Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!


46802653._sy475_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: ★★★★★


45166076._sy475_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.

*spoilery clarification:

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.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Two Deep Novellas

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.


42201962I’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


40939087._sy475_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?

Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Completing the Wayward Children Reread

I finally finished listening to all the Wayward Children novellas on audiobook! My current ranking and ratings are:

  • In an Absent Dream ★★★★★ (review)
  • Every Heart a Doorway★★★★¾
  • Come Tumbling Down★★★★ (review)
  • Beneath the Sugar Sky★★★★
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones★★★½ (review)

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.


EveryHeartaDoorwayEvery 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.


27366528I 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.


What Next?

  • 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!

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

44804083In 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.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reread Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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.

DownAmongtheSticksThe 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?

lists

Non-Novel Favorites of 2019

As I said in my post about my favorite novels of the year, I also have a lot of “favorites of 2019” that aren’t novels, and I will talk about them in this post.


Novellas

2019 was a great year for novellas, and less of a great year for me actually reading them. I still have to get to a few titles I’m really interested in, like the unanimously-praised Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney and the unusual-looking The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. And I should definitely reach for more novellas, because I read 15 and 5 of them ended up being favorites, and that’s not even all the five stars. If only with full novels I could find a favorite every three books.

My 5 favorites were:

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Seanan McGuire has outdone herself this year. Both her books were full five stars for me, which I didn’t expect, as I had liked many of her previous ones, but hadn’t rated them that highly before.
I have such fond memories of In An Absent Dream because I listened to it on audiobook (the only audiobook I’ve ever liked!) on the two days I was going with my class on botanical excursions, two of the best days I had in 2019. The audiobook is perfect – the narration was so good I felt as if I could see and feel the goblin market’s world – and the story is as well. It’s about unfairness, navigating two worlds, and how freedom isn’t always defined by choice. It made me think about so many things and it’s one of those stories that will stay for me for a long time. It’s bitter and I wouldn’t change one thing about it, despite how much I wish it could have gone differently.

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang: I will never not be there for F/F villain romances. As it’s tradition for this novella series, it’s written in an experimental format – this time, it’s a drunken monologue – and I loved that about it, as the point is as much the story as it’s Lady Han’s current feelings about what happened, the hindsight, the hate coexisting with grief. She is telling the story of how her very dysfunctional relationship with the empress led to the dawn of a revolution, and I will always value tragic queer stories that are not tragedies about being queer.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark: this universe (the same of A Dead Djinn in Cairo) is one of the best examples of imaginative worldbuilding in fantasy. I will always love stories about cities that feel alive and chaotic and real, and this is all of that while mixing steampunk and paranormal, which is a great concept in itself. I mean, haunted aerial trams? One can’t do better than that, and the way this novella balances between “paranormal mystery” and “story about the advances in technology and society” is also masterful – it is mostly about the ghost, but also about corruption and politics and there’s a background storyline about women’s right to vote. I hope I will get more from this world, and P. Djèlí Clark is becoming one of my favorite authors.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: If I had known what this novella truly was – the closest a book can get to poetry without being in verse – I would have liked it even more, so I plan to reread it at some point.
I’ve seen it end up on many other lists of favorites, and I can definitely see why, from the perfect hook “F/F enemies-to-lovers between two spies during a time travel war” to it being one of the most beautiful examples of sci-fantasy I’ve ever seen, with a dynamic between the two main characters that is so intense and… such a powerful positive force in a way we don’t usually get for F/F relationships. A really remarkable novella I expect to win a lot of awards this next season.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole: this is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. I’ve never been to New York and I’m probably imagining it wrong as well, but I felt as if I was walking alongside with the characters: the author’s attention to detail made this sweet romance unforgettable. This is a second chance F/F romance between two Black women and I loved Fabiola and Likotsi’s story so much.


Short Stories & Novelettes

Sadly, I didn’t have as much time to check out short stories in the second half of the year as I did in the first, so I basically didn’t read any after… July? But I did find some favorites during the first half of the year.

Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy by JY Yang: sometimes a story stays with you because it hit you in a way only short stories can, so personal and close that you can barely look at it with any distance. I can’t tell you what it’s actually about, but I can tell you that nothing has ever described so well the feeling of being forced to face your own past coping mechanisms – the struggle between what the world says you should feel about what you did to survive and what you actually feel.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho: the cutest F/F short story between a human and an imugi who wants to become a dragon. Funny and bittersweet and definitely deserving of the Hugo, it’s about perseverance, and when that is a good idea, and the great things you stumble into while looking for something else.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly: the most interesting banquet/revolution story you will ever read, as well as a really smart way to explore the link between food and memory in a more… literal way. I can’t say more without spoilers but I loved this a lot.


Collections

I haven’t read an anthology in all of 2019? 2018 was a year of slowly realizing I don’t like them 90% of the time, and this is the consequence. What I can like, however, is collections written by my favorite authors. I read 4, and one of them ended up being a favorite. (The other three, Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee, Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard, and Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley, were also really good but not favorites.)

25733384._sy475_

The Fox Tower and Other Tales by Yoon Ha Lee is a collection of delightful flash fiction fairytales. It’s sweeter than anything you’ll find in Lee’s books, but still with the very characteristic kind of writing I love about them – the blurred lines between magic and math, magic and science, and the many, many foxes. Also, many stories are queer, of course. It made me so happy.


Comics & Graphic Novels

After this Out of My Comfort Zone experiment at the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to read more of them, and for once, I actually did. I went from having read 4 graphic novels in 2018 to this year’s 16. My five favorites were:

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell: this is a graphic novel about Freddie, an Asian-American girl who is in a toxic relationship with a white, popular girl who keeps breaking up with her. I stayed up late to read it because it’s wonderful, as much a story about the importance of friendships in your life as as it is a celebration of queerness – yes, even though it follows a relationship gone wrong that needs to end. And the art? Breathtaking. I want to reread this soon.

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe: as it’s important to me, a queer person, to read about failed queer relationships, it also is to read about morally messed up queer stories like this one. A vital part of being acknowledged as human in fiction is being allowed to be a horrible person without being turned into a caricature, and this was the deeply unhetical noir with a mostly queer female cast I didn’t know I always needed.

Monstress Vol. 3: Haven by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda: I could tell you that I liked this because the story or the art (both are amazing, don’t get me wrong), which is true, but honestly the thing I remember most vividly was just how much I was into some drawings of one of the antagonists. I’m glad my favorite bookish villainesses only exist in written form or I wouldn’t survive.

Sol by Loputyn: this collection of gothic illustrations by Italian artist Jessica Cioffi is the drawn equivalent of a poetry collection, and I’m sad that the author being from Italy means it won’t get any attention outside of my country despite having barely any words in it (it wouldn’t need to be translated). It goes from sweet to sad to eldritch in a few steps, and it’s gorgeously witchy. Most of the illustrations featuring couples are M/F, but there are a few F/F ones as well, and to see queerness in Italian-authored books is everything to me. (If you want to see a little more of the art, here’s my review.)

La mia ciclotimia ha la coda rossa by Lou Lubie: a memoir about living with cyclothymia I liked so much that I made my whole family read it (it helps that it’s short and has an amazing sense of humor) and they all liked it! I recommend it if you ever want to start/continue a conversation about mental illness with someone, even if you don’t have any kind of bipolar disorder – as far as I know, I don’t, but some parts of this were relevant to me as well. It exists in Italian, French (original language) and Spanish.


Poetry

Poetry is something I should explore more, but I don’t quite know where to start. The only kind of poetry I read this year – The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, a novel written in verse – was a favorite, so I really should try more.

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This is a story about growing into your own identity, following a gay Black boy as he understands what he wants from his life and what it means for him to be gay, to be biracial, to be Jamaican and British and Cypriot, and finding his own people as well. It focuses on friendships and family and some of the poems about that really resonated with me.


Shows

I would never have thought there would be a section like this in one of my “favorites” posts. While I did watch 3 movies this year (a record? maybe?), none of them was anything like a favorite, but I absolutely have to mention The Untamed, the only show I watched, adaptation of the Chinese novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.

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I read the novel and really liked it, but this story ended up working even more this way for me, which I didn’t expect at all, as I usually lose interest in TV shows. And yes, while unlike the novel it can’t let its main character kiss because of censorship, it’s still so blatantly gay that my straight friend got it (without me telling her) during the first episode.
Anyway, if you don’t know what it’s about (which would surprise me, unless somehow you’re never on social media but you are reading this blog – this is everywhere) I can tell you that it’s a Chinese fantasy story involving necromancy, war, and an epic romance – starting out with the resurrection of the most hated person in the whole country, our main character Wei Wuxian.


What did you think of these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?