Over the Woodward Wall is on one side a very straightforward children’s books, on the other a very meta experiment in mirroring. This is A. Deborah Baker’s first book, which in our world means “the first novella Seanan McGuire wrote under this pseudonym”, but if you’ve read Middlegame, it means something completely different. And that’s where my main doubt comes in: would someone who hasn’t read Middlegame get much out of this at all? Because I’m not sure.
This is the story of Avery and Zib, two children who couldn’t be more different but have tied fates, as they stumble in a different world on their way to school. If you’ve read Middlegame, you also know that twins Roger and Dodger were as different as twins can possibly be while still being close in a way no one else can ever be, therefore encompassing the rest of reality between them – like two letters at opposite ends of the alphabet. This similarity has plot relevance in Middlegame, as Over the Woodward Wall sits inside it, but not here; here noticing the parallels is something that enriches the reading experience, but even if you can’t, you’ll be perfectly fine. Because, if it weren’t for the existence of Middlegame, this wouldn’t be anything but perfectly fine in the most forgettable way possible.
This isn’t a children’s book, the same way Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children isn’t YA but an adult response to the YA portal fantasy genre – one that imitates its structure and some of its characteristics. By which I mean, Over the Woodward Wall is a cuckoo and doesn’t even really make for a good children’s book; I know that if I had read it in middle school, I would have found it bland, boring, and way too interested in its own cleverness. I would have found the Crow Girl bits very compelling, as I found them interesting and cool to read now, especially the tiny spin on gender and being fragmented it took – I wanted more of that, and less of the rest.
And is it preachy. Every single character in the Up-and-Under is interested in giving the main ones life lessons, only disguised in a quirky way – that is, when the narration isn’t already trying to do that to the reader. While this is clearly a stylistic choice more than a flaw, it’s one I don’t really get along with: it’s tedious, and I would have felt talked down to had I been a kid. Now I know that books written like this are soothing to listen to while doing chores, but don’t work for me on ebook at all. And that’s a shame, I feel like this book is (even more) full of easter eggs and meta commentary that I could find while I constantly felt like skimming all of it. I hope there’s going to be an audiobook of Over the Woodward Wall, because it’s the format I would recommend it in, and even then, almost only to Middlegame fans.
Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.
I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.
Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.
That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her. I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity. This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.
Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.
I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.
Today, I’m reviewing two books I read recently in a genre I almost never reach for: anything to do with natural disasters and their fallout. I’m a natural sciences student, which means this topic isn’t something I usually want to be reading about in my free time as well.
Last year, I identified “being about natural disasters” as one of the reasons The Fifth Season didn’t work for me. I wanted to see if I could find something in the genre I actually like, or if this is a topic I just can’t read about.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Me and the post-apocalyptic genre just don’t get along. Or, more specifically: remind me I should be wary of anything that uses Mad Max as a comp. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve now read several books it’s compared to, and the main thing they have in common is that they think very frequent action scenes are a good way to keep the reader interested, which is never going to work for me. I mean, I’m going to get through the book very quickly, that’s true; and that’s because nothing encourages me to skim as often.
Most action scenes are boring, and so is this book. So much of it felt like characters moving around from one place to another to either fight someone/something or recover from fighting someone/something, without any other aim. When I consider not finishing while I’ve only 20% left, there’s usually something very wrong with the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here – I think I’m just not the right kind of reader for this, and that’s fine. This book is doing a lot of things, some subtly and some not, like questioning the very heart of the post-apocalyptic genre: isn’t the concept of “apocalypse” what happens when a catastrophe befalls the privileged, after all? The Diné have gone through their own apocalypse before, it’s just not called that by the rest of the world.
There’s also the reversal of several tropes common in paranormal fiction, one of the most interesting examples being the character of Kai – a male love interest whose characteristics and capabilities are usually associated with female characters in fantasy. To avoid spoiler territory, I will say that for example he is kind of there to be very pretty, even if that’s far from his only role. Because of these things, he was probably the most interesting character around; I found most of the side ones to be extremely underwhelming, with maybe the exception of Coyote. This very much includes a certain someone who is built up as this legendary figure and then is actually as interesting as cardboard with an Evil Hat™. I see possessiveness as insecurity, and given that it seems a huge part of his character once we meet him, I was never able to take him seriously (this, by the way, is a big part of why straight villain/heroine sexual tension rarely works for me anymore. The evil man archetype from this subculture™ is so fragile and kind of pathetic.)
As far as the other side characters, there’s a good reason we never really get to know them, or have a feeling on who they really are, and that reason is the main character, Maggie. She holds everyone at a distance, and that reflects on the story. This is a book about a traumatized woman who has known nothing but fighting and death for a long while, and her character arc involves learning that she can be something else as well. I don’t have any complaints about the development, but the thing about this book is that it feels very much like a set-up for the sequels, and just when we’re getting to a somewhat interesting part with Maggie’s arc, it ends. I’m not going to read the sequel because clearly this is not my kind of thing independently from execution, but I do wonder if the side characters get more development as Maggie learns to let people in. I hope that’s the case.
My rating: ★★½
Depart, Depart by Sim Kern
I wish I could not shelve this book as contemporary. Depart, Depart follows Noah, a Jewish trans man who ends up in a shelter after a hurricane devastates Houston. It’s a story about what societal collapse brings out in people – about connection and grief and rage, about how catastrophe puts even more of a target on marginalized people’s backs.
I usually can’t read stories about natural disasters, but this one worked for me – I couldn’t stop reading it. Maybe it’s because it’s short even for a novella, maybe it’s because it’s not as hopeless as it could have been, despite being realistically bleak; maybe it’s because reading from the point of view of someone who is also constantly afraid makes it paradoxically less exhausting. (I don’t have to feel all of it on my own, I guess?)
The most chilling part of reading Depart, Depart is that it feels exactly like something one could see playing out. Not only because it follows a climate disaster that could actually happen in the present, but because of how real the characters and their dynamics felt. The portrayal of the queer “found family” feels close to reality from the big picture – how queer people quickly group together from the beginning, because there’s safety in numbers, but also how the most privileged and rich don’t care about the others once they’re safe themselves – to the details, like accusations of oppression olympics during tense moments, the non-binary person wondering about vegan options, Mountain Goats mentions… I’m not American but if you’ve been around US trans twitter for enough time, you know these people. That’s why it hurts.
All the while, Noah is being haunted by visions of his great-grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany as a boy. There are parallels between Noah’s situation and Abe’s, and this story also follows what it means for Noah to be Jewish and raised in an atheist family – the history that goes with that, and what has been passed down to him in good and bad and all the ways in between.
After all, this felt like a story about how we can’t change what was, but we can choose to not repeat someone else’s – or our own – mistakes. Noah has left behind people in the past to tragic circumstances, but now he can choose to stay with the people he’s grown to care about – because something Depart, Depart highlights is the importance of connections between people, how they save us in the most difficult times.
My rating: ★★★★½
So, these were surprisingly readable! While Trail of Lightning didn’t work for me, it wasn’t mainly because of the natural disaster elements, though that’s still a background I don’t feel particularly drawn to when it comes to picking up fantasy stories.
I’m realizing that for the most part, I prefer stories about natural disasters to be as close to reality as possible – which sounds paradoxical when one of the reasons these are usually so unreadable for me is “anxiety disorder”, but I think I know why. I really appreciated Depart, Depart, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy a novel – if that makes sense, it’s closer to the kind of liking I get from reading nonfiction, though not exactly. My brain was in a completely different mode, and while I’m in that ~serious mode, I honestly can’t be bothered with fantasy worldbuilding or something like that: ~serious mode already takes up a lot of energy. I will never be the kind of person who says that fantasy can’t deal with difficult and heavy topics (it… should) but if it’s a topic I have a lot of anxiety about at the moment, I prefer to stay away from them.
What’s your opinion on books following natural disasters & the post-apocalyptic genre? Have you read or want to read any of these?
Here I am again, back with some very gay books I read recently of which I haven’t posted the reviews yet. One is a novel in verse with an F/F established couple; the other a genrebending M/M novella.
I think that at this point it’s safe to say that dual PoV novels in verse don’t work for me. I’ve looked at what set the poetry novels that did work for me and the ones that didn’t apart, and the pattern is clear.
I love Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style, so I did end up liking this, but when I think about my experience with her previous novels, Clap When You Land pales in comparison – despite having something that her previous two books don’t have but really matters to me, a sapphic main character and F/F romance. Unsurprisingly, the very sweet, supportive and already established relationship between Yahaira and Dre was my favorite part of the novel (also because I could see a lot of myself in Dre; I, too, was a teenage plant gay who easily fell into all-or-nothing thinking).
When talking about Acevedo’s books, many people will recommend the audiobooks. This time, I will too, but for the wrong reasons: I read this alternating between ebook and audio, and the two narrators really helped me tell the two girls apart in the scenes in which they’re both in the same place, as I didn’t feel they had distinct enough voices in that situation. It wasn’t a problem for the rest of the book, as they are apart for most of it – but that’s also something I didn’t love, because it takes so long for them to even learn about each other, and we end up not seeing a lot of them together.
I appreciated that this was more than anything a story about sisterhood, family, grief, and the double-faced nature of tragedies, how they can tear you apart while bringing you closer to other people. After all, this starts with two sisters discovering each other’s existence because their father, who had two families in two different countries, just died in a plane crash.
This book has many things going for it: it’s about Black women supporting each other, it’s a contemporary mostly set in the Dominican Republic, and it talks about what it’s like to have to leave, what it’s like to be bilingual in the DR compared to the US, and many other differences between the two countries with all kinds of impacts. I wish I had liked it more, that I hadn’t felt like the characters were more like faded outlines than people, which I really do think was caused by the format. Poetry, to me, feels personal in a way that just doesn’t suit the added distance inherent to a multi-PoV book.
My rating: ★★★½
[apart from all I’ve already mentioned, TW for sexual assault in both plotlines]
On the surface, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a story about Demane, a “sorcerer” accompanying the Captain he loves in a dangerous journey across the desert and then the Wildeeps, where he’ll have to face something powerful and horrible. It’s not necessarily always linear, and there’s very little plot, because its heart is elsewhere.
I want to point out that I can’t do this novella justice. This is a book whose very structure and use of English is a commentary on language and what’s considered respectable, portraying the experience and struggles of a multilingual protagonist with that. I know I missed half of it because I’m ESL and don’t recognize the nuances of different forms and registers of the English language that well. The irony isn’t lost on me and I’m not sure how I feel about it?
That’s far from the only thing this novella did with language, however. Code-switching is part of its structure on multiple levels, and language is used to lay down the worldbuilding, which even holds a sci-fantasy twist inside. One of the things I look for the most in short fiction is the unraveling of genre boundaries, so I really appreciated what I understood of this book. There are pieces of dialogue written in other languages as well – not something I often see in fantasy stories that don’t seem to be directly tied to the Earth we know currently. I think this choice might have been made to use how these languages are coded in American society to “translate” the situations in terms an American might understand, which I have mixed feelings about. (There are some… let’s say puzzling choices made with Italian words, but this is an American book and I don’t have it in me to have expectations anymore.)
It’s also really gay! (But keep in mind, this is not a happy story.) It explores expectations placed on male sexuality and the meaning of masculinity across cultures, and the shock Demane feels relating to this as well, for many reasons – one of the more prominent being that while he’s great at fighting (superhumanly so), his heart has always been in protecting and healing. My appreciation for this is somewhat dampened by the absence of even one named female character (especially given that of the few women who do appear is an underage sex slave).
Today, I’m posting the reviews of three queer books I’ve read between the end of May and now, mostly very short or in genres I’m not familiar with; these reviews are shorter than my usual, which may be a good thing.
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson is a memoir aimed at a young adult audience that talks about growing up as Black and queer in America. It’s a powerful book and accessible for those who need it most, including teens who aren’t used to reading nonfiction, while dealing with difficult topics. It’s the kind of book that makes me glad I finally decided to start reading nonfiction in my free time this year.
It’s a necessary reminder that we can’t sort people into boxes and we should push back against the societal tendency to do so; a reminder that we can’t talk about different kinds of marginalization without considering the way they influence each other.
What more can I say? I flew through this while highlighting every chapter in multiple places. I know I was wary of nonfiction as a teen, but there are certain things that fiction doesn’t get, at least not right now, like how coming out can be like outside of the two extremes fictional coming out stories keep pushing at queer people, and so many other things. Highly recommended to pretty much everyone.
[I’m not really comfortable with rating memoirs but I did give it 5 stars on goodreads.]
Queer portal fantasy, but make it Ikea AU!
As many others, I was first drawn to Finna because of its premise; after all, why not use the liminal space potential of retail stores to literally blur the boundaries between worlds? In that, Finna did deliver, and not without driving home certain points (love how the horror aspect comes from a world in which employees are all basically clones that exist to support the corporation aka “the Mother” because the workplace is your family!, and “shoppers” pay in blood.) After all, there are stories suited to subtlety, and this one never was.
Still, I don’t think this will stay with me for long. While I really liked the beginning, I just didn’t find the time the two main characters spent in the parallel worlds to be that interesting to read. For obvious reasons, every world is very underdeveloped, and we never get a setting that feels… real in any way after we leave the real world? I don’t mean “realistic”, I don’t particularly care about realism in a weird portal fantasy, I mean that everything felt very cheesy.
As far as the main characters go, I really liked reading about them, and wish I could have seen more of their relationship before the break-up instead of being told about it. I liked the way Finna talked about how mental illnesses can impact relationships, and I liked seeing the now-exes go on an adventure together and grow closer again, but it wasn’t enough for me to truly get attached to them.
Something I’m more likely to remember about Finna is the answer it gives to the miserable and wearing conditions (especially for who is visibly marginalized like the LI, Jules, who is Black and non-binary) retail workers are in. It’s a hopeful story in the end.
My rating: ★★★¼
Murder husbands and Dragon Kingdom politics! Of Dragon, Feasts and Murder is a novella set in the Dominion of the Fallen universe that can be read as a standalone, but I especially recommend it to fans of the series who want to have a more detailed understanding of the Dragon Kingdom. It was my favorite setting in the series, and as all places in this universe, it’s far from free of its own brand of rot (literally and not).
One of the things I appreciated the most about this novella was how it refused to fall into a simplistic portrayal of any side. There are people who are firmly in the wrong, but the core reason beneath the murderous political machinations is the fact that necessary change isn’t happening.
At the same time, I’m surprised by how long it took me to read this? Maybe because most of this is made up of talking, and while I did really like said talking – I live for Thuan and Asmodeus’ thorny relationship dynamic – I didn’t feel much tension or urgency, which is unusual for a murder mystery.
Anyway this would have been worth reading even only for how it referred to Asmodeus as “sweet, murderous delight”. (No seriously the Empress Dowager’s scenes!!)
Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!
Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.
It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.
This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.
Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.
Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.
Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.
Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.
My rating: ★★★★★
Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so. The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.
I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.
While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.
Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.
it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.
There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.
Over the course of the week I had to spend at home, I ended up reading two novellas that had very little in common apart from having the word “deep” in the title. Oh, and being really good, I guess.
I didn’t do it on purpose.
I’m in awe of just how much there was in this novella. The Deep is a story about intergenerational trauma and healing, following Yetu, the historian of the wajinru – merpeople who descended from enslaved pregnant African women who were thrown overboard.
Every day, Yetu is overwhelmed by all the painful history she has to carry on her own, while the rest of her people aren’t able to form detailed long-term memories. As this book says, there are forms of remembering that go further than actual memory, some of which are written in the body itself, and not having memories isn’t the same as healing. But neither is being forced to dwell and be consumed by memories, as Yetu is.
I really liked the focus on the importance of community in the healing process. Our (Western) frameworks usually put the onus of healing on the individual, and while that kind of work is important – Yetu needed time for herself, and finds it – it isn’t complete in these circumstances; healing needs to be a communal effort as well. The Deep also talks about the role that memory has in identity, and how being separated from one’s heritage and history is another kind of trauma.
The worldbuilding is deliberately sparse, which is a choice I have mixed feelings about: while I love that this managed to do so much in so little space, I found myself wishing for more description and information, also because of the surprising lack of atmosphere (…the deep sea is fascinating and I want more details! can’t turn marine ecology brain off completely). Still, I think it accomplished all it set to do, it didn’t need to do more than that. It’s also really queer! The wajinru are non-gonochoric – so, no bimodal distribution of sex differences like in humans, which makes a lot of sense, real marine life forms often don’t conform to that binary either – and while they have a concept of gender not too dissimilar from humans’, they don’t assign gender at birth. There’s an f/f romance between Yetu and an African woman, which was really sweet.
(I also think both Yetu and her love interest are coded as neurodivergent, but I’m not sure.)
One more thing: I absolutely loved the afterword. I think more book should have something about how the story was put together and some history behind it; it’s so interesting and it deepens the readers’ understanding.
My rating: ★★★★½
Desdemona and the Deep is one of the most unique fae stories I’ve ever read. Its setting is inspired by the second industrial revolution, but I can only describe its writing style as hallucinatory rococo. It’s excessive and excessively detailed, taking the concepts of “whimsical” and “descriptive” to a completely new level, and of course I loved every moment of it. It would probably be too heavy for a novel, but for a novella, it works wonderfully.
This is a story of parallel universes and the boundaries between them, and the ways they maintain balance or don’t, as this book is set in three worlds – the human world, the world of the gentry, and goblin underworld. It has the kind of eldritch, morally blue-orange supernatural creatures I love to read about.
Desdemona is the rich daughter of a divorced couple – a woman who became an activist and a greedy mine owner. She is vain and loud and attention-seeking, and unafraid to become a nuisance, which I really appreciated about her. She’s such a chaotic character and I loved her character development, mostly revolving around learning to care and fight for other people. Also, she’s queer! There’s a lot of queerness in this story, because the other most relevant human character is a trans woman and there’s a plot-relevant polyamorous marriage.
A central theme here is the fight for worker’s right. This book starts with a fundraising for girls affected by phossy jaw, and continues with discussions about occupational hazards; this is, in a way, a story about how rich people don’t care about worker’s safety, only about how much money they’re going to make.
More than anything, this book reminded me of how happy endings can be revolutionary. This book, this gorgeous whimsical book, managed to give a happy ending to characters I thought couldn’t fully get one, in a way I didn’t expect but that didn’t feel contrived either. It’s a necessary reminded of the importance of spaces made for those who are not accepted by society.
Also, every portrayal of fae that adheres to heterosexual, cisgender, monogamous norms looks even more dissonant to me now. As far as I’m concerned, fae are inherently queer.
My rating: ★★★★¾
Have you read any interesting (…deep?) novellas lately?
At this point, this is probably my favorite novella series? It would have been the Tensorate, if it weren’t for how dreadfully boring The Descent of Monsters was (I tried to reread it; I couldn’t).
And today I’m posting the two missing reviews, Every Heart a Doorway and Beneath the Sugar Sky.
Every Heart a Doorway‘s subversive take on portal fantasy is nothing short of one of the most interesting premises I’ve found in SFF in the last few years.
It’s a novella that reads at the same time like a boarding school mystery and a love letter to fantasy fans. It’s the kind of book that understands why we find solace in fictional worlds, sometimes even worlds more explicitly terrible than our own, and spins those feelings into a wonderful reverse portal fantasy. It’s the kind of book that understands the place gender and marginalizations have in who feels the need to escape reality the most, and applies this reality to a diverse cast. And it is, more than anything, a really compelling, charming read.
Between this and In an Absent Dream, I’m not sure which is my favorite of the series. In that one, I loved the message, the world, and how much it made me think; here, apart from my appreciation for the school as a setting, I loved every single character: their interactions, their quirks, even the ones I didn’t love the first time around (how could I think Jack was boring back then, I don’t know).
And Nancy remains my favorite. Her story is about the inherent power of stillness, which is something I haven’t seen often, because we tend to understate just how much potential is hidden in the ability to fade into the background.
For a story about murder, it’s really quiet, because that’s who Nancy is – quiet, understated Nancy from the underworld, who could live only on pomegranate juice if she were allowed to do so. At times, she was so quiet she almost felt like a side character in her own story, but that’s kind of her nature. Her development is really subtle as well, which is why this novella is one of my favorites in the series: unlike some of the sequels, it understands the use of subtlety; it takes after portal fantasy and fairytales in its atmosphere and symbolism but not in the way it is told. It doesn’t beat us over the head with a message, and Nancy doesn’t undergo a drastic change either.
A central theme in this whole series is the idea of “being sure”, of having to make a choice and live with it. Nancy has been temporarily exiled from the underworld because its lord thinks Nancy should be able to choose where she lives – and in the beginning, she feels like she is sure, of course she’s sure she wants to live in the Halls of the Dead. In this story, she makes friends, she understands how she could fit into the “real” world, and then, only then, she’s able to actually make her choiche – hers, not her parent’s or her lord’s, because she truly understands her options. In that, the underworld has been fairer to her than most world are to the children of this series.
The final scene of this novella didn’t fail to make me tear up this time around either, because of what it says about agency and belonging, in just a few lines.
I love when books manage to surprise me on reread! For some reason, I remembered Beneath the Sugar Sky as significantly more boring than it actually was. It’s not my favorite in the series, and of all the worlds we have visited so far, Confection is probably the one that interested me the least (the whole “everything is candy” gets old fairly quickly), but I still loved it. Mostly because of how it builds over Every Heart a Doorway, deepening the reader’s understanding of this universe – I really liked that the concept of “worlds from” and “worlds to” was introduced, I had forgotten that, but it clears up some things – and of the characters.
The characters were really what made this book worth it for me. I loved reading about Cora, Kade (especially Kade) and Christopher so much. Their banter is amazing, and I would read a novella about them just walking around even in a very ordinary world, as they are anything but and would make it interesting anyway.
Beneath the Sugar Sky is, in its own (at times very odd) ways, about assumptions. About how Cora has to deal with the horrible assumptions people (and our whole culture, really) make about her because she’s fat; about how making the assumption that undoing death in a nonsense world is impossible might have been the very thing that could have stopped the main characters. The delivery of the message is heavy handed and at times repetitive, but for how much I might not like that, it’s on par with most of the series; and in this instance, some of the repetitive nature also feels justified – Cora has been sent to what’s basically candy-land, of course she’s thinking a lot about how people would assume that’s all she’s ever wanted. It doesn’t feel like the narration is intruding to preach at you as it did in Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
My favorite scenes were the ones set in the Halls of the Dead, as they were the first time around. I’m so happy for Nancy (and Nadia), and I loved this portrayal of the underworld. It’s so quiet, peaceful and beautiful, and I get why Nancy was drawn to it.
And now I want to know more about the baker! I’m not saying more because of spoilers, but I hope that someone will appear again in future books.
CWs: apart from the discussion on fatphobia, there’s mention of the main character having attempted suicide in the past.
Across the Green Grass Fields has been announced! And it’s about a world of magical horses? Nine-year-old me would have given so much for a book like that.
As I have no intention to stop cooking (the same things over and over more or less, because I’m lazy), I have to find a new audiobook to listen to! I’m not sure what it will be yet.
Tell me all your Wayward Children opinions, if you have any!
In Come Tumbling Down, the fifth novella in the series, we return to the Moors.
While most of the stories so far could more or less stand alone, this one doesn’t, and I really recommend reading/rereading Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, or none of this would make any sense. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook of it just a few days ago – I would have missed so many little details that made this story worth reading.
And, compared to Down Among the Sticks and Bones, this is both an improvement and a step back: it feels messier than all of the novellas so far apart from Beneath the Sugar Sky, because group casts are difficult to handle and this doesn’t always get it right, but it’s at the same time a necessary conclusion to Jack’s story and a far less pedantic sequel than I expected.
If the previous novella was a story about the consequences of bad parenting most of all, and with not much nuance to give, this is about what makes a hero (or a monster), but it’s more than anything about a quest. Which means it’s a little subtler, and I really appreciated that, though it – as always for this series – has the tendency of letting its characters have OOC moments for the purpose of making them say something off and then having another character lecture them about why what they said was wrong. It’s still very didactic, but at least the narration doesn’t spend paragraphs preaching to the reader.
It was also more difficult to follow as an audiobook, as there are five main characters read by only one person, and sometimes I struggled a little to follow who was speaking.
One of the highlights for me was being able to see Sumi outside of confection or the school; nonsense shines brighter and is just plain funnier in a stark world that runs on logic as the Moors. I really liked seeing all the others as well, and I hope this won’t be the last time.
I also really appreciated how this explained more about the rules and inner workings of the Moors – I would read a whole book involving the Drowned Gods, which I would never have expected from the previous novels. Salt-rotten gothic is my favorite aesthetic.
I was also glad of how this book mentioned mental health awareness in a fantasy world, and what it means for Jack to have OCD – it’s something I don’t see enough of.
I might like some installment in this series more than others (In An Absent Dream remains my favorite, I think) but overall I think this format really works for me; short companion novellas is a format that really never gets old.
Opinions change. There are times I don’t like a book and yet I know that, if I were to reread it, I wouldn’t feel the same way. It has happened to me with The Star Touched Queen and Jade City; now here we are again.
I knew, before listening to this audiobook, that I probably would have liked it more this time around. That’s also because of how much I loved In An Absent Dream this year, and because I see this series differently as a whole; I think I have a better grasp on what it wants to be.
The first time I read this book, I was 17, and I rated it two stars. Now I’m 20, and with this reread, I see it in a completely different way, and yet not. I went back and reread my review on my old Italian blog, and I still agree with almost every single thing I said then. This book is the same as it was; I didn’t read it wrong, whatever that might mean, or miss anything particularly important.
It’s just that context can do so much.
Let’s start with the thing I hated the most about Down Among the Sticks and Bones in 2017: it’s one of the most repetitive and unsubtle things I’ve ever read, and relies almost only on telling. There’s little in the book world I hate as much as a story that doesn’t trust its reader to understand and therefore beats them over the head with its message. Usually.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize, back then, just how much these books are meant to be read as a fairytale. The whole series plays with fairytale and portal fantasy tropes, and both genres tend to thrive on the familiar, on repetition.
Because of how it relied on telling more than Every Heart a Doorway did, this novella was an irritating read. If you listen to it on audiobook, as I did the second time around, it’s delightful. Not only you don’t have to worry if you miss something – oh, will the story remind you, as anyone speaking to you who wants to get their point across would – but the telling bothers you a lot less if the story is actually being told to you.
It’s not that it can’t work in written form, it’s just that most of what I saw as a flaw then I now see as just a difference in format and goal.
I still don’t like how much this story lacks in nuance.
This is true for most of Seanan McGuire’s books, especially the less recent ones I’ve read. This story won’t let you draw your own conclusions about the characters and the themes it explores, it has the tendency to tell you what to think. Which is irritating even though – because? – I would have drawn those conclusions anyway and agree with the message. Lack of nuance also tends to come with the territory. Neither fairytales nor portal fantasy are known for it (is anyone going to pretend Narnia ever bothered with something as heretical as nuance and subtlety? Ha. Yes, lack of subtlety is probably more irritating when you disagree with the message, but then you don’t feel bad about it!)
That still doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s kind of dissonant to read about how adults often don’t allow their children to form their own preferences and opinions because they don’t really see children as people in a book that fervently demands you don’t form your own about the theme either.
One thing I liked the most about In An Absent Dream is that I felt it gave the reader more space to think on their own. This really doesn’t, and it’s the reason I can’t give it a higher rating despite how much more I appreciated this story this time around.
This time, I understood the charm the world of the Moors has, and grew attached to Jack in a way I hadn’t at all the first time. She’s a queer mad scientist in training who has to deal with mental health issues (OCD)! Of course I love her. And the author really made this world come alive with the descriptions. So creepy, so terrible, and yet I get why the twins want to stay. It’s not like our world can’t be that to a lot of people.
Another thing that has changed for me is that I’m no longer angry at the ending. I don’t fault 17-year-old me for feeling that way about an ambiguous ending that might or might not have implied a homophobic trope, and I didn’t know Come Tumbling Down would exist then. Now, of course, things have changed.
My rating: ★★★½
Have you read this? What is your favorite novella in this series?