’s, and this story also follows what it means for Noah to be Jewish and raised in an atheist family – the history that goes with that, and what has been passed down to him in good and bad and all the ways in between.

After all, this felt like a story about how we can’t change what was, but we can choose to not repeat someone else’s – or our own – mistakes. Noah has left behind people in the past to tragic circumstances, but now he can choose to stay with the people he’s grown to care about – because something Depart, Depart highlights is the importance of connections between people, how they save us in the most difficult times.

My rating: ★★★★½


Conclusions

So, these were surprisingly readable! While Trail of Lightning didn’t work for me, it wasn’t mainly because of the natural disaster elements, though that’s still a background I don’t feel particularly drawn to when it comes to picking up fantasy stories.

I’m realizing that for the most part, I prefer stories about natural disasters to be as close to reality as possible – which sounds paradoxical when one of the reasons these are usually so unreadable for me is “anxiety disorder”, but I think I know why. I really appreciated Depart, Depart, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy a novel – if that makes sense, it’s closer to the kind of liking I get from reading nonfiction, though not exactly. My brain was in a completely different mode, and while I’m in that ~serious mode, I honestly can’t be bothered with fantasy worldbuilding or something like that: ~serious mode already takes up a lot of energy. I will never be the kind of person who says that fantasy can’t deal with difficult and heavy topics (it… should) but if it’s a topic I have a lot of anxiety about at the moment, I prefer to stay away from them.


What’s your opinion on books following natural disasters & the post-apocalyptic genre? Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Maybe it makes sense that in a book full of symbolism based around cards the worldbuilding is about as solid as a house of them, and maybe it makes sense that in a book about stage magicians all the side characters feel like props to make the main ones shine, but it was about as interesting to read as it sounds.

The thing about Where Dreams Descend is that if it can sacrifice something to increase its own mysterious, dazzling atmosphere, it will. The result is a book that is all smoke and no substance, which again, it’s somewhat appropriate given the subject matter, but unsatisfying to read. It keeps adding mystery after mystery, raising questions and never answering them, and no storyline is ever given closure. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to understand things on the first try, and I can mostly get over how everything seemed so unsubstantial once you got through the layer of fondant, because was it some really beautiful fondant, but it also felt so contrived. Mystery for the sake of it, followed by meaningless reveals that don’t actually give answers, or explain anything apart from how much the publisher hopes you’ll buy the sequel.

In the end, Where Dreams Descend felt so much like that instagram cake meme that was everywhere in July – all concerned with appearances and tricking you, but when the “reveal” comes the book is like “you would have never guessed it was cake!” and you’re like “sure, never” because you’re too exhausted to even complain about how repetitive everything feels.
If you’re the kind of person who values atmosphere even more than I do, you’re probably have at least fun with this. I hope, however, that you don’t mind cliffhangers.

Now that I’ve complained enough, let’s get to the good parts: the writing fits the book perfectly. It’s ornate and descriptive without ever giving too much detail, making everything feel kind of haunted and or ghost-like beneath the glitter. I really appreciated how it managed to convey the atmosphere of Glorian, the underlying feeling of wrongness, and how it felt for Kallia – bright, always shining, burning – to be there. There would be a lot to say even about the use of color as symbolism in here, which was way more successful that anything this book was trying to do with the suits of cards and long-lost families, if this review weren’t already too long.
I also found the ways it talked about memory magic to be really interesting. It may sound over-specific, but this isn’t the first time I’ve found the concept of trading memories of fire in a frozen city, and I will always find that idea fascinating. Was anything ever explained? No, and I’m going to thank the book for that because the last thing this needed were infodumps that wouldn’t have made it make sense anyway without a stronger background.

It’s also a book with a main character whose entire role isn’t reacting to things that happen to her, who has has deep down a desire to connect with people, but mostly unashamedly wants the spotlight. That’s not something we often see, especially in YA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kallia were received as “unrelatable” or “unlikable” (because she wears “revealing” clothing and wants to be admired). I just wish the book would have understood that making a stronger cast of side characters wouldn’t have stolen the spotlight from her; I don’t think it’s possible to do that.

I mostly found the two male characters Kallia is somewhat involved with to be boring, because the way they were described and even the way they acted felt like a YA love interest template. (As if the book were checking things off a list titled here are the attributes that are considered to be appropriate to praise in a straight man!) And did they even have a personality apart from hiding things? Because I’m not sure it came across.

If I had read this book a few years ago, I know I would have liked it more, just like I enjoyed Caraval back then despite being equally flimsy and to be honest not as well-written or interesting, so I’m giving what’s in the end a positive rating; I mostly recommend it to those who liked Caraval and Ace of Shades but want something that feels even more mysterious and sets the atmosphere even better.

My rating: ★★★

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 · Fantasy

Reviews: Queer Graphic Novels

Hi! I’m back with two short reviews of graphic novels today, one of which I just finished and one of which I’ve read in May but somehow forgot to post the review until now. [Seriously, you don’t know how many reviews I’ve written but still have to post here. Anyway.]


Spinning is a memoir in graphic format about growing up and falling out of love with something that has been an integral part of your life. This is the story of how the author grew up with figure skating, but realized it was never really for her too late to disentangle herself from it easily. It talks about the weight of expectations, self-imposed and not; about the very present weights of homophobia and sexism and how they take a toll on young lesbians; there are some parts that are subtly about how sexism is entrenched in figure skating.

Throughout this book, there is a tired, lost atmosphere, and you can feel the exhaustion seeping through the pages – the repetitive nature of Tillie’s life, the cold, the loneliness even when surrounded by people, the feeling of being forced to wake up early every morning. This is strengthened by the art style, with its vague and dreamlike nature, which I think works better for introspective contemporaries like this one than for a sci-fi like On a Sunbeam (which I didn’t love). Despite all of this and its length, it’s a really quick read; it took me less than a hour to get through.

Reading memoirs about real lgbtq+ people’s experiences is always interesting to me because I can compare it to fictional portrayals, and see what is missing in them; specifically, I’m surprised that these things – which are all present in Spinning – aren’t common in YA contemporary: stories about kids with absent parents that actually explore what it means to grow up ignored, especially when you’re struggling with mental health; how most homophobic reactions to coming out are actually dismissive or awkward more than threatening; the confusion of growing up queer and not knowing whether you like or want to be like certain girls or want to be near them; unusual forms of self-harm.

And, unlike most fiction and like most of real life, it’s a really open-ended, fragmented story; it has no answers or big, important, dramatic moments, but it feels real in a way fiction can never really be, and I appreciated it a lot for that.

My rating: ★★★★

I also want to point out that this needs content warnings for sexual assault from a teacher, homophobia from various people including siblings, bullying, and car accidents.


The best surprise Pride month gave me was definitely Monstress Vol. 4 being translated in my country without any notice, and it being full of Gay Villainess content!

Rereading all the previous installments before getting to this was the best choice I could have done, and I ended up enjoying The Chosen immensely; I think it might even be my favorite so far. I mean, this series is somehow managing to get gayer with every volume, so I’m not surprised.

It’s still difficult to follow, but after a few rereads I think I can more or less see the outline of what is going on right now, even though I’m still confused about certain details; and while the scope of all of this + the beauty of the art are so overwhelming that I tend to miss the subtler things, like character development, they are there! I really appreciate seeing how Maika’s priorities are shifting as she understands more about the ancient gods, and how Kippa is finding her own footing amidst all of this. This is turning more explicitly into a series about the senselessness of war and cyclical nature of harm, and I’m interested in seeing where the authors will bring these themes to.

My priorities haven’t shifted, by which I mean I’m mostly here for the art (as usual) and the gay villainess aesthetic of it all. And this volume gave me a horrible F/F arranged marriage with backstabbing and a blood pact! (I’ve been looking for this kind of thing since The Stars Are Legion‘s Jayd/Rasida storyline… I can’t believe how much this is reminding me of it.)
Also, my favorite eldricht-god-possessed villainess – yes there’s more than one and I’m living for it – kissed Maika with ulterior motives! This series is a gem.

Do I know where this series is going? Honestly, no, but I have some theories and can’t wait to find out what Tuya is really up to. I also hope to see more of the Dracul.

My rating: ★★★★★


Have you read any of these? What are your favorite queer graphic novels?

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.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

43561631The Never-Tilting World is a queer post-apocalyptic fantasy book inspired by ancient Mesopotamian mythology and climate disasters. It’s a really peculiar book, and yet, despite my love for weird queer novels, I never fell in love with it. I did enjoy it a lot, yes – it was overall a really fun time and the audiobook was amazing, making the four PoVs work perfectly with four different narrators.

Let’s start from this book’s main strength: the worldbuilding is inherently cool. It’s set on a tidally locked planet (instant love for me), it has an interesting spin on what could have been a very tired elemental system but wasn’t, with a sprinkle of creepy plant magic. This book understands how to maximize the cool factor with the characters as well, having two goddess with rainbow-shifting colored hair as main characters, and involving undead underworld priests covered in lapis lazuli. And it’s really diverse, having an all-PoC cast, an F/F romance, an amputee main character and another with PTSD, with some really great conversations around trauma, including what’s more or less their world’s version of therapy.

However, while The Never-Tilting World is made up of a lot of very interesting and often unique ideas, they never quite came together in a satisfying way, and you could see the scaffolding too much.
This book has two storylines, one that is a hate-to-love romance during a desert chase, one that is a goddess/bodyguard love story featuring a descent into darkness. And everything about them felt like the author came up with the pitch before actually writing the story. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the result felt a lot more like a list of ingredients than a book. I wanted more depth from it, from the relationships, instead of it relying on tropes over and over, but that’s difficult to achieve when the novel seems to think that the way to keep the reader engaged is throwing either romance tropes or fight scenes against monsters at them. (Fight scenes are really not that interesting. I promise. Please let the characters have an actual conversation for once.)
The result is character work that is shoddy in places, predictably.

This book is inspired by climate disasters, and it was promoted as a book that had “climate change” as a theme. Did it, though? I guess that it does in the sense that it’s a story about young people doing what it takes to change the status quo in an increasingly hostile environment, and it talks about how the powerful believe they can survive by living in a bubble (the golden city) while stealing resources from poorer people, but the thing about fighting climate change is that it’s nothing so cool as fighting monsters; rather the often depressing and too slow work of, among many things, pushing for better policies, learning to deal with our problems instead of making them someone else’s, listening to scientists and indigenous people, reshaping the ways we conceptualize growth and economy, changing our priorities and whole way of living. This is not a problem we’re good at dealing with as humans, and the fact that you can’t solve it by whacking something might have something to do with that. The solutions this book gives to the environment-warping magic do not resonate, so far.
Maybe that will change in the sequel, I don’t know – it’s true that there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and this novel kept my interest enough for me to want to read The Ever-Cruel Kingdom. Something in the ending made me think this might be aiming for “we can solve this problem only if all the world works together”, which would already be thematically a better path. I hope that’s what it meant, as there is already one egregious case of wasted potential: Odessa’s descent into darkness.

You’re telling me that you had a whole character arc tied to greed for power in a book about climate disasters and you didn’t tie the “greed” and “climate disasters” themes together? Why? Is that not one of the main driving forces of real-world climate change?

I also found Odessa’s arc, like most “descent into darkness” arcs, unsatisfying: it relies too much on magic that warps the character’s mind. It deprives the main character of agency, and generally makes for a very uninteresting story. Hundreds of pages of a main character falling into a trap, slowly, with stilted magic-induced character development: not great!
(Also, let’s add “character eavesdropping on other character’s therapy session” to the “content warnings I didn’t know I needed” folder.)

Acqua, you might say, you spent the whole review complaining. But you still said you liked this?
Mainly because I’m a simple gay distracted by shiny cool things and this book is full of them and gay girls, so this was actually a great time, as long as I wasn’t thinking too much about how much better it could have been if only it had done certain things differently. But I don’t want to undermine that this book did get a lot right, mostly pertaining to Lan’s storyline and the ways it talked about power.
Lan’s arc around trauma, survivor’s guilt, and her attraction to Odessa was really well-written; if Odessa’s arc disappointed me, the exploration of the power dynamics between her and Lan, the way they shifted as Odessa changed, was really interesting to read. So was the subplot revolving around abuse in religious orders, which was accompanied by some hard truths this kind of stories don’t often deal with – everyone has the potential to be an abuser, and switching the people in power won’t put an end to abuse if the power structure itself isn’t changed.

Also, it was fun. It was entertaining and it was tropey but tropes exist because they work, so yes, I enjoyed this a lot, and I want to know what happens next.

My rating: ★★★½

This is my third book by Rin Chupeco, and so far all the books I’ve read by them have been either 3.25 (The Girl from the Well) or 3.5 stars (The Bone Witch, The Never-Tilting World), which is… really interesting, considering that they’re an author I still want to pick up more books from in the future.

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?