Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy

Reviews: Queer Graphic Novels

Hi! I’m back with two short reviews of graphic novels today, one of which I just finished and one of which I’ve read in May but somehow forgot to post the review until now. [Seriously, you don’t know how many reviews I’ve written but still have to post here. Anyway.]

Spinning is a memoir in graphic format about growing up and falling out of love with something that has been an integral part of your life. This is the story of how the author grew up with figure skating, but realized it was never really for her too late to disentangle herself from it easily. It talks about the weight of expectations, self-imposed and not; about the very present weights of homophobia and sexism and how they take a toll on young lesbians; there are some parts that are subtly about how sexism is entrenched in figure skating.

Throughout this book, there is a tired, lost atmosphere, and you can feel the exhaustion seeping through the pages – the repetitive nature of Tillie’s life, the cold, the loneliness even when surrounded by people, the feeling of being forced to wake up early every morning. This is strengthened by the art style, with its vague and dreamlike nature, which I think works better for introspective contemporaries like this one than for a sci-fi like On a Sunbeam (which I didn’t love). Despite all of this and its length, it’s a really quick read; it took me less than a hour to get through.

Reading memoirs about real lgbtq+ people’s experiences is always interesting to me because I can compare it to fictional portrayals, and see what is missing in them; specifically, I’m surprised that these things – which are all present in Spinning – aren’t common in YA contemporary: stories about kids with absent parents that actually explore what it means to grow up ignored, especially when you’re struggling with mental health; how most homophobic reactions to coming out are actually dismissive or awkward more than threatening; the confusion of growing up queer and not knowing whether you like or want to be like certain girls or want to be near them; unusual forms of self-harm.

And, unlike most fiction and like most of real life, it’s a really open-ended, fragmented story; it has no answers or big, important, dramatic moments, but it feels real in a way fiction can never really be, and I appreciated it a lot for that.

My rating: ★★★★

I also want to point out that this needs content warnings for sexual assault from a teacher, homophobia from various people including siblings, bullying, and car accidents.

The best surprise Pride month gave me was definitely Monstress Vol. 4 being translated in my country without any notice, and it being full of Gay Villainess content!

Rereading all the previous installments before getting to this was the best choice I could have done, and I ended up enjoying The Chosen immensely; I think it might even be my favorite so far. I mean, this series is somehow managing to get gayer with every volume, so I’m not surprised.

It’s still difficult to follow, but after a few rereads I think I can more or less see the outline of what is going on right now, even though I’m still confused about certain details; and while the scope of all of this + the beauty of the art are so overwhelming that I tend to miss the subtler things, like character development, they are there! I really appreciate seeing how Maika’s priorities are shifting as she understands more about the ancient gods, and how Kippa is finding her own footing amidst all of this. This is turning more explicitly into a series about the senselessness of war and cyclical nature of harm, and I’m interested in seeing where the authors will bring these themes to.

My priorities haven’t shifted, by which I mean I’m mostly here for the art (as usual) and the gay villainess aesthetic of it all. And this volume gave me a horrible F/F arranged marriage with backstabbing and a blood pact! (I’ve been looking for this kind of thing since The Stars Are Legion‘s Jayd/Rasida storyline… I can’t believe how much this is reminding me of it.)
Also, my favorite eldricht-god-possessed villainess – yes there’s more than one and I’m living for it – kissed Maika with ulterior motives! This series is a gem.

Do I know where this series is going? Honestly, no, but I have some theories and can’t wait to find out what Tuya is really up to. I also hope to see more of the Dracul.

My rating: ★★★★★

Have you read any of these? What are your favorite queer graphic novels?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

37491890I love this series so much.

Maika has been explicitly confirmed as queer! I mean, it was pretty obvious from the first two volumes too, but there are people who will ignore every hint when it comes to women liking other women. Her past romance and complicated relationship with Tuya is both very compelling and heartbreaking to read and I want to know more.

Maika isn’t the only queer character – I described this book as a “gay steampunk Asian matriarchy“, because by now I pretty much assume that every character here is queer until it’s confirmed otherwise, and I love this.
I love the way women are portrayed here. They’re beautiful without being sexualized, and they’re not written for men – it’s clear that men are not the intended audience. (Also, I don’t think there are any white people in this book.)

Another thing I love about this series? It trusts its readers. Which means that yes, sometimes it’s confusing. Sometimes I have to go back and reread parts, sometimes it takes me a while to understand what’s happening. But I love how it doesn’t talk down to the reader, how its world is just as complex as one you’d find in a fantasy novel – and even more beautiful, of course. This series has some of the most gorgeous panels I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, I went back and reread parts just for that.

But I have to say that with this volume, the many PoV changes lost me sometimes. I couldn’t follow so many storylines at once, with all those setting and time jumps, which added to my confusion. Also, I’m here mostly for Maika’s story – both present and past – and some of the subplots just aren’t as interesting.

Monstress is a story about war, about a traumatized teenage girl with a terrible past and even worse secrets. It reads like a darkest, less romantic, more diverse Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It’s everything I want from a fantasy comic, and I’m glad it’s getting the recognition it deserves.
I can’t wait for the next volume – I especially want to see more about Tuya, both in the past and in the present.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · historical fiction

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

38118138The Black God’s Drums is a novella set in alt-history steampunk-like New Orleans, which has become a neutral city after the Civil War ended with an armistice. This story follows young teen Creeper, a street orphan who, after overhearing a conversation that may upset New Orleans’ already fragile peace, decides to sell information to an airship captain from Trinidad.

This wasn’t easy for me to get into at first, because it’s written in a way that reminds you of how people spoke during that time (it’s almost as if Creeper were talking to you), and English isn’t my first language, but after I got used to it, I loved everything about this novella. The atmosphere is perfect, it makes you feel as if you’re there, and the steampunk-like elements are really interesting as well.
The Black God’s Drums is a vibrant portrait of a city in which African mythology meets nineteenth century technology, in which the tension from the war is still present.

The characters are also wonderful. Creeper is a young, resourceful black girl who has been touched by Oya, the African Orisha of storms, who speaks to her and gives her visions. I loved reading in Creeper’s PoV. The other major characters – Ann-Marie, a bisexual airship captain from Trinidad; Sister Agnès and Sister Eunice, the awesome nuns who know everything that goes on in the city; Féral, the white girl who grew up in the swamps (be careful: she bites) – are all awesome, and I’d love to read more about them too.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Monstress Vol. 1 & 2 by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

MonstressI read Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening for the “read the first book in a series” challenge of Marvel-A-Thon.

I loved this. I loved it in a way that I didn’t think I could ever love a graphic novel. The problems I had with it during the first read – mainly, the fact that there was a lot of graphic violence and horror aspects I didn’t expect – weren’t problems during this reread, because I knew what I was getting into.

And the art. It’s so beautiful, I could stare at the pages for hours, so beautiful it almost distracts from the story with its intricate, fascinating details, but let’s be real, the illustration are the main reason I’m reading this in the first place. The backgrounds are themselves almost like characters.

Many people mention being confused by the worldbuilding and plot of Monstress. I understand why – there’s a lot of information to take in – but it wasn’t a problem for me in this reread, and as I always say, I’d rather be a little confused by the world at first than be bored by it later. It’s difficult to follow because it’s set in a complex world with history and plot-relevant mythology of its own (parts of it are inspired by Japanese mythology, but that’s not the only influence here), and I loved all of it. I mean, how could I not love a gay steampunk matriarchy?

The whole plotline about magic animal-like people fighting magical humans told from the point of view of a human-looking girl (who is actually not that human but very magical) reminded me of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I really appreciated. I also really like the theme of fighting your own monster in a monstrous world, and I think this story has a lot of potential.

My rating: ★★★★½

33540347I read Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood for the “read a book inspired by myth or mythology” challenge of Marvel-A-Thon.

This was even better than the first one. Mostly because we start to get some answers – some of them surprising, some of them I saw coming – but also because we get more insight in some of the side characters that were just named in the first volume.
Now I can say with certainty that Moriko Halfwolf is just as scary as her daughter and she doesn’t even need a kaiju inside to be like that, for example. Also, this volume introduced some new characters that have a lot of potential (like Syryssa, she’s… wow. So beautiful. A black lady pirate!)

The art is just as gorgeous, of course, and we get to see new settings, which was just what I wanted. I mean, most of this graphic novel is set on a ship, and there are pirates. We get to know more about the ancient gods, their history, and what exactly is going on with Maika’s monster, and we get to do that in a ghost-city built between the bones of something enormous. Beautifully creepy and atmospheric.
I don’t know if there was less body horror or if I just got used to it, but this book affected me less than the first one did, which I appreciated. More pretty and creepy, less graphic gore, thank you (not that I never like that! It’s just that the first book had so much of it – it almost started to feel unnecessary).

I have only two small complaints:

• The first book introduced the world, the history and mysteries, and this gave many much-needed answer and raised some new questions, so I can’t say it was useless (not at all!). But it didn’t have anything to do with what I thought was the main plotline – the one about the war between arcanics and witches – and we didn’t get anything new about the characters who are alive in the mainland (I really need to know what’s going on with the Cumaea, Lady Atena and Lady Sophia)

• after the ending of the first book, I had hoped to get more about Tuya. I got a surprising revelation, yes, and that panel with Tuya is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but I want to know more about her and her relationship with Maika.

Anyway the main reasons I’m reading this series are the art and the steampunk aesthetic (also, the casual diversity and many queer leads help) and if that and mythology are things that you like, you should definitely try this.

My rating: ★★★★¾