Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

37794149A Memory Called Empire is a political sci-fi novel with a main f/f romance, the best court intrigue I’ve read in months if not ever, and plot twists I didn’t see coming.
It’s set in a space empire in which straight isn’t the default, most of the cast is queer, and the worldbuilding is complex but never confusing – everything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet it’s so much more. I knew this would be an intense read for me right from the dedication, because this book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own. 

Maybe devouring isn’t the right word, but how do you call it when a country often tries compare itself to America according to American standards, not realizing that it’s a game it will always lose? Or how do you call the constant attempts at emulation because “American culture” is mistaken by some as “modernity”, or even only the fact that the YA section in a bookstore is mostly translated American books? (When your neighbor is more powerful than you are, it gets to decide what is modern, what is moral, and even what’s good literature, but it really shouldn’t be that way.)

And this book gets it. This book also gets that the misguided “patriots” who try to restore the “purity” of the culture and avoid cross-culture “contamination” are dangerous (…and often advocating for some version of fascism).
This book gets why someone might love another country’s literature so much that they speak another language better than their own, that they think and dream in it. This book gets what it means to never lose the lingering feeling that you’re reading stories that never quite fit you, because they were never meant for you in the first place – you are, at best, an afterthought.

I do realize that I’m talking about a book written in English, published in America. But for once, and this might be the first time, I haven’t felt like a book was explicitly not written for me.
I could understand Mahit, which means that some parts of this were hard to read. When she feels both insulted and complimented when someone says that she speaks/acts exactly like someone of another culture, or that specific kind of… angry xenophilia we share, or that part in which she specifically says that she finally found a word to describe how she felt and it wasn’t even in her language.

But let’s talk about the rest of the book too, not only about Mahit’s experience with navigating two cultures. A Memory Called Empire has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen lately. Don’t get intimidated by words like Teixcalaanlitzlim or ezuazuacat – the court, the intrigue and the surprising plot twists are worth it. (I thought it was worth it just for the pretty descriptions, but not everyone shares my priorities.)

I loved Mahit Dzmare. She’s the new ambassador in Teixcalaan, and she gets thrown in a place where she has no allies, after her predecessor got murdered. She’s smart and manages to do so much from almost nothing – if you want to read about a complex female character who doesn’t use a weapon in the whole book but changes the outcome of an empire’s messy succession problem anyway, try this. And her slow-burn romance with cultural liaison Three Seagrass? I love both of them so much, and Seagrass as a character kept surprising me.
The side characters were interesting to read as well – Nineteen Adze was… fascinating to say the least, Yskandr Aghavn was a bisexual disaster and the dialogues between what was left of him and Mahit were my favorite parts of the book, and Twelve Azalea’s banter with Seagrass was very entertaining to read too.

Click here to read a small spoiler-y paragraph

Also, the whole Nine Direction-Yskandr-Nineteern Adze polyamorous triangle was one of my favorite things in here and I’m in so much pain seeing how it ended. I would read a book just about that.

When I say that I love a sci-fi book’s worldbuilding, it means that it did something interesting with the technology: this did – it’s the first book I’ve ever read that mentioned that AIs can carry the human creator’s biases.
But the most interesting sci-fi technology is without a doubt the imago-machine. In Mahit’s culture, the memories of the dead are installed on compatible people, and Mahit has an out-of-date version of the previous ambassador in her head.

I loved how this book talked about personhood, memory and identity because of the imago, and how the concept of “me” had different meanings in those situations.
A Memory Called Empire is a book that pays a lot of attention to language, how cultures shape it, and how they shape literature in return. It’s really interesting to read, and the level of lit-related detail – paired with the excerpts you get at the beginning of every chapter – made these fictional cultures feel more real. Those details were also part of this book’s odd sense of humor (plagiarism jokes! Inappropriate citations! Even more inappropriate double entendres!)

The only thing I didn’t like was the binarism. This book is set in a world where homophobia doesn’t exist and polyamory is normal, but… there are no explicitly non-binary characters, and some phrasings used in this ARC copy were binarist (“men and women” instead of “people”). An otherwise-queer-accepting society being binarist wouldn’t be flawed worldbuilding in itself, were there any reason for it to be that way. Was it intentional? If so, why? I feel like I’m nitpicking but I would have wanted to know more about this.

My rating: ★★★★★

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lists · Weekly

Favorite Books of 2018

It’s time for my favorite post of the year, about my favorite books of the year!

Favorite books of 2018” is also the Top Ten Tuesday topic for this week (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl), but since I read 160 books this year, I won’t stop myself to 10. Even with a list of 15 books, I’m not talking about some novels I read and loved that deserve at least a mention, like the wonderful sci-fantasy Mahabharata retelling A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna, the fast-paced urban fantasy story about the dark side of teenage love Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova, or the heartbreaking queer spy thriller Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly.
I already wrote my list of favorites that aren’t novels, here.

Anyway, this is my favorite post to write because it’s about what I did right, what I found that I loved, about what not only didn’t disappoint, but surprised me.

My favorite book of the year is at the end of the list.


The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

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I hadn’t realized how powerful it would be to read about a group of girls who decide to go on a quest to slay a monster because they want to, not because they have to, until I read The Boneless Mercies. Reading about active protagonists is so refreshing. Of course I loved the friendships, the chilling atmosphere and the reversal of typical gender roles (the girls are warriors, witches and monsters, the boy is a healer) but what made The Boneless Mercies a favorite for me is that it is a story about carving your place in a world that doesn’t want you, about deciding to not be small and quiet anymore, about being a woman and seeking glory. And it’s epic, as it should be.

Temper by Nicky Drayden

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I haven’t read anything similar to Nicky Drayden’s Temper and I don’t think I will ever find it. This is a very unusual genre-defying story set in a place inspired by South Africa in which everyone has a twin, and vices and virtues are split between them. This is a story about siblings, messy families, a very unique fictional school, and demonic possessions, with so many plot twists I could have never seen coming that made sense nonetheless – as much as everything in here made sense, but this is the way my favorite kind of fun, lovable weird stories are.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Into the Drowning Deep is a sci-fi horror novel about scientists going on an expedition to find mermaids in the Mariana Trench. It’s a story about environmentalism, about the relationship humans have with the ocean, and it had the marine horror content I had been looking for. To see a story that not only gets that the sea is beautiful and the sea is scary, but follows these themes also from the point of view of a diverse cast which includes a queer marine biologist meant a lot to me. The f/f relationship in here – Tory, the bisexual biologist, and Olivia, an autistic lesbian who is a camera operator – was one of my favorite romances of the year. I also really liked the people-eating mermaids, but that was not a surprise.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Spinning Silver is a subversive retelling of Rumpelstiltskin set in a Lithuanian-inspired magical country in which the winter seems to never end, there are cruel creatures living in the snowy forests – the Staryk – and the reluctant Tsar may or may not be possessed. It’s a story about women supporting each other, about marriage, about being a daughter, following many point of views – including the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, an abuse survivor working to repay her debts and for freedom, and a not-so-beautiful but very clever daughter of a duke. It follows so many storylines, slowly, but does so in a way that feels effortless, and it’s one of the most beautiful fantasy books I’ve read this year.

Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Blanca & Roja is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red meets Swan Lake featuring latinx, trans and disabled people as main characters. It’s a story about defying binaries, not letting yourself be defined by stereotypes, and giving yourself the space to be different from what you thought you had to be. As usual for McLemore’s books, the writing is gorgeous and the romances are perfect – this book has two of them! Also, I love how her books always feel so real and close just as much as they feel like timeless fairytales.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

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The Astonishing Color of After follows Leigh, a Taiwanese-American teenager who goes to Taiwan to reconnect with her mother’s side of the family after her mother dies by suicide. It’s a beautiful story about the importance of mental health awareness, about grief and moving on. There was something magical about it, and I don’t mean that just because it’s a contemporary story with speculative aspects, but something about the writing, about seeing different generations interact through the language barrier, about Leigh’s feelings for her family and her art, stayed with me. Also, while YA books have wonderful representation of mentally ill teens, their portrayal of mentally ill adults is often one-dimensional, especially if they’re parents. The Astonishing Color of After, however, is a book that gets it. It gets that someone may love their partner and their children and still be suicidal, because while having people who love and support you can help, it’s not in any way a cure.

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

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Even though YA books were full of love triangles until 2015, there are very few stories following polyamorous relationships in this age range, and Strange Grace is one of these (m/nb/f). It’s a story about a magical town in which nothing bad ever happens, but this bargain has an ugly side, as it requires human sacrifice. I loved its atmosphere, I loved its magic, I loved the detailed, macabre descriptions of the creepy forest, I loved the way the three main characters interacted and their relationship. It’s also a story about dismantling gender essentialism, which was interesting to read, and I know I won’t forget this book.

Witchmark by C.L. Polk

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Witchmark is a sweet m/m paranormal romance, a fun murder mystery, a historical fantasy novel about PTSD and the aftermath of war inspired by Edwardian England, and a gaslamp story that explores class privilege – all in one book. One book that is just a bit longer than 300 pages, and yet it’s such a multilayered story in which not one of the aspects I listed is neglected, the characters are well-developed, and the romance is amazing. I can’t wait for the sequel, which is also going to be f/f.

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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If someone had told me two years ago that a YA fantasy book that not only had a main f/f relationship, but also had a Malaysian-inspired world and talked about sexual assault, would have been a NYT bestseller, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m so glad this book exists, and I think I needed it when I was in high school – it says some things about recognizing attraction and navigating women’s spaces when you’re queer that would have helped me a lot – even though it’s a really heavy read (there is pet death, rape and outing in this book). This is a beautiful, necessary book that gets that being a victim doesn’t make you helpless, just like it doesn’t make you a good person, as victims themselves sometimes turn against other victims. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read in which the portrayal of “girl-on-girl hate” was not only everything but a lazy device to have tension, but actually made the book better.

Final Draft by Riley Redgate

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In a world in which the “tormented artist” stereotype is often romanticized, I think YA books like Final Draft, books that explicitly tell you that the pursuit of art isn’t worth your sanity, are really important. This is a story about perfectionism and dealing with academic pressure when you’re mentally ill, and some parts of it were very close to things that I experienced myself – like anxiety ruining what was once just a fun hobby for you. But it’s also a hopeful story, with one of my favorite romances ever – I loved Laila (who is biracial Ecuadorian and pansexual) and Hannah (Korean lesbian) so much.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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I read this book in a hospital, right after a surgery, during one of the most stressful times of my life – and it made me really happy even then. I should probably reread it because I was definitely not at my best, but this book helped me go through those days. It’s a story about… Eurovision in space, involving aliens, in which if humans lose, they’re all going to die. It’s over-the-top and weird in the best way, it’s very queer, it’s political and unapologetic and against fascism without ever feeling preachy, it features a flamingo/anglerfish hybrid-looking alien and a hyperactive time-traveling red panda. It’s beautifully written, as Valente’s books always are – it may even be my favorite of all of them (I have to reread it to be sure).

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Binding Thorns is one of the best sequels I’ve ever read, in a series that is now one of my all-time favorites. It’s a Gothic fantasy story set in a post-apocalyptic historical version of Paris in which there are fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons, and it’s also very queer. There’s an m/m arranged marriage in this book, and a main f/f couple in which one of the character is trans! It also features some things I love but don’t find as often as I want in fantasy, like quality villain content and very creepy descriptions of trees. It’s a dark series in the way post-apocalyptic stories usually are, but it’s about characters surviving and finding ways to support each other in a ruined world, so it doesn’t have the hopelessness that often keeps me away from this genre. Also, the lost, vaguely creepy atmosphere is perfect.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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Do I always love the books about people taking down the evil space empires? It seems so.
Ancillary Justice is the first book in an imaginative sci-fi series that deserved all the awards it got. I mean, it’s basically about a character who claims to be a person from outside the evil space empire but she’s actually a spaceship in a trench coat, a lost human captain who should have died a thousand years ago, and a disaster villain engaged in a surprisingly complex scheme of self-backstabbing. It’s great.

I like it enough that I’m currently making my dad read it, and he usually doesn’t read genre fiction. I hope he likes it too?

The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

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I don’t know if I can explain what The Dark Beneath the Ice means to me. Have you ever read a book and thought this gets me or I have done that, I am doing that, I have thought that? That’s me with this YA horror novel. And no, I’ve never been haunted, but as I see it, this isn’t really a haunting – for me, it’s more… anxiety horror, avoidance horror, because it talks about the ways using avoidance as a coping mechanism for anxiety hurts you, but it describes it with a paranormal twist. As I’m often skeptical of the way paranormal and horror stories portray mental illness (I really don’t like the she’s not ill, she’s magic! trope), I was really surprised by how clever this set up was and how much I loved it. The f/f romance in this was also wonderful, and it’s always great to read YA books that talk explicitly about characters taking medication for their illnesses.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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Revenant Gun is the third book in the sci-fi trilogy Machineries of Empire, also known on this blog as “the mass murder magic math books” or, also, “my favorite books”.
This series has so many things that I like in SFF – villains who are the worst and own it, “heroes” who aren’t good people either (all the characters are kind of horrible. I love all of them), an all-queer cast, almost no romance, magical science, and characters making bad decisions because sometimes there aren’t good options. Also, the message about surviving an ugly world through hobbies? There’s one conversation in which Mikodez (he’s probably my favorite character) and Brezan talk about that, and I think I found it at the right time.
My favorite kind of stories are the ones that manage to be really dark and never a chore to read at the same time – and Revenant Gun was this for me. I love reading about all versions of Jedao, but teen Jedao’s PoV is, in a way, exactly the kind of thing I like the most about this series: it’s a combination of really sad and hilarious, and it works.


What were your favorite books of 2018?

 

lists · Short fiction

Favorites of 2018: 10 Favorite Novellas, Comics, Poetry, Anthologies & More

It’s time for the end-of-the-year lists of favorites!

This is the post in which I list my favorites that aren’t novels or that it would be unfair to compare to traditional novels (because they’re too short, because they’re written in a format I’m not used to). Unlike my list of favorite novels, they are in no particular order.


Monstress Vol. 2 by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

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This comic finally got translated in my country, and I’m so glad it did, since it’s a story about an angry monster girl in a steampunk Asian matriarchy which is also kind of gay (and then explicitly gay later on) and we usually don’t get this. The art is gorgeous enough that I don’t mind the significant amount of graphic gore, and it’s probably the main reason I love this series so much (the art, not the gore. Sometimes I had to look away). Also the plot is very intricate and the narration doesn’t talk down to the reader, which I really appreciate – if you want something that is like a darker Daughter of Smoke and Bone which is as beautiful as Laini Taylor’s writing because of Sana Takeda’s art, read this!

Twisted Romance Vol. 1, edited by Alex de Campi

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I picked up this anthology of short comics and prose short fiction on a whim, and it’s probably one of the best choices I made in 2018. It has all my favorite aspects of the romance genre – it’s queer, it’s diverse, it explores “unconventional” love stories – without what usually doesn’t work for me in romance novels, which is the length (…I get why people love slow-burn stories, but my attention span can’t do it). There’s polyamory, there are monster romances, there are discussions of abusive relationships and consent. It’s so good and I didn’t even mind that I ended up liking the prose short stories more than the comic parts (which were also really good).

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

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Conservation of Shadows is my favorite short story collection. I already knew I was going to like this because I had loved everything I had read by Yoon Ha Lee before, but some of these short stories managed to surprise me anyway. Not only is the first story, Ghostweight, probably one of my favorite short stories and one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read, but there was so much variety here. From stories about colonization to tactical linguistics, from quantum chess in space to a story built around an ancestry-erasing gun? So many interesting concepts. I still remember every story vividly, and it’s been months.

Three Sides of a Heart, edited by Natalie C. Parker

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Three Sides of a Heart is the anthology that made me realize I actually really like love triangles. Not every story in it worked for me, but so many of them did, and they made me understand how little YA books have actually explored the potential of this trope while overusing it. Queer love triangles! Love triangles that end in polyamory! This book is full of them, and now I want all of these things in novels too. However, I would be completely fine if I never saw the “straight girl is torn between straight bad boy and straight best friend” version again.

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

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The Tea Master and the Detective is a sci-fi retelling of Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes is a Vietnamese woman, Long Chau, and Watson is a sentient spaceship, The Shadow’s Child. You don’t need to know anything about Sherlock Holmes (I don’t, not really) or to have read the other companion novellas in the Xuya series (I read them after this one) to understand this. I loved everything about this world, from the idea of deep space to the way sentient spaceships, the “minds”, were portrayed, but what I liked the most were The Shadow’s Child and Long Chau’s interactions. I love non-romantic human/AI relationships and this was no exception. Also, to see “cold”, competent women who are not in a romantic relationship nor seeking one means a lot to me.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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I just said I like non-romantic human/AI interactions, but this made me discover I also like the AI/AI ones. I think Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is the only book I’ve read which had a relevant one, and I think Murderbot and ART’s interactions (…”ART” is the way Murderbot calls the spaceship, and it actually means “asshole research transport”, if you’re wondering how their “friendship” is like) were the main reason I ended up liking this second novella more than the other two in the series. Anyway, if you ever want to read about a bot with anxiety who is just trying its best to get the irrational humans out of danger, read this series!

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

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The Black God’s Drums is an alt-history steampunk novella set in New Orleans in a version of American history in which the Civil War ended with a truce, and it follows a young black girl who has been touched by Oya, the orisha of storms. What I loved the most was the atmosphere and setting, the way the fictional technology met the magic, but I also really liked reading Creeper/Jaqueline’s PoV and her interactions with the Trinidadian airship captain.

Darkling by Brooklyn Ray

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Novellas are the best format for romance! Anyway, this is a series about a group of queer witches, and this first book follows Ryder, who is trans, in love with his friend Liam, and hiding that he’s a necromancer. I loved reading about this couple – the friends-to-lovers trope usually doesn’t work for me as much as I want it to but here it was perfect – and about all the side characters (Ryder’s sister was my favorite). I also really liked the rainy, dark atmosphere of Port Lewis.

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

Technically, this one is a novel. It’s just that it didn’t feel fair to me to compare it with books that had 300+ pages since it doesn’t even reach 150. It would have had so much competition on the favorite novels list (which I’m going to post on January 1) and I didn’t want this book to not end up on a list of favorites (when it is one) just because I spent less time with the characters.

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…post-colonial f/f Beauty and the Beast retelling featuring a Vietnamese cast, in which the Beast is a shapeshifting dragon? Of course I had to read it and it was just as good as I hoped it would be. Yên and Vu Côn are one of my favorite couples of the year and I loved the setting just as much – there are few settings I love as much as creepy and dangerous but very pretty palaces. Also, the themes. This is a Beauty and the Beast retelling in which the main character’s agency is important and so is consent (which I wish were more common in this kind of stories), and it’s a story about living in a broken world but trying to make the best of it.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

This is also a novel! A poetry novel. Again, it’s a favorite that I didn’t want to not end up on a “favorite” list just because it was written in a format I’m not used to.

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The Poet X is a beautiful story about self-discovery, first love and what it’s like to grow up in a religious environment (specifically Catholic) when you’re not a believer – or at least disagree with a significant number of things that the people around you believe (about what it should be the role of women, about sexuality, about self-expression). It follows Xiomara, a Dominican-American teen girl, and it talks about harassment, growing up with strict parents, and finding your voice through writing. As I grew up in a Catholic environment too and hated almost every moment of it, I could see myself in many of the things Xiomara thought and felt, and some of the poems here made me tear up.


What were your favorite books of 2018 that weren’t novels/weren’t written in a way you were used to?

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz

TheGalleryofUnfinishedGirlsThe Gallery of Unfinished Girls the best YA standalone book I’ve ever read.

It’s a coming-of-age contemporary fantasy novel following Mercedes Moreno, a bisexual Puerto Rican painter who finds the Red Mangrove Estate, a magical building in which every artist is the best version of themselves.

It’s also a book I find really hard to describe. It’s sad, but it’s the happiest sad book you’ll ever read. It’s character-driven and has barely any plot, but so much happens. It’s surreal, it has magic in it, and yet it feels more real than real life.
The first time I read The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, I described it as a love letter to in-between moments. And it is – I think the right word to describe it is “liminal”. It’s about how awkward growing up can be, the weight of your dreams and insecurities, and the things you can’t bring yourself to put on paper or say out loud. It’s about the magic of these awkward moments, because the awkwardness is worth it.
I haven’t found another YA book that describes how it’s like to be a teenage girl as well as this one does.

It’s also a love letter to art. I have read many books from the point of view of main characters who are artists, and yet none ever got into what it’s like to not like your art, to feel discouraged by its imperfections, to not be able to create when something in your life is making you feel stuck – stuck because you have a crush on your best friend and you don’t even know if she likes girls the same way you do, stuck because you don’t know what will happen to your very sick grandmother, stuck because you’re afraid to think about your future.
This book is about those feelings. Mercedes gets introduced to a magical palace where everything she’ll create, every moment, will always be the best version of itself, with no flaws. And I loved how this aspect was explored.
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls talks about perfectionism mostly from the point of view of a painter and also talks about the feelings of a musician (Mercedes’ sister, Angela) but I think everyone who has ever been an artist will be able to relate to those feelings on some level – I do, because I felt and sometimes still feel some of these things as a writer. When you’re stuck, beginnings are the hardest part – the flaws glare at you, and you can’t unsee the fact that everything that looked perfect in your head is imperfect, maybe even ugly, once you try to make it real.
And that’s when you’re tempted to lose yourself in dreams and fantasies, and let your art live only in your head – or, in Mercedes’ case, in a building where everything is perfect but doesn’t exist outside.

But this aspect of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls isn’t only about art. It’s about living as well. Life is messy, life is difficult, and life is scary. It’s much easier to live in your dreams when everything around you feels broken, when you feel like there’s no hope for those dreams to ever become real. This is a book that understand this aspect of growing up. It doesn’t judge or tell you that dreaming is “giving up on your life” or “not really living” (I’d love to never see that kind of message again; there are moments in your life that hurt too much, and sometimes you need to take a break. But you need to come back, eventually.)
It just tells you that maybe the outside is worth it, and maybe you can move on.

This book has a nostalgic feel to it. It’s not happy, but it’s hopeful enough that I can’t describe it as a sad book, either. It’s about moving forward, and if it makes you sad it’s because it makes you feel, and it made me feel a lot of things. It’s the exact opposite of the books I describe as “emotionally flat”, and the perfect example of how to write a book about sad things without exploiting them for shock value.
It made me feel so much because I related to the main character, and she is a very well-written character. Her voice, her thoughts – everything about her narration stood out to me because it felt real, and also because sometimes it was like seeing some of my thoughts on a page.

I don’t think I can do the writing justice. It’s simple and flows and works so well. Everything about this book was so defined and detailed it felt just like real life, even with the magic – maybe even because of the magic: I’ve always thought the magic of everyday life is in the details.
I also thought the atmosphere was perfect: I’ve never been to Florida, but I felt like I was there. To those who say that contemporary books don’t have any worldbuilding, I say that there’s still the difference between those in which the character float in blank space and those in which readers who have never been to the US are able to visualize how things look like.

The side characters are all memorable: Angela was my favorite and I’d read a whole book in her PoV, but I’m also partial to Victoria, the maybe-queer, Italian-American (!!) girl Mercedes has a crush on. Maybe I have low standards, but it’s the first time I’ve seen an Italian character who is not a stereotype in an American book. She is a dancer, her parents don’t own a restaurant, she has no ties with the mafia (…yes this happened), and she is not homophobic. I love her. I also loved Evie (another queer girl! And she’s not there for relationship drama!) and everything that has to do with Lilia Solis, but I can’t explain why without spoilers.
For a book in which there’s very little plot, so many interesting and unexpected things happen.

I also like that this book isn’t a romance. I know we’re all looking for more f/f books – I am too – but I think there’s value in queer stories that aren’t a romance and aren’t in any way tragic. Since this book is about the fact that most things are worth trying even when they don’t work out, I thought this decision made sense.
Also, the ending is kind of open in this aspect. (Headcanon time: I totally believe that Mercedes and Victoria got together a few years later.)

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Young adult

Review: The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

32941909The Dark Beneath the Ice is an addicting f/f horror book, and so much more.
I loved it, I can already tell it will be in my list of favorites of 2018, and yet it did not scare me. Reviews, just like what scares a person, are heavily subjective, but it’s especially true for this one – this is an objectively scary book, for YA standards.
This book wasn’t scary to me because my reaction to almost everything the main character did or thought was, basically, “been there, done that”. And that’s also the main reason I loved it.

I tend to hate the “is she insane or is she magic” trope, I find it exploitative, it happens in stories that use the “scary” aspects of mental illnesses for shock value, but with a main character who – usually – turns out to not be mentally ill after all.

This book, however, didn’t feel like that. The Dark Beneath the Ice is a story about mental illness through paranormal lens, not a paranormal story that uses illnesses as a plot device.
Marianne is probably the character I’ve related to the most since I started reading. It’s like someone was looking at my experiences as a mentally ill teenage girl, and writing them using the paranormal as a metaphor. It was almost too much, and I definitely cried a few times. No, I’ve never been haunted, but the way this haunting manifested itself – it was like reading a paranormal version of my panic attacks.
I’ve read many books with main characters with anxiety disorders, and yet no book ever went there.
Panic attacks in YA books are always the same: the main character is scared, struggles to breathe, is shaking, and they may feel like they’re going to throw up. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are so many other ways panic attacks can look, and The Dark Beneath the Ice is the first book I’ve read that seems to recognize this.

There are people who claw at their own skin without realizing it until the episodes goes away, there are people who start breaking things, there are people who blurt out things they don’t remember afterwards, who start shouting. A panic attack may also look like a person frozen, unable to move, staring ahead while screaming inside – and many of these aspects are mentioned or happen in this book; some of Marianne’s “paranormal episodes” manifested like this.
Also: this is the only book that seems to get the feeling of powerlessness that follows that kind of attack, which I haven’t seen in any other book with anxiety representation. The characters have panic attacks, which are horrible, and they’re fine afterwards. What about the crushing feeling that you did it again and can’t control yourself, and maybe you did it in public, and people noticed it – when appearing ordinary is your main strategy for survival? It’s in this book, and I never saw it anywhere else.

And yes, I do consider this representation, because the horror is tied to Marianne’s mental illnesses, but Marianne is ill before and after the paranormal episodes, and also has other symptoms, like spirals of thoughts she can’t escape, or being so critical of herself she can’t see anything but the faults, the flaws, so much that it turns into self-hate. Or the idea that no one ever wants to hear her talk, that no one wants to remember she exists, that she should isolate herself and disappear and everyone will be better if she does that.
[I’m surprised I had never seen this aspect in books about mental illness with female main characters. I suppose it’s not uncommon seeing how little women and their opinions are valued.]

Another reason I really liked this representation of MIs is that, while we didn’t go through the same things, Marianne’s unhealthy coping mechanisms reminded me of many things I have done. Trying to achieve invisibility to avoid conflict – I’ve been there. The “you can’t harass a ghost” quote made me feel a lot of things. That’s also why I knew the ending from the start, I saw it coming, and I don’t care. I have done this, what happens is in no way a mystery to me, paranormal metaphors or not.

A spoiler-y paragraph about the themes:

I think that at its heart this book is about how hiding (self-drowning), as a coping mechanism, turns you into your own worst enemy. And that’s something I can definitely relate to. You can’t be bullied if you’re invisible, but you internalize that everything will be better that way. And you also become a perfectionist, because flaws make you stand out and you can’t stand out, it’s survival. (Doing things well doesn’t make you stand out, if that’s what people always expected from you).
Hiding may work for a short time but it hurts in the long run. I still have to remind myself every day that I have the right to exist in a physical space. The fact that this book ends with Marianne confronting someone instead of avoiding her problems means a lot to me, and I don’t think this book could have ended in a better way.

I also loved the nuanced portrayals of family, therapy and medication. Marianne’s parents, before the divorce, weren’t exactly unsupportive – they were supportive until she wanted to quit something, which I understand more than I’d like to. And this is the first paranormal book involving mental illnesses I’ve seen that completely avoids the “therapists and psychiatrists are evil” trope. The main character even takes medication (!) and has mixed experiences with it (it helps in some ways, with some side effects).

Also, it’s queer horror! With a f/f romance, and a main character who is very much into girls but doesn’t label herself! (and it’s not the classic “I don’t want to use the word bisexual”, it’s “I don’t know which label is right for me and it’s not important to me right now”, which. Can we stop acting like that’s somehow lesser or incomplete representation?). I also really liked the love interest: Rhiannon is a girl who has another way to shield herself from the outside – she basically built a persona – because high school is cruel, especially to marginalized girls.
[Marhiannon is the worst ship name ever though]

Anyway this book is one of my new favorites ever and I have highlighted and annotated so many parts of it I could go on and on about what I loved about it, but I think this is enough. I don’t know if this book will work as well for people who haven’t haven’t had experiences similar to mine; maybe they’ll find this annoying or boring or too weird – but all of this is also true of living with a mental illness. It’s annoying and scary, very ordinary and weird at the same time. It’s you, but it’s not, or maybe it is – and, like Marianne, you don’t always know whether to trust yourself.

My rating: ★★★★★

Weekly

T5W: Best Books You’ve Read So Far in 2018

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is Best Books You’ve Read So Far in 2018.

If we’re talking about favorites, 2018 has been mostly disappointing. I found many new books I really liked, but by this time last year I had found many books I loved. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I haven’t found any.


#5: The Tea Master and the Detective

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This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, and I’m glad I gave it a chance – I almost didn’t because this is a Sherlock Holmes retelling and I know nothing about Sherlock Holmes. I can’t wait to read more about the Xuya universe, it’s Vietnamese space opera, and I can say that even if you don’t know anything about Sherlock Holmes, “SH retelling in space in which Holmes is a woman and Watson is a spaceship” is a really good premise. I loved our Holmes, Long Chau, and I hope we’ll see more of her in future novellas.


#4: Witchmark

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I predicted this would be a five star read, and I was right – and it was both better and more complex than I expected.
This novel is set in a steampunk-like version of Edwardian England, it’s a murder mystery, but it reads like a sweet m/m paranormal romance, and it also talks about PTSD and class privilege.
It’s difficult to find a book that is so many things at the same time and manages to be an easy read that neglects none of those aspects. It was very predictable at times, just like a romance book, but I didn’t care because the romance was lovely.


#3: Space Opera

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This is the most over-the-top book I’ve ever read and I usually hate comedy, but this worked for me because the writing was gorgeous, the plot was weird and I loved that, and there was a serious message somewhere between the nonsense. (That sounds negative, but it’s not. I love nonsense.)
Anyway, this is about Eurovision in space and it manages to be even weirder than the premise.


#2: Ancillary Justice

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The main character of this story is what’s left of an AI of a spaceship, and she’s basically possessing a human body. The villain is the lord of an evil space empire, and she achieved ubiquity by dividing herself in many bodies scattered around said empire. For a story about an evil space empire that deals with themes of injustice and privilege, it’s surprisingly light and fun, which I really liked. And sometimes it’s also painful, we all love pain.
Anyway, it has the best, most imaginative worldbuilding I’ve read in a long while. I didn’t like the sequels exactly as much but they were wonderful too.


#1: Revenant Gun

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The third book in my favorite series is also my favorite book of the year so far, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being my favorite book of the year.
I have so many conflicting feelings about every character because they’re all horrible and I love all of them? My mass murder magic math friends. Even the ones that have literally no redeemable qualities but manage to steal every scene.
Anyway there’s nothing I love as much as stories that manage to go dark and still be fun, dark stories that never become dragged-out despair. It’s a difficult balance and this series is that for me.


Almost all of these are set in space, and in 2016 I thought I hated sci-fi.
Have you ever completely changed your opinion of a genre?

lists

Favorite Books of 2017

This is probably my favorite post to write. I love writing the other list too, but while I like unpopular opinions sometimes, that’s a post about negativity and disappointments.
This is a post about what I did right. About the books that not only didn’t disappoint, but also surprised me.

It was difficult to narrow this list down, which is a good thing – and some “honorable mentions” which I omitted just because I didn’t want the list to be longer are: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (a beautiful, short contemporary about grief), Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift (a 2018 contemporary fantasy release about time travel you don’t want to miss) and Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab (a really good ending, even if I liked This Savage Song more).
My favorite book is at the end of the list.


Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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Strange the Dreamer is a fantasy book about alchemy, a lost city, and the aftermath of a war, but more than anything, it’s about dreams – in both the literal and metaphorical sense. It’s mythical, atmospheric, and Laini Taylor’s writing is flawless.
I love when books manage to be at the same time heartbreaking and hopeful, and when authors do not take the easy way out. And this book never did; I mean, look at that ending, I need The Muse of Nightmares now.
I loved most of the characters (Sarai is my favorite), but even the ones I didn’t love, I understood. But what surprised me the most is the setting – this is not your typical fantasy setting in any way, and its mysteries and history are truly memorable.


The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

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The Stars Are Legion is a biopunk adult space opera with an all-female, all-lesbian cast, set in a system of alien cephalopod planet-ships who are fueled by people but are slowly rotting. Doesn’t all of this sound totally absurd? Yes! And it’s great.
It’s also really messed up. This book has the most disgusting descriptions I’ve ever read (let’s open a vein of the big cephalopod ship and walk through it!), which is usually not something I would consider positive, but here it works. There’s also one of the most messed up love triangles ever (f/f/f with included heroine/villain ship, because why not) and it’s great.
What I loved the most was the worldbuilding, because I had never read anything similar in a sci-fi book and I wanted to know more about it.


They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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Look, another sad one.
I don’t usually like sad stories. Most of them feel manipulative – you can feel the effort the author is making to make the reader cry.
But this? They Both Die at the End didn’t feel manipulative at all. You know what’s going to happen from the start, and the author is exploring the concept – and the result was hopeful, in an unusual way. I didn’t cry, and I love this book because of that.
Everything felt real, natural, effortless. I believed in the near-future sci-fi setting, in Rufus and Mateo’s relationship (and they fell in love in less than a day!), in all the friendships. I fell in love with the writing and the characters, even some of the secondary ones who got only a chapter from their PoV.


A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

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A Crown of Wishes is the companion sequel to The Star-Touched Queen, one of my favorite fantasy books ever. I didn’t like this exactly as much because of the main character (Gauri grew on me slowly, too slowly) but everything else was perfect. The writing is beautiful – this whole book is beautiful, and it has some of the best food descriptions I’ve ever read. The competition aspect was more developed than I thought it would be and I loved every moment of it. But what I love the most about this series is the magic – the setting is inspired by hindu mythology, and it’s different from everything I had ever seen before.


Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

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The more I think about Wild Beauty, the more I like it. When I first read it, I didn’t think it would get to my list of favorite books of 2017, but part of my initial not-completely-positive reaction was due to the fact that is book isn’t When the Moon Was Ours.
I loved reading about the magical, terrifying story of the Nomeolvides women and the place they live in (and can’t let go), La Pradera. I also loved how this book explored both racism and biphobia without being a story about racism and biphobia, and I loved how the manipulative, entitled character was irrelevant by the end.
Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is unique and evocative, perfect for this magical realism story, and Estrella is a truly memorable main character. I still can’t get over how beautiful everything in this book was. The only thing I didn’t really like is the love-is-a-curse trope, which I’m not a fan of.


A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

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I didn’t expect this book to be on this list, and I almost didn’t read it. But apparently, books made up of different parts that feel like different books are my thing. I loved the halfway first-third person switch – not only it made sense, but I also found it a very clever idea, it increased the tension.
A Line in the Dark is one of the few contemporary books in which I was able to visualize the setting, and one of the few in which I actually cared about the characters. They’re all flawed, terrible – the main character is kind of a stalker and the other two girls are… worse? – and I love them all so much. I’m so happy I can find ownvoices books about flawed queer girls that aren’t demonized for their flaws, and queer books that aren’t about a romance or a failed romance (I care about neither, but failed f/f romances actively bother me, there are too many of them). Also, I love reading from the point of view of characters who are observers and kind of outsiders to what’s actually happening.
The ending was rushed and I didn’t even care.


Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

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Another book I almost didn’t read! I read it just because I liked the illustration on this cover and because I was seeing it a lot on my goodreads feed.
It was one of the best choices I have made this year.
Red Sister is about a convent of assassin nuns, and a girl accused of murder who joins them. For most of the book, Nona isn’t even a teenager, but this doesn’t read like middle-grade at all – it’s adult fantasy, and it has the best action scenes I have ever read.
I loved reading about an all-female cast in a “school” (with lessons about poisons and killing!) setting – there are friendships, rivalries, betrayals, unexpected allies, and crushes – and I loved all the girls.
The worldbuilding was also really interesting and unique.


The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale was the first book I read in 2017, and it’s one I  still think about almost daily. It’s a historical fantasy novel set in medieval Russia and inspired by Russian folklore – especially by the tale of Morozko. It’s magical, dark, beautiful and it feels like a fairytale.
I loved the writing and the many historical details, and the wintry atmosphere makes this the perfect book for the season (I’m rereading it right now, because I want to start 2018 with the sequel). I also really liked the focus on family, magical creatures and religious conflict. Vasilisa is one of my favorite main characters. I mean, you can’t not love this wild, magical girl.


The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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I wasn’t expecting this at all. Of course, this is another book I almost didn’t read, because I decide to read a lot of things on a whim and end up liking them more than the ones I was actually anticipating (how many books on my least favorite list was I anticipating? Too many).
But this was so much fun. I dislike comedy and “funny” books, but I didn’t have any problem with the humor of this one (which is not comedy at all). I just find plots about backstabbing characters and impending doom really fun, apparently. The empire is falling apart, humanity may be ending, but the characters were terrible people just in for the money and everyone was acting on incomplete information – it was a glorious mess, I love this book so much.


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
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Underrated backlist discovery! You’d think a book about a brown heroine having a hate-to-love relationship with a genderfluid god of chaos would be more hyped, but I had never heard of this before looking for villain ships and similar concepts. This is even more surprising considering that Jemisin’s other series, The Fifth Season, is hyped by literally everyone and you can’t ask for adult fantasy recommendations without hearing of it (after ten other people recommend you Brandon Sanderson, of course).
This is a story that explores the meaning of inheritances and privilege; what I liked the most about it, apart from the relationship (yes, for once I really liked the romance) was the complex mythology and the worldbuilding. Yes, it’s set in a castle in the sky, which, if you ask me, it’s the perfect place for political intrigue and backstabbing royals. The book delivers.


The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz

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This book.
I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t expecting this at all. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is one of the 2017 releases that received almost no hype, but it’s also the best YA release of the entire year.
It’s a magical realism story about family and art, it’s a book about in-between moments – all the unfinished, suspended, interrupted things, it’s about growing up and moving on. The synopsis may make you think this is a romance – it isn’t, though the book would have been even better if the f/f romance had actually happened. But I loved the book anyway, and I understand why the author decided not to go in that direction.
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is eerie, unsettling in the best way, and its magic felt like a less dark, slightly less nonsensical version of Vassa in the Night. I loved all the characters (also: finally an Italian-American side character who isn’t an Italian stereotype!), and Mercedes is probably my favorite protagonist in all contemporary and magical realism books.


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

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It’s a decopunk mystery in space written by Catherynne M. Valente. Of course I loved it.
Radiance follows the disappearance of popular actress and then documentarist Severin Unck. It’s set in an alternate version of the Solar System, in which there was life on all planets even before human colonization. As usual, Valente’s writing is flawless.
This book is told through mixed media (usually, narration and transcription of parts of movies) in a non-linear way and the more you go on the more you have no idea of what’s actually happening and what’s fictional and what is real in-universe. It’s truly, completely weird, and the many descriptions of the unusual creatures you can find on the planets make the whole thing even more absurd – with the best imagery. It’s the kind of book in which every name has a meaning, and you discover new things with every reread. I don’t know if I like this or Deathless more.


When the Moon Was Ours  by Anna-Marie McLemore

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My favorite YA book of 2017 is When the Moon Was Ours. It’s the story of two teenagers, Miel, a latina girl who fell from a water tower, and Sam, an Italian-Pakistani trans boy who paints moons. It is, more than anything, a story about self-acceptance – about how you can be loved even if you still have trouble loving yourself.
It’s a beautiful story with a beautiful message, a magical atmosphere and perfect writing. I loved Miel and Sam both as individual characters and as a couple, and even many of the secondary characters left an impact on me. Some aspects of this book are also kind of witch-y, and that’s always the best thing.


Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

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I won’t talk about the plot because Raven Stratagem is a second book, but I can say that I loved every moment, every paragraph of this, and I care about every character, even the villain – anyway, everyone is evil here.
This is a series about the ethics of war that makes you question who is right and who is the villain. It’s the only series in which the character dynamics are truly morally gray I found since Shadow and Bone – only, Machineries of Empire takes everything further, and explores it better (without any love squares).
Yoon Ha Lee’s writing is as subtle as it is powerful, and it manages to develop a complicated faction-based society like the Hexarchate with barely any exposition (which means: no infodumps). The worldbuilding is one of the many aspects I love about this series – the story is set in a space fantasy dystopian society whose magic system is based on math, and this is unlike every sci-fi universe I had ever seen.
Raven Stratagem is also the only book with an aromantic PoV character I’ve ever found.


Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

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If I had known that Ninefox Gambit was a space opera with an all queer-cast, a math-based magic system, and no romantic subplots whose plot hinges around a 400-year-old mass murderous ghost general, I would have read this sooner.
It was everything I didn’t know I was looking for. It takes the space that is usually dedicated to romance to develop complex non-romantic relationship which made me feel more than any ship ever would. It’s violent and dark without ever feeling depressing, full of political intrigue and space battles, beautiful in an unsettling way.
This series feels like a love letter to math, and I am always here for queer women who are scientists (so far, we have a lesbian mathematician, who is the main character of the first book, and a pan/bi woman who really loves engineering).


Have you read any of these? What were your favorite books of 2017?