Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Reviews, Again

It’s time for some more short fiction reviews!

This time I’m dividing the post into three sections: stories and poetry I’ve read on my own, stories I’ve read because of the Hugo nominations, and stories I’ve read inside an anthology.


Stories and Poetry I’ve Read On My Own

The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind by Karen Osborne★★★½
A twist on the usual “girl is sacrificed to a dragon to save her village” trope. It’s very short, and while I didn’t like it quite as much as the other Karen Osborne short story I reviewed on this blog (The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power, which was gayer), it packs a punch. I don’t want to say more because the more would be spoilers, but I really recommend it to all of those who like fairytale-like stories that are written to uplift women and their bonds instead of using them as plot devices.

things you don’t say to city witches by Cassandra Khaw – ★★★★★
This is so short, and I love it a lot. It gives me I Built This City for You vibes, but that’s not the main reason – the main reason is that it’s fierce, that it’s a poem about loving a city so much that the people can’t ruin it for you, and do I relate to that feeling quite strongly. And very few people manage to set such an atmosphere in just eleven lines. I love it I love it I love it Cassandra Khaw did it again

A Silly Love Story by Nino Cipri – ★★★½
Cute! A love story between a neurodivergent main character and a bigender person, featuring a poltergeist. I had heard about Nino Cipri before but hadn’t read anything by them yet, and this made me want to read more. I’ll definitely try Finna when it comes out next year.

Date the Lizard! by RoAnna Sylver – ★★★★
Very short, very cute interactive fiction; I really appreciated that it’s about dating and it still gave one the option to say “I’m aromantic”.
Now I really want to know about the Chameleon Moon universe. (I will get to it, eventually. I think.)


Stories I’ve Read Because of the Hugos

Novelettes

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho★★★★★
This was the cutest story ever. About an imugi who is trying to become a dragon and the woman who falls in love with it (also, the imugi’s human form is a woman, so… f/f!). About not seeing yourself as a failure, and about whether persistence is worth it. And there’s even a really short, very adorable sequel! I really hope this one wins the Hugo.
Also: if you end up liking this and you haven’t read Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace yet… try it!

The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer – ★★★★½
A woman studying ghost stories and what they actually mean loses her mother to Alzheimers’. This is the first story by Naomi Kritzer I’ve felt strongly about, and I thought it was… wistful? And really good, even though I don’t always enjoy things that are this meta.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confection by Tina Connolly – ★★★★★
Delicious food-based magic, poison tasting, deception, and revenge, all in only one bite. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s the best kind of bittersweet, the one whose ending doesn’t feel weaker than the rest of the story. And food descriptions have always been my weakness, of course I loved the story about resistance through magical pastries – but I especially loved how this story talked about the links between food and memory, and that’s something I’d like to see in fiction more.

Short Stories

The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker – no rating
On one hand, it did exactly what it meant to do, with its commentary on complicity that is… very relevant. On the other hand, I hated reading it. I won’t rate it.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher★★★½
Is this a fun, somewhat subversive story? Yes. Is it Hugo-nomination-material? I don’t know. It doesn’t do that much more than play with the “pines after faerie lover” trope by making the faerie pine after a human woman, and while I’m always here for stories about women having a fulfilling sex life, I don’t feel like this will stay with me. But it is a nice read.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark – ★★★★
A look at American slavery through magic and through the effect nine enslaved black people indirectly had on George Washington with their “donated” (…taken) teeth. It’s not my favorite thing Clark has written but it’s still really good – it talks about history as much as it talks about folklore, alternate universes and simply existing when you are not allowed freedom.

STET by Sarah Gailey – ★
I’m disgusted.
Listen, this is a clever story with a really original format I had never seen before – so many footnotes, and yet so short – and it talks about the inherent biases of AIs, in this case self-driving cars, which is a theme I love to see explored in fiction.
However, I loathe its (accidental? I’m not sure) message. Sometimes conservation efforts damage humans, and ecology needs to be sustainable from a human standpoint too, and balancing those things is complicated. And this story reduces all of this to something that feels like why do we care about animals so much? How much time do we spend looking at photos of endangered woodpeckers? But conservation is not about the animals that we think are cute. (By the way: read about the Bambi effect and why it can even be dangerous for the environment, get rid of that mentality, and do a favor to ecologists worldwide!)
Have you ever heard of ecological niches? About how every species has its own and you never know if causing an extinction will have barely any impact on the ecosystem or damage it for years (or even irrevocably, in some cases)? Because it’s almost never “just a woodpecker”, or “just a beetle” or “just seagrass” or things like that.
I can’t know what’s likely to happen with the extinction of that woodpecker since it seems to be a fictional species¹ (…and only ever mentioned as a common name, because binomial nomenclature is evil, right), but you don’t get to make something so complex, something that has an entire fucking branch of science behind, so two-dimensional. And you could say it gets that two-dimensional because the main character is angry – but that’s what it feels like the story it’s saying, that conservation is frivolous, its importance overrated.
And now, the “we care more about animals than we do about humans” thing has some truth to it, usually when it comes to pets (how many people would rather save a dog than a person, especially when it comes to marginalized demographics? Oh, I know) but this story acts as if we make too much a big deal about extinction. Extinction destroys ecosystems. We need ecosystems to survive.
Was dragging conservation ecology into this story without actually researching anything about why we need it (not because “we care about the poor fluffy birds” but because “we need functioning ecosystems to live”) necessary to make the story effective? No. I can think of so many other ways to set up a story about the biases of AI that wouldn’t end up doing that.

¹”It’s different just because of two stripes!”, says the story. As far as I know, it doesn’t exist (who knows, maybe it’s an obscure common name of some American woodpecker, with common names you never know), but: that’s not how any of this works! You might tell it apart from the others just because of the stripes, but if it were different just because of the stripes, it wouldn’t be a species.

Anyway, some TL;DRs for everyone:

  • You don’t get to worry about climate change and be annoyed at conservation efforts at the same time!
  • You don’t judge a species’ importance from how much humans care about it! I don’t care that you don’t care that much about eagles, by protecting a flagship species you protect their ecosystem, and I promise that you don’t want to lose that!
  • You don’t get to talk about these things without nuance and research and the story had none of the first and also probably none of the second

Stories I’ve Read Because of an Anthology

41953441I’ve also been reading the anthology The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Four edited by Neil Clarke, and while I’m finding most of the stories really boring – me and the editor have radically different ideas about what makes a great science fiction story, and I also have very little patience for short fiction (I asked for something short that will still pack a punch, not a whole novel’s worth of worldbuilding in the space of two chapters so that I understand nothing, thank you!) – there are some stand-outs:

Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby – ★★★★
This one is such a brilliant concept and also a relatively easy read for such a heavy topic – it’s about how smart home technology could be exploited by abusers, but it manages to be… all but depressing, actually. I loved the ending so much.

All the Time We’ve Left to Spend by Alyssa Wong – ★★★★★
I’ve mentioned this story on my blog before, but this is exactly the kind of thing that makes me think about how much we need queer sad books written by queer authors. It’s a gorgeous story about grief from the point of view of a Japanese girl who visits an hotel in which the memories of the dead members of a pop band are preserved, and one of them was her girlfriend. It’s haunting and sad and I feel strongly about this kind of thing not being in any way comparable to the bury your gays trope. Anyway, the fact that this wasn’t nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula is a crime.

Entropy War by Yoon Ha Lee – ★★★★
This isn’t my favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s but it’s still a stand-out, for the writing (which is, as usual, the best) and for the concept: this is about games and war the way many of his stories are, but what about a war against entropy? I loved the concept and it made me think about the theme of the inevitability of change and how, in a way, that’s also what the Machineries of Empire series as a whole is about, with the Kujen storyline.

Among the Water Buffaloes, A Tiger’s Steps by Aliette de Bodard – ★★★★
A happier f/f story about legacies and fairytales in a sci-fi post-apocalyptic scenario. I loved it, especially for what it said about the importance of imagining new endings for yourself. If you like the theme about “not being destined to follow your predecessors in their steps and especially mistakes”, this is a great story to read (sadly, you can find it only in anthologies).


Have you read any good short fiction lately?

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Book review · Short fiction

Novellas and Short Stories I’ve Read Recently

Today, I’m going to review nine short stories and two novellas.


Short Story Time

In which I chose random short stories free online from the list I have put together in the last year and a half and review them.

Maybe I will make this a monthly feature? I don’t know. There’s so much good short fiction out there and I like to scream about it when I have the time to read it. One day, I’m also going to write down a list of my favorite ones, but I want to get through most of my list first.


Super-Luminous Spiral by Cameron Van Sant★★★★★
This one was so weird. It felt like a pages-long, weirdly sexual hallucination about literature in second person, and at first I understood nothing of what was going on, but when I was halfway through, I finally got it – and wow. This is a story about literature classes and the way genre fiction is considered lesser than literary, and it’s kind of… making fun of literary fiction’s obsession with cheating.
It follows a lit student who, after being left by a mysterious, very sparkly trans boy who made him realize he was bisexual (but he’s still kind of in denial) and who made his stories become perfect, can only write literary fiction about cheating. It’s funny and very weird and an experience. Also, this story takes the idea of the “muse” and makes the muse someone who uses the writer and not the other way around.
I loved it.

Ally by Nalo Hopkinson – ★★★½
A maybe-ghost story? I’m not sure I got this one, but it follows a trans woman and the conversation she has with someone who was once her friend after the funeral of her friend’s husband. It’s a very queer story and what it said about what it’s like to just… live when a part of the world hates you for existing was powerful. It’s about a haunting, in a way, and about whether and how much everything that is behind an action – from intent to means – matters when confronted with the results. As the title suggests, it’s also an interesting thought to apply to allyship.

Girls Who Do Not Drown by A.C. Buchanan – ★★★★★
This was wonderful. But keep in mind that, while it’s not a tragic story, it definitely needs TWs for attempted suicide and transmisogyny.
It’s the story of a trans girl who just realized she’s a girl, who is changing the future of the whole island. It’s a story about girlhood and not drowning, featuring Manx folklore (the very persistent glashtyn? I loved that part). It’s beautiful, very atmospheric, and I really recommend it.

Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit by Cynthia So – ★★★★½
A beautiful story about a country that was once colonized (I think it’s inspired by Southeast Asia), following two girls who love each other against homophobia and other monsters. It talks about racism and about the way queer people in history are often erased. I loved how hopeful it is, I loved the fact that it featured both a phoenix fox (!!) and poetry – stories that have foxes in them are great and stories that acknowledge the importance of literature are too.

Dead Things by Becca De La Rosa – ★★★★½
An atmospheric story about bargains and what it means to love following two girls falling in love in the Kingdom of Death. The description and symbolism are gorgeous and I really liked many aspects of this story – I love to read about people finding happiness and beauty in unexpected places just like I love reading about f/f couples.

Now Watch My Rising by A. Merc Rustad – ★★★½
I was already familiar with this author because of their short story in the Cosmic Powers anthology (which I really liked) and a short story on Uncanny Magazine (which I didn’t care about). This was more in the middle – as usual, I loved the writing, but struggled a bit to follow it, even though the story was very… simple. I knew how it was going to develop from the first paragraph, but it’s exactly the direction I wanted it to take and it’s a message I always appreciate, so I’m not going to complain. And if you’re wondering whether you should try this: what do you think of fate?
[Anyway, I really feel like howling at the sky right now. Mood of the evening!]

50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover by Aimee Picchi – ★★★★
…If you want to read something really short that will make you smile, that includes faeries and folklore, and that features an f/f relationship, you should really read this story. I don’t know, when I compare it with the stories I’ve read before I find that maybe it reads a bit more superficial, but you know what? There’s nothing superficial about stories that make you happy. Or about happy gays in general.

Salt Lines by Ian Muneshwar – ★★★★½
This is a story following a gay Guyanese immigrant who has left his homophobic family and one day meets a jumbie (a spirit from Caribbean folklore). It’s heartbreaking and definitely needs trigger warnings for homophobia and mentions of homophobic violence, but it’s also the kind of story I know will stay with me. The way it talks about what it’s like to be queer when your family doesn’t accept you, and the monster romance aspect in this story… it speaks to me. (There’s something to be said about being queer and liking monster romances and how these things can be tied – since people made you feel like you were the monster – but also not necessarily? I don’t feel like I’m good enough with words to talk about it but it’s something I feel.)

The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power by Karen Osborne – ★★★★
Space fantasy stories will always have a special place in my heart, even when I struggle to get into them at first. This story was no exception, especially considering it’s about  sin-eating girls finding strength in each other to fight against terrible dead men (f/f romance in space!). It’s a story about how we do not need to follow in our predecessors’ footsteps when those footsteps are part of an oppressive system. It’s beautifully written, and while it’s very… bloody, it’s at its heart a story about the healing of a society.


The Novellas

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

36546128The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a wonderful, atmospheric novella set in an alternate Cairo, featuring haunted steampunk technology.

I already knew I liked P. Djèlí Clark’s writing because of The Black God’s Drums (…another alt-history, darker novella you should try if you haven’t already) and because of A Dead Djinn In Cairo, which is set in the same universe as this book and is also free online (and you should read it). Even though I loved both of these, I was still surprised by how much I liked The Haunting of Tram Car 015.

There are so many interesting concepts in so little space, all of them handled gracefully. In that, it reminded me of Witchmark, even though on a content level the only thing these two books have in common are the steampunk aspects.

I loved the worldbuilding. You can see how much thought and research went into it – this is set in an alt-history version of Cairo in which colonialism ended also because of the supernatural, in which airships and djinn-powered aerial tram cars are the most common means of transportation. I always love reading about worlds in which the technology is tied to the magic system (and, in this case, also to folklore and mythology), and this was no exception. This book also portrays Cairo as a diverse city, not only because humans live side-by-side with djinns, but because its population is all but homogeneous: there are Sufis, Copts, Armenians, Sudanese, people who grew up in the city and people who grew up in the countryside. P. Djèlí Clark’s Cairo feels so alive.

Even though the two main characters are men – two agents from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, one of which is a new recruit – this is a story in which women have a very important role. The Haunting of Tram Car‘s main plotline is about a mysterious being who is haunting a tram car and the attempted exorcisms, but that’s not the only thing going on – in the background, we see side and minor female characters collaborating to get women the right to vote in Egypt. And the way that plotline ends? So many feelings.

This novella approaches a lot of interesting themes – the way folklore is often steeped in misogyny; what gender could mean to non-human beings (featuring a genderfluid djinn!); the meaning of personhood and sentience; what “modernization” looks like when there’s magic around – and maybe it didn’t give that much space to them, but I never felt like any part of it was incomplete. I just want more books set in this world.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Unbroken by Brooklyn Ray

41541534Unbroken is a novella set in the Port Lewis Universe, in which Darkling and Undertow also take place. It follows Michael, a non-magical human who has recently moved to Port Lewis with his sister but without any knowledge of the town’s… history.

Also, his new house is haunted by a demon. A very good-looking demon who is also great at baking.

Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a gay erotic monster romance and I’m totally here for this (and probably no one is surprised).

One of the things I liked the most about this that I didn’t remember from the other Port Lewis novellas – because as usual, the atmosphere is great and this author knows how to write romance but I knew that already – was the humor. There’s at least one scene that made me laugh out loud, which is… more than most full-length novels do even when they’re trying to be funny.

The main character of this novella had been in an abusive relationship in the past, and I liked the way this book dealt with that, and what it said about consent. Also, part of the main character’s arc is tied to understanding that he didn’t deserve what happened to him and I really appreciated that.

However, I didn’t love the way this ended, because it features one of my least favorite romance tropes. I understand why it makes sense for the story but anything fate-related still creeps me out on many levels.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any short stories or novellas lately?

Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Reviews

I don’t often write about short fiction I like, or, I don’t talk about it as much as I’d want. The main reason I don’t do that, the main reason I don’t review every short story I read, is that I feel like no one really cares.

But I do. I am here to have fun and write the kind of content that makes me happy, which is short fiction reviews, even though I’m not even sure I’m that good at writing them. My goal for 2019 is to read what makes me happy and not what I feel like I should read, and I want to do the same with posts.

So here’s what I read lately! They’re all free online, so go check them out if they sound interesting to you.


Birch Daughter by Sara Norja (Fireside Fiction) – ★★★
A Finnish-inspired story about a girl and her adventures in a world in which the fair folk is always whispering and singing, you can make bargains with the matriarch of bears, and people can turn into trees. It’s sweet and dreamlike and it has a cute f/f romance – the main character falls in love with the bears’ beekeeper – but the characterization was… absent and I felt very little. However, I liked the writing, and I will always appreciate magical stories (it felt like a fairytale would feel) about f/f couples who get a happy ending.

Bargains by the Slant-Light by Cassandra Khaw (Apex Magazine) – ★★★★½
If you’re looking for dark, creepy, disturbing stories, Cassandra Khaw never disappoints. This one is really short, and it’s about a woman making bargains with a demon, graphic dissection, and what it means to love. Love as pain and love as monstrous, even more than the only actual “monster” that there is in this story. As I always have a weakness for stories that explore the dark sides of romantic love and as I find Khaw’s writing hypnotic, this story worked for me.

The New Heart by Natalia Theodoridou (Fireside Fiction) – ★★★
A woman who is a heart maker – she sculpts then sells new hearts – meets the woman she has been in love while in school, Sereena. And Sereena is asking for a new heart. I wasn’t familiar with this author before and this was an interesting story, but mostly because of the premise and concept (new hearts, and what they can do) and the beautiful writing. The story itself felt somewhat underdeveloped and I felt like it had the potential to be more than what it actually ended up being. Anyway, this story has the three things I like the most in short fiction – great concept you won’t find in novels, beautiful writing, and gay – so I’m not really disappointed.

40794181Do Not Look Back, My Lion by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – ★★★★
This was really interesting. It’s set in the kind of queer-accepting matriarchal society I like to read about, it’s a fantasy story about loyalty, war and family, and it’s f/f. But I have to say that I struggled with picturing everything and everyone and the worldbuilding, while really intriguing, was maybe… too much for a story so short? As in, I see a lot of potential here and the length didn’t do it justice. But this did undo the “damage” one of this author’s previous stories (which I didn’t like) did – I’m really interested in checking out Harrow’s longer fiction now. Her debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January will be out this year.

The Cook by C.L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine) – ★★★½
Another new-to-me author! One could argue this very short story has no substance and barely any plot, but I don’t agree – I find stories that focus on the aspects of fantasy we rarely see in the actual fantasy books subversive and this was a very interesting way to look at a fantasy story. I say “we rarely see this” not only because it’s a story about two women of color falling in love, but also because it’s a story about a fantasy war… in which we don’t see the war. We don’t know anything about the war, and it’s intentional. The focus is on something else, and as fantasy tends to be very focused on the violence, I really liked this choice. It reminded me of the way Aliette de Bodard writes sci-fi – there’s a war, or there’s been a war, but the characters, their relationships, the more “domestic” aspects are what we’re focusing on. Another thing I appreciated here were the food descriptions – it’s set in an inn – and I think I would have loved this if it hadn’t been so short. It ended up feeling rushed to me.

The Imitation Sea by Lora Gray (Shimmer) – ★★★★½
This one needs trigger warnings for suicide, death of a gay character and mentions of substance abuse.
I’m not sure where to start with this one. Maybe with the fact that it’s one of the most beautifully written things I’ve read in a while? So many details (the sights, the sounds, the smells!), so much emotion, and perfect symbolism. How have I not heard of this writer before?
This is a surprisingly subtle story about familial abuse, told in second person. You are the boy who has been in love with another boy for years – a boy whose parents are forcing an “angel” on. The “angel” is the sci-fi twist of the story: it’s a mechanical object that is always monitoring the person. Protecting them, yes, but from what? From everything that the boy’s family considers bad, of course. As this is a queer story, you probably know what I’m talking about, and that this is a metaphor for families forcing their “religion” (read: bigotry) on children. It’s also a story about trying to fix what’s left behind in wake of a tragedy, when you know that what you’ll get will be only a pale imitation of what once was. Haunting, and if I’m always hesitant to recommend sad queer stories, I have to say that I can’t not recommend this either, if you feel like you can read this.

The Oracle and the Sea by Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – ★★★★
This was a… difficult one to go through. Mostly because – like the one before – it’s a very sad story, this time about a country living under a dictatorship. It’s so atmospheric you can feel the sea, the salt, the bitterness. You can feel the weight of hopelessness it has, how it talks about being an artist, about being pretty much powerless. And it’s beautiful in its own way, if you can call “beautiful” something that shouldn’t be this relevant. Also: the main character is bisexual.

Everything Under Heaven by Anya Ow (Uncanny Magazine) – ★★★½
It took me a while to get this one – when I got to the end, my reaction was “…and?” – and I’m still not completely sure I got it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. On the surface, it’s a story about two women, one who wants to hunt dragons and one who wants to cook them, as they travel together and maybe fall in love. However, I think it’s more of a story about culture and the different ways people can express love. I really liked the food descriptions in here, and I always appreciate stories that talk about the ties between food and culture (which is the main reason I’m really anticipating this year’s YA Hungry Hearts anthology).


A Note On Short Fiction Reviews

  1. One could read this post and think, “Acqua, it’s great that all short stories you read this month were three stars and up!”, but that’s not really true. I choose not to review the short stories I don’t like: no one needs me to repeat many times “I didn’t get this” in a post – because yes, most short stories I end up not liking are short stories I didn’t get; it’s uncommon for me to end up thinking I know where you were going with this and I think you messed it up.
  2. One could read this post and think, “Acqua, it’s great that all short stories you read this week but one were queer! Queer short stories must be really common” and then they wouldn’t be that wrong. Yes, I look for them, but short fiction is far more diverse than any genre of novels. On one hand, I love this, on the other, is just another sign that publishing can do better but is still behind – and I know that, sadly, there are some concepts publishers still see as a “risk”, because “novels about  that wouldn’t sell”.

Have you read any good short fiction lately?

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

Least Favorite Books of 2018

Let me be negative for a moment. It’s time for the worst book of 2018, according to Acqua!

I said that I wanted to get better at DNFing as a goal for 2018, and I can say that I did. I don’t have enough completed books I didn’t like to write this list! So I’m going to talk about completed books and some DNFs that I truly disliked (so, not the ones that were just not my kind of thing). Which means that maybe I would have liked some of these more had I finished reading, and while I doubt that, those mini reviews only cover the parts I actually read.

From the one I “liked” the most to the one I liked the least:


#15: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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Maybe I would have liked this more had I not been spoiled for every single detail and had I not seen all the Meaningful Quotes repeated to the point of nausea, so much that they lost all their meaning when I actually saw them. I’m not sure, though, because I also deeply not care about Hollywood, American history, or realistic adult fiction, don’t like time jumps, and didn’t want to read something with this amount of (realistic, challenged) homophobia. And Celia St. James got on my nerves in every scene she appeared.
I probably shouldn’t have even read this because I kind of knew I wasn’t going to care about it much, but everyone was loving it and sometimes I like trusting people. To this day, I still haven’t seen a bad review.

#14: Radio Silence

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Another case of me really not getting the hype. My main problems with this were the generic setting/complete lack of atmosphere and how this book was desperately trying to be relatable. It reminded me of Rowell’s Fangirl in that aspect, another book I didn’t like for similar reasons. Also, this book seemed to believe that Frances was so socially awkward, when in reality… she didn’t seem to be, not much? Some scenes did give me an unpleasant amount of secondhand embarrassment, but that wasn’t necessarily because of Frances or tied to a social interaction.

#13: Nice Try, Jane Sinner

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This book follows a girl with depression who ends up in a reality show, and while I loved the main character’s narration, it never made up for the boring plot and underwhelming second half. It’s one of those novel that start out well but don’t deliver, it’s monotonous, and I just wanted it to end. This probably had to do with the fact that all main characters but Jane were as interesting as cardboard cutouts.

#12: The Poppy War

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I don’t get it.
Ok, the first half of this was fun if not that well-paced. The second half? Dragged, spoiled itself multiple times and then tried to act like its developments were plot twists, was monotonous both in plot and in tone, relied on the violence to be interesting, and that wasn’t even worth it to me – I was just left with a sense of unease, wondering why I did this to myself. And because people are great, some decided to tell me that since I don’t like this book, it must mean that I don’t understand how war is actually like, which of course made me like this book so much more.

#11: The Unbinding of Mary Reade

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This f/f story about historical pirates sounded great; the result wasn’t. There was barely any adventure, which I think pirate stories should have; the romance was weak at best; the story was so full of queerphobic violence that I didn’t want to read it anymore (there were naked gender reveal scenes of crossdressing characters, character executed for being queer, casual homophobia…) Also, the writing just wasn’t that great.

#10: Web of Frost

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This was just a case of me thoroughly disliking Lindsay Smith’s writing style and finding the character development both forced (in the case of the main character) and lacking (for the side characters). Also, no atmosphere, which is really a shame since this could have been an interesting wintry read. But at least I liked the magic system?

#9: Song of Blood and Stone

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This book simply had no idea of what it was doing. And I don’t mean what I said just because of the writing, which was at times atrocious (this really does describes consensual sex as “the invasion of the heroine’s body”. What is your love interest, a bacterium?). I mean that because this book tried to be both a cute, tropey romance with all the clichés royalty romances are made of, a high fantasy story about mythology and discrimination, and a gritty dieselpunk story about war involving graphic sexual assault. It was like three different books put together and the mood and tone were a mess.

Also, I know it’s not the book’s fault, but my review of this was the one that got plagiarized and that was not a fun time.

#8: The Sisters of the Winter Wood [DNF]

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I don’t think I’ve ever disliked the writing of a book so much. I couldn’t continue even though I was interested in the story and liked the atmosphere. The writing prevented me from getting into the story, from getting to know the characters, from going anywhere. Also, The Sisters of the Winter Wood contains the least poetic poetry ever written. Many reviewers say that modern poets who became famous on social media can’t write poetry, but they wouldn’t complain about Rupi Kaur had they read this.

#7: Obsidio

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I described this book as a “twice-reheated soup” in my goodreads review and I don’t have much to add to that. I’ve already seen all the beats and twists this book has in the first two, the format isn’t that interesting anymore, the two new characters barely had any personality… So much here happens just for shock value, but as they were things I had already seen before, they just felt cheap.

#6: Sky in the Deep [DNF]

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This was… the definition of generic.
Not only it had no atmosphere and worldbuilding, it was also boring. Books that start with several chapters of non-stop, very dull action before you manage to get invested in the characters and then have no action whatsoever for the following fifty pages are not a good idea. What about the other way around?

#5: Rosewater [DNF]

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This book is about a very peculiar “alien invasion” set in Nigeria from the point of view of a mediocre, self-serving misogynist who the narrative acknowledges as a mediocre, self-serving misogynist. Sadly, this book never made me understand why ever should I want to read about a mediocre, self-serving misogynist. Lampshading that your main character is the worst does not make him any more compelling! Anyway, if I’m 30% into a book and I know more about various female characters’ breasts than I do about the plot, I’m probably not going to continue.

#4: That Inevitable Victorian Thing [DNF]

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And this is what happens when you don’t pay attention to your worldbuilding.
This was such a white North American attempt at inclusivity. It failed because it didn’t understand how discrimination, culture and assimilation worked. Which meant that the worldbuilding didn’t make sense. And it’s supposedly a book set in Canada about a less terrible version of colonialism… in which there isn’t one Native character in the first 40% of the book (which is the part I read). I just. Who thought this was a good idea.
Also, this book had some very weird priorities. Why have detailed discussions about theology in your world when the premise itself doesn’t make sense?

#3: Creatures of Will and Temper [DNF]

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I love how the reviews of this book neglected to mention that the main relationship in this book is between a seventeen-year-old girl and a woman in her late thirties. This was so creepy to read, especially since I’m just slightly older than the protagonist, and I’m not sure it was meant to be creepy (I want to think it was, but the reviews seem to hint that they end up together and… I hope not, why would I ever want to read that?)

#2: Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now

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This book made me discover that I really can’t read books about religious abuse and forced religion, because of eleven years of bad memories. I would have loved to discover that with a book that didn’t downplay their consequences and kind of excuse those things. Also, there’s an autistic character here who exists just to be abused.

#1: This Darkness Mine

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The most disturbing thing about this book is that it exists. The more I read, the more I realized that it had no point, or, its point was to make the reader gawk at this girl with delusions who is completely evil. You’re supposed to be entertained by how crazy!! she is. What about no.
I’ll be honest – this book has better writing that most of the books on this list, Mindy McGinnis knows how to write (that’s the main reason I didn’t DNF) but I won’t place this higher anyway.


Which were your least favorite books of 2018?

Book review

Three Three-Star Reviews

Three stars as a rating can mean so many things! They’re often either 1) a book I had no expectation for that ended up being good but not great or 2) a book I was expecting to love that ended up being good but not as good as I wanted it to be.

Today, book one is category #2, book two is category #1, and book three is neither.


20734002Anna-Marie McLemore has improved a lot since her debut.

She’s one of my favorite authors, she has written one of my favorite books ever (When the Moon Was Ours) and another I really liked (Wild Beauty). This one, however, just wasn’t as good. It lacked the grace that I associate with McLemore’s writing, and the meticulous attention to details that I love about her books.

This is not to say The Weight of Feathers isn’t a solid, beautifully-written book. It is, but the combination of my expectations and some tropes I don’t care much about – have I ever really cared about a forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet situation in my reading life – meant that I ended up not feeling strongly about it, hence the three stars.

Another thing that didn’t really work for me was the ending. I’m not at my best lately, so it may be just me, but I found some of the things that happened somewhat confusing and the story felt very open-ended. Especially the whole evil chemical plant thing. Maybe I did really miss something.

Also, it took me half of this book to accept that the male main character was called Cluck, which is probably the worst name in YA lit, a genre full of Caelaeneas and Evelayns. Not only it’s ugly, it’s also apparently a slang word for drug addict? Why did this happen

I know this review sounded negative so far, but I did like some parts of this. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the romance, while it wasn’t really my kind of thing, was well-written. Reading about two feuding, traveling families (one that performs as mermaids, the other as faeries) was really interesting – even though this is oddly not the first book I’ve read about a latinx performing mermaid.
This book also says some really interesting things about prejudice and getting out of a toxic family situation. (Be aware that this book has an explicit portrayal of physical abuse. It’s also full of challenged anti-Romani slurs)

Anyway, this was good but not that memorable, and I hope I’ll be able to get to Blanca & Roja this month too because I’m sure I’m going to love it.

My rating: ★★★¼


37570551This wasn’t perfect, but queer fiction about fighting bigots is the best kind of fiction.
Creatures of Want and Ruin follows Ellie, a moonshine smuggler in prohibition-era Long Island. She is a polyamorous woman in an open relationship with a bisexual man, and in this story she will have to fight demon-raising bigots masquerading as religious people with the help of her diverse group of friends.

I thought I wasn’t going to like this book. I DNFed its companion prequel earlier this year, and I still don’t recommend it, but the good thing is that you don’t need to read it to understand this one. It’s just set in the same world, but it feels darker, and it features really creepy fungi that almost feel lovecraftian.

I thought this book said some really interesting things about what it’s like to love a place even though the people who live there with you hate everything you stand for. Bigots are people who project their insecurities on people who – according to them – don’t belong there, but just because there are bigots, it doesn’t mean the place you grew up is any less a part of you, any less yours.
This book also talked about how bigotry works in general, and it was really interesting – and heartbreaking – to read.

However, there were many things I didn’t love about Creatures of Want and Ruin. First of all, it’s full of infodumps, and the main reason I read this book so quickly is that I skimmed a lot. Also, I didn’t like how a certain disabled character is basically used as a plot device throughout the entire story.
This story is told through two PoVs: Ellie’s and Fin’s. Fin’s just wasn’t as interesting, I didn’t care about her failed marriage – the resolution of that was obvious from the start – but I did end up liking how she and Ellie became allies. I also liked the side characters, there was black and Cuban side representation here.

My rating: ★★★


37534901What The Consuming Fire lacks in depth, it makes up for in entertainment and solid plotting.
While reading this sequel, I finally understood what exactly wasn’t working for me when I reread – and loved a lot less – The Collapsing Empire. It’s about the relationships. And with that I do not mean only the romance, even though it’s part of the problem.
Every relationship the characters have in this book has basically no depth to it, even when the character involved aren’t completely flat (and they often are).

In this installment, Marce and Cardenia like each other because… plot? Because they’re a man and a woman? I don’t know, and it’s been a while since I read a relationship so lacking in chemistry, and it’s not like Kiva Lagos (whom I love) and her female love interest are that much more convincing either. Yes, I love that there was bisexual rep and an f/f relationship, but the romantic subplots are flat and the author didn’t convince me that any of the characters were even only physically attracted to anyone. The “friendships” and mother-daughter relationship do not feel fleshed out in any way either.

Which is a shame, because this series is so much fun. It’s such a wild ride, I couldn’t stop reading, and the plot twists truly surprised me. It’s twisted and political and full of intrigue and all the things I love. I only wish it wasn’t so plot-driven it’s almost impossible to actually get attached to anyone.

It even says a lot of interesting things about how societies and empires work, and about the role of religion in empires. The thing is, fast-paced fun books with flat characters and character interactions don’t feel as fast-paced and fun when you reread them, and this means this series will ultimately end up being forgettable, no matter the interesting worldbuilding, themes and plot.

My rating: ★★★¼

 

Book review · Fantasy

Mini Reviews: Two Books I DNFed Halfway Through

36156699Out of the Blue is an example of awesome premise and mediocre execution. I mean, it’s a story about fallen angels in Edinburgh with a romance between a biracial Sri Lankan girl and a girl with cystic fibrosis. I thought I was going to love it, but this book just didn’t manage to hold my interest. I can’t even point out one thing that didn’t work for me – there are too many. Most of them are minor, and they wouldn’t make me dislike a book by themselves, but together?

The writing style was both juvenile – the characters felt a lot younger than they were supposed to be, I almost felt like I was reading middle grade – and emotionless, the characters lacked depth and development, and there was no sense of setting or atmosphere. I think the best word I could use to describe Out of the Blue is “lacking”: it’s very short, and yet it’s boring; it has an awesome premise, but it made me feel nothing; it had a romance, but its development was barely there (and what was there felt fake).
It’s not even a bad book, it’s just so flat and forgettable I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

My rating: ★★


39714124Empire of Sand is a slow-paced desert fantasy novel set in a world inspired by the Mughal Empire.

As I had never read a book inspired by this part of India’s history, and as I usually love slow, atmospheric fantasy, I thought I would at least like Empire of Sand, but it just didn’t work for me. After loving the first 20% of it, in which a magical world with an unique magic system inspired by Indian classical dance and complex history was introduced, I started liking this book less and less, because of the pacing.

From around 25% of the book to at least 65%, the main character Mehr is trapped in an unwanted (at least at the beginning) arranged marriage, in a place in which she’s forced to perform magical rituals that hurt her, and in which there’s the constant threat that she will be forced to have sex with a person she doesn’t want to have sex with. The situation doesn’t change much, I found all of it very difficult to read, and then I couldn’t anymore. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected me so much had I not read Girls of Paper and Fire just a few days ago, another fantasy book (which I loved) in which the main character is constantly under the threat of sexual assault. I don’t know, I just know that I need to step back from this kind of fantasy stories for a while.

I put off DNFing this book and writing this review even though I knew for a few days that I wasn’t going to continue – when you notice you’d rather do homework than read a book there’s something wrong – because I really didn’t want to write a bad review of this. I loved the beginning and the world is genuinely interesting. I also think that fantasy book that follow non-western history and that show women who are strong in a different way than the average fantasy are really important, but I just couldn’t get through the middle of this.

My rating: ★★½