Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Unnecessarily Long Review: The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

42265183This is nothing like Twilight: the similarities are superficial at best, and a trope in common does not a similar book make.

The Beautiful is a story about desire and power (and desire for power) from the point of view of a young woman. That’s the main reason I don’t want to say it’s similar to the vampire story that basically preaches abstinence in your face. They share a few tropes and plot devices; apart from that, I really don’t see the similarities.

Now that I got that out of the way, due to the borderline ridiculous length of this review I want to give you a disclaimer: this post should have probably been titled “here’s what happens when Acqua takes fiction way too personally”; as this book hit far deeper than a vampire book has any right to, this got both long and personal and not necessarily as coherent as usual.


On the Portrayal of Sexual Assault and Self-Loathing

This is the story of Celine, a girl who left everything she knew from her life in France and went to live in New Orleans after a deeply traumatic event. There, she will get more and more involved in the murderous paranormal underbelly of the city.

So, The Beautiful is the most culturally Catholic book I’ve ever read, and unexpectedly so. Celine is French and biracial Korean, and was raised in what’s implied to be a (by today’s standards) strict Catholic environment. I’ve never seen a character with this specific kind of background before, especially not in an American fantasy book.

And did it make for some unpleasant flashbacks.
From age 3 to age 13, I attended an Italian Catholic school led by sisters; all of them were both old and what one could call old-school Catholics. The environment I was immersed in for most of my childhood isn’t too different from Celine’s own background, and I’m familiar with the ways it can be toxic.

Which brings me to the point: this book has the best portrayal of Catholic self-loathing I’ve ever seen.
Celine is a wild, carefree person. She has always craved danger and on some level power; what happened to her and brought her to New Orleans only forced her to face that fact, and now she is disgusted by herself.
Celine was sexually assaulted by a man, and she killed him in self-defense. She doesn’t feel regret about that, the book is pretty clear about it, and she states (quote) that:

“Celine still wasn’t sorry for what she had done.”

What horrifies her is the fact that she liked it. That she liked wielding power, that she didn’t feel remorse at all, for killing – which, according to Catholicism, is a mortal sin. In the eyes of the Catholic church, especially of the Catholic church of her time who would no doubt blame her for what happened instead of seeing it rightfully as (acceptable by Catholics) self-defense, Celine has just done something evil, that she could atone in only some specific way I don’t remember because I didn’t pay that much attention during the mandatory religion class, being an atheist. But you can’t atone without regret, which she doesn’t feel. Of course she feels bad about not feeling it, even though we know she did nothing wrong.

We know, and if one understands what she’s going through, they also should understand why she has deeply mixed feelings about what happened. I disagree with the comments that say “this book tells sexual assault victims they shouldn’t fight back” – which Celine doesn’t even think, as she does the very Catholic thing of feeling bad about her own emotions instead. And getting out of this self-hating mindset is the heart of her character arc!

“Sin isn’t as black and white as they’d like us to believe.”

A character arc that is really meaningful and close to me.
One might think this is a book that wants to talk about “the mindset of people at the time”, but I want people to know that is still really relevant today.

I’m an atheist and a lesbian. I’ve always known about the first but not about the second. How long did it take me to be somewhat comfortable with that after being raised in this kind of deeply homophobic religious environment – if I start counting from the moment I knew and understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay?
Three years, and I don’t even believe in sin. You internalize that sort of thing. If I internalized homophobia on a deep level, Celine internalized that women should make themselves small, be humble, not crave power and feel anything remotely positive in being able to best their attackers. She knows she did the right thing, she knows defending herself was the right thing, but what you know doesn’t matter. She hates herself and has to work through it. Which she does, and she’ll probably continue to do in the following books.


Power: who has it, who craves it

There’s something wonderful about seeing marginalized people be involved in a historical narrative that is specifically about power. Reading about La Cour des Lions, an underground supernatural society composed mostly by people of color and queer people, is the best kind of escapism. The kind that asks, what if the ones that white American society always tried to make powerless weren’t powerless at all, in more than one way? That’s giving power to those who usually don’t get it in fantasy – much less historical fantasy – books, which is why I love that this wasn’t contemporary.

Reading about women who crave power is something I’ve always loved and yet rarely find outside villain origin stories. Yes, Celine is somewhat self-centered. The narrative doesn’t praise nor tear her down for that, and I appreciated that so much. The book even lets her make the classic clueless straight girl faux pas (“but I’m not into you” and the like) when the lesbian side character Odette comes out to her, and the book calls her out for it! I loved that scene. Celine is flawed and – in her words – reckless, incomplete and inappropriate, and I love her deeply.

Often, women are asked to choose between love and ambition; here, power is a central theme of the romance as well, which is the right thread to follow in a story involving vampires, if you ask me. Both potential love interests have power over Celine, and Celine is attracted to them both in spite and because of that, but most of all, she wants power over them. The idea that their attraction to her is one of their weaknesses is probably the most attractive thing about the whole tangle to her.

And while both relationships are unbalanced, the ways the two love interests approach the situation are very different and tied to the power/agency theme, which is why the romance being a hinted-at love triangle makes sense (fight me) even though you know who she’ll very likely choose:
🌹 the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain tries to keep the main character at a distance because danger (probably the most Twilight-y thing), but he is stunned by how daring and fearless Celine can be.
🌹 Michael Grimaldi is also surprised by Celine, but he wants her to tone herself down. He just wants to keep Celine safe from this horrible supernatural world, after all. (Did I somehow manage to omit that people are being murdered? Yes I did)
[by the way, I find an all-PoC love triangle – both the love interests are biracial, Bastien is of Taíno descent and Michael is Italian and Black – inherently not cliché]

I can’t wait to see this play out, and not because I don’t know the way this will likely play out. After all, the point of a romance and thematic arc isn’t surprising the reader.


Respect and Italian Representation

I’ve read more than a dozen American books that tried to incorporate Italian words into the text, especially in the form of an Italian-American character using both languages on the page.
Until The Beautiful, every single one of them got something wrong, because authors just don’t care enough to have someone who speaks the language check what they’re doing.

This book has a delightful scene in which a very realistic and stern Italian grandmother brings the main character she has never met before Italian food, and speaks both English and Italian on the page. There’s not one word wrong or out of place.

[Historical accuracy aside: as this book is set in 1872, an Italian character probably wouldn’t be speaking Italian at all, but another romance language or dialect – in this case, Sicilian, I think – but finding resources and people who are able to translate less-known languages spoken in Italy for you when you don’t even speak Italian is… well, it’s not reasonable to expect that from an English author, so I’m fine with this choice. I can barely write in my own region’s original language with a dictionary and I live here.]

As far as I know, the author doesn’t speak Italian, and she mentions asking for help to someone in the acknowledgments. The fact that she cared enough to do that – when most American authors don’t – meant a lot to me and made me see the whole book in a better, less nitpick-y way.


Because yes, I do have complaints

I had mixed feelings about the writing. The atmosphere is undeniably beautiful, the descriptions vivid and detailed, enough that they will feel like too much to those who don’t specifically like slow reads that are meant to be savored (yes this took me more than a week no I’m not annoyed about that).
However, sometimes there were some weird turns of phrase. Characters who are walking as if they were moving through water to mean that they’re graceful (how does that look like? Are they swimming? Doesn’t feel graceful), for example; and while I understand that self-identifying as a monster is in fact one of the coping mechanisms typical of people who loathe themselves, reading about the movement of Celine’s “dark creature” only made me think of tapeworms.
And were all those Shakespeare quotes necessary?

I also recommend going into this with appropriate expectations for a vampire romance, which means: The Beautiful is as cheesy as one would expect. From the oh-so-forbidden lust we mostly won’t call lust because this is YA (cue weird metaphors) to the pages-long villain monologue, everything about this book is overdramatic. But I mean, if you’re going to do sexy vampires, being understated doesn’t really make sense either.

And now, to the biggest complaint: the unnecessary PoVs. For most of the book, apart from Celine’s narration, you also read from the villain’s PoV – except you don’t know who the villain is or their motivations or anything that would make their chapters interesting; you only get vague and ominous word vomit about tearing enemies down. Those chapters were so boring and didn’t actually add anything, not even suspense.
Also, the worldbuilding revolving around the paranormal creatures? Messy and underdeveloped. I get that it wasn’t the point and Celine couldn’t know anything anyway, but I hope the next book clears it up, because I definitely will be reading it.

My rating: ★★★★½


Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

41555968And here I am, continuing my tradition of reading series out of order. I mean, it was fine¹ when I did that with the Xuya series, and I also believe that while sequels don’t have to stand on their own, spin-offs absolutely should, so why not try and read something when there are five books of worldbuilding before that one? This kind of thing obviously can’t go wrong².

You don’t need to have read the Memoirs of Lady Trent series to understand Turning Darkness Into Light. However, I think it could be much more meaningful to you if you had, as some of the characters from that series are often mentioned, and as this novel is told entirely through letters, lists, journal entries and translations of ancient tablets. This is a really interesting choice, and I loved this somewhat mixed-media aspect, but this format isn’t really suited to descriptions that don’t feel like awkward infodumps, which is probably the reason I still have no idea how a Draconian looks like.

This is the story of Audrey Camherst (Lady Trent’s granddaughter) as she translates ancient tablets from a long-lost Draconean civilization in a place where anti-Draconean sentiment seems to be on the rise, and betrayal could be lurking on every corner. It’s also the story of the Four who hatched from a single shell – yes, this novel has a story within a story, which is an aspect I loved.

More than anything, Turning Darkness Into Light is about the importance of narratives, of the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of ourselves as much as of “the other”, and how nothing is ever “just a story”. Writing fiction is, and has always been, inherently political.
It also makes some really good points about how bigotry isn’t something in which only extremists engage, and the subtle, non-violent kind is just as dangerous as the unsubtle, violent one, as the two are tied together. One can’t exist without the other.

The positives end there. I don’t have much else to say; Audrey as a character didn’t stand out that much to me, and neither did most characters, Cora being the only exception. I appreciated that the portrayal of an antagonistic relationship between a man and a woman that had an undercurrent of attraction but didn’t turn into a romance, as an idea, but I didn’t really believe it as much as I’d hoped. The format didn’t help with that, as I felt it added a lot of distance between me and the characters.

This is a solid novel, if not a really memorable one, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent is one of the series that I’m considering and will maybe start this year.

My rating: ★★★

¹ narrator: it was not fine. She struggled for half of the first novella she tried.
² narrator: keep telling yourself that.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

36510722Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fantasy story set in the 1920s. It follows Casiopea Tun, a young woman from a small town in Yucatán, as she travels through Mexico with Hun-Kamé, a Maya god. Hun-Kamé is trying to regain his throne as the god of death, but his closeness with Casiopea makes him more human every day; Casiopea is escaping her abusive and racist family for a free life, but being tied to the god of death might kill her.

This is a journey book. One of the main things I look for in journey books is atmosphere, and here it was amazing: from Uukumil to Mérida to Mexico City, I could visualize everything, and I always love reading fantasy novels that aren’t set in a stereotyped Englishland. It’s not like you can find books set in Mexico and based on Maya mythology every day, after all.
However, the setting wasn’t always enough to keep my attention, and if I had to point out what I struggled with the most while reading this book, I’d say that it was the fact that I couldn’t get invested in the relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, even though I really liked them as individuals and also liked them as a couple as an idea. Something got lost in the execution, but as I’m not sure what that something is, I can’t say if it’s more on me or on the book.
Also, I didn’t need so many chapters following Martín. Every time I got to his chapters, I put the book down and started doing something else. I kind of get why they were there, but sometimes they felt redundant, and Martín was a combination of unlikable and uninteresting that never works well as a main character.

As most of this novel is about Casiopea and Hun-Kamé going around Mexico and meeting various other paranormal creatures, some definitely less friendly than others, not getting really invested in them did make this journey not always that interesting to read about. But I can say that it was worth it, without a doubt – this book had one of the best endings I’ve read in a fantasy book this year, not because it was surprising, not really, but because it made sense in a way that made it powerful, it fit the story perfectly. It helps that I love when books go in that direction.

Another thing I loved about this book? The level of detail that the author put into everything, from the setting to the characterization to the parts talking about history – I recognized myself in Casiopea at times, for what this book said about what it’s like on a mental level to live in a strict Catholic environment and then finally leave, but what I really didn’t expect was to recognize pieces of the story of my own (Italian) family.

For example, the name Casiopea in itself. It’s a Greek name, which her town’s priest calls “Greek nonsense”, and… I have several ancestors who were named after “Greek nonsense” themselves and who were born around the time Casiopea was born. I never thought I would see characters deliberately not giving their children names of saints in a fantasy book, but I guess the Catholic church being awful around the world also meant that people tried to do the same things around the world to defy it in their everyday life.

I have more mixed feelings about the writing. Gods of Jade and Shadow is written in a way that should resemble a myth, but it didn’t work for me. It felt more removed than the average fantasy book, but it didn’t feel like a myth either, it felt like a halfway thing, and… I got used to it, but I can’t say I liked it.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · contemporary · historical fiction · Short fiction

Reviews: Two M/M Adult Books + Two Non-Binary Graphic Novels

After making a post with two short reviews of F/F YA books I had read recently, today I’m making one for two M/M adult ones (a novella with a trans main character and a historical fiction book with steampunk aspects) and two graphic novels with non-binary main characters.

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

32146161Coffee Boy is a new adult romance novella following Kieran, a young trans intern who gets a crush on his supervisor Seth, who has himself a crush on their boss.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one, because it’s very short, but I can say that the romance was adorable (novellas are the best length for romance, it’s the truth), and that it’s so refreshing to read a contemporary romance with trans representation in which there is no outing anywhere in the book. There is some misgendering, because the main character doesn’t always pass, and there are some scenes about well-meaning but condescending and sometimes outright clueless “allies” that were… very awkward and very real, at the same time – but, overall, this is a happy story.

Anyway, if “younger person who can’t keep his mouth shut” and “older, distinguished grump who is actually secretly a mess” is your kind of thing, I really recommend it! And it’s for sure a short, cute romantic read perfect for Pride month.

My rating: ★★★★½

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

22929563What happens when you care about the characters a lot but the writing meanders so much that you almost end up DNFing a book? You end up skimming. Which is why I didn’t enjoy The Watchmaker of Filigree Street as much as I could have.

It was as if the author felt the need to describe every single thing. Which, sometimes, was interesting, as I love details – especially when it came to the steampunk aspects, and the atmosphere was perfect – but for the most part, wasn’t. There were whole scenes that could have easily been cut, or maybe I just missed their significance because at that point I was so bored that I was skipping paragraphs. That’s possible. It’s just… how can one put together such a compelling premise, featuring historical gay people, steampunk technology, clairvoyance and bombings and make a boring story out of it? I don’t know. This book managed, and its characters weren’t even that bland.

Or – Nathaniel could have won the “blandest man of the year” award, but Grace wasn’t bland at all, if unlikable, and Mori was… unlike every character I had ever read about before, in a good way. The romance was also very sweet, and there was a mechanical octopus, and the book said so many interesting things about chances vs. choices, but this book was still so boring that nothing could save it – not even that ending, the best possible ending, or the fact that I knew it was going to be slow beforehand.

One more thing: I feel iffy about some things in here – it’s not my place to talk about how the anti-Asian racism is portrayed, but know that, if you’re interested in reading this book, there’s a lot of it in here (and, just like the misogyny in this book – which is also what you would expect from English people of the time, but still, ehh – not all of it is explicitly challenged).

My rating: ★★★

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912I wouldn’t have thought the day people in my country could walk into a bookstore and find a YA book with a non-binary main character on the shelves was going to be anytime soon, and I’m so glad to know that I was wrong.
I knew that book was probably going to be translated, seeing how the popular Italian YA books usually are. This one was, and I can’t even complain: it’s a graphic novel with a happy ending, one that doesn’t make a mess with the character’s pronouns, and overall a cute read.

It means a lot.

I’ve seen a few reviews say that we shouldn’t call this cute, or fluffy, because the main character gets outed. And I know. But this had such a light tone overall, and the main character is accepted by the people around him (the prince is genderfluid and both he/him and she/her pronouns are used during the story), including his family, so that by the end this story felt more like a reassurance to me – even if bad things could happen to you, you can still have a happy ending.

What I’m more annoyed by is the fact that books with this exact storyline (this one, Simon vs., and more recently Red, White and Royal Blue) or books that I really did found to be about queer pain (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugoare the ones that get the most popularity and then are almost the only ones that could even get a chance of being translated, so that the message becomes more “bad things will happen to you”. But you know, we don’t really get to be picky about representation here.
[This is why, by the way, I’m so glad that Leah on the Offbeat exists: no outing or queer pain in that one, and it got translated.]

Anyway. This is a story about a dressmaker with big dreams and a prince who likes to wear dresses, with an f/non-binary romance, set in an alt-history version of Paris. The art is very cute, and while it isn’t exactly my thing – I think I just prefer more realistic stlyes? – I still had fun with this.

My rating: ★★★★

The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill

42369064The Tea Dragon Festival is a companion prequel to the graphic novel The Tea Dragon Society, a cute fantasy graphic novel I liked but didn’t love. This installment convinced me a lot more. It features both old and new characters and just as many adorable dragons. The art is gorgeous, as always, but this time I liked both the characters and the setting more (there were fungi and beautiful woods! I loved that a lot.)

The story follows a non-binary main character who loves gathering food from the forest, and a confused dragon who woke up after eighty years of sleep. The story was cute, but what made it truly stand out was how it normalized queerness and sign language. Also, it’s so refreshing to read about a world in which people of many different ethnicities coexist and the world doesn’t always default to western customs – see which kinds of food was drawn and sometimes the eating utensils, for example.

Another thing I really appreciated was that this graphic novel said that just because something is easy for you, it doesn’t mean it has no value. More than anything, this is a story about community, and finding your own place in it, and I thought it was wonderful.

The only thing I didn’t love was the part at the end that attempted to explain dragon taxonomy, made a mess in which it mixed up species and subspecies, and capitalized specific epithets. I kind of wish it hadn’t been there at all, because I care about that sort of thing.

My rating: ★★★½

Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · Fantasy

Mini Reviews: Miscellaneous Edition

36216359I didn’t like The Phoenix Empress as much as the first book in this series. There are many reasons for that, and I’m going to get into them soon, but the main one is that I’m reading this series for its f/f romance more than the plot, and at least 40% of this book follows the years Shizuka spent alone.

What I Liked:
🐎 The writing is, as usual, beautiful.
🐎 I loved reading Shizuka’s perspective. She has more depth as a character than Shefali’s narration in the first book made me think. She is overconfident to the point of being irritating, and I love her for that in a way, but I also liked that this book addressed this aspect of her personality.
🐎 There are so many complex female characters. Not only this book focuses on an f/f romance, the side characters – like Baozhai, Sakura and Daishi – are also really well-written and interesting.

What I Didn’t Like:
🐎 There is a flashback that takes up at least 20% of the book following a tragic event in Shizuka’s past. I already knew who died and who didn’t, I already knew how it affected Shizuka, and it’s 20% of a fantasy romance book that is completely without romance, as one of the two main characters isn’t in it. Why was it even there? It felt so much like filler that I skimmed most of it, and I don’t feel like I lost anything by doing that.
🐎 I felt like there was a lot of filler in general – this book as a whole felt watered down.
🐎 I’m glad that this book, unlike The Tiger’s Daughter, addressed that imperialism isn’t a good thing (in the first book, that’s only mentioned in a throwaway line, which… well, the reviews that talk about that and the misrepresentation of Asian cultures are worth reading) and I’m glad Shizuka freed conquered lands like Xian Lai (Baozhai rules, now literally). However, it all seemed too easy. I’m not saying everything needs to be dark and sad, but things like these have long-lasting consequences, and this book basically acts like they don’t. You’re free! Now all your problems are solved! …It doesn’t work like that.
🐎 I also felt like this book was trying way too hard to be dark and tense, but it just didn’t work. I don’t know how to explain, but it’s not the right kind of book for that.

My rating: ★★¾

43499980The Bird King is a historical fantasy novel which follows a Circassian concubine in the royal court of Granada. It’s a beautifully written book, and – as far as I know – also a well-researched one; it mentioned a lot of things I know from reading nonfiction (the Genoese were the ones who sold Circassian slaves to rich people, including Sultans – just one of the many awful things they did to make money).

Unfortunately, this kind of slow-paced, detailed historical fiction with just a hint of magic isn’t my thing (I find it boring, but I think it’s not in any way this book’s fault), and I don’t want to force myself to read something that isn’t working for me. However, I do recommend it if this genre appeals to you – I think it’s a very good book.

My rating: ★★½

26309792The Hearts We Sold is a standalone genre-bending book that takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s paranormal and sci-fi as the same time, which was a really interesting concept. As I usually love genre-bending books, I thought I was going to love this too, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me as much as I hoped.

This is probably the first time I’ve ever wanted a book to be less genre-bending. I think that if it had been strictly a paranormal story, I would have liked it more. But it tried to be sci-fi, and when it started to involve aliens, my suspension of disbelief was already gone. When I already have little sense of setting, no atmosphere, and the writing doesn’t stand out, I need a believable story.

I also didn’t love the characters. Dee was an interesting main character, and I really liked her development and how this book talked about self-hate and how difficult it is to let people in when you hate yourself, but the side characters were forgettable. I liked that there was an f/f couple in which one of the girls was trans, but I felt like I barely knew them. Maybe it’s because I spent very little time with them, I don’t know.

There is another minor thing that bothered me: most of this book is set in Portland, but there are some flashbacks set in Rome. While the book talks about how beautiful Italy is, the only relevant Italian character is a thief. I don’t know what it is about Americans, but in American books Italy is always beautiful and romantic, but Italians are always criminals (usually mafia, but if it’s not the mafia, it’s violent drunks or thieves). I’m tired of this.

That’s not to say this book was bad. It went in a direction that, while predictable, isn’t common in YA books (they usually just don’t go there), and I actually really liked reading it – enough that I finished it in less than a day. I just don’t think it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

27693272The House of Binding Thorns is the best fantasy I’ve read so far this year, the opposite of second book syndrome, and part of a series you need to read if you’re interested in diverse SFF.
I really liked The House of Shattered Wings, but this was on a completely other level – the character arcs actually went somewhere, the conspiracy was unpredictable but didn’t come out of nowhere, and there were even more queer characters.

If The House of Shattered Wings followed the events surrounding the mysteries and past of House Silverspires, this book follows another house of fallen angels in fallen historical Paris: House Hawthorn, and its relation with the underwater Dragon Kingdom in the Seine.
We follow:
✨ Madeleine, a woman who is trying to recover from angel essence addiction while not falling victim to political intrigue, which seems to be everywhere in House Hawthorn;
✨ Philippe, a Vietnamese ex-immortal who is trying to bring someone back to life;
✨ Thuan, a shapeshifting bisexual Dragon Prince, also Vietnamese, who is a spy in House Hawthorn;
Françoise, a pregnant Vietnamese woman who is trying to survive in this post-magical-war Paris with her trans girlfriend, a fallen angel;
✨ not PoV characters, but a major characters anyway: Asmodeus, gay fallen angel, antivillain, in an arranged marriage with a prince from the Dragon Kingdom, and Ngoc Bich, a dragon princess. I loved them both, Asmodeus because he’s awful and Ngoc Bich because she’s awesome and just a bit awful.

In the first book, not being able to connect with the characters was one of my main problems. Here, that didn’t happen – I loved all of the new ones (Thuan’s and Françoise’s PoVs were my favorites), but Madeleine grew on me a lot, and some of the side characters were just as memorable as the PoV ones.
I read this book in two days, which is something I haven’t been able to do with novels – especially not with adult fantasy – lately. But this was so good that I just couldn’t stop reading it. So much political intrigue, most of it revolving around a gay antivillain, of course I loved this.

I also really liked the setting – in The House of Shattered Wings, I wanted to know more about the Dragon Kingdom, and a significant part of this book is set there. This also meant that this book gave an even more overwhelming sense of rot than the first book, and it may sound weird, but the atmosphere is beautiful also because of it. Ruins have their charm, and it makes sense that in a series about falling the settings is falling apart too.

There’s not much romance in this series – there is an established f/f couple in this book, another one in the first book, and a m/m arranged marriage with the kind of plotline I love (which means: tension between enemies) – but all the romance here is wonderful. I’d read more of it and I almost never say that.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

34643773Under the Pendulum Sun is a standalone historical fantasy book.

This was weird and twisted.
I mean, it’s about Victorian missionaries in fairyland, and everything goes wrong. I want my fae to be creepy and monstrous, and this totally delivered. The cover is just as beautiful and unusual as the content – it’s probably one of my favorite covers of all time (this was a cover buy).
Unfortunately, this was all the book had going for it.

I mean, the writing was good, but it never surprised me. And a twisted plot isn’t that interesting when you see most if not all the twists coming and the characters are bland.
The pacing didn’t help – it’s slow, uneven at times, and it took me almost a week to complete the book.

I don’t think Under the Pendulum Sun is a bad book. I believe it’s worth the read just for how weird and intricate it is – it won’t be forgettable, at least. It just didn’t work that much for me.

This book could be for you if:
•You love theology. There is a lot of it. I didn’t care that much about that aspect of the story. I liked how the book didn’t portray missionaries as good, pure people, and the parts about the exploration of sin were interesting; however, one of the twists was very predictable because of them.
•You like weird. I do! The sun of Arcadia is literally a pendulum, the moon is a fish, and there are Sea Whales who swim in the earth and are called Sea Whales because they have the sea inside. The worldbuilding was my favorite part. I also really liked the masquerade scenes, the descriptions were… unsettling.
•You have no problems with changeling plotlines that do not deal with the fact that changelings were invented as an explanation for autistic/mentally ill children. (I have some mixed feelings about this, but it’s another discussion. It has less to do with this book and more with the trend – I haven’t found a changeling narrative that addressed it yet)
•Non-romanticized incest isn’t too gross or triggering for you.
•Unlikable-but-forgettable main characters and slow pacing do not bother you. This was probably the main reason the book didn’t work for me, but if it isn’t a problem for you, you’ll probably love this.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · Short fiction · Young adult

Review: The Radical Element, edited by Jessica Spotswood

29748943The Radical Element is a historical fiction anthology about radical and dauntless young women throughout American history. It follows girls ahead of their times, marginalized girls, girls who were in some way unconventional.

It’s the second book in a series. The first, A Tyranny of Petticoats, followed brave and “badass” girls; I read it more than a year ago, and I remember having mixed feelings on it. I liked this one a bit more, though it had its low points too.

Overall, this didn’t disappoint. The Radical Element shines a spotlight on people who are often forgotten, erased in historical records, and who were considered outcasts because they didn’t fit the norms.

One thing didn’t convince me: these two anthologies about the history of the USA didn’t include, as far as I know, any Native American authors. There were barely any native characters (Yakone in the first book, and one of the characters from this one vaguely mentions she has “indian blood” and lives in a “half-Creek and half-Cherokee” territory); since this is a otherwise fairly diverse anthology, this absence stood out to me.
Also: unlike A Tyranny of Petticoats, this didn’t have any f/f stories.

Daughter of the Book by Dahlia Adler (1838: Savannah, Georgia): 3.5 stars.
I had already read a book by this author – it was Under the Lights, a f/f contemporary novel I recommend – so I knew I really liked her writing style.
This is the story of a Jewish girl who wants to receive a full education and maybe become a teacher, which was something radical for her time period. I loved the many (not only historical) details.

You’re a Stranger Here by Mackenzi Lee (1844: Nauvoo, Illinois): 3 stars.
I knew nothing about Mormon history, so this was interesting. I loved the setting and what the Eliza says to Vilatte about faith near the end of the story. I like Mackenzi Lee’s writing style; this story didn’t have the humor or tone of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but it worked just as well.

The Magician by Erin Bowman (1858: Colorado River, New Mexico): 3 stars
This was really interesting for a crossdressing story; at the end of it it’s hinted that Ray may be a person who would today identify as genderfluid/non-binary. That’s uncommon in historical books, but people like Ray have always existed, so I liked this. However, the actual plot was kind of boring at times.

Lady Firebrand by Megan Shepherd (1863: Charleston, South Carolina): 3.5 stars.
This was more interesting than I expected. A free black girl and a disabled white girl are union spies. Chemistry! Explosions! Of course, TW: racism.

Step Right Up by Jessica Spotswood: 4 stars
This was fun! A girl wants to run away from her abusive uncle with the circus. I really liked the main characters and the writing. The first scene drew me in immediately, and the descriptions of the circus were my favorite part.

Glamour by Anna-Marie McLemore (1923: Los Angeles and the Central Valley, California): 5 stars
I will read everything Anna-Marie McLemore writes. This was just… so much better than all the other stories in the book. It’s a magical realism story about the racism, queerphobia and ableism in Hollywood, and it follows a Mexican girl who is able to whitewash herself to fit in and a disabled trans boy. Both of them live afraid of being found out, but find each other instead. I loved how this story approached a scene which could have been harmful (Graciela sees Sawyer half naked) in a really sensitive way. Graciela never questions Sawyer’s gender.
Glamour reminded me of When the Moon Was Ours because of its symbolism, and in a good way – now I have a lot of feelings.

Better for all the World by Marieke Nijkamp (1927: Washington, DC): 4.5 stars.
TW: eugenics
I had never read an ownvoices story about an autistic girl before; it’s difficult to find them, especially in historical fiction or SFF.
Better for all the World follows an autistic girl who wants to become a lawyer. She is following the Carrie Buck case – who was sterilized because she was “feeble-minded” (that’s how they called people who had mental illnesses/developmental disabilities). The worst part is that some people argue that this should happen today too. It was infuriating to read, painful, but great. At the end of the story, the main character finds out that some friendships just aren’t worth it, especially when the other person doesn’t value you as you really are, or claims to like you while advocating for the oppression of other people like you.

When the Moonlight isn’t Enough by Dhonielle Clayton (1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts): 3.5 stars
A magical black family drinks moonlight to be immortal, but their daughter wants to grow up and help her country win the war – a country that doesn’t value her at all. A really interesting concept, and the writing was lovely, but overall the story felt disjointed.

The Belle of the Ball by Sarvenaz Tash (1952: Brooklyn, New York): 3 stars.
I had never read anything by this author before. While the writing didn’t impress me, I can say I loved the main character’s voice. Rosemary is a girl who is struggling because her mother’s expectations do not include becoming a comedy writer.

Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave by Stacey Lee (1955: Oakland, California): 4.75 stars
An Asian-American girl (Chinese father, biracial Japanese mother who was born in Hawaii) decides to participate in a contest to be the new “Sugar Maiden” – the girl whose face will be on the sugar boxes. I have loved everything I’ve read by Stacey Lee, and this was no exception.
Lanakila Lau was one of my favorite main characters, and reading about the aftermath of Japanese internment and the history of Asian-Americans in Hawaii was really interesting.

The Birth of Susi Go-Go by Meg Medina (1972: Queens, New York): 2 stars
A Cuban-American girl is coming to terms with her past (her and her parents were exiled from Cuba), family expectations and who she wants to be in the future. The grandparents she hasn’t seen in 12 years are coming to visit her, and she isn’t sure how she feels about that. I didn’t love this one; it meandered and it was far too long.

Take Me With U by Sara Farizan (1984: Boston, Massachusetts): 2.5 stars
I had never read anything by Sara Farizan before. Take Me With U is about an Iranian girl, her immigrant family in the 80s, and her love for music. It was short and I don’t have any thoughts about it – it was just ok.

My average rating was 3.52.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel set in rural medieval Russia, and one of the best books to read during the winter.
It was the first book I read in 2017, and now it’s the first book I read in 2018 – its wintry atmosphere makes it the perfect book for the season.It feels like a dark fairytale, beautiful and magical, but not without its creepy aspects. Winter in Russia is not an easy season, and as an old threat rises due to the carelessness of men, so do the dead.

This book follows Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna and her family. She’s Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, and she has the sight. She can see and speak with the chyerti (guardian spirits from Russian folklore), she can talks with horses, she has seen something terrible when she was a child exploring the wood. The Bear and the Nightingale is her story; you see her grow up, and you can’t not love her – she is a wild, magical girl living in a place where not conforming strictly to gender roles marks you as a witch. Everything gets worse when her devout stepmother and a new priest from Moscow come to the village.

The religious conflict is the heart of this book – because of Christianity, men are forgetting the old ways, leaving behind “paganism” and “fairytales”. They are not feeding the domovoi and the stables’ vazila. That makes them vulnerable to the monsters who live at the edge of the woods: upyry and something worse – the bear, who is Frost’s brother.

Frost himself is a significant character – he is Morozko, the winter king, the blue-eyed demon in the fairytale of Vasya’s childhood. I loved his scenes, and I hope to see more of him in The Girl in the Tower.
Other things I loved were the historical details and political intrigue. I want to see more of that too, and possibly also more of Vasya’s family. They were well-developed, but so were all the side characters, including the human antagonists (you understand them, even when you hate them) and Vasya’s animal companions. I mean, one of my favorite characters was a horse.

The writing was lovely – it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be (yes, I always have this fear when it comes to historical fiction), and the atmosphere was perfect. This may be a slow-paced novel, but it’s also one of the very few books that managed to keep me awake at night during a reread because I didn’t want to stop. It’s that good.

I’ve heard that as a novel set in Russia written by an American author, this is very accurate (unlike… many others) but there is one thing that didn’t sit well with me. The author says this about the transliterations in the author’s note:

First, I sought to render Russian words in such a way as to retain a bit of their exotic flavor. This is the reason I rendered Константин as Konstantin rather than the more familiar Constantine, and Дмитрий as Dmitrii rather than Dmitri.

Look, I’m not Russian, so I don’t know how much of a big deal this is, but American authors: the “exotic flavor” isn’t a thing, and the word “exotic” is something you should delete from your vocabulary when you’re talking about people and cultures. It’s othering. Stop.

My rating: ★★★★¾