Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Short, Gay Urban Fantasy Books

Today, I’m reviewing a few short novels and stories I read lately, and they all happen to be gay urban fantasy, because I’m predictable.


46284528._sy475_Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall is one of the most trope-y and unnecessarily overdramatic things I have ever read, and I was living for it.
I mean, it is a story about Kate, a paranormal investigator, as she tries to solve the murder of a werewolf, falls for a vampire prince (don’t let the name fool you, Julian is a vampire woman), while also trying not to anger various other paranormal creatures.
Everyone in this book is a combination of queer, ridiculous, and horny, often all three, and… I didn’t know how much I needed an f/f vampire romance until I read this book. I loved how these tired and often ugly tropes felt a lot less unbearable and even interesting when one makes them gay and doesn’t expect the reader to take everything seriously. For example, drama with ex-girlfriends from the point of view of a lesbian is a lot more interesting than the drama with exes in straight books. I loved all of it.

“My girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and my new assistant were all staring at me.”

When I say that this is tropey, I mean that this does read a little like fanfiction, also because so many parts of it are obviously references to more well-known urban fantasy series, and that’s part of the fun. The minor character who is very clearly an Edward Cullen reference was hilarious, and I mean, after years of being told by the very straight urban fantasy genre that I needed to take books like Twilight and its sparkly vampires or the Fever series and the walking personification of toxic masculinity that was its love interest seriously, this is so refreshing. Nothing about this book demands that! And urban fantasy works so much better this way.

On the negatives, I will say that while the sex scenes aren’t bad, they could have used less weird metaphors and descriptions (it could have been part of the parody aspect, but it usually wasn’t over-the-top enough to be funny, so maybe it wasn’t?) and that the pacing felt a bit wobbly, but overall, but I haven’t laughed this much while reading a book in months, so I’m definitely not here to complain. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s exactly what it needs to be.

My rating: ★★★★


26300164._sy475_This month I also read Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship by Aliette de Bodard, a short story set in the world of The House of Shattered Wings.

This is a really cute f/f romance between two fallen angels! It can be read independently from the novels, but it does work better if you know a little about the characters and world already. That way, for example, you can understand the full implications of two fallen angels infiltrating an enemy House (they end up kissing there. of course they end up kissing there.)

This mostly reminded me that I can’t wait to read The House of Sundering Flames and get more of Emmanuelle’s PoV, and also it confirmed that I do really like Selene, when I’m not reading about her as the Head of the House. She is arrogant and cold, but there’s more to her than that, and her and bookish, quieter (but far from spineless) Emmanuelle balance each other perfectly.

It’s also nice to read about a Paris before the war that destroyed it in the books, even though from here, you can already see that injustice and rot were already everywhere in the society; the war just made it impossible to ignore even for the powerful.

My rating: ★★★★¾


I also read the short story at the back of the UK edition of The House of Shattered Wings, The House, In Winter, and… please, if it’s a possibility for you and if you’re interested in reading this book, try to pick up this edition, it’s even better than the book itself. I’ve never been more glad to have the UK edition of something. (For once, the American ones aren’t the ones having the additional content.)

The best kind of short stories really are the ones that manage to make you feel a lot about a character you already know is dead in the novel. I’m in so much pain. And I want, really want more content about that one fallen angel.

Also, the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the level of details!! This is quality content. I’ve read so many things written by Aliette de Bodard this month and this is unambiguously one of the best ones.

My rating: ★★★★★


As usual, if you have short story recommendations, especially if queer, throw them at me!

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Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War + Small Discussion

Today, I will be reviewing This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and also talk about a short story I really recommend reading before/after reading this novella, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn.


36516585This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novella about a love that transcends time, space and humanity. It’s beautiful and lyrical and heartbreaking; it’s all of these things and I loved its ending so much that I don’t feel like I can do this story justice with a review. Just know that, while this is an epistolary f/f enemies-to-lovers story set during a time-travel war, calling it that feels almost reductive.

It follows two entities, “Red” and “Blue”, both presenting as women but who don’t strictly adhere to our definition of what a human is, and there’s a time war. If you’re the kind of person who needs to know the reasons and the workings of everything, this won’t work for you; it’s often vague, but as I didn’t feel like much more context was needed, I didn’t have a problem with that.

The writing in here will be polarizing. At times, I hated it: it was pretentious, and it made me feel like the authors were trying to show off how many pretty sentences they were able to string together without saying that much at all. But in other places it was beautiful and powerful, and the foreshadowing was woven into this story effortlessly – which only makes sense in something about braiding time.
And you know what else makes sense? That a story about Red and Blue writing to each other would be 90% Purple prose.

In one of my updates, I said that I wondered whether this started out as a short story. If you’ve ever read some short fiction on online magazines, you probably recognize the metaphor-heavy style and the vagueness of the worldbuilding, and I mean, if I’m going to read something that short, I want something really pretty that will make me feel and won’t need that much background to do so. I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had toned all of this here a bit down, however.

My rating: ★★★★½


On What I Got From This

The major spoiler is hidden but there could be small ones

It’s weird how sometimes reading a book can help you understand something you read years before.

You should know, from that title, that This Is How You Lose the Time War will be in some way about someone losing a war involving time travel. And it is. But the question that is woven between its lines isn’t “how could they have won”: it’s “can you ever win a war?” Can a successful war effort ever be seen as a victory? The title tells you, this is how you lose.

A certain character says, at the end:

This is how we win. Losing the war – letting go of it – is winning at life.

ThatGameIt reminded me so much of a few lines that had stuck with me in a short story I loved in 2017, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn. A few lines that had something important to tell me, and I knew that, but while I loved the story, I didn’t really get what¹.

For some context: the war has ended, and the main character Calla (who is Enith, non-telepathic) is playing chess against a telepath (a Gaanth, so someone who was an enemy – at least on paper – until very recently) and employing a specific anti-telepath strategy. One of the other Gaanth says:

“This is how you won,” one of them said, amazed. He wasn’t talking about the game.
“No,” Calla said. “This is how we failed to lose.”

I think I know what it means, now. Winning would imply there was something positive about the whole thing, and there wasn’t, there had never been. The deceptively happy tone of the story is a happiness built from ruin, so fragile and so impactful, and it might feel naive at times, but sometimes you need to let go of that cynicism. Sometimes you need to let go and rebuild.


¹ something about 17-year-old me: she kept falling in love with books she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain why. It was something like a message hidden, something that resonated with me in ways I didn’t have words for – the biggest example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, a story about perfectionism that I didn’t even understand was about perfectionism until I reread it.

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?

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?

Discussion

Out Of My Comfort Zone #3

The third post in my Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you missed them, part one was about comics, part two about my experience with an audiobook.

I didn’t know what my next Out of My Comfort Zone post was going to be about. I have no time lately to read novels that aren’t ARCs – so full-length adult contemporary romance was out of the question, even though it’s a post I’m planning. I’m also currently writing my post about webcomics, but I’ll need some more time for that.

I wanted something even shorter, and then I remembered that… I never read poetry. And I really should try sometimes.

So, today I’m talking about short sci-fi and fantasy poetry I found and read on some of the sites that usually publish my favorite sci-fi and fantasy prose short fiction.


Why I Usually Don’t Read English Poetry

The “English” part is there because I have read a lot of old Italian poetry, because of school. I disliked most of it – I know you can’t see me now Carducci but really why are you still inflicted on young people today? And Foscolo, what did hoopoes ever do to hurt you? – but that’s what happens when you are forced to read something, I guess.

Anyway. The reason I rarely read English poetry is that I don’t follow a lot of people who read it, and the kind of poetry that gets really popular isn’t the kind that… speaks to me? With “the kind of poetry”, I mean personal collections about trauma and feminism. I have tried excerpts of some of the most popular ones in the past, felt nothing, and decided it just wasn’t my thing. Maybe I could find some collections I liked if I looked more into the genre, I don’t know. But I wanted to try something I’m more likely to enjoy right now, so… short SFF in verse.

[I’ve also had mixed experiences with poetry novels – I loved The Poet X and strongly disliked The Sisters of the Winter Wood – but I think those are another thing entirely.]


What I Read

When I noticed that there was free poetry written by one of my favorite short fiction authors ever on Uncanny Magazine, I knew I had to try it immediately. I’m talking about Cassandra Khaw, and I don’t know why I had never looked into whether she wrote poetry, because she’s the kind of writer whose prose feels like poetry. I wrote down parts of I Built This City For You instead of my notes during Latin because I couldn’t get them out of my head*.

A Letter from One Woman to Another – as I thought, her writing is perfect for this. The part between “I want to pretend” and “forward”? Wow. Why do some words, when put together in that order, with those line breaks, sound so well? This is about not settling down for mediocre men, by the way, which is a message I always appreciate.

I’m now also going to try authors I had never head of before:

hypothesis for apocalypse by Khairani Barokka – I’m not… sure what this is about, to be honest, but the imagery is creepy and it sounds nice when read aloud. I think it’s about agency and the lack of it, but I could be wrong. Interesting, in a good way, since you could read this (very short) poem in many different ways.

She by Heather Averhoff – this is so short, and yet… I can see it. A fractured poem for a shattered woman we see in pieces at the edges of our field of vision. Is this about a violent death? I’m not sure, but I could see it that way. It makes sense even though I’m not sure what that sense actually is. Which kind of seems to be a theme, but I don’t mind that?

Red Berries by Jennifer Crow – this one was lovely. Not only it had a perfect wintry atmosphere and imagery I loved (red berries against the snow?? gorgeous, ok) but it also had a vaguely monster romance feel. I could kind of see this as a scene in Deathless, if only it were darker.

A View From Inside of the Refrigerator by Andrea Tang – this is about the woman in the refrigerator trope. It makes up for being somewhat obvious (especially if you’re aware of the trope already and have read it about before) by being well-written, and that ending couldn’t have been better.

The Modern Girl’s Guide to Dating the Paranormal by Sophie Dresser – listen everything that has a paranormal romance feel to it is good. It doesn’t look like it would sound as good if read aloud as some of the poems I talked about before, but I love the content and the ending here is perfect (those last two lines… they mean a lot to me. I’m putting together a post about hauntings to talk specifically about that).


Will I Read More SFF Poetry In the Future?

I have gone through a good part of the Uncanny Magazine and Strange Horizons poetry archive, and I have to say that most of the ones I tried didn’t work for me at all, and I decided to not talk about them in my “what I read” section because I didn’t want to repeat many times “I didn’t get this and it also sounded awkward to me”. However, the ones that worked for me were great – especially the Cassandra Khaw one, but I saw that coming – so I’m interested to see what these two magazines will publish in the future.

Reading SFF poetry is exactly like reading SFF prose short fiction, except it’s even more cryptic and hard to get but it sounds even better (and you know that part of the reason I like short fiction so much is that sometimes the writing style is an experience itself, something that isn’t true for most novels). I also liked that it’s far more open to interpretation, and what I see might not be what you see at all. I think it’s the kind of thing that would be interesting to discuss with people – also because all of these take just a few minutes to read.


* Yes, this is 100% normal Acqua behavior, I don’t think I ever took notes for an hour without them turning in either song lyrics, pieces of books in another language, or spoonerisms. My notes always end up being useless but at least my hands have something to do?


Do you read poetry? If so, which kind(s) of poetry?