Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

First, some backstory: if you’ve been here since 2017, you probably remember me reviewing Ninefox Gambit before and are probably tired of hearing me talk about it, too. And I have – it’s just that, at the time, I wasn’t that fluent in English, and that review is a mess – so I decided to review this book again (and turn the settings of the old one to private). I want to be able to link something coherent when it comes to a book I often talk about.

So! Here’s Acqua’s review of Ninefox Gambit on sixth reread.


NinefoxGambitNinefox Gambit is my favorite book.
It’s the kind of novel I could reread over and over and still get something new from – this was the sixth reread in two years for me, and I’m still discovering things about this world.

But let’s get to what Ninefox Gambit is. This is a story about sieges: Cheris’ siege of a space fortress, and Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ values, beliefs and mind. And it is, in fact, a very twisty book, without needing that many shocking plot twists – just layers upon layers of mind games present and past, slowly unraveling towards a partial truth.
I say “partial”, because this book will almost never straightforwardly reveal that a certain character was lying in a particular moment, which, in a book in which most non-PoV characters are often at the very least lying by omission, makes for an interesting exercise in ambiguity. You know some of them are liars. Being able to tell when they’re lying – well, that’s not always as easy, and a few things are left for you to interpret.

I often see people say that this book is hard to get into, because “it doesn’t explain enough” – which is said both about the way it relies on hints and subtext and about the worldbuilding, which is, admittedly, one of the most unique (read: outright bizarre) I’ve ever read. I strongly disagree. I really appreciate when a book trusts its reader to keep up, to figure things on their own. Maybe it will take more of my attention, and it won’t be an easy read, but I’m glad to not have to wade through infodumps every time I reread. It’s a graceful writing choice, in my opinion.
(Also: if a 17-year-old ESL speaker made it, you probably can too.)

Ninefox Gambit is deceptively short. It’s barely longer than 300 pages, and yet it’s one of the few books that managed to convince me that there’s an entire universe of things happening outside the Scattered Needles siege, an universe with a complicated and often ugly history, and I love how wide it feels, how high the stakes are at the end.
It mostly follows two characters, whom I love with my whole heard, even though they’re terrible.
🦊 Kel Cheris, math lesbian and professional trouble magnet, narrates most of this book. She makes friends with AIs (“servitors”), joined the military faction because she wanted to fit in, and got caught up into a scheme that led her to be anchored to Jedao’s ghost and leading the swarm (space fleet) in the Scattered Needles siege. Deserves a nap. Unlike many of the characters, she still has a somewhat functioning moral compass.
🦊 Shuos Jedao, bisexual disaster, was a general who lived centuries before the siege, and he is well known for never losing a battle and for having slaughtered his own army during his last one for apparently no reason. He’s not the kind of person you think of when you think about mass murder – he’s charming, far from unfeeling, likes talking to people, and is mostly a pleasant person to be around. Until he’s not. With every reread, I realize more and more how much of a manipulative bastard he is – this is one of the few books in which the manipulative character not only was actually good at manipulating, but the book made me believe he was.

And the Cheris-Jedao dynamic? So fascinating. It reminds me of how much can be done with relationships that aren’t romantic in the slightest when you develop them enough.

There are other relevant characters I love, like Hexarch Shuos Mikodez (the morally messed up and aroace highlight of book two), and Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the evil scientist who reads like the sci-fi version of a fae (cruel, beautiful, impossibly ancient). A few chapters are told from the PoVs of minor characters to show what’s going on while Cheris and Jedao’s ghost are in the command center. And even those characters left an impact on me, and that’s not easy to accomplish.

I also, of course, love the worldbuilding to pieces. It’s Korean-inspired space opera with a math-based magic system that is affected by people’s beliefs and by the system of timekeeping they implement. It’s fascinating and not easy to understand at first, but I loved it for its beauty and weirdness – for a bloodthirsty space dystopia where war and ritual torture are the norm, the Hexarchate is beautiful in an unsettling way. And it’s also very queer; this book has an all-queer cast, and it’s the demonstration that you can write about queer people living in objectively horrible places without writing queer trauma porn (there are no homophobia or sexism in this book, and it’s still very much a space dystopia.)

And one last thing, before I turn this review into a book in itself: I love how this novel plays with ableist assumptions. The amount of people who don’t try to dig deeper in the circumstances around Jedao’s mass murder and take “madness” as a reason for what he did is… oddly realistic. As this book says, as straightforward as it ever gets, that’s not how things work.

My rating: ★★★★★

Trigger Warnings, if you need them – I think it’s better to go into this prepared (they’re not actually spoilers, but if you want to go into this without knowing anything more, don’t read this):

  • This is a story about war, which means that trigger warnings for extreme violence, gore, and mass death are necessary, plus graphic dismemberment and animal death because it’s that kind of book
  • This deals with suicide. There’s on-page suicidal ideation and the beginning of an attempt (character changes their mind). There are deaths by suicide, but they’re only mentioned and/or in flashbacks and don’t directly involve the main characters. There is, however, a scene involving dissociation from a PoV character.
  • Near the ending, there’s a scene in which a woman sexually assaults a man. It’s in the first pages of chapter 21 if you need to know where to skip/skim.
  • Also, mentions of torture, as ritual torture is how this universe works, but no explicit torture scenes.
Weekly

T10T: My Favorite Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Inspirational/Thought-Provoking Book Quotes.

I hate when a quote gets shared so many times with no context that it ends up feeling meaningless. So, when I chose which quotes I was going to talk about today – because seriously, just ten? – I decided that I was going to talk about the ones that were the most meaningful to me, even though they’re not necessarily the prettiest and even though I’m not necessarily giving them the meaning that they have in-text. Since you can’t get the meaning they have in the book from here if you haven’t read these books, I’m just going to explain my own.

Only one quote for author, or it would be all the same three authors.


1.

“I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

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These are the first three lines of the first book of the Inheritance trilogy. I read it two years ago, and to this day, this is still my favorite beginning of a book. I just think about it and get shivers. I don’t need to explain the context, because when I fell in love with this quote, I still didn’t know it. There’s something about the sound of these four sentences, the hollowness they speak about, that resonates with me. Something about the passage of time, too slow to be noticed and too fast for you to realize it’s happening until it has happened, and the same thing for change, especially change imposed from the outside. Does saying “I’ve been there” sound too dramatic? Because I feel like I have.


2.

“That was probably another thing Aracely had almost asked ten times, opening her mouth and then hesitating. Why, to Miel, a pumpkin couldn’t just be a pumpkin. A question Aracely knew better than to say out loud.”
Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours

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There are a lot of things about When the Moon Was Ours that mean the world to me. There are a lot of quotes from that book that I love and that are prettier and even more meaningful than this one (for example, the you do not own what I grow one). But this is the one that means the most to me, so it’s the quote I chose.

Because this is a quote about phobias – specifically, about how it’s like to live with unlikely phobias. About how some objects that for others are ordinary just aren’t for you, and you don’t want others to ask why, because you don’t know either (my case) or because it would be too painful to explain (Miel’s). The thing is, people who claim to be respectful of mental illness and phobias will maybe respect your anxiety and agoraphobic symptoms, but when it comes to unusual, outright weird reactions to everyday objects, they will pry, and if you don’t give answers they find satisfying, they will ask why you can’t just get over it. To see that in a book, specifically with a plant-related phobia like one of mine is – well, I thought I never would.


3.

“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless

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This is a slightly more well-known quote than the other two, and it’s without any doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. In an intricate book that is about history and the role of folklore in it, this can be seen both as a… foreboding part about the inevitability of some things just as much as it talks about the true meaning of immortality among humans. Killing a story is a difficult thing.

But mostly, I’m here for how this one sounds, I won’t lie.


4.

“< Mahit, remember how you felt when you first read Pseudo-Thirteen River’s Expansion History, and you came to the description of the triple sunrises you can see when you’re hanging in Lsel Station’s Lagrange point, and you thought, At last, there are words for how I feel, and they aren’t even in my language― >
Yes, Mahit says. Yes, she does. That ache: longing and a violent sort of self-hatred, that only made the longing sharper.
< I felt that way >
We felt that way.”
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

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This book as a whole kind of felt like the emotional equivalent of being punched, but this quote especially. I’m going to give a bit of context, because it might sound confusing if you haven’t read the book: this is a conversation between two characters (the main character and her imago) who are from a place that is just outside (well, relatively, we’re in space) the very powerful empire this book takes place in – which means that they grew up on books written in a language that wasn’t their own.

And – no, I refuse to explain this in English.

Una cosa di cui non si parla, in un paese dove essere monolingue è praticamente sinonimo di ignoranza – e a dire il vero di monolingue non c’è quasi nessuno, soltanto che lingue come non so, il ligure e il sardo valgono meno di zero negli occhi della maggioranza – è che la tua prima lingua peggiora. Che a volte fatico a parlare, che mi sfuggono delle imbarazzanti frasi in “itanglese”, imbarazzanti non perché vedo l’itanglese automaticamente come negativo, ma perché non lo faccio consapevolmente. Perché non penso neanche più in italiano, per la maggior parte del tempo. E tutto perché per trovare libri che possano anche solo avvicinarsi alle mie esperienze devo leggere in inglese – se c’è una cosa che devi sapere sui libri italiani, è che di diversity non ne hanno neanche sentito parlare e che molte traduzioni sono imbarazzanti – e che a volte mi chiedo se tutto questo mi sta mangiando il cervello.
Ci sono parole su come mi sento, e non sono mai nella mia lingua – e neanche questa citazione lo è. Lo so, non mi sfugge.


5.

“Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”
― Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom

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There won’t be any quotes from one of my favorite fantasy series, the Shadow and Bone trilogy, not because there aren’t quotes I love in it – there are, and many – but because it’s a series that relies so much on in-universe symbolism (so much of it) and context that every quote taken outside of context doesn’t have half the weight it has in the book. That, however, isn’t as true for Six of Crows, and this is my favorite quote from that series. It’s explicitly a response to the “chosen person of noble blood” trope – Crooked Kingdom is the only book I can think of in which there’s an evil chosen one who ends up being pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, and this means a lot to me, as I have a lot of feelings about bloodline-related magic and stories and most of them are negative. I love chosen ones, just don’t make them chosen because of who their ancestors were! And it’s also fine if you’re not a chosen one at all, this book says, which is something that fantasy as a whole should keep in mind.

Also, this quote is beautiful just from a writing standpoint, I love how it flows.


6.

“The presence of atrocity doesn’t mean you have to put your life on hold. You’ll arguably be better at dealing with the horrible things you have to witness, or even to perpetrate, if you allow yourself time to do the small, simple things that make you happy. Instead of looking for ways to destroy yourself.”
Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun

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As you probably know if you’ve been there before, this is my favorite series, and of course there are many quotes I love in it – from gorgeous dialogue to stunningly bizarre descriptions. But I chose this one because it’s something I always try to remind myself of. Technically, it’s about living during a space war, but I think it could also apply to real situations.

There’s always something going wrong in the world, and because of the nature of social media, being on them a lot means being constantly exposed to the world’s worst. And I feel like “I’m not allowed to be happy when so many people are suffering” is an easy message to internalize.
The thing is, being sad, being angry – it does nothing for no one. (And let’s not even get into performative anger and all that.) If you can do something, you should, but that’s often not the case, and not letting yourself be happy because something is going wrong will mean not letting yourself be happy, ever.
That does nothing but hurt you.

By the way: this is the reason you’ll never see me share anything about news on any of my platforms. I’m a book reviewer, and I review and read reviews for entertainment, and the platform you use for entertainment shouldn’t be the same you get news from. It’s not healthy.


7.

“I’m invisible. You can’t harass a ghost.”
Amelinda Bérubé, The Dark Beneath the Ice

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The emotional equivalent of being punched in the face, number two! This whole book felt like that, because it’s a story about trying to achieve invisibility to survive, and about avoidance as an unhealthy coping mechanism for anxiety, and its consequences. This quote explains it all in so few words, and I wish I didn’t get it to this level.

Also: to those who still think the ending of this book was nonsensical or confusing, if you think about the context, it’s… really not. I’m not going to say more because of spoilers.


8.

“You can’t murder that which is eternal, that which will lie until death itself passes. But you can slow it, cripple it, hobble it.

You can hurt your nightmares; it’s a two-way street.”
Cassandra Khaw, A Song for Quiet

ASongforQuiet

Quotes from stories and poems by Cassandra Khaw can be found scrawled on the edges of my notebooks or whatever I was supposed to use to take notes from 2017 and onward. They’re beautiful, and they have a rhythm – one that my brain snags on, so that they become the literary equivalent of earworms.

Which, considering that A Song for Quiet is about creepy music that won’t let you go…

I chose this quote of the many I love because it’s is somewhat of an inspirational one, if you want? I like its message, but I’m mostly here for the sound of it.


9.

“Madness doesn’t make you good or evil. Actions do. And those are all your own.”
Heidi Heilig, For a Muse of Fire

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This is a book about a bipolar heroine written by a bipolar author, and I loved how this book talked about mental illness in a fantasy setting. This quote was one of my favorite parts.

I feel like people underestimate the impact that saying things like “that person is a murderer, they must be mentally ill” or “that person is evil, they must have a mental illness” has on the stigma against mentally ill people. Even if a bad person does have an illness – which isn’t necessarily true, as things like bigotry, greed and close-mindedness aren’t illnesses – it’s usually one of the many parts of a context and not the explanation or the motive (and it’s definitely not an excuse). As if there weren’t so many people who are really diagnosed with those illness who every day choose to be good people, just like many people who aren’t ill do.

This book gets it.


10.

Night sees you, Vassa. People like to compare stars to eyes, but if you really think about it what we actually use to see is darkness: the dark inside our pupils. Is that how it is for Night, is interstellar space the way it takes us in? Stars in your eyes would be too bright. They would blind you. Is that how it is for Night?”
Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night

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Here it is, the earworm in the form of a quote. It’s been – almost four years at this point? Four years since I read this for the first time and this thing hasn’t left my brain. With that I mean that I haven’t reread this book in years and yet this resurfaces from time to time and I start going too bright too bright too bright is that how it is for night is that how it is for night is that how it is for night

I have only a vague memory of what this quote means in context and it doesn’t really mean anything to me on a personal level, if not for that feeling of vertigo you get by looking at the fragments of a starry sky when you’re on the ground around very tall buildings.

Anyway: Night sees you, reader.


Have you read any of these?

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: Favorites You’d Like to Revisit

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is Favorites You’d Like to Revisit.

What favorite books would you like to re-read? These don’t just need to be books, they can also be TV, movies, video games, etc.

There are many favorites I’d like to revisit, for different reasons.


For Review

These are favorite books I read before I started this blog.

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter – I read this little weird book when it was released, in September 2016, and I reread it at the beginning of 2017. This blog didn’t exist yet, but I love this surreal modern-day retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful and I want to review it here too.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik – I recently read, loved and reviewed Novik’s new book, Spinning Silver, and that made me want to reread Uprooted even more. It has been one of my favorite books since the beginning of 2016 and I want to talk more about it here too, even if it wouldn’t be a easy review to write.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore – I have a review of Wild Beauty on this blog, and since I loved this one even more, I want to have a review of it too, on here and on goodreads. Anyway, it’s a magical realism story about self-acceptance with a Italian-Pakistani trans boy and a Mexican girl as main characters, and if you like magical realism you should read it too.


For a Sequel

I can’t wait to read all these sequels but I need to reread the previous books first.

Want by Cindy Pon – the sequel, Ruse, will come out in 2019 (can’t wait!) and it will be in Lingyi’s PoV. I remember why I love this book, but I don’t remember enough about the side characters and I want to revisit this before going into the second book. It’s an underrated series I don’t recommend often enough – if you want a dystopian book with an all-Asian cast that isn’t set in the US (it takes place in Taipei), you should read it.

The Vanishing Throne by Elizabeth May – I love the first book, The Falconer, and I loved The Vanishing Throne too, while I read it – but now I don’t remember anything about it. That’s why I haven’t read The Fallen Kingdom yet, even if it has been out for more than a year and I own it. I read The Falconer in 2015 and it is, to this day, my favorite series about faeries.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi – this was fun in the way seeing a universe fall apart is fun, apparently. I don’t know, everyone was terrible and everything that was happening was also terrible but I couldn’t stop laughing? The second book, The Consuming Fire, will come out in October and I’ve forgotten too many details, so I want to reread the first one.


Because One Time Wasn’t Enough

I was in a hurry and that didn’t do any of these justice, or “that one time” was a long ago and I have forgotten everything.

Winterstrike by Yoon Ha Lee – the only thing on my list that isn’t a book. Winterstrike is a game (an interactive story? Almost choose-your-adventure?) that is free to play. It’s set in a beautiful sci-fantasy city that was destroyed by a magical winter, and the descriptions are so pretty I want to try it again – slowly, so I can focus on them and not only on the plot and mystery.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour – this is a slow winter book to read on slow winter days. While I did read it in winter, I went through it too quickly. I need to reread it, it’s a quiet queer book about grief and unrequited love and I remember that it was beautiful.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – I remember nothing. I mean, I remember loving it, but apart from that? Nothing. Maybe I’ll try to reread it this winter but it’s so long and there are so many shiny new books I want to read.


Would I Like Them Today?

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken – this was one of the books I loved before I started blogging – I read it when I had just discovered what goodreads was. It was my favorite book until I read Shadow and Bone, and I haven’t reread it since. I have no idea of what I would think of it today

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black – unpopular opinion: this is by far Holly Black’s best book, and I know I would like it if I reread it today, but I don’t know if I would love it like I did in summer 2015.

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – the writing was pretty and atmospheric, and that’s it. That’s the only thing I remember about this book, because I… have removed most of it from my memory and what I remember didn’t make sense? But I gave it five stars. So…?
I mean, I think I’d like it today too, because it’s one of the weirdest YA books ever, but I don’t know if I would give it five stars again.


Because I Love Them, That’s Why

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee – I know I am going to reread this series again, many times, but I want to revisit Revenant Gun specifically because I read an ARC of it and I want to know if anything changed. Also, I miss all my mass murder magic math friends.

The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz – this is my favorite book taking place in a contemporary setting, my favorite 2017 YA release, and also one of the most underrated books I’ve ever read. I will never stop screaming about it but I would scream about it in a more accurate way if I reread it!

Anything in the Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo – this has been my favorite series for a long time and it’s still my favorite YA fantasy setting, and I want to reread all of it – both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows – this winter, because King of Scars.


Do you reread books often?